Famous Pipers: P/M Donald Maclean and family

We are grateful to Mrs Fiona Johnston, niece of Pipe Major Donald Maclean of Lewis, and an accomplished accordionist, for additional information and memorabilia concerning  her family and her famous uncle.

‘My father Dr Murdo Maclean returned from the First World War after being wounded twice and returning both times. Travelling home he was scheduled to sail from Kyle with his father, who had gone there to meet him, on the ill-fated Iolaire. My father’s train was late and they sailed on another ship.  [The Iolaire went down off Stornoway on New Year’s Day 1919 when in sight of land. 205               soldiers and crew lost their lives. The tragedy is the subject of a P/M Donald MacLeod piobaireachd Lament for the Iolaire.]

‘The headmaster from the Nicholson Institute in Stornoway knew that there were teaching bursaries available for returning ex-servicemen but he waited six weeks before announcing that he was running special classes. He knew that the men by that time would be getting bored and would sign up more readily. A wise man. My father was one of those who signed up and this led to him gaining a place at university and studying medicine. There were eight of them in the family and they lived in a small house in Barvas that their father, my grandfather, built for £5. There were a number of years between Murdo and Donald and it is noteworthy that the elder son survived the first war and the younger the second.

‘My father walked the 15 miles from Barvas to the Nicholson and he got interested in piping after hearing travellers play on his way home. His father played and would have taught him. I seldom heard him play however. Once was on VE Day at Dunvegan where he had his practice and where I was brought up. He seldom spoke about the war and I can only remember one occasion when he was washing dishes and my mother berated him for using too much washing up liquid. ‘If you’d had to wash dishes in mud and grime you’d do the same,’ he said, referring to his time in the trenches.

‘The second time was when he was much older and there was a programme on the BBC radio about WW1 and he turned it off telling me he couldn’t bear listening to it.’

‘My uncle Donald [photographed in our first picture piping for dancers at Skye Games, Portree, in the late 1940s] would come to visit us on Skye when he was there teaching piping and dancing. He was always very kind and gentle with us, very affectionate. After being a PoW his family meant an awful lot to him. He never married even though he was a fine figure of a man. I think he was wedded to his pipes. We used to go in to see him when he worked in Lawrie’s shop in Glasgow. He lived in Broomhill Road in Glasgow then, and his landlady was a widow who had piping connections.

A City of Glasgow Transport magazine from that times reads: Behind the counter of a Glasgow Bagpipe manufacturing firm I met Donald MacLean of Lewis, one of Scotland’s foremost pipers and until three years ago pipe-major to the Seaforth Highlanders. Kilt-clad Donald indicated the bagpipe displays around him and said in his soft Lewis tones: ‘I am surrounded by them. My ancestors should be happy.’ Donald comes from a long line of pipers who played their part in the their country’s history. ‘In 1696 Ian Dhubh MacLean was chased from his home by the Campbells after Culloden [sic]. He fled to Lewis and there became a fisherman and taught locals the art of playing the pipes,’ he told me. Another of his ancestors, Angus, was piper to the Duke of Wellington. ‘He was blinded in battle,’ said Donald. ‘He returned to Lewis to teach piping.’
Donald also went back to Skye to teach piping after his spell in the Army. He joined the Seaforths in 1926, and four years later became a pupil of Pipe-Major William Ross at Edinburgh Castle. He served three years in the Middle East before the war. At St Valery in 1940 Donald was captured by the Germans, but even in the prison camp he and his pipes were not separated.

Donald took charge of the Scottish Command School of Piping in 1946. From there he went to the Highland Brigade Training School. Piping awards? There are few that Donald has not won. In 1937 there was the Highland Brigade Piobaireachd. Three years running he scooped the Strathpeffer Piobaireachd. In 1949 and 1951 the Dornoch Gold Medal, 1950 the Invergordon Silver Medal. That year he won the Marches at Oban, the Dunvegan Gold Star and the Kemble Star, which he gained again last year.
During a six-month engagement as instructor in Northern Ireland, he brought a pipe band to such a standard that they won the All-Ireland competition two years in succession.
And now? Surrounded as he is by his favourite instruments, Donald has not been taking part in competitions. ‘I’ve been too busy coaching,’ he said.’But I’m looking forward to the competition starting.’
It is interesting to note that we have secured the services of Mr Donald MacLean as Pipe-Major of our Transport Pipe Band. we extend to him a very hearty welcome and look forward under his careful tuition and guidance to many successes in the competitions of the coming season.

‘He was a member of the Scottish Pipers’ Association all the time he was in Glasgow.

‘He was very particular in how his famous tune Major David Manson at Clachantrushal had to be played, especially the last part where the first F has to be held – no cutting up to the high A. He wrote many other tunes but that was his best. He made one for the birth of Prince Andrew which is quite unusual but very melodic:

‘When he died at Cowal Games in 1965 there were very many expression of grief.  There was one from Seton Gordon the famous naturalist and piping judge. It reads: ‘Angus Macpherson, Invershin, has told me Donald has gone. Please accept my sympathy. Donald was an outstanding character and he played some splendid tunes, notably at the Glenfinnan Gathering where Francis Cameron-Head looked on him as one of his chief supporters. I remember how expressively he played ‘Loch Duich’ on the ground, the year Inverailort died, as a parting salute. Now they have both gone – Seton Gordon.’

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