Pipe Major Donald Maclean, Seaforth Highlanders, was a noted piper and composer during the mid-20th century. He won both Gold Medals (Oban, 1951, MacDonald’s Salute, and Inverness, 1953, Black Donald’s March), and was renowned as a performer of light music.
He was born in 1908, the sixth of eight children. He began piping after following the example of his brother Murdo who took up the chanter to offset the debilitating effects of a WW1 lung injury. Donald, always a strong sense of humour, was known to march round the kitchen with a black cat under his arm as a bag and coal tongs as drones.
Taught initially by Peter Stewart, Barvas, he, like many island boys of that time, enlisted in the Army for a career as a piper, joining the Seaforth Highlanders in 1926. Remarkably, he managed to develop his piping skills playing with his bag under his left arm – but with the right hand at the TOP of the chanter. It is as such he was pictured in the well-known promotional photograph for pipemaker RG Lawrie where he worked as general manager in later life. He must have had very long arms.
Donald gained his Pipe Major’s certificate with the 1st Seaforths and it is conjectured that at the time he was the Army’s youngest P/M. In 1936, he was promoted Pipe Major in the 2nd Battalion of the Seaforths. There he took piobaireachd tuition from DR MacLennan, GS’s half-brother, and possibly Angus Macpherson, Invershin. His band is pictured below at Aldershot in 1939 as his battalion – with no less than P/M Donald MacLeod in the ranks – prepared for WW2.
In France with the 51st Highland Division, Donald Maclean was captured at St Valery in June 1940. He survived the hardship of the march to prisoner of war camp in Germany, and remained a POW until the end of hostilities. (It was during this march that P/M Donald MacLeod escaped, purportedly using Gaelic whenever challenged by German sentries, and thus evading re-capture. Donald made it back to Blighty but never spoke about his ordeal.)
‘Big’ Donald Maclean as he was sometimes described, was an outstanding composer of pipe music, his most famous tunes being the Heroes of St Valery and Major Manson at Clachantrushal, erroneously called Major Manson’s Farewell to Clachantrushal in the Scots Guards Bk 2.
He is said to have borrowed a practice chanter from Northern Irish piper Alex Craig (third from the right standing in the picture above) to compose the tune. Piper Craig had hidden the chanter in his backpack. The eponymous Major Manson worked as a silversmith in Glasgow and became close friends with P/M Maclean. For more on the tune see our Letters column.
After the war Donald completed 22 years Army service teaching at the Scottish Command School of Piping and Highland Brigade Training School.
In civilian life he became pipe major of the Glasgow Transport band, gave lessons to many pipers, including double Gold Medallist Hector MacFadyen, and was President of the Scottish Pipers’ Association for a time. Though he never married, Donald Maclean lived life to the full, searching out the craic, a dram and a tune whenever possible – and not necessarily in that order or frequency. There is a story that he and John Burgess were travelling together to the games in South Uist. When they got to Lochboisdale they were surprised to read a newspaper headline stating ‘Maclean and Burgess reported to be in Russia’. Donald turned to John and said ‘I thought the boat journey was longer than usual!’ The bill poster referred, of course, to their notorious namesakes, the post-war Communist spies, Donald MacLean and Guy Burgess.
Donald died aged just 56 in a taxi at Cowal Games in 1964. He is immortalised in a wonderfully melodic 6/8 march by his fellow Seaforth, P/M Donald MacLeod. It is published in Donald’s Bk4. There is a 2/4 march made for him by Peter Macleod (also Lewis), which, though not his best, has some merit and originality. It is in Donald MacLeod’s Book 1. There is yet another tune for Donald Maclean – in the Edcath Book 1, p85. Really worth playing, it is a 6/8 by Charles MacLeod Williamson, another Seaforth Highlander and first rate composer. I met Charles on a number of occasions and he kindly gave permission for his tunes Granny MacLeod and Myra Hatton to be included in my Glasgow Collection.
In his 1964 Piping Times obituary Seumas MacNeill wrote, ‘Those of us who had heard of him [P/M Donald Maclean] only vaguely were amazed to find that he was a piper of the very first rank.
‘His instrument was a legend itself and few pipers could blow it. Those who did were never quite the same afterwards.’
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