Famous Pipers – P/M Donald Maclean of Lewis

Donald Maclean in a pictured which first appeared in the Glasgow Herald newspaper and was subsequently used to promote RG Lawrie bagpipemakers
Donald Maclean in a picture which first appeared in the Glasgow Herald newspaper and was subsequently used to promote RG Lawrie bagpipemakers

By Robert Wallace

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.)
DonaldMaclean (front, centre) and the Seaforths in Aldershot in 1939. to Donald's immediate right is P/M Donald MacLeod
P/M Donald Maclean (front, centre) and the 2nd Seaforths at Aldershot in 1939. To Donald’s immediate right is P/M Donald MacLeod

‘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.
P/M Donald MacLeod, P/M Donald MacLean and a young John D. Burgess
P/M Donald MacLeod, P/M Donald Maclean and a young John D. Burgess

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.’

17 thoughts on “Famous Pipers – P/M Donald Maclean of Lewis

  1. Hi,
    Not sure if this is allowed its not a piping question but its directed at Fiona M Johnstone.
    My Name is Donald Murdo Maclean Young, my Great Grandmother was Catherine Maclean P/M Donald Maclean’s Aunt, Donald being your uncle I assume we are very loosely related.
    I’m keen to find out more about the wider family, would be great if you could contact me

  2. Two questions:
    1. When was Donald Maclean P/M Infantry Training Centre 11, Fort George – immediately after WW2?
    2. Was he also P/M of 5/6th Bn Highland Light Infantry in the 1950s?
    Aad Boode

    1. Donald was definitely PM of the 5/6th HLI. In the early 1960s, the Alhambra and then Kings Theatre In Glasgow ran pantomimes in the Christmas season. These needed a pipe band to march on stage just before the interval of the performance and at its end. The band was made up of a collection of Territorial Army pipers drawn from their bands on rota. I was one of those pipers, and Donald was the PM. On days when there were two performances, he was kind enough to fill the time by teaching my friend Ronald Buchanan and me “Black Donald’s March”, the tune that gave him his Gold Medal. Happy memories of a very nice man.

  3. A bit late but please allow me a slight correction.
    Donald Maclean as common to pipers in the western isles, learned to play on the right shoulder. Maclean on joining the Seaforth Highlanders in 1926, was posted to its 2nd Battalion which was reserved mostly for men of western Scotland while most men from the mainland served in its 1st Battalion. He served throughout his service in the 2nd Battalion, never the 1st. Now after joining the 2nd Battalion, he was instructed to play on the left shoulder to avoid upsetting the symmetry of the pipe band so countered this was playing with the right hand on top.

    Hope this clears up why he played looking ‘oddly’. Interestingly, he maintained this posture after he retired.

  4. Calum, you will see that the music will be put up prominently, so hopefully you will get it that way. It is a bit different – at that time pipers were not so adventurous as now which is probably why it did not take off like his other tunes. he was adventurous in his piping certainly with young folk as we had great fun with him. I think he would have loved to hear the young pipers today!
    If you do not get the music, get in touch again. Thanks for your interest.

  5. Fiona, I for one would love to see the music for “The Royal Welcome” – as far as I can see it was never published anywhere, which may partly account for it being little known.

  6. Thank you for such a lovely account of my much-loved Uncle Donald’s Piping Life. He taught me to play a part of “Macleod’s Salute” on the chanter when visiting us in Dunvegan. unfortunately girls did not get much encouragement in piping at that point so I was gently induced to try the accordian instead. I do remember vividly hearing him talk about this young lassie, Rhona , who had such potential as a piper, which we all know now she certainly fulfilled! I think it was a hint to my mother to let me carry on with the pipes!

    Uncle Donald taught me “Major Manson at Clachantrushal” leaning over the counter at Lawrie’s where I used to go to see him often on a Saturday morning. Willie McCallum plays it exactly as I was taught it, but many do not and when I hear it wrongly played (not just by pipers!) I can hear Uncle Donald protesting as he did when I played any note wrongly! I wonder if the BBC still have the recital he did which included Major Manson. I would love to hear that again. I also cannot understand why the tune he wrote when Prince Andrew was born called “The Royal Welcome” has not received as much comment as others he wrote. It was unusual. I love it. I have the music if you would like to try it!

    THanks too to Andy Hunter for pointing out this article.

    1. Thanks for getting in touch Fiona and yes, please forward ‘The Royal Welcome. I’ll give it pride of place. If you have any other pics of your uncle that would be a bonus. Best wishes, Robert Wallace

      1. I will get the music to you. We had a tape of him explaining what each part meant followed by him playing it. I think it has maybe gone, but still looking. My son now lives in Poland – I have just discovered, only an hour away from where Uncle Donald was a POW. I am following that up and have been to the site. I bet Donald never thought his grand nephew would be staying in that area!!

  7. Robert

    The tune in the Edcath Colection I (PM Donald MacLean of Lewis) was written by C Macleod Williamson; the tune written by Donald MacLeod is in his book 4 and has the same title viz: Pm Donald MacLean of Lewis.

  8. Slightly off topic, but I wonder if any of your readers might know anything about Donald MacLeod’s bagpipe, specifically the one seen in the picture above.

    I recently set up a bagpipe for a pupil who told me the instrument had belonged to Donald MacLeod and had been passed to his friend, my pupil’s grandfather. Despite needing a bit of TLC, it had a marvellous sound. It was a set of ivory mounted pipes, which looked to me like early 1900s Henderson, though I hasten to add that I am no expert at identification.

    I often wonder if this set is the same as that pictured above.

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