The Officer’s Mess and a night of inspiration I’ll never forget

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What more is left to say about Pipe Major Donald MacLeod? So much has been written about this giant of piping that we would be repeating ourselves to re-run it all here. But we think this personal memoire says something else of the man — perhaps as much as all the awards and other achievements in his stellar career as player, teacher and composer.


By Joe Wilson

Joe Wilson

I was on the Pipe Majors’ Course at Edinburgh Castle when I received an instruction which read something like: “You are required to play at the Officers Mess’ at The Highland Brigade Depot, Bridge of Don, Aberdeen, along with Pipe Major MacLeod and you will report to him at …” the time and date eludes me but it was during 1959. I had already had a year’s tuition from the Pipe Major so I knew him well. I duly arrived and I learned that three of us would be playing in the mess: Pipe Major Donald MacLeod, who was perhaps the greatest piper, composer and tutor of all time, the Depot Piper who shall be nameless but who was somewhere approaching the opposite end of the piping spectrum from the Pipe Major, and myself who was somewhere in between the two of them. I met with the Pipe Major prior to our rehearsal and he told me the names of the tunes we would play.

They were, of necessity, quite simple and consisted of a piobaireachd which the Pipe Major would play followed by the three of us playing a march, strathspey and reel, finishing with a march to play ourselves out of the dining room. One of the tunes, a two-parted reel named By Dand — the motto of the Gordon Highlanders — I had never heard nor heard of before, so I asked the Pipe Major about its origins. He said: “The Depot Piper didn’t know any reels so I put it together and kept it simple so he could play it.”

P.M. Donald MacLeod

The three of us later met in the Pipe Major’s office-cum-store- room for the rehearsal which went as well as could be expected. We then got dressed in our Number One outfits and went together to the ante-room adjoining the dining room in the Officers’ Mess. Not a great deal of time was spent by the Pipe Major in tuning the instruments. He probably thought that it would be a waste of time but they did sound reasonable. He was playing a silver and ivory mounted set, Hendersons I believe, which had previously been the property of the late Dr James MacInnes — a well known piping authority and composer of some good tunes. I was playing a silver and ivory mounted set of Hendersons owned by Pipe Major MacLeod and which he had given me on loan for the duration of the Pipe Majors’ Course. The Depot Piper — of all the makes of bagpipe for such a piper to play — had a set of MacDougalls of Aberfeldy, silver mounted with the metal sleeves on the tuning slides of the drones.

Having to play in the Officers’ Mess is always a nerve-wracking, if exciting, event and this was no exception. The Depot Piper was quite uptight. I was little better but the Pipe Major just sat on a big settee and waited for the signal from the Mess Steward for him to walk in playing the piobaireachd — Mess Stewards, in my experience, are usually even more uptight than the Depot Piper was on that occasion. The signal came and the Pipe Major, reluctantly I thought, got to his feet. He had not touched his pipes since the brief tuning which he had earlier given them.

He blew up at the end of the room furthest from the door of the dining room and, walking slowly towards the door, started his tune, The Desperate Battle of the Birds — always a favourite with the officers. Using his top hand he played the opening phrase while the bottom hand tuned the drones. It was returned to the chanter to play the note C with its grip after which the tune continued and the bottom hand gave a final touch to the drones as he was about to cross the threshold into the dining room. I listened intently to his tune. He played dares instead of two G gracenotes on the, Fs in. the ground. Although I had ‘gone through’ the tune with my tutor, I thought, in my inexperience, that the doublings of the variations were on the fast side. I know better now.

Another thought occurred: was this piobaireachd the inspiration for the jig The Glasgow Police Pipers? I didn’t ask him but I wish now that I had. The whole pìobaireachd went well and he returned to the ante-room playing the ground. He stood in front of me when he sounded the last low A of the ground — an extended low A — he looked at the drones then at me — they were in perfect tune with each other and with the chanter.

A few minutes later the set was called for and the three of us, banners on bass drones, marched in, the Pipe Major, naturally, leading, the Depot Piper next followed by me. The set went well and we marched out. The Pipe Major then had to march in without pipes to recite the toast in Gaelic before downing a usually very large helping of whisky. It is then in the proceedings that requests for additional tunes are made by the Commanding Officer. Very often the pipers can tell who is present by the requests that are made. In my battalion we would occasionally be asked to play the Green Hills in slow time or My Wife’s a Wanton Wee Thing. On one occasion it was The Jig of Slurs and The Little Cascade — Captain D. R. McLennan was being ‘dined-in’ on that occasion. Very often there would be frantic, but silent, rehearsals, each piper, usually four, fingering the request tunes over on the pipe chanter.

Pipe Major MacLeod returned to the ante-room with the names of the requests. This was to have a devastating effect on the Depot Piper. The tunes were Kilworth Hills followed by The Hen’s March. The Depot Piper had no hope of playing Kilworth Hills and even less of playing The Hen’s March. He was jittering about the ante-room wondering what he would do. “I’ll have to play in there — I can’t not play” he was saying.

With no advice coming from the Pipe Major, who had returned to the settee, I suggested that the neck of his pipe bag be twisted to prevent air going to the reed in his chanter and he could get through the requested set that way. This was done and the call came for us to play. Off we went with Kilworth Hills, again marching round the table in what was by then an atmosphere so dense with cigar-smoke that it was difficult so see where we were going. We stopped behind the Commanding Officer and we broke into the jig. After a few bars I noticed that one or two of the officers — then an increasing number of them — were pointing at the Depot Piper’s fingers and laughing. I looked to my left and I saw that he was not moving his fingers but instead gripping the chanter in his fists. It was obvious to all that he wasn’t playing a note however when we came to the simple tune for marching out he laboriously untwisted the neck of the bag and broke into the tune. Was it any wonder that afterwards the Mess President came towards us in the kitchen with two large whiskies and a very small one.

Pipe Major's Course, 1959-60, Edinburgh Castle.  Back row:Lance Sergeant Angus MacDonald (Scots Guards), Corporal James Henderson (Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders), Corporal Joe Wilson (Gordon Highlanders), Lance Sergeant John Allan (Scots Guards). Front row: Pipe Major Brian Halley (Royal Scots Greys), Pipe Major John MacLellan (Director, Army School of Piping), Sergeant Eric Stewart (Irish Guards).
Pipe Major’s Course, 1959-60, Edinburgh Castle. Back row:Lance Sergeant Angus MacDonald (Scots Guards), Corporal James Henderson (Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders), Corporal Joe Wilson (Gordon Highlanders), Lance Sergeant John Allan (Scots Guards). Front row: Pipe Major Brian Halley (Royal Scots Greys), Pipe Major John MacLellan (Director, Army School of Piping), Sergeant Eric Stewart (Irish Guards).

“Pipe Major,” he said, “a large whisky for you; Corporal Wilson, a large whisky for you,” and “Depot Piper, you’re only getting a small one because you didn’t play half the time in there.”

This is the stage in my experience, when the officers ply the pipers with the drams. I remember Pipe Major Andrew Pitkeathly, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, telling me that he would always stand beside a big pot-plant after playing round the table in the mess, if a pot-plant was available. The officers, he said, always wondered about his capacity for drinking whisky. They had good reason to wonder at the same time why their pot-plants always died!

Pipe Major MacLeod had a reputation in the army equal to his piping abilities. It was only natural that very many officers would want to speak to him and on this night that was no exception. One senior officer, whom I shall not name, approached and said: “Pipe Major, I think I’ve composed a tune; give me your pipes and I’ll play it.” The crafty Pipe Major said, “Oh, you wouldn’t be able to blow my pipes, they’re very hard, but Corporal Wilson’s pipes are easier, try them.”

I couldn’t object and I handed the pipes over. I had never met this particular officer before so I didn’t know anything about his piping ability. He said: “Pipe Major, write the notes down as I play them so we can record the tune.” The Pipe Major, a smoker at the time, opened up an empty cigarette packet and, with his fountain pen poised, waited for the notes. The officer was not at the peak of his performing abilities as a piper, nor I suspect at anything else at that stage in the proceedings but he blew up. Notes did come between chokes and squeals and I saw the Pipe Major write down a few As, Bs, Cs, and so on. This was in fact how he recorded tunes as he was composing them — as many as 10 new melodies per day — nine of which could be crumpled up and thrown in the wastepaper basket. So Donald dutifully recorded the notes on the packet, but there didn’t seem to be very many of them. Try as I might during the officer’s performance, I couldn’t grasp any melody or hint of a tune while he played. When he finished he said: “What did you think of that, Pipe Major?”

“It was very nice, sir,” said Donald. “Right”, said the officer, “you play it.” I was quite astonished and wondering what would come next. If I couldn’t make head nor tail of what the officer had played I was anxious to hear what wee Donald would make of it. He stood and looked at the piece of cigarette packet for a few seconds. I think I caught a slight trace of anxiety in his expression. Still looking at his scribbles, he blew up and, like lightning, tuned the three drones together and, very slowly at first, notes gradually began to flow. It was a slow air. I was amazed. It sounded great. Two parts of it.

There were quite a number of officers present and, when the playing stopped, the ‘composer’ was thrilled by what he heard: “That’s it, that’s it, that’s exactly it— I just composed that tune!” he shouted excitedly to all present. The truth is, perhaps he did, but I had never been in the presence of a performance of ex tempore brilliance like it before or since. After a few weeks I received from the Adjutant at Bridge of Don a copy of the tune in Pipe Major MacLeod’s hand-writing; no photocopiers in those days. I still have the copy. The tune was later published I think in the Gordon’s collection. It is reproduced, below, as part of this article along with the accompanying letter (right) with which it was sent from the Gordon’s Pipe President to Pipe Major John MacLellan (as he was then) at Edinburgh Castle in September 1960.

Admiral of the Fleet

The tune bears a resemblance to a slow version of Mrs MacDonald of Dunach or the Bugle Horn but I think bars five and six of the second part can only be the work of one man, the composing genius, P.M. Donald MacLeod.

• From the August 2007 Piping Times.

* Pipe Major Donald MacLeod’s collection can be found HERE.