Roddy MacLeod with David Murray, spring 1998. “I have always been interested in Donald MacDonald and his styles and I thought he was vastly under-rated …”

• From the Autumn 1998 edition of Notes

At the 1998 Donald MacDonald Cuach invitational competition at the Clan Donald Centre on Skye, Roddy MacLeod, piping director of The Piping Centre, was a spectator rather than, as in the past, a competitor. He took the opportunity to speak with Colonel David Murray. The following is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation:

RMacL: This is the 12th year of the competition. What was the impetus for getting it started?

DM: I have always been interested in Donald MacDonald and his styles and I thought he was vastly under-rated … he has a lot of music in the manuscript and book. After some talk here with the Clan Donald people, they decided to have a competition to pay tribute to Donald MacDonald. Of course, all the tunes in the first year were taken up with the Kilberry book. I thought it was rather silly to organise a Clan Donald competition in memory of Donald MacDonald, the first man to write piobaireachd on the stave and whose method of writing has lasted to this day — and then to have tunes from Angus MacKay as they appeared in Kilberry, written in his own inimitable style. I thought it was well worth reviving the Donald MacDonald style and I’m glad to say that it has gone on every year since and the pipers have supported it well.

RMacL: I don’t think I would have played these styles through the normal completion system. Coming here, I enjoyed playing and investigating the Donald MacDonald style. Do you think the Piobaireachd Society or the Northern Meeting should set tunes in these styles to encourage pipers to look at them?

DM: Yes, I certainly do. I think the difficulty lies with the judges. Until the judges are prepared to give the Donald MacDonald settings a fair hearing, it is going to be very difficult. Tonight we hear Willie Morrison playing The Rout of Glenfruin. A little while ago we had Angus McColl playing Lady Margaret MacDonald, and we have also heard Wilson Brown playing Lord Breadalbane’s March. A few years ago, Willie MacCallum took the prize with Lord Breadalbane’s March. Now any of those piobaireachd would have taken a prize anywhere had the judges been prepared to listen to them and give them credit. These are perfectly orthodox variations on the way of playing piobaireachd. There is nothing unsound at all.

RMacL: What can be done to address these difficulties?

DM: Every year the Piobaireachd Society organises session seminars for judges. They organise two a year and I go every year. Every year I meet the same people. There’s usually a dozen of us there. All the 12 judges agree that they would give a fair hearing to a Donald MacDonald setting if they heard it. In fact, they have said that some of the Donald MacDonald settings are superior to some of Angus MacKay’s, and they all say that this would be a good thing.

This would extend the parameters a bit further but, of course, it is always the same 12 people. And, when I look at the bench at Inverness, Oban, London and the other major competitions, I say ‘where on earth were you in March, in December, when we went through all these tunes in great detail, and heard all about the settings and all about the alternative methods of playing where were you!

Competitors at the 2015 Donald MacDonald Cuach: Stuart Liddell, Roddy MacLeod, Dougie Murray, Niall Stewart and Bruce Gandy.

RMacL: For a competitor I think it would be a brave decision to go out on a limb and play this style.

DM: Yes … there is no good in entering a competition unless you want the prize. And, if you want the prize, you have to play the way the judges expect to hear. The major competitions are no place to experiment unless it is encouraged by the management, by the Piobaireachd Society, by the music committee in particular and by the rest of the society, and by the judges as a whole.

RMacL: One of the things that interested me when reading the foreword to Donald MacDonald’s book was that the book was published in 1822 and it was 16 years later when Angus MacKay’s book came out which people refer to as the ‘Piper’s Bible’. I wondered why Donald MacDonald’s style didn’t become the pre-eminent style.

DM: I think this idea that Angus MacKay’s was ‘The Piper’s Bible’ came from his great supporter, Archibald Campbell. I mean. he leads us to believe that all the piobaireachd collections published in the 19th century were based on MacKay’s tunes. That is not so. I have made an abstract of Ross’s collection and an abstract of McPhee’s collection and very few of MacKay’s tunes appear in McPhee, for instance. Quite a few appear in Ross’s. It is not the case that MacKay’s were treated as the ‘Bible’. There were many other publications of piobaireachd during the 19th century and, if they hadn’t sold, they wouldn’t have been published.

RMacL: Donald MacDonald was referred to as an ‘experimenter’ and, according to Angus MacKay, used the MacArthur ‘particular graces’ …

DM: I wouldn’t have thought of Donald MacDonald as an experimenter. I think he wrote down what was being played at his own time and I think that there are a lot of traces of Angus MacKay in Donald MacDonald.

Elizabeth Jane Ross.

I think that Angus MacKay really also wrote down what he thought was right. Whether his father played like that, I do not know. I have an idea that he didn’t because we have the manuscript of Eliza Jane Ross who took piobaireachd down for the pianoforte from John MacKay’s playing. (It is quite wrong for people to say we have got no idea how John MacKay played, because we have got Eliza Jane Ross’s manuscript. The way she writes hiharin is totally different from the way it is in Angus MacKay’s book, and she wrote it from John MacKay’s playing.)

I think there is a tremendous lot in this and there is a tremendous lot of study. It is rewarding study that can be done – all it needs is for people to be allowed to hear it. I think Rab Wallace played some of Eliza Jane Ross’s settings one year at the Piobaireachd Society and it was well received.

These things ought to be heard. The place to hear them is the competitions.

RMacL: In relation to the format of the competition, it was a mix of the piping and other lighter entertainment such as the Lomond schoolgirls who gave performances on clarsach and fiddle. Do you think this is a good way forward for presenting piping competitions?

DM: I would certainly like to see anything that attracts wider audiences. Sitting at 9.30 in the morning at Inverness, you know everybody. I could say who’s going to be there and anything that would attract a wider audience to piobaireachd and to listen to the treasure house that is there would be beneficial.

The great thing about piobaireachd is that it was never romanticised. The Gaelic singing was taken over by Marjorie Kennedy Fraser, songs of the Hebrides and Dr Kenneth MacLeod and people like that. We have never had that. We play the real stuff.

Admittedly, at times piobaireachd is claimed as MacKay’s way, or claimed as MacDonald’s way of playing. I would like to hear them all heard, and I think as you heard it here, it makes an excellent contrast in the mix of Gaelic singing, clarsach playing and piobaireachd. It couldn’t be more effective.

RMacL: Perhaps we have got a bit to learn about the way we present the music to people to catch their imagination?

DM: Presentation is everything nowadays in every form of music. I mean the story about Lord Breadalbane’s March and Waterloo … people find that fascinating, and I find that when I have been allowed to present competitions myself that at performances people lap up all the information they can get about the tunes and about the piper.

You know yourself when you play marches, strathspeys and hornpipes one after the other, it goes down extremely well but it would go down better with just a little break and some other form of music: Gaelic singers, clarsach players, anything like that, just to ease the tension a little.

RMacL: We tend to be a bit intense, don’t we? We need to introduce piping to a wider audience and I think whatever way we can do that is going to benefit piping the long run. The Donald MacDonald Quaich achieves that to a certain extent and I have certainly had a thoroughly enjoyable night. Thank you.