The real life of Colin MacLellan

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Piper, teacher, reed maker, judge and all-around bon vivant, Colin has spent a lifetime around bagpipes. While he’s the son of a piping legend in Captain John A, he’s done the business and won the big piping prizes — and much more.  In his life he has been a living witness to piping history — on two continents. At the age of 17, Colin emigrated to Canada, a place he would call home for the next 22 years. He returned to Scotland in 1999 and with his Canadian wife, Jenny Hazzard — the well-known champion piper — reset his Edinburgh roots.  Like any piper, there’s more to Colin Roy MacLellan than “just piping”. With this in mind, Piping Today set about to find out a little more about the real man — beyond the crunluath.  

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PT: What makes you happy?

CM: A lot of things. First and foremost Jenny Hazzard. I could never thank her enough for the difference she makes to my life. My kids, Iain and Emily Kate. Living in Edinburgh; being close to and having the opportunity to visit Europe’s major cities; the Murrayfield Golf Club; coming home to 14 Dean Park Crescent and hearing a bagpipe being played really well as I approach. Every Friday evening with Jenny at the same restaurant in Edinburgh, wine — vats of it — and pasta and pizza. Being at an event and realising that I have been at least partly responsible in bringing people together.  Our wee [Yorkshire Terrier] dog, Keira. She is a dear little thing who we just couldn’t imagine being without. Watching the football in Glasgow with Jenny and travelling the UK by train. I love the trains!

Then there’s seeing transatlantic friends — not just in summer — trips in both directions seem to be made much more frequently now.  Also, watching support for an independent Scotland gain momentum. The time during holidays, especially between Christmas and New Year, when Jenny and I purposefully become puddings. Creating things in the kitchen and having people round here at home. Scottish winters; they never, ever make me forget how long and wild those months are in Canada. Finally the Edinburgh Festival, the biggest arts festival in the world which takes place each year half a mile up the road from where we live.

PT: What was the last thing you learned?

CM: An E chord on the guitar. 

PT: The greatest Scot who ever lived?

CM: Sir John A. Macdonald

PT: Why?

CM: He had the knack of bringing people together and had a great sense of humour. He was respected by his opponents, overcoming tragedy and difficulties in his private life to become the greatest statesman in Canada’s history. He liked a good drink, a good kick at the ball. He never gave up on Canada. I think it’s rare for any individual to have all that in his makeup.

PT: What possession do you value most? 

CM: I’ve got two. My grandfather’s tiny shot glass which he kept on himself at all times during the First World War. He fought at the Battle of the Somme. Euan [Colin’s oldest friend, Euan Anderson] refers to it solemnly as “the artefact”. The second one is Willie Ross’s kilt pin, which I inherited from my father. If you look at some of the books and videos where Ross appears, you can see it on his kilt.

PT: Can you name the temptation you wish you could resist?

CM: Playing in one more piobaireachd competition.

PT: Were your parents strict? Your father was a military man; did that carry over to you as a kid growing up?

CM: Unbelievably so. I don’t think however it had all that much to do with the army. It was probably just a continuation of how he was brought up himself. There was a trust in it however — you did what you were told, and if you did, you would end up alright. I’m not sure that it was all that enlightening but it was typical of how most Scottish kids were brought up. The only regret I have about it is that it has developed a bit of a lack of tolerance in me for folk who try to avoid responsibility. 

A phrase was coined in Glengarry County [Ontario, Canada] when I was there which went “we don’t want excuses, we want results”.  

All the kids would go around saying it all of the time. I think they sort of admired that but the truth is I wasn’t the originator of it, I think Bruce McCuaig [a piper in Colin’s Grade 2 Glengarry Pipe Band] as a 15-year-old said it first, but I was quite happy to adopt it as my mantra and anyone I have ever taught has heard it, many times. It sort of sums up my childhood experience as well.

PT: Were, or are, you a strict parent?

CM: I wasn’t a strict parent, or at least I didn’t think I was, but you’d have to ask Emily Kate and Iain.

I probably have more influence on them now as a parent than I ever did, even though they are 28 and 30 now. I’m definitely not one of those people who think, “Well this is what happened to me and I turned out all right so I’m going to bring my kids up the same way”. I think that’s a pretty dreadful attitude.

If the truth is told, without getting too much into it, I don’t think either my own childhood nor my experience as a parent when my kids were growing up was ideal. There were a lot of difficulties in both. Sometimes in different facets of life you are lucky in certain things, and in others you have to adjust to circumstances.

I think Emily and Iain know me better now than they ever have. When they were young I wanted them to be the best they could be and other than that they did not have the kind of childhood that I had. My father was a very strict and disciplined person. My mother was in some ways the polar opposite, and life as teenagers for Kirsteen and myself was interesting to say the least. 

I tried to influence Emily and Iain in a similar way to what I thought were the positive aspects of our upbringing but I was very careful that I was not going to repeat the things which I saw, and still see, as being mistakes of the past.

PT: What quality do you find yourself admiring most in other people? 

CM: That’s an interesting one. One of the things which I feel has changed quite a bit during my lifetime, and this is obviously in general, is people’s ability to commit to things. I don’t necessarily mean to long term projects or the like, although I might go on to mention that as well. It’s more the sort of thing where you’d make an arrangement with someone to do something – and you’d do it. And that would be that. What seems to happen today is you make those plans and then you often find out that the other person really meant is, “Oh, I’ll do that as long as I don’t get a better offer in the meantime.” So you get all these call-offs or changes. Inevitably as the event in question approaches, the texts start: “Are we still ok for such and such?”. Or you actually go to the thing and while there you get messages describing where the person is on their way to the thing — “just leaving!” — which is often the prelude to that person being late. 

I blame mobile phone technology for all of that. It drives me bonkers. So to the question of what quality these days which I admire, I’d say the ability to make commitments and being loyal in sticking to them. It seems to be a dying art.

Piping-wise I feel it’s much the same on a wider plane. There are such a lot of things much better in piping these days but I feel that there are a lot of pipers who just don’t commit to learning or getting tuition and think that it’s OK to go to a teacher a few times a year when in fact they should be going weekly. This shows every year in all the hesitant and insecure interpretations you hear, much of it at Gold Medal level. Many pipers are skimming on the commitment and relying instead on technology which allows easier access to recordings of different people playing the tunes, but at the same time they don’t realise that they don’t have a proper, secure handle on what they’re playing and it’s obvious when you hear them.

PT:  You and Jenny are about to host a grand dinner party: what six people would you have come along? Dead or alive (admittedly the dead ones might not be all that much fun).

CM: The dead ones propped up would be more interesting than some people I know [laughs]! Let’s see. We’d start with Queen Elizabeth II – she’s been Queen of the United Kingdom since 1953, making her reign now 61 years. She had intimate weekly meetings with the past 12 British Prime Ministers. Not a foot wrong, hardly, in all these years. And then Pierre Elliot Trudeau — an intellectual heavyweight who some think was not the greatest of Canadian Prime Ministers, but undeniably a giant of international politics, a politician of unsurpassed intelligence and influence and also full of charisma and class.

The great John D. Burgess — a piper — but as regards this occasion, fitting that he be there as he was, as Hugh MacDiarmid described him, “the most colourful man in Scotland”. A musical genius with a wit and presence to match. We’d have Robert Burns — the Bard — who overcame hardship and poverty to become Scotland’s greatest contribution to Western art. Jenny wanted to hear his tales of bawdy drunkenness, philandering, and romance.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, the Italian Renaissance man, artist and sculptor who made stone come to life. Every time we go to Rome we go to St Peter’s Basilica just to gaze at his Pieta — an example of his ability to create something come alive from cold marble. He would recite his experience with the other Italian and Florence masters of the time — Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Brunelleschi, Botticelli — and of course The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli.

Finally, Muhammad Ali. I watched an interview from the early 1970s on Parkinson here on BBC and it was amazing. He talked mostly about politics and race and recited long lines of poetry which he had composed on both — not the witty “float like a butterfly” stuff, but real and serious reflection on matters which meant most to him. Had he not been scarred mentally and physically by his experience of staying too long in the ring, he would have surely gone on to eclipse his achievements in sport in anything he would have chosen.

PT: We’ve heard you like to cook, what would you serve them?

CM: I’m not entirely sure that we’d be able to satisfy the tastes of such people and I suppose I should have thought about that before making the guest list. Can you imagine trying to rustle up something for the Queen? It would have to be a bit of an international menu due to the wide origin of countries of the guests. I think I’d have to go with some tried and tested favourites — no room for a debacle here. I wouldn’t like it to end up like the Gourmet Night episode on Fawlty Towers!

So we would start the four-course affair with a little dish of scallops done in a Venetian style, mainly they are done in toasted breadcrumbs on the shell with garlic, lemon, parsley and olive oil. Very simple and very good.

After that a slightly more substantial offering of a shallot, leek, broccoli and prawn gratin — Jenny and I have done this for years — I think it’s a Gordon Ramsay recipe. The vegetables are sliced and after adding fresh rosemary and a bit of thyme (and anything else you fancy) you soften them up in the frying pan and then mix it all up in a deep dish, add the prawns, mixing it together in a hollandaise sauce. Homemade breadcrumbs top the whole thing off and you just bung it in the oven for 12 minutes, so you can make the whole thing up well in advance and stick it in just before you need it.

Main course would have to be a fish, I think, and the best one we’ve ever done is a sea bass with crispy pancetta. It’s one of Jamie Oliver’s, and again it’s so simple and easy although the result is usually pretty amazing. It’s all served up on a wooden board which might not suit Her Majesty but if she’s at our house she can jolly well do what we do. The sea bass is crisped with skin on and lies on top of a sweet potato mash which incorporates mango chutney, soy sauce, lots of coriander and fresh limes. It’s simply divine. Served with Asian greens, which are a Thai-ish version of broccoli and asparagus, the whole thing is topped off with pancetta slices. All of this is dead easy. If you can tie in a pipe bag, trust me, you can read off a cookbook and enjoy doing this stuff.

The pudding would be a wonderful affogato which we learned a while ago. Plump cherries are placed on top of crushed shortbread fingers which are soaked in booze, our favourite is Amaretto although we have done it with both Grand Marnier and Polish cherry vodka. Add Edinburgh’s favourite Italian vanilla ice cream from Luca’s, top it with shaved dark and white chocolate, and the finish is warm strong espresso coffee poured over the top. It’s brilliant.

Jenny doesn’t drink much wine — which I more than make up for. I’m definitely not a wine snob, although I would admit that my taste has become more refined simply due to the rather substantial quantities which have passed my lips. (I can hear my father now with one of his favourites which I heard rather often, particularly in my youth: “Nobody pours it down your throat, you know …”).

The wine list wouldn’t be substantial. You can’t go wrong with a good quality French Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and I’d be quite confident in serving an excellent Chilean Sauvignon Blanc called Kimbao for the white – I can tell you I picked up a case for over Christmas.

PT: What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?

CM: Don’t play in any competitions in Aberdeenshire [laughs]. Never enter Roddy MacLeod’s hotel room unaccompanied; and from Robert Burns: 

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us, To see oursels as ithers see us!” 
from Burns’ 1786 poem, To a Louse.

PT: Thanks for that — this is great. We’re off to see about a bottle of Kimbao. 

•First published in Piping Today #69, 2014.