Tribute to P.M. William MacLean from a pupil

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Pipe Major William MacLean.
Pipe Major William MacLean.

William MacLean (1876–1957) was born in Tobermory, Isle of Mull to Raasay parents. He was a pupil of Calum Piobaire and won all the major prizes of the early 1900s. William became Pipe Major of The 5th Cameron (Lochiel) Highlanders during the First World War. He is an important link to the past and as such was recorded for the School of Scottish Studies’ Scottish Tradition series produced in 1976 but based on his recordings made in the early 1950s. Shortly after MacLean died, David Ross of Rosehall wrote this tribute to him in the Piping Times:

By David Ross of Rosehall

I have read two very excellent appreciations to the late Pipe Major William MacLean (Lochiel’s Camerons). In addition to these I should be glad if you would kindly allow me to add a few impressions of this outstanding piping personality as seen from the eyes of a pupil, which will, no doubt, be of interest to many in the piping world who knew him only by name but never heard him play. A lot has already been written about him; that he was taught piobaireachd by that celebrated piper, Malcolm MacPherson and that he came from a piping family, etc., so I will not dwell on that. As a young man he won many prizes at the games, including the Gold Medal at Inverness in 1901, when he played the Lament for Donald Duaghal MacKay. After having won this important prize he decided ‘to give up competing, as his business took him round the north of Scotland and, therefore, he had little chance to practise his beloved pipes. However, after an absence from competing of 11 years, the urge returned and he decided to have a try for the Oban Gold Medal, which he won in 1912 with MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart. In 1913 he went to Inverness and won the Clasp with an outstanding performance’ of The Unjust Incarceration. This is when I met him first, we left the ground together happy men. He having won the Clasp, and I had won the marches.

Having won the three highest prizes in piobaireachd he was satisfied and retired permanently from competitive piping, never to be heard of again as a competitor, and the piping world lost hearing the music of a very fine piobaireachd player. Although he retired from competitive piping he still retained his interest in the instrument and was often seen at games either as a judge or a spectator.

The war came in 1914 and he was appointed Pipe Major of the 5th Battalion Cameron Highlanders. The next time I met him was in 1921, on my way to Inverness for the Northern Meetings. Having a carriage to myself. I naturally struck up the pipes – at Kingussie who should come in but Willie MacLean, also going to Inverness. After hearing my Inverness tunes he suggested I should have more instruction and invited me to come to Glasgow the following year when he would be pleased to put me through my tunes. This offer was gratefully accepted, and it was a very lucky day for me. I went to Glasgow three times a year for about 12 years. In. the early days these lessons were not of the usual one-hour duration but lasted the whole week and until I had mastered his technique. I received wonderful instruction, and a great friendship developed between us which lasted to the end.

A pre-WW1 photo of Willie MacLean.
A pre-WW1 photo of Willie MacLean.

About 1923 we spent a holiday together at Oban, staying at the old Queens’ Hotel, John MacDonald, Inverness, was also there; after the evening meal I was practising one of my tunes MacIntosh’s Lament, when I had finished John MacDonald found fault with the third last bar in the ground or urlar (Angus MacKay’s setting) which differs from that of the Piobaireachd Society setting. Willie MacLean disagreed, being a great Angus MacKay man, and a heated argument developed. Neither of these piobaireachd experts would give way. It ended by these two agreeing to differ but this made no difference to their friendship or the respect they had for each other.

Some years later they again clashed over the way the modern pipers were being taught to play the crunluath breabach, Willie claiming that John MacDonald was responsible for this new method creeping in. Willie said it was inconsistent and not in keeping with the taoluath and was incorrect, also it was not handed down to him that way. All this rather surprised me as these two men represented the same school and were both taught by the celebrated Malcolm MacPherson.

Another incident took place at a piping ceilidh after the Northern Meetings. Several of the pipers had given selections, George MacLennan was there reading a book, taking no apparent notice of the playing. Then Willie was asked to give a tune, he struck up and played The Pretty Dirk – George [S.] MacLennan immediately dropped his book to listen, which I considered a great compliment.

Prior to the second world war the Scottish Piping Society of London held an annual dinner, and it was the custom to invite one of the older generation of pipers to be the chief guest. I persuaded Willie to come to London. On arrival, knowing he would be asked to say a few words, he asked what we wanted him to talk about. I suggested we would like to hear something about the old pipers. Those people who were present on this occasion will remember how he thrilled us that evening with his description of the old pipers. This centred chiefly round his tutor, Malcolm MacPherson. This speech was reported fully in the Oban Times at the time.

During all the years I visited him I had many opportunities of hearing him play. He was a beautiful piper – strong fingers which he lifted well off the chanter, kept a well-tuned instrument, his tuning up notes were a delight to listen to – he would take out tasty bits of a Piobaireachd and also play notes which were really musical. He was an artiste and especially good at descriptive pieces of music, laments, such as The Unjust Incarceration, Scarce of Fishing, and Lament for Donald Duaghal MacKay, etc. His timing and expression in the ground and siubhal were lovely, and I regret such timing is not heard today.

Unfortunately few, if any, of the modern pipers. ever heard him play, in fact, well known pipers used to ask me, could he really play. Those of us who did hear him in his prime can festifiy that he was in the top class. He hadn’t-many pupils, just Hector MacLean, Oban, and myself, but other people often came along for advice, which was always freely given. As a teacher he was always most tactful and painstaking, and his knowledge of Piobaireachd second to none, and a. pupil would get away with very little, and above all he was always a perfect gentleman.

I cannot speak of the lighter music as he seldom played that type of music to me.

The piping world has lost a great personality, and I cannot do better than quote an expression from Angus MacPherson’s book, “His type and generation are fast disappearing, more’s the pity, and it can truly be said his like will never be seen again’’.

* From the March 1958 Piping Times.