Owen MacNiven was a well-known piper of the pre-war era. Born in Paisley in 1916 he was taught initially by John Morrell 1926 before the great Pipe Major Robert Reid took him on. By all accounts, Owen was an excellent piper – and the only one of Robert Reid’s pupils to have beaten him in competition. His biggest prize would be his third place Gold Medal win at the 1933 Argyllshire Gathering when he was aged only 17.
During the Second World War, Owen rose to the rank of Major. After the war, he never returned to competitive piping but pursued a career as a school Headmaster in England. He retired in 1981.
The following recollection of Reid comes from The International Piper of January 1980. However, it was an ‘open letter’ to Alistair Campsie published in the December 1970 edition that prompted Owen’s article.
The ‘open letter’, written by Christine M. MacLellan, joint editor of the magazine, was itself the latest salvo in a growing spat between the magazine’s editors and Campsie, the author of The MacCrimmon Legend – the madness of Angus MacKay. In her letter, Mrs MacLellan wrote “I am writing to you in this fashion in order to air the amazement of many in the piping world who are mystified when confronted by your spasmodic outbursts in the public press, and perhaps to defuse your extraordinary devotion to the late Robert Reid [who died in 1965], scarcely stopping this side of idolatory and amounting almost to fetish. I met the Pipe Major only once in my life and that he was one of the great piobaireachd layers was apparent, even to me! I suggest that your attitude and your churlish forays into print could well be a disservice to the late Pipe Major.”
Reid certainly inspired devotion from his pupils, as Owen’s article confirms.
The master and pupil
By Owen MacNiven
My good friend, Andrew McNeil of Colonsay sent to me a copy of ‘The International Piper’ for December, 1979, knowing that I should be very interested in ‘An Open Letter to Alistair Campsie’, and in Robbie Reid’s letter [Reid had clarified the circumstances of his father’s destruction of his music]. I concur in his explanation of the destruction of McDougall Gillies’ notation. In the late 1930s, his father told me that it could not be handed down, for the reasons Robbie has given.
In 1930, when I was aged 14, I was taken by my bagpipe teacher, the late John Morrell, from Paisley to Glasgow to ask Bob Reid if he would accept me as his pupil. I was initiated into Bob’s ability to make a trenchant comment, for his reply was, ‘‘There are enough bad pipers in this world without my adding to them!”. Immediately, too, he showed his kindness: as I had travelled from Paisley he would hear me play. I played the Lament for Patrick Òg McCrimmon.
I became his pupil. From then until 1939 there began a teacher-pupil relationship, blossoming, as I grew older, into close friendship. As with so many, the War saw the parting of our ways. I did see him in 1941 when he was Battery Sergeant-Major in Castle Donnington, but I did not see him again until after the War, when I made forays to Paisley to see my mother. Three occasions are specially memorable.
One afternoon, in his shop in George Street, Bob offered to me his pipes, and asked me to play pibrochs of my choice. I played The Earl of Seaforth’s Salute, and My King has Landed in Moidart. His delight that his pupil could still play exactly as he had been taught, was profound. It was a most moving occasion.
The second took place after he had retired from business, and I visited him one morning in his home in Sandyhills. The visit stretched to the late afternoon: indeed Bob and his son Robbie took me by car to Clyde Street for me to catch a bus to Paisley. That day, Bob and I on practice chanters, played the ground-work, and ‘tricky bits’ of some 50 pibrochs. So well had I been taught, it was note for note, phrase for phrase. Bob was elated.
The third occasion was most strange. Near the end of my summer holidays in August, I took a ‘daft notion’ to travel from Nottingham to Glasgow, where I learned it was Cowal Games, so to them I went. Bob, I discovered, was one of the judges and of course he and I met at the interval and were most happy, discussing this and that. Next day, Bob died of a heart attack. What prompted me to go to Glasgow that day, I will never know.
I well remember my first lesson, for Bob’s opening comment shook me rigid! “Remember, Owen, I don’t teach you. I show you, then you teach yourself”. That maxim I have carried throughout my life, for my career as an adult has been in education of comprehensive schools. I have been Headmaster for 25 years.
Bob did ‘show’ me. I began on the McDougall Gillies-Reid canon of piobaireachd playing, starting with The Battle of Auldearn and ending in 1937 with The Unjust Incarceration. The canon was broken at times, when set tunes for Oban and Inverness had to be learned, usually nameless’ tunes, or pibrochs of that ilk. When I was 16, among others, I learned for Oban, Lament for Duncan McRae of Kintail, and in fact, won the Junior Pibroch that day, playing that tune.
In his letter, Robbie described Bob as a ‘perfectionist’. How true: Bob would never tolerate shoddy technique and phrasing. Mr. Kenneth’s letter in your December edition on ‘repetitiveness’’ of pibrochs, mentioning, I Got a Kiss of the King’s Hand was not only accurate but also recalled Bob’s teaching of such tunes. Every repetitive phrase had to be absolutely identical, every time. For example, the opening bars of the pibroch above have three long C’s, two short B’s and a long B, and woe betide me, if in its repetition, one of them was shorter or longer than what had previously been played.
Many other pibrochs have intricacies of their own. The third line of the ùrlar of The Unjust Incarceration was by itself, probably the most difficult. But the pibroch which I had greatest trouble with, was Lament for MacDonnell of Laggan. A marvellous pibroch, with beautiful phrasing and expression, and several weeks elapsed before Bob said. “Now, you’ve got it”. Bob was undoubtedly a ‘perfectionist’.
Bad playing was to him anathema, and many a time he put ‘a flea in my ear’. Indeed in 1938 I was to play in McLellan Galleries, Glasgow, and for the competition I chose My King has Landed in Moidart. On the Tuesday before the competition I played it over to Bob, and my ‘timing’ was wrong. My word, but he could be trenchant. He described it as ‘hame-made’, not even ‘hame-made’, but ‘haun-knitted’. He then ‘showed’ me, and on the Saturday, in competition with Bob, so well did he ‘show’ me that I became in 1938, the first winner of The Oban Times Gold Medal. Bob, in defeat as it were, was magnanimous: to some, who commented on his not being able to be first winner of the Medal, replied, “No: but I could teach my ‘pup’ to win it”.
About 1937, piobaireachd playing emanating from Inverness, began a degenerating standard. This caused Bob enormous distress, not that competitor were winning top prizes with this ‘bad’ playing, but that The Piobaireachd Society, condoned it. Bob always looked to the Society for it to preserve the ‘norm’. I give an example. The Earl of Seaforth’s Salute, the First Variation of which is McDougall Gillies’, and a marvellous piece of phrasing and timing. The accent is on the top notes, a wonderful opening with a nonet of three triplets. Yet the Northern School, in its Taorluath and Crunluath all through emphasised low A and ‘cut’ the top notes. Bob called it ‘machine-gunning low A’. I repeat: Bob was a perfectionist.
I, too, worship Bob Reid this side of idolatory. As Ben Jonson said this of Shakespeare it is not inappropriate to end with a quotation from Julius Caesar, it certainly applies to Bob:
His life was gentle: and the elements
So mix’d in him, that Nature might stand up, And say to all the world, This was a man.