On Monday we kicked off the first of an occasional series on the stories behind some of our more famous tunes. There’s been a great response to this, with suggestions of further tunes to look at. Today, we kick off what will be another occasional series, that of famous pipers.

The following article was written by Seumas MacNeill shortly after Donald died. It was published in the February 1987 Piping Times. Donald MacLean (1912-1986) was the subject of Archibald MacNeill’s well known 2/4 march, Donald MacLean’s Farewell to Oban.

Wee Donald MacLean passed away suddenly yet peacefully on Wednesday 12th November at his home in Inverness. He had suffered a stroke earlier in the year but until very shortly before his death it seemed that he was making a good recovery from it. He was buried in Tomnahurich Cemetery at Inverness on Friday the 14th. A small company of close friends and pipers were present. Finlay MacRae, his long-time pupil and friend, played the Ground of ‘The Wee Spree”, and then as the group marched away, Morair Sim*, the Lovat Scouts marching tune.

Not only a great player with a distinctive style of his own, Donald MacLean was also an important link in the geneology of piping. He received his first instruction at an early age from John Currie of Mull, who had been taught by Donald MacPhee. About 1924, at the age of 12, he was introduced to Archie MacNeill and, through this meeting, joined the 139th Glasgow Company of the Boys’ Brigade, where he continued under Archie’s guidance for a number of years. At the age of 15 he began taking lessons from John MacColl, whose attentive and successful pupil he continued to be until he joined the Lovat Scouts in January 1940. This association of Donald with John MacColl was of great significance in piping for although John MacColl taught many pipers, and although several great pipers had some lessons from the old master, Donald MacLean was easily the best player who consistently received lessons over a very long time.

In another way Donald MacLean was a link in piping, and that is in the competitive field. He was a fellow competitor with Willie Ross and his generation. The prizes which he won would make too long a list to recount here, but suffice to say that most of those worth winning would be included. The number of them also would be quite outstanding, because Donald was a very consistent games competitor, visiting most of the gatherings held during the summer in Scotland before and after the war.

In the years immediately prior to the war he was one of the famous group of pipers who, every Saturday night, fascinated enthusiasts at the Highlanders’ Institute, Glasgow. This was the heyday of the Scottish Pipers’ Association. In a star-studded field which included Peter MacLeod, Duncan MacIntyre, Archie MacNab, John Allan MacGee, the performances of Donald MacLean were eagerly awaited and applauded by an audience which was surely the most critical, and certainly the best informed in the world. From 1940 to 1945 Donald served with the Lovat Scouts, and many of them remember vividly the days which Donald helped to make happier by the use of his bagpipes and his lively sense of humour.

Cowal 1934, L-R: Robert Reid, Roddy MacDonald, Donald MacLean, Peter MacLeod Jnr.
Cowal 1934, L-R: Robert Reid, Roddy MacDonald, Donald MacLean, Peter MacLeod Jnr.

After the war he became one of the first senior instructors of the College of Piping and for several years passed on his wealth of piping knowledge to the younger generation. As a teacher, in fact, Donald was always very active and successful, and when he left Glasgow the College and his many private pupils felt the loss greatly.

While on tour as one of the pipers in the musical show, Brigadoon he met the young lady who eventually became his wife. After several years in Glasgow and London they later settled at Kincraig in Inverness-shire. From there the family emigrated to Australia then later returned to London and finally to Inverness.

Most pipers all over the world have heard of Donald by reputation, and even the few who have not, will know his name as well as they know their own, for at Oban in 1938 when most of the ringside judges considered that Donald had easily won the masters’ March, Strathspey and Reel, but he in fact was unplaced, Archie MacNeill said, “Well, this will be your farewell to Oban, Donald”. Donald, like a good sportsman, was not particularly put out by the result, but he was delighted when Archie, as a requiem for lost hopes, composed for him Donald MacLean’s Farewell to Oban.

Donald photographed in 1931 shortly after he won the Gold Medal.
Donald photographed in 1931 shortly after he won the Gold Medal.

For me, personally, Donald was a link with a happy piping past, fast fading into the mists of forgotten unimportant history. His visits to the old Rookery at Royston Road were more in the nature of social calls, a regular indication of respect for a one-time teacher and valued critic. I do not remember a time when he was not liable to drop in when I was having my lesson, and often I waited behind to hear his distinctive fingering style as he presented his competition tunes for beneficial advice. We think warm days will never cease, but they do.

Finlay Macrae sends this tribute: “It was a particularly sad day for me, since I first met the great wee man in 1937 or 38 when he taught me in Skye. Our paths parted when war broke out, but we met again 10 years ago, and I spent most Monday nights in his company. He taught me a great deal and we searched through many tunes together, everything from his unique collection of two-parted reels to the big stuff — he knew it all inside out. He had ability to go to the heart of a long pibroch and play a phrase which I would have to search for, from the beginning.

“Stories about piping, pipers, and Gatherings peppered the piping sessions, and we had some wonderful and happy memories. Jean and Margaret provided tea, and Monday night was something not to be missed.

“He was very thrilled to have judged the Clasp and then the Medal at Inverness, and who could have been better qualified.

“A stroke, about a year ago, left his fingering somewhat erratic, especially his right hand, but the Monday before he died I saw a tremendous improvement and he played his pipe the very day before his collapse. Many of us in the North will miss him greatly — he was one of the great contacts with pipers of the past and particularly with John MacColl.

“I believe he won the [Gold] medal at 19 years of age at Inverness playing the Blind Piper’s Obstinacy — a great achievement for a teenager. I liked his style very much and thought it highly musical and quite unique. Now it is all gone and piping is much the poorer and somewhat lacking in variety.

“His ex Pipe Major in the Lovat Scouts, Donald Riddell, was present at the funeral.”

*Morair Sim can be on page 121 of the The Cabar Feidh Collection, Pipe Music Of The Queen’s Own Highlanders (Seaforth And Camerons).