Iain MacDonald, one of Scotland’s greatest ambassadors for its piping and culture, died this morning. He was 70 and had been in hospital for a few weeks with various health issues.
Iain was born in Glasgow to parents who were born on Great Bernera, just off the Isle of Lewis. He spent most of his pre-school days on Bernera. Iain was five-years-old when the family moved to Glasgow and then to Barrhead on the outskirts of the city.
Iain’s maternal grandfather was a piper as were some cousins and uncles. Iain himself was taught his piping initially through the Rover Scouts Pipe Band before going to Duncan Johnstone. On leaving school Iain worked as a laboratory technician at Paisley Grammar School before moving to the Royal Ordnance Factory in Bishopton where he worked as a pharmacist. In a 2012 interview with Bill Gallacher for the National Piping Centre’s ‘Noting the Tradition’ series, Iain recalled: “I suppose you could be called a bench chemist. I decided that I would like to branch or take a different direction in analytical chemistry. I worked from 1970 to I had an early retirement in 1995 from the Royal Infirmary in Glasgow and I became the Head Chemist in the Anaesthetics Department. I had an enjoyable career, but all the time I was able to marry it with my piping career.”
In the late 1960s Iain was a singer with a local rock band, The Incision, but by the early-1970s he had returned to piping. Iain recalled: “My mother was responsible for it. She bought me a new practice chanter at the age of 20. She arranged for me to have private one-to-one tuition at the College of Piping. She also has a good musical ear, so she would have realised that I needed to sharpen my pencil, as it were, and get some proper tuition.
“I was very fortunate indeed to meet with Duncan Johnstone, who was a full-time instructor at the College. I can remember playing the Glenfinnan Highland Gathering reasonably well and even before I hit the first beat of the first bar I was told to stop: the first doubling in E was incorrect. To be fair, he allowed me to carry on and he had a think about it and he said, ‘You know, it’s musical enough, but I think you need to go back to square one and start again, and follow the College of Piping Tutor Book.’
“In many ways I think my pride was hurt more than anything else when this instructor, who I was paying, told me that I had to go back and start from square one, when I thought I was chapping at the door for some big medal competition. But I soon discovered that he was absolutely correct and to follow the format of a recognised piping instruction book is the way to do it, together with the help of a professional, to sort out anything a bit dubious, shall we say.
“Duncan … was a remarkable teacher and he was a remarkable player, of course, and a very prolific composer of music and he had a really good ear. He had a style of playing that he had inherited from [big] Donald MacLean and Roddy McDonald. A very clean and articulate style of playing, with attention particularly in doublings. He was very exacting about keeping doublings very clean and added to the whole impression of the tunes. I was very fortunate. He also had a wealth of material that he had gleaned from the Hebrides … much more than I ever had. He in turn passed it on to me and others, of course, that had the benefit of his teaching.” Years later, Iain would take daughter, Fiona and son, Finlay to Duncan for their piping lessons.
At the same time, Iain was introduced to Pipe Major Donald MacLeod who was selectively taking on pupils at the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association’s headquarters in Glasgow. Said Iain: “He offered me tuition in piobaireachd and I was very fortunate to be able to take advantage of that. I didn’t really compete much in piobaireachd. There were a lot of things happening musically in my life at that time that precluded me from any serious competitions.”
Iain took an active part in the folk scene revival of the period (the early-1970s). He joined the Battlefield Band, Tinkler Maidgie and Kentigern. By the late 1970s Iain had become the Pipe Major of the Neilston & District Pipe Band. In 1978 the band travelled to Czechoslovakia – which was then still governed by a Communist regime – to take part in the European/World Bagpipe Festival held in the town of Strakonice. Recalled Iain: “I can remember playing in Wenceslas Square and people throwing flowers into the middle of the band. I couldn’t quite understand this and our courier translator explained that some of the, particularly the older people, could remember the sound of Scottish regiments marching through and liberating Prague and they had a great respect and they remembered the kilts and the uniforms.” The village of Neilston still enjoys an international profile that owes everything to its pipe band.
Iain was one of the pipers who played on Temple Records’ influential recording, A Controversy of Pipers from 1983. He was heavily involved in the founding of the Lowland & Border Pipers’ Society. Convenor, Stuart Letford, said: “Iain was one of the important figures during the early years of the formation of the LBPS and was at one point its Vice Chairman. His death will be felt keenly by many not just in Scotland but around Europe. Many members still talk today of his amazing collection of 30+ European pipes. We send our deepest condolences to Anne, Finlay and Fiona, and the rest of the family.”
Latterly, Iain taught piping at the Music School at Williamwood High School and Carlibar School in Barrhead.
A spokesman for Neilston & District Pipe Band said: “Iain was Pipe Major for over 45 years and it’s safe to say that we would not be half the band we are today if it wasn’t for him. What started off as a small community pipe band playing locally has now played all over the world at many special engagements. From touring Japan multiple times to playing at Celtic festivals in Barbados and Dominical Republic.”
Iain’s son, Finlay, was appointed Director of Piping at the National Piping Centre last month.