Roderick MacDonald was born on South Uist in 1901. He was a member of Glasgow City Police Pipe Band from 1923 to 1956. He served under two Pipe Majors, Willie Gray, then the famous John MacDonald, his brother.
At the Argyllshire Gathering, Roderick won the March in 1928, the Strathspey and Reel in 1929 and the Gold Medal for piobaireachd in 1938. In 1946 he won the first post-war Gold Medal for piobaireachd at the Northern Meeting playing the same tune with which he had won his Argyllshire Gathering Gold Medal, Mary’s Praise. He won the piobaireachd competition at the Cowal Gathering three times.
Roddy died in October 1981 and in that month’s International Piper, Angus J. MacLellan, who at that time was President of the Scottish Pipers’ Association, remembered him:
Roderick MacDonald 1901-1981
The potential of young pipers in the island of South Uist at the beginning of the 20th century was such that it was thought necessary to send one of the best instructors available to the island. Pipe Major John MacDonald of Inverness was the man chosen for the task and so in the winter of 1912 he began classes in Lochboisdale School.
One of his first pupils was a young Roderick MacDonald, a lad of 11 years of age who had been started on the pipes by his father, one of the best pipers in South Uist at that time. The young Roddy and his elder brother John earnestly and conscientiously attended Pipe Major MacDonald’s classes and soon became his star pupils.
Like the rest of the country, the highland games were stopped on South Uist during the 1914-18 war but when they were re- commenced in 1920 Roddy MacDonald showed how much he had learned when in the face of strong competition from such fine players as Pipe Major John Steele, Angus Campbell, Neil MacLennan and many more he won the Piobaireachd (playing the Desperate Battle), the March and was second in the Strathspey and Reel. This was the start of what was to become an illustrious piping career.
In common with so many islanders looking for employment, Roddy left home heading for Glasgow where in 1923 he joined the City of Glasgow Police and almost immediately became a member of the Glasgow Police Pipe Band.
It is interesting to note that in the same year, his first in the police, Roddy was the overall winner at the Scottish Pipers’ Association competition held in the Pearce Institute, Govan, winning the March and being placed second in both the Strathspey & Reel and Jig competition.
Roddy often told me what a wonderful place for piping Glasgow was during the 1920/30 era and with such outstanding personalities as John MacDougall Gillies, John MacColl being in Glasgow at this time he drank well from the fountain of knowledge. He learned a great deal in ceòl mòr, especially from MacDougall Gillies, not forgetting that the Pipe Major of the police pipe band was the equally famous Willie Gray who also had a great influence on Roddy’s playing and from whom he learned much. Gray took a great interest in the individual members of the band and when you consider that in the ranks at this time were such great players as his brother John, John Johnston, Philip Melville, Alex MacDonald (North Uist), Alex MacPherson (Benbecula), Charlie Scott, Angus Morrison, the rivalry and competition was keen. As Roddy said himself: “You had to be on your toes among that lot’’.
On his toes he certainly was, continuing his winning way with among many other prizes the Piobaireachd at Cowal, on three occasions, the March at the Argyllshire Gathering in 1928 (Craig an Darroch and Millbank Cottage) and the Strathspey and Reel in 1929 (Delvinside and Pretty Marion). John MacDonald of Inverness was now holding courses in Glasgow and Roddy never failed to attend them. With such a background it is easy to see how he became so knowledgeable in ceòl mòr and such a respected person in the world of piping.
When Willie Gray retired from the police in 1934 he was succeeded as Pipe Major by John MacDonald (Roddy’s brother) who quickly set about bringing the Band back into competition and it was to Roddy he often turned for assistance. It was Roddy who took the new members through the band tunes and settings and on many occasions ‘set up’ the band. It was during this period that the Glasgow Police Pipe Band was probably at its greatest and earned its stature and world-wide reputation, winning the World’s Championship in 1936/37/38/39 and again in 1945. Roddy was proud of the feat and was a most ardent supporter of the band all his life.
It is probably true to say that despite all Roddy’s success he was a little over- shadowed by John but this was put to right when in 1938 he won the Gold Medal at Oban playing Mary’s Praise and then in 1946 despite the war years and lack of competition, repeated the success at the Northern Meeting with the same tune.
A diligent and conscientious police officer, Roddy spent all his police service in the Partick/Marine Division of the former Glasgow Police Force and was for many years well-known around Patrick Cross. He retired from the police in 1956 and though taking up other employment, found more time for teaching and in this was equally successful having among his many pupils, Kenneth MacDonald, lain MacFadyen and more recently Dr. Angus MacDonald,
It was at this stage that his services as a piping judge were very much in demand and he was soon a familiar and respected member of the ‘bench’ at many highland gatherings and all the major indoor competitions. However, he was not quite ready to give up competing just yet and in 1968 he gave many of us younger competitors a great thrill when he played in the Uist and Barra Competition of that year. The tune chosen for him on that occasion was In Praise of Morag and it was a lesson on its own just listening to him especially the way he played Variation 1.
When Roddy retired completely he was often to be found in the back shop oF Grainger and Campbell and how enlightening it was to hear him and Pipe Major Donald MacLeod discussing the different settings and ways of playing various tunes and the personalities of the piping world of yester year. ‘Wee Donald’ thought so highly of Roddy that he composed an excellent piobaireachd in his honour. Called Roderick MacDonald’s Salute it is included in Donald’s collection of his own ceòl mòr compositions.
A life member of the Scottish Pipers’ Association he was for many years a Vice President and eventually Hon. President and in this capacity I often received much help and good counsel from him in difficult situations.
A true highland gentleman, he had a sense of humour, sharp wit and complete modesty. I remember one night being in the company of Roddy and Ronnie Morrison when Ronald asked what he deemed to be the greatest triumph of his piping career and his answer delineates his modesty. He said he looked upon the success of the Glasgow Police Pipe Band as the greatest pleasure imaginable. Such a remark fully demonstrates Roddy’s unselfishness, Roddy MacDonald hes been one of the outstanding personalities and characters of piping throughout a great part of the 20th century.
Indifferent health during the winter of 1980/81 curtailed his activities but during the spring of 1981 he was out and about again but did not quite feel well enough to take up the many requests to judge. By the late summer he was confined to the house and the constant stream of visitors was more evidence of how highly he was held in esteem by all.
Sadly, on October 10, 1981 in his 81st year he passed away in his home at 36 Gardner Street, Glasgow and piping in general and in Glasgow in particular is the poorer,
The remains were taken to St. Peter’s Church in Partick on Sunday 11th where there was a large turnout of friends as there was at the Requiem Mass on Monday 12th. Following the Requiem Mass the remains were flown to South Uist and the burial took place on Tuesday in his beloved home island.
Throughout his ill-health he was patiently nursed by his loving wife Margaret and to her and his daughter Ishbel I would offer on behalf of all pipers our sincere condolences.