Captain John A. MacLellan M.B.E.

Simply put, Captain John A. MacLellan MBE (1921-1991) was one of the most important pipers of the 20th century. A military man, he joined the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders as a boy piper in 1936. In 1941, he was appointed Pipe Major of the 9th Battalion, Queen’s Own Highlanders: he was then aged 19 and the youngest Pipe Major in the British Army at that point.

The post-war period is dotted with his piping wins, which are too numerous to mention in this short introduction, as are his other achievements in piping. The following article, however, written by his good friend, Seumas MacNeill, appeared in the Piping Times shortly after MacLellan died and offers a warm account of his life. It is followed by an apreciation of MacLellan by Major General Frank Richardson.

In 2013, an annual dinner recital in Edinburgh was insitgated, run and organised by the Captain John A. MacLellan Trust.

By Seumas MacNeill

Seumas MacNeill and John MacLellan in 1966.

The death of John MacLellan is a blow from which piping will not readily recover. Great pipers who have competed with outstanding success on the premier platforms have always been an inspiration and an example to their own and later generations. But if that is all they have done then their memory and their memorial is only a list of statistics.

John, however, was the complete piper for his achievements are by no means confined to entries in the record books, formidable though they have been. It is not really true that when admitted to hospital on one occasion and asked his religion he replied, “bagpipes,” but the story, apocryphal though it is, is a fair indication of his attitude to life. His contribution to piping involved not only playing and winning, but teaching and composing, and perhaps above all, organising and directing the future trends which our unique culture should follow.

Although his people were from the north, John was born in Dunfermline, Fife in 1921, The family moved about quite a bit and when it was time for him to go to school they were living at Fort Augustus. It was there that the young boy began to learn piping, first of all from his father. At the age of eight he performed on the chamber pipes at a ceilidh in the town. At the age of 15 he joined the Cameron Highlanders as a boy piper where his talents soon became well recognised. By 1941 he was transferred to the Seaforth Highlanders as Pipe Major.

Immediately after the war, he attended the Pipe Majors’ Course under the legendary Willie Ross, and graduated with a Distinguished certificate. At the first Argyllshire Gathering after the war he won the March and the following year won the first of his four top prizes in the March, Strathspey and Reel for former winners. At Inverness he was even more successful, taking first prize in the former winners MSR in 1947, 48 and 49 – with two more victories still to come.

After his spell under Willie Ross he was sent for six weeks’ tuition to John MacDonald at Inverness. Thereafter, all the top prizes fell to him in spite of the spell of duty abroad during which he had to miss all the competitions. He won the Gold Medal at Oban in 1957 and at Inverness in 1959. He was placed first in the Senior Piobaireachd at Oban in 1949, 58 and 59 and he won Clasps at Inverness in 1958 and 63. By the time he retired from competing in 1968 [it was 1965 – Editor] his record had been established as one of the best of all time.

A careful examination of these dates will show that in 1958 he won all four former winner events at Oban and Inverness, a record that had never previously been achieved, nor is likely to be equalled.

Pipe Major's Course, 1959-60, Edinburgh Castle. Back row:Lance Sergeant Angus MacDonald (Scots Guards), Corporal James Henderson (Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders), Corporal Joe Wilson (Gordon Highlanders), Lance Sergeant John Allan (Scots Guards). Front row: Pipe Major Brian Halley (Royal Scots Greys), Pipe Major John MacLellan (Director, Army School of Piping), Sergeant Eric Stewart (Irish Guards).
Pipe Major’s Course, 1959-60, Edinburgh Castle. Back row:Lance Sergeant Angus MacDonald (Scots Guards), Corporal James Henderson (Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders), Corporal Joe Wilson (Gordon Highlanders), Lance Sergeant John Allan (Scots Guards). Front row: Pipe Major Brian Halley (Royal Scots Greys), Pipe Major John MacLellan (Director, Army School of Piping), Sergeant Eric Stewart (Irish Guards).

In 1959, at the age of 38, he was appointed as senior instructor at the Army School of Piping in Edinburgh Castle in succession to Pipe Major William Ross. His rank was then Warrant Officer Class I but the anomaly of the Director of Army Piping being a non-commissioned officer was eventually swept away and it was not long before John MacLellan became Captain John A. MacLellan with an MBE awarded in 1964 for services to Army piping.

My personal friendship with John MacLellan began in 1953 when he and I, along with James L. MacKenzie, the world champion Highland dancer, were invited by the Seaforth Highlanders of Vancouver to tour Canada and the United States. At the time, I remember thinking that there was no piper with whom I would rather make this journey, because his clean hard fingering and his classical interpretation of both ceòl mòr and ceòl beag had always impressed me greatly. For six weeks, across the Northern American continent and back again, we were hardly out of one another’s company. This laid the foundation of a friendship – and a co-operation in working for piping – which has only ended now.

In 1962, John suggested that the graduated certificates for piping ability which we were issuing in the College, together with the two certificates available at the Army School, were not sufficient, and that there should be a system of certificates available to all pipers throughout the world. So the Institute of Piping was born. The idea had been put forward some time previously by Dr. Kenneth A. MacKay but although it was first greeted with enthusiasm by all piping societies, later some of them had second thoughts and eventually Kenneth abandoned the idea.

John’s proposal was simpler and more easily put into operation. He suggested that the Army, the Piobaireachd Society and the College of Piping should combine, with representatives from each, to set up an institute whose sole purpose would be to arrange the examination and award of certificates.

A young Michael Grey going through some tunes with MacLellan.

His next proposal was the establishment of piping as an acceptable musical activity in schools throughout Scotland. Up until that time pupils could obtain O Grade and Higher Grade certificates in music by professing any instrument of the orchestra or the Spanish guitar – but the bagpipe as a musical instrument was specifically excluded. Several attempts had been made to persuade the Scottish Education Department to allow the bagpipe, but it was not until John managed to set up an interview with the organisation that anything really happened. He and I went along to put the case and managed to persuade the representatives that piping should be admitted to their syllabus. The fact that one of the men concerned was a Rankin descended from the Rankin pipers of Coll probably helped, although we did not know that at the time.

As a result of John’s efforts, peripatetic piping instructors were appointed throughout the Highlands and in a short time over 2,000 children, who might not otherwise have had a chance to learn, were being taught the chanter as part of their school curriculum.

The publication of music was John’s next venture, and in rapid succession he published Music for the Highland Bagpipe, The Piper’s Handbook, Bagpipe Music for Highland Dancing, More Music for the Highland Bagpipe, all of which proved to be successful and are in steady demand throughout the world.

Written in 1969, John MacLellan's tune celebrating the famous occasion described by David Murray.
Written in 1969, the full score appears in MacLellan’s ‘Complete Compositions’ which can be found by clicking the image. Scroll to the bottom for Colin MacLellan’s tutorial on the tune.

His own compositions of light music were competent, but they have never really taken off or reached the top ten. His compositions of piobaireachd, however, have proved to be outstandingly successful and it is safe to say that he was easily the best composer of ceòl mòr this century. He won the College of Piping/Saltire award for piobaireachd composition in 1969 with The Phantom Piper of Corrieyairack, and among his other outstanding tunes are Farewell to the Queen’s Ferry and A Welcome to Patrick Struan. He also was commissioned by the Piobaireachd Society to compose a special tune, Salute to the Piobaireachd Society.

Shortly after retiring from competition, John was elected to membership of the Piobaireachd Society, then to the important Music Committee of which he soon became Honorary Secretary. This was and is one of the most important positions in the piping world. The Music Committee is responsible for the publication of all the Piobaireachd Society collections, it chooses the set tunes for the principal competitions and maintains a list of approved judges. John brought to the position all his drive and enthusiasm. He initiated seminars for judges, formed a special judges’ committee and for the last few years has supervised meetings to discuss and explain the various styles and settings of tunes to be played in competitions.

The cover of the June 1991 Piping Times.

At the Ardvasar seminars organised by the John MacFadyen Trust, he displayed a wealth of information on all aspects of piping and added greatly to the value and enjoyment of these sessions.

His influence on piping was felt far beyond the bounds of Scotland, for he taught at summer schools of piping many times in Canada and the United States. The International Piper, which he founded and edited with his wife, Bunty, although comparatively short lived, contains in its pages a great deal of extremely valuable information regarding all aspects of piping. In 1989 he was awarded at Blair Castle the Balvenie Medal for services to piping.

A giant has departed from our world. It is hard to imagine who is going to be found to take his place.

The sympathy of pipers everywhere will be with Bunty now and with their daughter, Kirsteen and son, Colin, and their children.

By Maj-Gen. Frank Richardson

Where does one start in writing about John MacLellan, whose death has left so great a gap to be filled in the piping scene?

He was one of those who, with Seumas MacNeill, carried what we hold to be the traditional spirit of our great music furth of Scotland. The flowering of the seed planted by such pioneers grows more luxuriant every year; but we must not forget that much of the soil which they ploughed had been fertilised by generations of good Highland blood.

Can any piper imagine what it must have felt like to be called on to step into the shoes of the rightly revered, legendary Willie Ross? Gradually but triumphantly John MacLellan expanded and enormously improved the kingdom which he had inherited; and was so successful in this that when it fell to me, after retiring from the Army, to prepare the case for the grant of commissioned rank to the head of the Army School of Piping, the case was already logical and unanswerable. (Need I say that nothing in all this implies a breath of criticism of my wonderful and greatly loved teacher, Willie Ross? Piping, both in the Army and in civilian life has moved forward apace since his day, to our great satisfaction.)

Christine and Captain John MacLellan outside their home in Dean Park Crescent, Edinburgh, where they edited The International Piper. (Photo courtesy of Colin MacLellan.)
Christine and Captain John MacLellan outside their home in Dean Park Crescent, Edinburgh, where they edited The International Piper. (Photo courtesy of Colin MacLellan.)

John would not mind, I think, a reference to a great occasion on which we both ‘dropped a brick’. Playing the pipe in the Banqueting Hall of Edinburgh Castle, where I had just paid a tribute to Willie Ross’ memory, John’s big drone stopped. He carried on imperturbably – after all, I had just called Balmoral Castle a 6/8 march! That little strathspey, Willie had told me, was the tune with which he had won most prizes during his career as a competitor.

It is impossible to exaggerate the debt of gratitude that the Piobaireachd Society owes to John MacLellan, especially for his many arduous years as Honorary Secretary of the Music Committee, one of the Society’s most important activities. We all very greatly admired the courage with which, though clearly far from well, he insisted on presenting his last report at the Annual General Meeting of 1991.

For a time John edited a magazine, The International Piper, which he had founded in the belief, shared by many, that Scotland could support more than one piping periodical; not, I think, in any conscious spirit of rivalry with the long-established and widely respected Piping Times. In this venture John had the invaluable help of his charming and talented wife, Bunty.

How would John MacLellan most like to be remembered? I believe that it is as a leading composer in his day of the classical music of the Great Highland Bagpipe; and I believe that he has a strong claim to be so remembered. As a member of the panel which awarded first prize in 1969 to his Phantom Piper of the Corrieyairack, I said that I felt he showed an affinity with my favourite composer, lain Dàll MacKay, in the skill with which he interweaves musical phrases. I was not one of the judges of the 1981 Bicentenary Composing Competition, and the loyalty which should exist among judges prevented me from telling him that would have awarded him that prize, in all probability — but I am happy to think that he guessed it!

I was particularly impressed by the doubling of the First Variation of that tune; and John’s son, Colin, is clearly similarly impressed, for he played that variation whilst tuning his pipe at the Northern Meeting in 1982.

Any father must realise how intensely proud John must have felt when his son followed him into the enviable ranks of the Gold Medallists – though John still kept a step ahead with his two Clasps!

I have written of the man whom I knew as a friend for many years, and will leave to others the compilation of a proper biographical study.

• Here is Colin MacLellan with a tutorial on the Phantom Piper of the Corrieyairack: