Norman MacLean pictured in the Piping Times of April 1952. The pipes belonged to Seumas MacNeill.

Norman MacKinnon MacLean was born in the Tradeston area of Glasgow on Boxing Day in 1936 to Neil MacLean (a merchant seaman and a native of Tiree) and Margaret (Peigi) MacKinnon (from North Uist), but due to the time of year his birth wasn’t registered until early January, 1937. He spent his early childhood in Lochaber and Benbecula before returning to live in Glasgow when his father left the merchant navy. In his autobiography, The Leper’s Bell, published in 2009, Norman says his parents were keen that he should become a good piper. His mother enrolled him at the College of Piping,

“…a pretentious name perhaps for a modest institution run by a remarkable man called Seumas MacNeill and his pal, Tommy Pearston. Seumas, a Lecturer in Physics at Glasgow University by day, and I shared a demented sense of humour and a healthy contempt for stupidity. I enjoyed being taught by him. Every Wednesday night I’d happily set off with my practice chanter, notebook and manuscript book ostentatiously on show, and take a tram to the junction of St Vincent Street and Elmbank Street. I’d then toddle northward for about 600 yards to the College in Pitt Street, which was situated in a suite of dank rooms in a basement. (Soon afterwards, through the good offices of Captain Hepburn, the proprietor of Red Hackle Whisky, we all moved to much grander and more sumptuous premises in Otago Street in Kelvinbridge.)

Though I did well at the College, winning little internal chanter competitions held every month on a fairly regular basis, my father had greater ambitions for me. As a card carrying member of the Ciamar-aTha-Thu club, he’d arranged for me to receive lessons from the South Uist born Seonaidh Roidein. Pipe Major of the famous Glasgow Police Pipe Band.”

The Leper’s Bell, 2019.

Finlay MacNeill, when describing his own early memories of the College, said he remembered Norman MacLean from the Pitt Street days as a little boy in short trousers. Norman was later described by Seumas MacNeill as “the most talented man in Scotland.”

The monthly gradings given to College pupils according to their progress were published in the Piping Times from 1948 onwards and show that Norman was consistently Grade 1 standard. He worked his way through the College certification system. His competition results at the monthly competitions and the annual end of session competitions in the College, and at other junior competitions, show he was a consistent prize winner.

At the St Andrews Ball organised by the College in 1950 a capacity crowd danced to the music of Bobby MacLeod and his band. College pupils Sandy Russell, Calum Carmichael and Norman led the Grand March. When the band took a break dancing continued to the piping of John MacFadyen, Seumas MacNeill and Thomas Pearston. Among the notables present were Mr and Mrs Hugh Kennedy, Mr and Mrs Donald MacPherson and Mr and Mrs MacGregor Kennedy. Drum Major John Seton of the Glasgow Police was the Master of Ceremonies and a large sum of money was raised for the College Expansion Fund.

Norman in 1956.

In October 1951 Seumas MacNeill assisted by George Robertson, Calum Carmichael and Norman MacLean, recorded the story of the College, in five minutes, for the BBC for use in its overseas programme, This is Britain. This episode was described by Norman in his autobiography where he describes Seumas as one of his heroes. Norman writes:

“One night, Seumas announced that another young boy, George Robertson from Maryhill, and I would go with him to the studios of BBC Scotland in Queen Margaret Drive. There, Seumas was to be interviewed by a famous radio broadcaster called Jamieson Clarke about the mission statement of the College. I gathered that George was to be the tyro student, which he was, learning on the practice chanter the first part of The Earl of Mansfield. I was supposed to be the finished article, playing the entire tune on the Big Pipe.

The playing went well enough, I suppose. What stuck in my memory was the aplomb and coolness Seumas displayed when responding to the questions read out to him by Jamieson Clarke. With his hands clasped behind his back and swaying slightly on the soles of his feet, he responded to the written questions looking, with his gaunt face and his thin aquiline nose pointing at me like an accusation, like an arrogant aristocrat or a Sicilian hitman. The man seemed to have undergone a mood transplant. In response to a question about the admission policy of the College, he stated that, no, he would not accept stupid people. ‘I don’t like to mock the handicapped,’ he said, ‘but I will not attempt to teach someone who doesn’t have both oars in the water.’

He brought me into the conversation. ‘Norman,’ he intoned gravely, as though he knew about some life-threatening illness concerning which I had not yet been informed, ‘you know what they say about village idiots, don’t you?’

‘No, Mr MacNeill,’ I crooned as I entered into the spirit of things. ‘What do they say about village idiots?’

‘Too many village idiots,’ he snapped curtly, ‘spoil the village.’

The mood of the interviewer changed abruptly.

‘Mr MacNeill,’ Clarke said, ‘I think we have enough already to make an excellent programme. You were excellent … And so were the boys.’

‘We thank you most civilly,’ Seumas said. ‘But there’s just one thing that bothers me,’ Clarke said. ‘Yes?’ Seumas said. ‘You don’t seem … umh, you don’t rely on notes, do you?’ the famous broadcaster said, a note of puzzlement in his voice.

‘No,’ Seumas said. ‘Why should I’ ‘It’s just … I don’t know,’ he said. ‘We in broadcasting would die if we didn’t have some kind of aide-memoire before starting to record.’

‘Really?’ Seumas said with some asperity. ‘Look, I do this kind of stuff every day of the week. I lecture at the ‘yooni’.’

“The famous interviewer looked hurt. It has since been my experience that people in the media can never understand that the rest of the world doesn’t have the same priorities as themselves. After perfunctory handshakes all round we collected our fees – mine was one guinea – and went back to Otago Street. It was not the money that excited me. It was the example of the Principal of the College of Piping that made me vow that I too would some day be as fluent, as grammatically correct and as entertaining in my discourse as the example I had just been shown. I would accomplish all this in two languages.”

Norman was educated at Bellahouston Academy then Glasgow University, where he played with the OTC pipe band, followed by teacher training. He competed at events in the Highlanders’ Institute, the College of Piping, and the Pearce Institute in Glasgow, and outdoors at the Cowal Gathering, Inverness, Oban, North and South Uist and other Games and was rarely out of the top three. He described once how he approached singing competitions in the same way as he had been taught to prepare for piping competitions and this led to success.

Norman won the Gold Medal for singing and the Bardic Crown for his poem, Maol Donn at the same Mòd in Glasgow in 1967 and almost won the Gold Medal for piping, too. He was a piper, composer, singer, actor, comedian, writer and all round entertainer. In later life, between 1997 and 2007 he wrote four novels in Gaelic.

Norman the comedian.

In his autobiography he described spending a delightful week in Paris with his girlfriend at the plush home of his friend George Hertz:

“He was a charismatic man, an Austrian Jew whose father was from Czechoslovakia and whose mother was Russian. The family escaped to Chicago after Hitler annexed Sudetenland. This background left him fluent in at least six languages. I’ve heard him on the phone speaking in Russian, Swedish, French, Italian, Spanish and, of course, German. When he spoke in English he sounded like a particularly erudite American gangster. By profession he was some kind of metallurgical engineer. He had doctorates in both Chemistry and Physics and had attended ‘school’ until he was almost 30. When Margo and I visited him in Paris he was head honcho with a French plastic manufacturing company. He occupied an extremely well-appointed town house near Place de la Nation

“We had become friendly during the course of a two week piping school in Staffin, Skye, run under the aegis of the College of Piping. Thanks to the influence of John MacFadyen, the oldest member of a renowned piping family, I was a kind of Junior Instructor, and George was one of my pupils. (In passing, I must pay tribute to the kindness and generosity shown to me by the MacFadyen family who lived in Carham Drive, Cardonald. I had long ago pawned my own instrument, bought for me by my poor late father, to obtain cash for drink, and if I had an engagement to pipe at, a wedding for example, Big Duncan, the father, would lend me a set belonging to one of the boys, Duncan, Hector or Iain.) As a piper George was no great shakes – he couldn’t hear the pulse of any tune – but cerebrally he made me look like a barefoot boy. I learned a great deal about public speaking from George. He never talked down to others. If he explained something to you in nasal polysyllables, he never worried about whether or not you understood. He, Hamish Henderson and Seumas MacNeill were the influences I’ve carried in my own verbal palette to this very day. These guys spoke in sentences and were very fluent.”

Norman wrote that he disliked the maintenance involved in piping and hadn’t the patience for it. Consequently, over the years he would often drop in at the College when his pipes required attention such as seasoning, hemping, fitting a valve or fitting new reeds. He would sit in the shop while the work was carried out and keep the staff entertained with a series of stories.

Neil Fraser.

Around the mid-1970s, Neil Fraser of the BBC secured funding to make an eight programme series starring Norman MacLean. When they discussed the signature tune for the programme, which was named Tormod air Telly, Norman wanted to use a little jig of his own called Cion a’ Bhuntata, (Scarce of Tatties). Norman wrote:

“Neil listened to me playing the wee tune on the practice chanter, but I could tell he wasn’t sold on it. He stared at me with frightening intensity for a long time, then seemed to reach a decision. ‘Right,’ he said in a firm tone, ‘let’s go down to the College of Piping in Otago Street. We’ll let Duncan Johnstone hear it and he’ll make the final decision.’

We trooped down to the College. I played the little two-parted jig for Duncan and was immensely gratified when the great composer himself approved of it.”

The tune went on to be very popular. Norman’s other well known composition was the retreat, My Land, the copyright of which he gave to the College.

Brigitte Bardot.

Norman worked as a teacher in Glasgow and Oban, before going into the entertainment business full time. His teaching jobs, his membership of various pipe bands and his many experiences around the world are described in his autobiography, but most of all the book tells the story of his lifelong association with alcohol and the effect this had on his life and relationships. While often funny and a good read the book is also very sad.

Other stories in his autobiography describe his time as personal piper to Brigitte Bardot in St. Tropez and the time he visited Sean Connery in Mexico. Norman’s voice became well known to children with his dubbing into Gaelic of many popular children’s television programmes.

When in Glasgow, Norman would attend the events run by the Uist and Barra Association and the SPA, and over the years he was in great demand as the chairman for competitions and recitals.

SPA, 1986. L-R: Neil MacGiven, Angus J. MacLellan, Norman MacLean, Joe Wright and Fred Morrison.

The SPA ceilidh on March 29, 1952 was attended by almost 200 members and friends. The programme was opened by a quartet of younger members led by the Club Pipe Major, Willie Connell, the others being Angus Campbell, Norman Gillies and Iain MacFadyen. There were songs from Norman MacLean and several others, violin selections and humorous items. Over the years these ceilidhs became the main source of fund raising for the Association. The entertainment usually included a band and singers, with Norman often being one of the invited artistes.

At the 1986 SPA competition at which Norman was Chairman for the day, Norman kept everyone entertained with his all-day comedy routine.

SPA 2006, A Grade. L-R: George Stewart, Norman MacLean, Nathan Drysdale, Glenn Ross.

At the 2006 SPA juvenile competition, Norman had agreed to present the prizes. The report of the event said he was in great form. His performance while we were waiting for the results to be compiled had some of the audience helpless with laughter. He then presented the prizes and had a few words for each young competitor. Another highlight for the SPA was the 2007 Knockout at which Norman did the introductions. The final was between Stuart Liddell and Angus MacColl with Norman again as Master of Ceremonies, making the announcements and regaling the listeners with comments and stories. The evening was recorded for the College of Piping’s radio programme.

Norman and Sylvain Hamon. SPA, 2007.

In June 2004, the Piping Times announced that Norman was to become an occasional contributor. Norman said, “I’m looking forward to confronting the piping public much in the same way I would if I was meeting a Mafia chieftain whose daughter I had just put in the family way.” The articles which followed described his tuition with Pipe Major John MacDonald and would later form part of his autobiography which was launched in the College on October 1, 2009.

Soon after this, Norman returned to live in Grimsay, North Uist. He died in Balivanich hospital in Benbecula on Thursday, August 31, 2017 aged 80. His funeral service took place at Carinish Free Church of Scotland in North Uist and afterwards he was buried at Kilmuir on the western side of the island. As a memorial, donations were requested to be made to The Caladh Trust in Benbecula, a registered local charity which helps people and families affected by alcohol and drug misuse and which looked after him during his final years.

(Much of this piece was adapted from
Jeannie Campbell’s article in
the October 2017 Piping Times).