By Archie MacLean
My father, John MacLean, was born in the solitary house on the small tidal island of Kirkibost, North Uist, where his father, Angus, was the herdsman. My father’s birth certificate shows his birth date as April 23, 1900. There was no doctor present at the birth (not unusual in remote areas at that time where midwifery was performed by female relatives/friends/neighbours) and ‘farm servant’ is entered as his father’s occupation. My father was the oldest surviving
of ten children born to his mother, Mary Flora MacDonald, three dying in infancy. His letters from the Normandy campaign during the Second World War show that he had a very good education in various schools in Uist as his father moved from one township to another depending on where there was work – Clachan Sands, Claddach Illeray and Locheport.
Who initially taught him piping is unknown. He joined the Ist Btn. Gordon Highlanders in 1918 (his army record states that, like his father, he was a farm servant) and was posted to Turkey. In his photo album from the time, he has written ‘Piper John Maclean 1st Batt. Gordon Highlanders, Haidar Pasha, Turkey 7/10/21’. He left the Gordons in 1921.
After five years in and around Glasgow involved in various unskilled work, he joined the Scots Guards in 1926. By 1928 he was Pipe Corporal in the 1st Btn. under Pipe Major John D. MacDonald from Melness in Sutherland, a fellow Gaelic speaker.
The famous photograph of 1928 in Scots Guards Book 1 [pictured, below] shows the regimental pipers wearing new feather bonnets. My father is the Pipe Corporal seated front left. The other Pipe Corporal standing at the back is J. B. ‘Robbie’ Robertson (Dundee). Also in the photo is Peter Bain from Skye and Malcolm ‘Baggy’ MacMillan (Glenlyon, Perthshire) – quite a collection of top players. My father followed the piper’s course at Edinburgh Castle and was taught by the great Willie Ross, himself a former Scots Guardsman.
John Burgess and Peter Bain told a story of my father and Willie travelling somewhere together by train. Willie was uncharacteristically quiet and apparently not in good humour. Noticing this, my father reached into his pipe case and produced a half bottle of whisky and offered Willie a taste. “Maclean, I’ll make a piper of you yet!” exclaimed Willie. Obviously, someone who showed initiative such as this would go far. Willie’s humour immediately improved after sampling the contents. John Burgess recalled that Willie thought highly of John Maclean – quite a feat as Willie was not prone to praise many.
By 1929 my father was Pipe Sergeant of the 1st Scots Guards. In 1930 he was Strathspey & Reel champion at Oban and second in the Young Pipers piobaireachd competition playing The Big Spree. At the Northern Meeting that year, he was second in the Gold Medal to R. B. Nicol (Balmoral) piper to King George V. Both had played Cille Chriosd. The Gold Medal prize list was: 1. R. B. Nicol; 2. PS John Maclean (1st Scots Guards); 3. PS Angus MacAulay (Benbecula), Lovat Scouts; 4. Pipe Cpl. Malcolm ‘Baggy’ MacMillan (1st Scots Guards).
Nicol was first in the both the March and Strathspey & Reel competitions as well, with my father second on both occasions. The March prize list was: 1. R. B. Nicol; 2. PS John MacLean; 3. John Wilson (Edinburgh).
The Strathspey & Reel prize list was: 1. R. B. Nicol; 2. Pipe Sgt. John MacLean; 3. PM Robert Reid (7th HLI); 4. Pipe Cpl. Malcolm MacMillan.
In 1931, he spent a few days at Angus MacPherson’s Inveran Hotel in Sutherland preparing for the Northern Meeting. As a memento, there is a postcard showing Inveran Hotel. Angus has written on the back: ‘Inveran Hotel,_Invershin, Sutherland. Sept: 12th-16th 1931 where J. McLean played well for the medal.’
He did play well for the medal, coming in fourth. It was another MacLean – ‘wee’ Donald from Glasgow – who was first. The Gold Medal prize list was: 1. Donald Maclean (Glasgow); 2. PM Charlie Smith (Black Watch); 3. Hugh MacRae (Garve); 4. PS. John MacLean.
My father was second in the March competition playing Highland Wedding. The prize list was: 1. John Wilson; 2. PS John MacLean; 3. PM Charlie Smith.
He was third in the Strathspey & Reel competition. The prize list was: 1. PM Robert Reid; 2. David Ross (Rosehall); 3. PS. John MacLean.
In 1931 his Pipe Major, John D MacDonald, was invalided out of the army due to tuberculosis. My father was Pipe Sergeant to his replacement, Alec MacDonald, who later became Piper to Queen Elizabeth II.
In 1932 the Pipe Sergeants of the Scots Guards were 1st and 2nd in the Gold Medal at Oban. J. B. Robertson (2nd Btn ) won the medal and my father (1st Btn) was second playing MacLeod of Raasay’s Salute. The prize list was: 1. PS J. B. Robertson; 2. PS. John MacLean; 3. Lewis Beaton (London); 4. PM Charlie Smith.
At Inverness, he was second in the March playing Bonnie Ann. Charlie Smith was the winner. The prize list was: 1. PM Charlie Smith; 2. PS John MacLean; 3. PM Willie Logie (Seaforths – Depot); 4. LCpl. John Slattery.
My father was Strathspey & Reel champion. The prize list was: 1. PS John MacLean; 2. David Ross; 3. PM Charlie Smith.
In 1933 my father was promoted to Pipe Major of the 2nd Btn Highland Light Infantry (74th Highlanders). He was presented with an engraved practice chanter by the The Highland Society of London. The plaque reads:
The Highland Society of London
Presented to Pipe Sergt. John Maclean
1st Btn. Scots Guards
on his promotion to
2nd Btn HLI
This promotion effectively finished his competing career. It appears that even more top prizes would have come his way, but it was not to be. Alan Ferguson (Inverness) who served as a piper under him in the 2nd HLI said, ‘The Gold Medal was waiting for John – but he joined the HLI, and was abroad for years’.
My father saw out the next five years’ in active service in India and the North West Frontier with a year in Palestine and Egypt. When he was home on leave he was also able to visit his old Pipe Major, John D MacDonald (Melness), at Invergordon hospital. PM MacDonald later died in Lairg in 1941.
My father’s impressive array of campaign medals also show he was involved in Sudan and Eritrea against the Italians after war broke out. In Lt. Colonel Oatts’s classic history of the HLI , Proud Heritage, be notes that with yet another defeat of the Italians in 1941: “On 1st April, the 74th arrived before Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, and marched in with all pipes playing led by Pipe-Major McLean” — the HLI spelling of his surname which is still stamped on his leather pipe case, along with 2nd BN H.L.I.
Alan Ferguson was with my father in the Western Desert where they were up against a more determined enemy in Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Alan told me, ‘John was a veteran compared to us young pipers. When the barrages came in, we were terrified. John would take a practice chanter from his back-pack and calmly ask us all to play a tune in turn. That soon took our minds off the shelling! He was a wonderful man?
In 1943, my father returned home with the HLI as Home Defence forces and to prepare for the Normandy landings. Stationed in various parts of northern Scotland, his letters show that, when home on leave, he was kept busy playing
for ceilidhs in North Uist. He also began courting my mother, Jessie Ann MacAulay from Illeray. It is from this time that his wonderful letters to her give an insight into the times. Before he landed in Normandy on June 23, 1944, he wrote to Jessie, “All ready now and I don’t think we have long to wait. I have sent my pipes and a few articles of peacetime clothing I had, home today. I hope it arrived safely. No doubt it will upset them at home, but it is all in the soldier’s routine.”
By then he was no longer Pipe Major of the 2nd Battalion but Company Sergeant Major of HQ Company, 1st Battalion HLI, part of Montgomery’s 21 Army Group. Back home his pipes were looked after by a piper friend in Uist and played by him ‘to keep them warm’ until my father returned. His pipes were originally Robertsons, however, later on the two tenor drones were damaged during active service and replaced by Henderson tenors. In the 1960s, Peter Henderson’s shop in Glasgow – managed by Bob Hardie – turned a new lower bass section too, so now they are regarded as ‘Hendersons’.
The 1st HLI (71 Highanders) were part of the 53rd (Welsh) Division throughout the European Campaign. By June 28, the 1st HLI concentrated around Beny-sur-Mer. On the 30th, they were involved in fierce fighting around Cheux. On July 20, they were in the Bougy and Gavrus area, south of the Odon river. On August 6, they left Gavrus, crossed the River Orne to Fresney Le Vieux and attacked Point 221, a position 1,000 yards south of the main Thury-Harcourt-Falaise road, northwest of Falaise. The opposition consisted of two German infantry divisions and one SS Panzer division. There were many of the enemy killed and taken prisoner.
On August 16, their advance continued to Martigny, just west of Flaise, which was also taken. The next day, St. Martin De Mieux, just south of Flaise, was reached. Here, the Battalion HQ was mistakenly dive-bombed by Allied Lightnings and Typhoons despite air-recognition strips being laid out. Luckily, no damage was done and on the following day, the 1st HLI attacked towards Montabard further to the south-west. Despite fierce resistance, and his War Diary stating, “the battalion was at that time very tired,” Montabard was taken on August 20.
By this time, the Falaise salient (or Falaise Gap/Falaise Pocket as it was also called), was packed with German infantry, artillery, SS and Panzer divisions. The 21st Army (consisting of British, Canadians and Poles) and the Americans, eventually surrounded the Falaise Pocket and the ‘mopping up’ took a few days. Thousands of Germans surrendered and huge amounts of enemy vehicles, artillery, tanks and ammunition were abandoned to the Allies.
I think the best of his quotations are the gems from his letters written under the most difficult of circumstances during this conflict. My father never fails to ask how things are in Uist – the weather, the peats, visitors – as life went on there as normal. It’s clear from these letters that mail was of the utmost importance in keeping the morale of the Army high. Also, for his relatives at home, late mail or no mail from the front was worrying– it could mean that at best he was wounded/captured, or at worst, he was dead. So a constant two-way flow of mail was in everyone’s interest.
The fighting in and around the killing ground of Falaise had been ferocious. My father’s letters show how thankful and lucky he was to be alive.
“The Americans are going well on their front, but we’ve had the brunt of it where we’ve been and hard going, but we are all in good spirits. We had time for a church service this morning before starting out. A lot of faces missing Jessie, but we are left to carry on the good work.
“Better sign off now. It’s dangerous to write out here. You don’t know if it’s your turn to get it. If God spares me to get through this, I’ll never grumble again, just to see you all once more …”
With the hot summer in France, corpses and animal carcasses produced plagues of flies.
“Now the heat is awful and the place is living with flies, practically worse than the Western Desert.”
Other letters show a lighter side in contrast to the dreadful carnage:
“The sergeants and I have found a place for the night. We have two bottles of Johnnie Walker so that should warm us up tonight as tomorrow we are back into action.
“The Pipe Major is in the trench beside me reading my Oban Times.”
The Pipe Major (1st HLI) was Donald James ‘Muc’ MacDonald (Benbecula), the late Willie’s father.
“Many thanks for the socks. I gave the Colour Sergeant a pair. He was delighted to get a pair of home made socks on his feet, right from the Hielans!
‘At present there is an Islay fellow speaking to me. It is nice to say a few words in Gaelic, Jessie; we imagine we are in the Highlands and not on Active Service.
“We are closing in on Hitler’s Normandy army and there isn’t much hope for it now.
“I am enjoying a beautiful sight at present, Jessie. A long track of Jerries being escorted down the road with their hands above their heads.”
On August 30, my father’s battalion crossed the Seine near Muids, and were soon in Belgium fighting German rearguard actions all the way. On Christmas Eve, they were ordered down to the Ardennes as part of Monty’s British 2nd Army and took up position on Christmas Day to, relieve American positions after the fierce German breakout which became known as the Battle of the Bulge. There, they helped to push back the German advance.
After the German counter-offensive failed, the 1st HLI fought on through Holland, across the Rhine into Germany via the Reichswald Forest and onto Hamburg in 1945. After the German surrender, my father was promoted to Regimental Sergeant Major of the 5th HLI, BAOR (British Army of the Rhine). A letter to him, and others who had performed “outstanding service and shown great devotion to duty, during the campaign in North West Europe” was signed
B. L. Montgomery
Commander-in-Chief, 21st Army Group
He never talked about the war, but when pushed, I remember him once recalling from his days in Normandy when he “was in the back of this truck loaded with barrels of the local brew”. He was probably getting 48 hours leave from the front and the “brew” would have been Norman cider and/or the stronger apple-based spirit, calvados. It must have been donated to the troops by grateful, liberated Normans. Also, this time re the Ardennes, I remember him saying with his usual understatement, “Ah yes, we had to go down there. The Americans needed a bit of help.”
My father returned home in 1946, as Regimental Sergeant Major of the 71st Primary Training Centre and Depot at Maryhill Barracks, Glasgow. There he kept his pipes going and was known as “Pipey”.
A humorous story from that time tells of him and his friend, Pipe Major ‘Big’ Donald MacLean from Lewis. Donald asked RSM MacLean, “Well John, and how is the pipe going?” My father replied, “She’s going so well, she’s speaking to me.” A Gaelic conversation, of course — in Gaelic a bagpipe is feminine.
In 1947, he married my mother Jessie Anne MacAulay in a Gaelic service at St. Columba’s Church, the Gaelic Cathedral, in Glasgow. The best man was ‘Big Donald’ and the piper was Pipe Major ‘Muc’ MacDonald (Benbecula) mentioned above.
Assaye Day commemorates the 1803 Indian battle in which the 74th Highlanders — forerunners of the HLI — played a prominent role. The day was celebrated in the HLI and on Assaye Day (September 23) of 1947, my father handed the Assaye colour to General Urquhart, in preparation for trooping the colour. It was a special occasion. Princess Margaret had become Colonel-in-Chief of the Regiment, and the HLI had been restored the right to wear the kilt. Major-General Urquhart joined the HLI in 1920 and had commanded the British 1st Airborne at Arnhem in 1944. In 1954 he became Colonel of the Regiment.
My father left the army in 1948 with 25 years outstanding service behind him, and became an employee of the Bank of Scotland. For the rest of his life, he was a judge at both solo and RSPBA competitions. He also taught individually and was tutor to the Glasgow Academy cadets’ pipe band for many years. He was also very much part of the Glasgow piping scene which included Robert Reid, Hector MacLean, Big Donald MacLean, Nicol MacCallum, Bob Hardie, Angus Morrison, Peter MacFarquhar, John MacDonald (South Uist), the MacFadyen brothers – John, Iain and Duncan – Ronald Lawrie, Seumas MacNeill, young Peter MacLeod, Peter Bain, Hector McFadyen (Pennygael), Donald MacLeod, and many more.
In 1956, he was one of three North: Uist pipers who were presented to Queen Elizabeth II after playing her ashore at Lochmaddy, and later playing for her at Locheport, during her first visit to the Outer Islands. My father kept closely in touch with his Uist background, speaking Gaelic whenever possible throughout his life, and was known as Seonaidh Aonghais Chaluim (John, son of Angus, son of Calum), his Gaelic patronymic. My brothers Angus and Donald, my mother, father and I would return home to the croft in Uist annually for summer holidays, my father sometimes judging at both the South and North Uist games.
When I started piping at concerts and ceilidhs when aged 11 or 12 in Glasgow, I remember him telling me, “Always play your best. There’s always, a piper in the audience or someone who thinks he’s a piper.”
He suffered from a stroke in the mid-1960s but this did not prevent him judging. In 1970 he was diagnosed with cancer and bore the last months of his life with his usual quiet, uncomplaining dignity. He died peacefully at home in 1971, the day before his 71st birthday, surrounded by his family.
At the next Scottish Pipers’ Association meeting in Glasgow, where he was a regular attendee, the audience stood in silence as Iain MacFadyen played a Gaelic slow air in his memory. There were huge attendances at both his funeral services in St. Columba’s, Glasgow, where he was a church elder, and at Carinish Church, North Uist. His coffin was draped in his Scots Guards Royal Stuart plaid with which he been presented when he left the Guards. His friend Pipe Major John MacDonald, formerly City of Glasgow Police who had retired home to South Uist, played the laments at both Carinish Church and at the graveside at Kilmuir, North Uist.
The Pipe Major John MacLean Memorial Trophy is the overall prize for Senior Piping at the North Uist games. As a family, we presented the trophy to the Games Committee in memory of a kind, unassuming, modest man with a wonderful sense of humour — described by many as “a real Highland gentleman”.
* First published in the December 2010 and January 2011 editions of the Piping Times.