By Seumas MacNeill
Archie MacNeill composed Donald MacLean’s Farewell to Oban in 1938 at a time when he was probably at his most prolific in producing tunes. That was the year of the ‘Crisis’ (which itself was responsible for the production of a tune by Willie Fergusson), the time when Europe was on the brink of World War II, when Hitler had taken over the Rhineland and Austria and was in the process of annexing Czechoslovakia.
It was at this time that Alex MacNeill, living in Montreal, decided to come home to Scotland to pay Archie a visit. Possibly he felt that he would like to see his father once again before the bombers did their worst, and although Archie was certainly glad of his visit it was he who chased him back to Canada at the end of the summer because he was certain that World War II was just about to break out.
It was a great summer that year. The sunny days were long and the piping seemed marvellous. The “Rookery” at 17 Royston Road was, as always, a centre of attraction for pipers, and more so because many of the top players in Glasgow had known Alex before he emigrated. Often on a summer evening there would be four or five players taking it in turn to entertain with what seemed to be the magic of their fingering. The routine was the same each time – a lot of piping, an adjournment for refreshments and then a return to the house for a little piping and a lot of talk.
On one particular evening three of us boy pupils were present – Alex MacLeod Lee, Tommy Pearston and myself. I am not sure who all the adults were but certainly they included John Allan MacGee, Donald MacLean, Alex and Archie, and possibly Duncan MacIntyre and my cousin, Donald. When all these had played a bit and then adjourned we three boys got a chance to show our moderate skills to one and other.
I happened to be playing when the men returned and as soon as they came in I broke into a new tune which Archie had composed and which I had written down for him and then learned. When I stopped there was a great rush to find out the name of the tune, since none of them had ever heard it before.
I was quite sure that if I said it was a new one by Archie they would all have praised it highly, so to get a true reaction I said this was something I had picked up off the playing of a tinker. They all then started to praise it as one of the best tunes they had heard in years, while Archie sat in his corner pleased as Punch, trying with great difficulty to keep from smiling his head off.
Eventually, of course, I told them whose tune it was, and if I remember correctly there was considerable support for a suggestion that they should adjourn again to celebrate the new tune, but things being as they were this was resisted.
A few weeks later at the Argyllshire Gathering, Donald McLean was playing in the March, Strathspey and Reel competition for former winners. Archie was leaning as far over the rope as was comfortable, trying without great success to hear every detail of this top competition. The difficulty for listeners was that the judges’ tent was placed immediately between the platform and the nearest part of the audience – I think John MacFadyen was the first to suggest that the judges should sit on the opposite side of the platform so that the spectators could hear better. He also asked for the tent to be taken away since the sun was shining brightly, but that was one of his poorer ideas because the rain came down very soon, the way it does at Oban.
Anyway, at the end of the competition Archie decided that Donald MacLean had played exceptionally well and so would probably win the event or at least be highly placed. When the result was announced Donald was not on the prize list. Archie made a point of getting a hold of him and commiserating with him, as is the habit of all pals and supporters of those who play well but don’t win. He finished up by saying “I don’t suppose you’ll ever come back to Oban again after that result, so I’m going to name that tune after you.”
So we got Donald MacLean’s Farewell to Oban. In fact, Donald returned to Oban many times after the war, since he was a strong believer in the ‘swings and roundabouts’ theory of piping results.
Incidentally, this was the Donald MacLean whose roots were in Oban but lived in Glasgow, not “big” Donald who hailed from Lewis.
• From the September 1988 Piping Times.
•Here is a recording of John Mulhearn playing the tune as part of a new YouTube series from The National Piping Centre.