Famous pipers: Black Will MacDonald

Black Will MacDonald

By Niall Graham-Campbell

Many of the famous and successful pipers have much written about them. As a change, I thought that I would like to try to create a favourable impression about a lesser figure in the piping world, Willie MacDonald or Black Will. In part, the reason behind this is that I felt he had been unfairly treated in Bridget MacKenzie’s book Piping Traditions of the North of Scotland.

I fear, from what is said about pipers, or sometimes left unsaid, that views on The Demon Drink have coloured the comments in that book. For example, there can be few other reasons for failing to give John Burgess at least a paragraph, if not half a page. He was a Gold Medal winner in 1950 and when I lived in the north of Scotland, he was one of those players for whom one would not leave a competition until after he had played, even if one had other pressing commitments.

Thus, Black Will is described as, “A terrible drinker” and “a crony of Malcolm MacPherson, who in turn, is described as a decent man but not a suitable companion for a restless boy, as he was a chronic alcoholic”. As Malcolm won the Gold Medal in Inverness in 1927, at which time Will would have been 14, I slightly wonder about the timing of the effect of Malcolm’s drinking on Will, although not in that case perhaps, the accuracy of the comment.

The Argay & Bonar Pipe Band in 1926. Ex-servicemen home from the First World War got together to play as a group. They were joined by friends and family. Initially, they wore their own kilts and uniform, giving their general wear jackets to the drummers. Left-to-Right: Angie Ross, Sleastry (later the Pipe Major), Unknown, Robbie Calder, Airdens, Willie Calder, Rhinamain, Alex Ross, Migdale Mill, Charlie Duff, Bonar (bass), Hector MacKay, Migdale, Unknown, Hector Ross, Migdale Mill, Black Willie MacDonald – circled – Invershin and Alister MacLaren, Ardgay.

My description of Willie would be of a lovely man with a wonderful musical talent … and who was indeed fond of a dram!

He was born in 1913, the youngest of ten. His father had been working as a shepherd at Achinduich just above Inveran) when he died. As the rest of the family had left home, Will was taken in by a bachelor neighbour, Jesse Mackenzie.

He was taught piping by Angus MacPherson and also by Angus’ talented son, Malcolm. There was quite a school of piping at Inveran at that time with visiting pipers such as G. S. MacLennan, Donald MacLeod, Willie Ross, and D. C. Mather, to name a few.

When some pipers returned home after the First World War they started playing together as an early version of the Ardgay and Bonar Bridge Pipe Band, although that was not officially formed until 1929, when a committee was formed, a uniform purchased, and Angus MacPherson approved as President. There is a photo of Black Will, aged 13, playing with the early group. It is dated 1926.

In 1939 Will joined up with the 5th Seaforths. With Charlie O’Brien, Andy Venters and others in it, they must have had a very good band. In the biography of Charlie, in Piping Traditions, a story is told of four pipers being detailed to play for the New Year celebrations in the Officers’ Mess, behind Peter Macdonald. The other pipers were Charlie, Ralph Macleod and Black Will, all of whom had already started celebrating. They were marching round the dining-room table in the Mess, which was a Nissen hut, when Peter caught a tassel in a hook in the roof girder. The column ended up marking time somewhat unsteadily until a steward unhooked the tassel.

The story I was told about the composition of The Highland Division at Akarit was well known in the locality. After the action at Akarit, the group, of which Black Will was a part, “liberated” an Italian Army stores depot, in which they found a quantity of Chianti. It seemed a pity to waste it. As a result, Will ended up on a charge.

Black Will’s tune as it appear’s in Willie Ross’s Book 4.

At the end of the North African Campaign, the 51th Highland Division was rested. Prior to the invasion of Sicily, a Divisional piping competition was held, to compose a tune to commemorate the battle. As recounted to me, the request was for a 6/8 march but the tune composed by Black Will was a 2/4 and so far ahead of the others that it won the competition. I had always thought that it was a piping interpretation of an existing (risqué) song but having searched extensively I now feel that others must have added the words afterwards.

This photograph was taken at Bonar Bridge Hall in 1956 when the band was presented with new drums and a mace. Back row: Alex Ross. Next row: Simon MacLeod, Black Will MacDonald, Pipe Major Sandy Murray, Jackie Denoon. Next row: Willie MacKenzie, Sandy Fraser, Sandy Wilkie, Ian MacKenzie, Drum Major John Matheson, Neil McConnell, Fraser Wilson, Willie MacKenzie. Front row: Ian Campbell, Balblair, Angus MacPherson, Achany, Unknown and Dr. Abner Anderson.

As a young man he was known for his love of dancing and in addition to local dances was an accomplished highland dancer. He did not speak much but was always singing canntaireachd and said by those who knew him at that time, to be immersed in our traditional music. He went back to playing with the local pipe band after the end of the Second World War and there are photos of him playing with them in 1953 for Coronation Day and in 1956 for the presentation of new drums to the band. He had retired from the band by the time I joined in 1964 but still followed proceedings.

Will was also loyal as a character. After the war, he was offered a job as a piper to a big house but turned it down because his foster-father, Jesse was old, ill and needed help. He said that as Jesse had taken him in when he was destitute, he would now stay with him until he died. When I knew him he was working on the local ‘Road Squad’ responsible for the road between my home and the office, so we frequently waved at each other.

The Invershin Hotel.

At the start of a typical evening in the Invershin Hotel, Will would sit in a corner playing the fiddle in a reasonably conventional manner with his left arm more or less parallel to the ground. He had a very large repertoire, as well as a good capacity for whisky, and as the evening progressed his arm would droop so that it rested against his chest but the music still seemed to flow out of him just as easily with the fiddle in that position. The whisky seemed to have no effect on the music.

Unfortunately, he was also a chain smoker and was very careless with the matches. After lighting a cigarette he was inclined to give the match a brief shake before chucking it away. He was well known for this but on returning from the pub one evening, did it once too often, throwing the match in the bin where it smouldered and caught fire later after he had gone to sleep in his chair. He got out but the house was completely destroyed.

Will was so popular locally that a collection was organised which raised enough money to buy him a caravan. This was placed on the same site, on the other side of the road from the graveyard at Inveran.

The band on parade for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, June 2, 1953. Left-to-Right: Pipe Major Angie Ross, George MacKenzie, Christie MacLeod, Willie MacDonald (Black Will), Willie Calder, Hamish Matheson (Clocksprings), Willie MaCKenzie, Sandy Murray, High Grant (who played on the day and who was Andrew Carnegie’s personal piper at Skibo Castle), Drum Sergt. Alex Ross, Sandy MacKenzie (Sandy Ken), John Matheson, Angie MacBain and Charlie Rattray. Photograph taken at the old football pitch at Ardgay (Hard Park).

After the fire he was taken in for a while by the MacKays of Invershin farm who had father and son playing with the Ardgay and Bonar Bridge Pipe Band at about this time. When I moved up to that part of the world in 1963, Will was already 50 and I was 24 so with differing ages and backgrounds I would never claim to have known him well. However, I did form an appreciative member of the audience, listening to him on the fiddle.

Will died in 1984 and is buried in the little graveyard at Inveran, not far from the grave of one of my sons who died in an accident when we lived in Sutherland. I was heartened to hear that one of my other sons had stopped, when driving past, last summer and played them a tune.

The band playing at Bonar Bridge in c1956. Front: Pipe Major Black Will MacDonald, Jackie Denoon, George MacKenzie, Sandy Murray. Second: Willie MacKenzie, Hamish Matheson, Unknown, Fraser Wilson. Rear: Alex Ross and Sandy MacKenzie.

• Thanks to Chris Duncan for the photographs.