Stories of the Tunes – Road to the Isles

Craighouse, with the Paps of Jura in the distance. John MacLellan’s mother was born close to here.

Road to the Isles was composed by John McLellan of Dunoon in 1891 when he was a young boy of 16. However, he called it The Bens of Jura.

McLellan’s mother, Mary Darroch was born at Keils in Jura, and his father, Neil McLellan, came from the nearby island of Islay. Keils, which used to be called Kilearnadill is a tiny clachan (hamlet) situated at the southern end of the island, next to the main settlement, Craighouse.

Mary and Neil moved to the mainland and were married at Greenock on June 2, 1869. They settled in Dunoon where Neil was employed as a carter (a driver of horse-drawn vehicles for transporting goods). Their son, John was born on August 8, 1875, one of a family of six children. Neil died in 1882 aged only 40 and Mary took the children back to her home island of Jura for a time but, eventually, they returned to Dunoon. 

John and his brother, Neil Jnr. were both pipers but it is not known where they received their early tuition. It may have been that they learned in Jura during their time there or it may have been after the family returned to Dunoon.

John – Jock – McLellan D.C.M., Dunoon (1875-1949).

In 1892, at the age of 17, John went to Glasgow and joined the 71st Highland Light Infantry. Two years later, he sailed with the regiment to Malta, the first of many foreign voyages. At his departure, the famous Bens of Jura suffered the first of many name changes when, at the request of his fellow regimental pipers it was re-christened The 71st’s Farewell to Dover. The name did not stick, though, and it resorted to The Bens of Jura.

In fact, throughout all the changes of name inflicted on the tune, it is apparent that John himself took little part. About 1902 it became temporarily, The Highland Brigade’s March to Heilbron and then later The Burning Sands of Egypt. It is probably best known as The Road to the Isles but the composer never referred to it other than The Bens of Jura.

The tunes remains very popular with pipers and non-pipers alike. It is a very attractive melody and it wasn’t long before someone put words to it. Singer and music colelctor, Marjory Kennedy-Fraser (1857-1930), pictured, toured the Western Isles of Scotland in the summer of 1917, collecting local tunes as she travelled. On Barra she heard Malcolm Johnson play McLellan’s tune on a practice chanter. Poet, Kenneth MacLeod then wrote the words and published the song later that year in his book, Songs of the Hebrides.

Seemingly, the tune was played by Bill Millin, piper to Simon Fraser, 15th Lord Lovat, during the first day of the Normandy Landings (D-Day) in June 1944.

A number of parodies have been based upon the tune, notably Billy Connolly’s Leo McGuire’s Song and The Corries’ Scottish Holiday.

The score as it appears in Logan’s Collection.