Memoirs of Archie MacNeill, part 1


Archie MacNeill (1879-1962), is probably best known as the composer of Donald MacLean’s Farewell to Oban, The Detroit Highlanders, David Ross of Rosehall and a few other great tunes that have stood the test of time. Archie, though, was an important figure in piping and, in fact, could be regarded as the ‘grandfather’ of the College of Piping. He wrote prolifically for the Piping Times throughout the 1950s.

He also taught the boys in the 139th Company, Boys’ Brigade whose members included his own sons, his nephew Seumas MacNeill, Tommy Pearston, “wee” Donald MacLean, John Allan McGee, Willie Bryson and many other boys who would later go on to become well known in the piping scene of Glasgow after the war.

Archie dictated the following memories over a number of years in the 1950s. His close friend and companion at that time was Jimmy Taylor who lived near him in Royston Road, Glasgow. On most Sunday evenings Jimmy’s daughter used to go over to the ‘Old Rookery’ at number 17 and note down Archie’s memories as well as his comments on many aspects of piping. Archie was then in his early 70s and throughout his life he had been closely involved with piping.

However, he he asked that the ‘30 years rule’ should be applied and the memoirs not be published until the 1990s. They were serialised sporadically in the Piping Times from September 1992 to February 1995.

Archie MacNeill.
Archie MacNeill.

I was born in Lambhill Street, Govan in 1879. My father, Donald MacNeill, a seafaring man as many of the Highlanders were, was a native of the Island of Gigha. My mother, Jessie Napier, belonged to Kippen in Stirlingshire. After their marriage my mother had gone to Gigha to stay with my grandparents, since my father was a sea captain sailing all round the world and so away from home for long periods at a time.

My mother told me she took me back to Gigha where I was cradled in an orange box. The house was at Achnaha where my grandfather, Archie MacNeill, operated the ferry from Gigha to Tayinloan. He also on occasions ferried sheep from Jura to the mainland.

Three of his sons, John, Alick and Donald (my father) all followed the sea. My uncle John married Susanne MacSporran in Gigha and they had a daughter, Susanna, who died very young. After that they immigrated to Canada where my uncle John worked on a ship on Lake Erie. Later, bandits attacked a train that he was travelling on and, on refusing to hand over his valuables, he was shot dead.

There were six of the family altogether — John, Alick, Archibald, Margaret, Donald and Catherine. Tuberculosis (TB) must have been prevalent on the island of Gigha as my uncle John and my father were the only survivors of the family, the ‘remainder having died early in life with this dreadful disease. Margaret MacDonald MacNeill, my grandmother, who looked after the post office in Gigha, died in 1903 at the age of 91. My uncle Alick immigrated to Australia where he worked in a bank in Melbourne but he also died of TB. Although I never heard him play, he played the violin,

My uncle Archie, who was the minister in Sleat in the Isle of Skye for 10 years, was sent to South Africa to be cured but he died in Gigha on his return home. My aunts Margaret and Catherine both became schoolteachers, having graduated from the Normal College in Glasgow [later renamed Stow College, it is situated in the Cowcaddens part of Glasgow – Editor] but they both contracted the family malady and resigned their posts and went home to Gigha.

On Gigha there was only one piper at that time, a man MacQuilken (or Wilkinson) who was the lobster fisherman. But none of my family seemed to have played the pipes before me. I think in fact it must have been from my mother’s side that I took my love of music. Her father played the violin, also her brother, Sandy Napier, who made violins too. Eventually, I also learned to play the violin but that is jumping ahead.

An old photograph of part of Gigha.

I enjoyed my early days in Gigha for I had many cousins there. After some years, however, my father tired of the long voyages and decided to seek employment closer at home. He used to tell us of his many sea adventures and it must have been a very wild time for him. He sailed in ships before the days of steam and at one time held the world record for a trip from New Zealand to Britain — but the next ship in five days later beat him. He had also sailed his ship through the Magellan Straits, supposed to be one of the world’s stormiest places.

He got a job as captain of a steam yacht, the Nesta, belonging to people who had a big house on the Gareloch, so our family moved to Rhu where we were all brought up. There were six of us — I was the eldest then came Margaret, James, Sandy, Donald and Jessie.

Rhu on the Gareloch was a great place for boys. We stayed in a building which was called locally “the holy land,” because apparently some young minister had lived there at one time. The Gareloch was a quiet backwater in these days and my father had a rowing boat for which he had to pay the Duke of Argyll a penny stamp every year for permission to tie it up on the shore. We spent a lot of our time fishing, flying kites and all other kinds of ploys.

Being the eldest son it was intended that I should go into the ministry although I had no particular interest in this, and have even less now. In my last year at the village school I got four first prizes and a scholarship that gave me money and two years’ education at the Hermitage school in Helensburgh. There was no free education at that time but if there were six children of the same family then the eldest one got free. I had three miles to walk each way to school, which I did not mind.

Even then, however, there were signs that my eyesight was failing. When I was about ten years of age two cousins of mine came from Glasgow and we were playing at a game called the Queen of Sheba. I was supposed to be Solomon, visiting the Queen of Sheba and her maid. Two chairs were placed separated by a rug. I was invited to sit between them and they rose when I sat down on the rug, where there no chair. As they rose when I sat down I struck the back of my head on the lock of the door. It did not bleed but I was troubled with a sore head for days after it and when I looked at my school-book, small red streaks began to appear on the print. This was streaks of blood in my left eye. The right eye was quite good. My parents thought it was imagination. In other ways I was very healthy. In a few years my sight was not good enough to continue at school so I left when I was 14.

An old photo of Rhu. The name The name derives from the Scots Gaelic “rudha” meaning ‘point’.
Like many placess in the area Rhu became fashionable in the 19th century as a residence for wealthy shipowners and merchants from Glasgow.

Before this I had already shown a great interest in music, and particularly the bagpipe. My mother often told me that when I was very young if a wandering piper came through the village she had to go out looking for me because I would follow him wherever he went. My first introduction to a set of bagpipes was when she sent me a message to a friend’s house across the field in Rhu. The son of the house sat me down on top of a half set of bagpipes, and I jumped up with a fright when the drones of the pipes started to roar.

I must have been crazy about music as I remember buying a toy set of bagpipes in a shop for sixpence, and I went down to the point of Rhu and tried to play them. The first introduction to a practice chanter was when a lad from the Isle of Lewis came to stay with his uncle. He had a chanter minus a sole and the top of the mouthpiece was bound up with copper wire and he made himself a reed out of wheat straw, flattened at one end. It sounded very well to my ear at that time. The first tune I heard was a reel called The Black Haired Girl, a tune I have not heard for many years.

When I left school there were no good pipers within a distance of ten miles from our village, so it was some time before I had an opportunity to learn. I got a job working in a bookseller’s shop in Helensburgh, McNeur and Bryden, opposite the railway station, and a lad, Ben MacKinnon who also worked there took me up to his mother’s house and let me see a set of bagpipes. This was the first real close-up of inspection of this instrument. Incidentally, I met Ben 60 years later in Montreal when I was out visiting my son, Alec.

The book shop in Helensburgh where Archie worked.

After leaving this situation I got a job in a small steam yacht, belonging to Sir William Orr Ewing who was the tenant of Ardencaple Castle, halfway between Rhu and Helensburgh. One of my duties was to carry the dinner from the kitchen to the pantry and there I heard the pipes being played in the corridor. This was usually at a dinner during the shooting season, and the piper, named Roderick Fraser, had to send in a list of tunes for each course. The first tune he always played was The Grahams’ Gathering, better known as Atholl Highlanders, a 6/8 march. I would sit on the stairs while waiting to bring up the next course, listening to the piper playing up and down the corridor.

One of the incidents that amused me on this playing business, was when the piper marched round the dining room table the ladies and gents drank the health of Her Majesty, the men with one foot on the chair and the other on the table, touching each other’s glasses.

The piper, Roderick, who came from Evanton, Ross-shire, was a pupil of John Bàn MacKenzie. Roderick Fraser asked me one time, on finishing his duties, how I liked the pipes, and giving him a favourable reply he told me that if got a practice chanter and a book he would proceed to teach me the art. The chanter cost me 4/6d (23p) in Peter Henderson’s shop in Glasgow, and with this and MacPhee’s Tutor I started to learn to play the bagpipe. Along with a companion, a boy MacLeod from Lewis, we went up to his lodge at the front gate of the castle once a week to receive our tuition.

• To be continued.

• Part 2