Memoirs of Archie MacNeill, part 2

Archie MacNeill.

The first lessons MacLeod and I had from Roderick Fraser were often interrupted when he would send us into Helensburgh for a jar of beer, which he would consume with a pot of potatoes and salt herring boiled together, and being fortified with this he would then proceed to play to us various selections on the bagpipe.

It took me some time to acquaint my ear to the various sounds of the chanter, and I still remember that the octave high A was smothered by the drones. Fraser taught us to do the doubling of C with the two D gracenotes, as the late John MacColl of Oban played it, but he played this movement himself with the G and D gracenotes, which was a bit of a puzzle to me.

During the big yacht racing on the Clyde we would follow the race in the steam yacht, Fraser sitting on the one side of the funnel and Pipe Major Aitken sitting on the other side, playing selections turn about. This was to entertain the visitors on the boat.

In about a year’s time Fraser left the castle [Ardencaple] and this left us without a teacher. About a year later I left my job and started work as a gardener. My mother, who occasionally kept boarders, told me there was a new lodger coming to stay. His name was John MacGregor, from a village on Loch Fyne. One night as I was playing the chanter he complimented me on the progress I had made. He also told me that he had often played to Lord Archibald Campbell of Inveraray Castle. He was what we sometimes call an ear player, but he played the orthodox doublings.

Ardencaple Castle.

One day he told me he was going to send for his bagpipes and put a bag on them and teach me how to wind them. He was as good as his word, for about one o’clock on a Sunday morning I wakened with the sound of the pipes. I got out of bed and looked out of the window and there was MacGregor and a policeman playing the pipes round the shows that happened to be on the village green at the time.

When I was at Ardencaple Castle I had to stay with the engineer of the yacht, so as to be handy for my duties at the castle. His name was Donald MacDougall, a native of Jura. He had a wonderful set of reel size pipes, made by Fraser of Greenock. MacDougall told me that Fraser made 40 sets of the same pipes, full ivory mounted, costing £4.00 each set, which he sold to sailors coming into Greenock.

Fraser also supplied pipes to the Dumbarton Volunteers. The Pipe Major of this band was Murdoch MacLeod, a famous piper. Fraser’s pipe chanters were considered to be the best made at that time. Later I was told that Fraser destroyed all his tools when he went out of business, but there are still several of his pipes to be got here and there. They are quite modern in appearance.

After about a year’s time MacGregor departed from our village and I was left without a set of pipes to play. But I was still lucky as Murdoch MacDonald, a native of the Black Isle, came to Ardencaple Castle as the piper. He told me some queer stories about Alex MacKenzie, a piper who lived next door to him. The said MacKenzie used very queer gracenotes and he would not use the G gracenote on the birl at the end of the measure. It appears MacKenzie died at the age of 27 with a disease in the throat. He would run away from his work in the field in order to practice the pipes.

When I was in my late teens, the South African War broke out and Murdoch MacDonald, who was in the Militia, had to go to South Africa. He gave me a loan of his pipes until he came back. This was a set of Thow’s pipes made of cocus wood and full ivory mounted, costing £5.00. When I had been at the pipes about three years I began to fancy I could play, until John Wallace came to take charge of the boys in the CTS Empress. This was a training ship for delinquent boys and was moored for a long time in the Gareloch.

Left: The juvenile band produced by John Wallace on the CTS Empress. Right: an external view of the boat.

Within six months’ time Wallace had turned out a very fine juvenile band. He could also play the guitar well. I noticed that he played D gracenotes on C coming up and E gracenotes on A when going down. Likewise B and G in tunes such as Donald Cameron etc. This was the same method as later I heard G. S. MacLennan and G. S. Allan use. It takes a considerable amount of practice.

The first piobaireachd I heard was Too Long in This Condition, played by a piper from Alexandria who was down with a trip on our village green. I knew it was a piobaireachd but I did not know the name of it then. I had been across to hear the professional piping at Luss Games a year before. This was 11 miles over the hill from Helensburgh and my friend and I walked over in the morning and back at night. We were very anxious to see if we could learn anything from the competing pipers but when practising in the corners of the field they would keep turning round and round so that we would not see their fingers. However, after some patience we discovered that the majority played C with the little finger on. This would be about 1896.

Luss Games. Date uncertain.

In the summer of 1897, Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, Games were held at Helensburgh and many of the best known pipers turned up to compete, wearing all their medals. It was at these Games that I met J. A. Center from Edinburgh. He told me he was 29 years of age and the first year that he went round competing at the Games it cost him £50 and he hardly made a penny. In that time it seemed to be a case of serving your apprenticeship, and a young piper, no matter how well he played, never got a chance. I questioned Center that day about the C sharp. He told me that he never played it any other way except with the little finger on.

James A Center … played C with “the little finger on.”

The late John MacDonald of Inverness was also competing that day and his pipes went completely out of tune in the piobaireachd event. He told me that he had had no trouble all season with his pipes till he came to this damned place. Perhaps it was the sea air. Willie MacLean, who was also there, is the only competitor that I know who is still alive today. Incidentally, I entered for the piobaireachd competition and the judges asked which tune I was going to play. I replied, Seaforth’s Salute, and then I was told to play the ground and one of the variations, as that would be sufficient. Not much of an encouragement for a beginner. However, I played the whole tune from beginning to end, for I had paid my entry money and I could not see why I should carry out their instructions.

However, I was compensated by winning the local march, strathspeys and reel competition. One of the judges criticised my dress as I wore a heather coloured tunic instead of the usual black jacket with silver braid and buttons.

• To be continued.

• Memoirs of Archie MacNeill, part 1