After the war in South Africa, Murdoch MacDonald returned to the castle [Ardencaple Castle] and he was supplied with a new set of Henderson pipes. He was always fussy about his pipe chanter reed and never seemed to get one to please him. One night he told me he would send to his old Pipe Major in Fort George, and in due course he received a reed which was a beauty. He played it till it fell in halves.
Shortly after this, I took scarlet fever and was ten weeks in hospital. On going back to my work I received ten weeks’ wages, which was a real windfall. I went up to Glasgow and ordered a black ebony and full ivory set of pipes costing £8.00 and I was given two sets of drone reeds thrown in. My son, Alex still plays them in Canada although they are now silver mounted.
I would practice every spare minute that I could get. By this time my first teacher, Roderick Fraser, had got a situation at Clynder and I would go across the ferry to Rosneath and walk up to Clynder for my lessons. Incidentally, the ferryman would let me cross for nothing as long as I played him a tune. It was there I met James Johnstone from Islay, who was a blacksmith at Rosneath and later well known among the Glasgow pipers.
John Wallace had a house in the village of Rhu where he stayed when not on duty on the ship. I had heard about him previously before he came to Rhu. He had been competing at a competition at Clydebank, where there were many good pipers and enthusiasts at that time. One newspaper described Wallace as the hoary headed amateur champion piper of Scotland. In that competition he was beaten by a boy from Govan, I think a lad named Gowans.
Some years later I went to a competition in Clydebank and all the competitors had to play a tune off a sheet of music that they had never seen before. This turned out to be a flop, as the majority of the pipers played mostly from memory and they could not get the timing of the tune reading from the music.
Wallace was a man in his prime of life when I first knew him. He told me he was a native of Stirling. He was dark haired and had a slight stoop and what my brother considered to be a piper’s nose, sort of semi-Roman. He was also a Highland dancer, a pupil of John MacNeill a famous dancer from Edinburgh. Later on, I got lessons from Wallace on the Highland Fling, Sword Dance, etc. He was only a few years on the CTS Empress and I believe he lost his employment through running away to compete at the highland games. [Wallace was actually born in Edinburgh although he had served in the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders where he was tutored by Pipe Major Robert Meldrum. Seemingly, he was a pupil of John MacDougall Gilles later. Wallace is the composer of Heights of Dargai and The Circassian Circle. Below is the score a tune he composed for the ship he worked on for a few years.– Editor.]
At the Helensburgh Games in 1897 they had special events because of the Queen’s Jubilee. There was a balloon ascent and a demonstration of tent pegging by some of the Lancers. Nearly all the famous pipers were there and again many of them wore their medals. I remember speaking to Angus MacRae, MacDougall Gillies, John MacColl, J. A. Centre, G. S. MacLennan, John MacDonald of Inverness and D. Macpherson, piper and athlete, and many others.
After I learned the Sword Dance from Wallace he suddenly disappeared. I had heard he got a job in the Caledonian School in London. He came back on a visit to Helensburgh two years later and competed at the games but I noticed then he did not play as well as he had done previously. He told me the reason was being away and not hearing the other pipers and this caused deterioration. He offered his pipes to me to play in the local competitions but I could hardly sound the pipe chanter. It was so strong to blow. He died in London after this and it may have been blowing too strong a pipe that caused his death.
I have always been of the opinion that the piper has always been a poorly paid man in comparison with other musicians. Occasionally, I would get a pound to play at a regatta or a fête, and a pound was quite a sum of money at the turn of the century. The average labourer’s wage then was about 17 or 18 shillings (85 or 90p) per week.
In 1900 came my personal disaster with the loss of my sight. I had just turned 21 years of age and one night as I was going to bank up the fires in the hothouse I took a dizzy spell and fell. The next morning when I went out I could see the steamer coming up the Gareloch but could see practically nothing unless I looked downwards towards the ground. This was a clot of blood coming over my sight. I believe it is called choroiditis, or a floating body of blood. I attended the eye infirmaries but I was told nothing could be done about it. So I had eventually to give up my job. Some of the local gentry proposed to have me sent to the Normal College in Glasgow to learn the organ, but 17 years of age was the limit to entrants at that time.
The loss of sight means, as a rule, a great financial disaster and so it was with me. Occasionally, I would still get a job playing at weddings, funerals and other functions and sometimes I would be engaged to play at Ardencaple Castle when there was a big dinner on.
This often happened during the grouse-shooting season. For this I was paid ten shillings (50p) and a good supper thrown in.
Eventually, I had to give up hope of earning a living in this way and when I was 21 I had to leave Rhu to go to Glasgow in order to serve an apprenticeship at brushmaking in the Blind Asylum.
The conditions of this place were anything but encouraging. I was to be paid ten shillings a week for the first year, 12 shillings a week for the second year but it would still take 17 years before I would be able to earn 18 shillings a week, The reason for this was that the parish where the blind person came from paid his wages for the first year then the following year, after having worked 12 months, the parish deducted so much of those wages each year until the first year’s money had been paid back.
The manager of the Blind Asylum had a salary of £925 per year. Eventually, things got so bad that through the National League of the Blind, the Co-operative Society, the miners’ and the other union organisations the whole set-up was changed. In 1918, after I had worked there for 17 years, we came out on strike and paraded in the city until we could arouse the interest of the general public in the conditions in which the blind people had to work. Things were greatly improved after this and I am happy to say they improved even more after the Glasgow Corporation took over the welfare of the blind. The wages were increased to the average outside labourers’ money.
I knew very few pipers when I first came to Glasgow. However I happened to be playing my pipes one evening at the back of the Blind Asylum institution when a man came up and spoke tome and invited me to his home. He was Neil Sutherland, a native of Lairg in Sutherlandshire and a piper of sorts. He was my first friend in Glasgow and I am happy that years later I was able to compose a strathspey for him. His son, also called Neil, became quite well known in Canada. He immigrated and became Pipe Major of the Winnipeg Police pipe band.
In a short time, Neil had introduced me to many of the noted pipers in Glasgow.
There were two or three pubs where the piping fraternity met, one in Carrick Street and another in the Townhead. It was there that I met Danny A. Campbell of Glendale, Willie Robb and Michael MacNeill who I believe taught D. A. Campbell.
I would order a half of quinine wine, as I could not afford to spend money on drink at that time.
* To be continued.