Stories of the Tunes – Father John MacMillan of Barra


By Andrew Wiseman

Father John MacMillan photographed in the 1920s.

If it was not for one of the more catchy 2/4 marches ever to have been composed for the pipes then it is rather doubtful that Father John MacMillan of Barra, (Maighstir Iain Dhonnchaidh), would be so well remembered. Duncan Johnstone, the famous piper and composer – and nephew of Father John – told the tune’s background to Neil Angus MacDonald, a fellow piper and schoolmaster from Castlebay in Barra. Johnstone’s mother stayed in Glasgow and her next-door-neighbour was Norman MacDonald from Broadford on Skye, the piper who composed this well-known march. It so happened that MacMillan was in Glasgow visiting Duncan Johnstone’s mother when MacDonald, who was a regular visitor, called. He had just composed a new tune and played it for Father John, who was so taken by it that MacDonald decided to name it in his honour.

Born at Craigston, in the northern part of Barra, on May 8, 1880, MacMillan entered Blairs College, near Aberdeen, in 1894 and spent the next five years training for the priesthood. From there he went to France and the St Sulpice Seminary at Issy-les-Moulineaux. He was ordained by Bishop George Smith in the pro-Cathedral at Oban in 1903. After a period as an assistant at Oban, he was appointed to the charge of Eigg and the Small Isles, and later, in 1908, was transferred to Benbecula. During the period of his missionary work in that island the people regarded him with deep affection. He had a special interest in every member of his flock. Always travelling on foot he visited every family, and in later years the memory of his tall stately figure – he stood well over 6ft tall – was often recalled. It was there he had spent the most fruitful years of his life.

Following the First World War, many families from the southern Hebrides emigrated to Canada on the Marloch in 1923 and settled at Red Deer in the province of Alberta. MacMillan volunteered to emigrate along with them and remained in Canada for two years ministering to their spiritual needs. “There,” according to the famous writer, Compton Mackenzie, whom MacMillan had befriended one year at the Mòd in Inverness, “he had a great fight with the Canadian authorities, who he felt had not kept their side of the bargain and were inflicting unnecessary hardship upon the immigrants. In the end … they managed to get rid of a ‘turbulent’ priest.” Whether MacMillan was actually deported remains uncertain.

The beach at Allasdale, Barra, where MacMillan lived in retirement.

On his return he was placed in charge of Ballachulish, but after a few years was appointed to Northbay, Barra, and later on, in 1926, to his native Craigston, from which charge he retired through ill-health in 1943. MacMillan was remembered for his congenial personality and his almost childlike disposition. Mackenzie wrote: “His house was open to all visitors, and there were many who came from near and far. Year after year the young and old, of various creeds and callings, sought him in his island home. From him they learned much. None ever left his presence without feeling in some measure the benefit of converse with him. He had a keen sense of humour; his laughter was infectious. Rarely or never was there a biting word.”

Seonaidh Roidein (John MacDonald) with Father John MacMillan. 1930s.

Compton Mackenzie (1883-1972) is perhaps best remembered today for his novel, Whisky Galore, subsequently made into an Ealing comedy. In 1933 Mackenzie moved to Barra and eventually set up home at Suidheachan in Eoligarry just beside the airport on Tràigh Mhòr. Over the years both men would enjoy each other’s company. Mackenzie eventually based the character of Father James Macalister, who appears in Keep the Home Guard Turning (1943) and Whisky Galore (1947), on MacMillan. The Barra priest was very proud to have a fictionalised version of himself to appear in print. David Boyle wrote in the Piping Times of November 1993 (Vol. 46, No. 2): “His presence at ceilidhs throughout the Western Isles ensured a large turn out … He had an exceptionally fine singing voice and sang in the Albert Hall in London in the presence of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (then Duke and Duchess of York).”

Of the many people who visited him one person in particular was the collector Calum MacLean [brother of Sorley – Editor] who took a lively interest in the priest who was known for his store of oral traditions. In January 1947 MacLean visited MacMillan, then living in retirement in Allasdale (Allathasdal) on the west coast of the island, and recorded a great deal of songs from his recitation.

On another occasion in the company of Séamus Ennis (1919-1982), a renowned musicologist and expert uilleann piper, MacLean visited MacMillan, who was greatly pleased by the virtuosity of the Irishman’s performance. MacLean later recalled his visit to MacMillan with the following words: “I did return again to Barra, for one rarely fails to do that. I came at the request of Father John MacMillan … He is now almost 70, but he still sings well and is also a veritable mine of traditional lore. It was a short visit, but in one day alone I recorded over 30 songs from Father MacMillan. One was a very beautiful song addressed to Prince Charlie, a song which tradition ascribes to Flora MacDonald. Many of Father MacMillan’s songs are now known to him alone. He heard them in Barra, Uist, Benbecula, and in Eigg over 40 years ago from people who have long since returned slowly to dust. Barra has many people of whom it can feel justly proud. Father John MacMillan is certainly one of them.”

Due to his great interest in his own native culture, MacMillan was not slow in lending his hand to support various organisations that were founded to try and stem the decline of the Gaelic language and heritage. He took a lively interest in all movements organised for the preservation of Gaelic or of Gaelic lore. He was a bard of no mean repute, and some of his compositions continue to be sung wherever Gaels foregather the world over. Folklorist John Lorne Campbell, wrote: “Doyen of all these [the leading Gaelic scholars of the day] was Father John MacMillan of Barra … great in heart and in body, a wonderful preacher in Gaelic and a true poet.”

Father John pictured in the late 1940s.

MacMillan composed a eulogy to Father William MacKenzie and perhaps his most famous song is Fàilte do Bharraigh (Welcome to Barra). He also wrote Mo Shoraidh le Eige (My Farewell to Eigg) and Seòlaidh Mise A-null gu Dùthaich Chaomh Mo Rùin (I’ll Sail Over to the Country of My Love), another song in praise of Barra that was composed to mark his return from his sojourn in Canada. The love for the island of his birth is perhaps best seen in a piece that he composed during his autumnal years where MacMillan drew inspiration from the scenery of Barra’s western coastline in sight of his last resting place:

When I draw my very last breath,
And throw off this mortal coil,
Gathered among those who are no longer
I will gain the far shore of virtues.

Finally succumbing to a series of heart-attacks on June 1, 1951, MacMillan died in his 72nd year, and nearly 50 years of his priesthood. Such was the affection and esteem that he held among the islanders that 1,200 mourners attended his funeral. At his Requiem Mass, the funeral oration was presented by Father Joseph Campbell. They came from the neighbouring islands of Eriskay, South Uist and Benbecula, and took part in the procession led by Neil Angus MacDonald along with five other pipers which wended its way through the townships of Craigston and Borve to St. Brendan’s churchyard on the outer fringe of the western shore of his native island where he was laid to rest beside his ‘spiritual father’ the Rev. William MacKenzie.

Compton Mackenzie was much grieved by his passing and, though he could not attend the funeral because of work commitments, he wrote a fitting inscription for his dear friend:

“Here rest all that is mortal of John MacMillan who for many years was the parish priest of Craigston. He loved alike the language of his forefathers and the conversation of his fellowmen. Out of the abundance or his vitality he gave so much to life. Priest, poet, and humanist, of all the sons of Barra none was better loved. He was born on May 11th 1880 and died on June 1st 1951. He lies at last where he wished to lie beside the ocean, and may Almighty God grant him eternal peace.”

Norman MacDonald as a youngster and, inset, later in life. He published the tune as John MacMillan of Barra because he believed the religious aspect of the subject would discourage some from playing it.

Norman MacDonald was born in Greenock in 1898, writes Jeannie Campbell. Both his parents were from Skye, his mother Mary Anderson from Torrin and his father Murdoch from Camastianavaig. Norman learned his piping in Greenock but the identity of his teacher is not known. He worked as a boilermaker in the Greenock shipyards before emigrating to Australia in the 1930s, where he played with the City of Adelaide Pipe Band. After a few years he returned to Scotland and he lived in Glasgow until his death in 1958.

He had a great interest in Scottish culture and spoke and read Gaelic. Another of his interests was sport, especially boxing. He was very involved with piping in the Glasgow area and he played in several pipe bands, including the Clan MacRae. In the late 1940s and early 1950s he worked as a piper at Butlin’s Holiday Camp in Ayr for a few seasons.

Norman was a committee member of the Scottish Pipers’ Association for many years and a regular attendee and player at the weekly Club nights. His piping friends included Peter MacFarquhar, Donald MacLeod, Peter Bain, Duncan Johnstone, Kenny MacDonald’s family and the MacFadyen family.

After composing the tune Norman was asked by Duncan Johnstone if it could be named for his mother’s brother who was staying with them at the time. Norman, though, was not keen on the religious aspect of the name as he thought it would discourage many pipers from playing it, so when the tune was first published – in Donald MacLeod’s Book 1 (1954) – it was titled simply John MacMillan of Barra. When it later appeared in Duncan Johnstone’s book it had ‘Father’ in the title.

Norman, to the left of the Pipe Major, with Adelaide Pipe Band. Right: Iain MacDonald.

Norman MacDonald is now best known to us as a composer. Clearly, his most popular tune is the famous march named for Duncan Johnstone’s uncle but other excellent tunes of his include Broadford Bay, The Twins, Donald Cameron’s Pipes and Kenny MacDonald’s Jig. After Norman died his pipes were passed on to Kenny MacDonald.

Norman’s nephew, Iain MacDonald, Clydebank, is a piping enthusiast who attends many piping events in Glasgow and beyond. He supplied much of the information given here.

• First published in the June 2017 edition of the Piping Times.

• Watch Inveraray & District play Father John MacMillan of Barra after marching off the field as World Champions at the 2019 World Pipe Band Championships (fast forward to 3:10):