I suppose most families have long-gone relations who’ve had unusual character traits, notable exploits or outstanding talents, and whose stories get passed down the generations. Alasdair Mearns is a piper from Rogart, in Sutherland, and he has a distant relation with a very colourful history, but also has possession of a set of pipes made by this relative from the wood of a wagon that crossed America and a book of his tunes.
The man in question was his great-grandfather’s nephew, Donald Sutherland, born in 1888 and who lived in Rogart until his early 20s when adventure took him across the world. Donald was working on the roads when he got notice that his immigration papers had come through. Alasdair explains: “The place he was working is called Craigton, or in Gaelic, Creagach an Nathrach. The road to Craigton goes well over 1000 feet. They were working on that road, breaking metal as they called it at the time, the stones and stuff. Hard, hard work. Apparently the postman came with Donald’s papers that he could go and he just downed tools and left, saying ‘I’m oouta here’. He was just so fed up with the way things were. It was a tough life and he saw another chance. He had an older brother Neil, who was out in Billings, Montana, where an awful lot of people from the Highlands had gone, and I believe this is where Donald eventually joined him.”
Donald did not go straight to America, and his 1922 application for a United States passport shows that he travelled to America from Peru in 1913. “He worked as a sheep farmer in Peru for a little while,” said Alasdair. “Seemingly he had a favourite chanter which he lost somewhere in the mountains of Peru. We have always wondered if somewhere there are Peruvians who can take a tune out of a chanter because they found it and thought they’d have a go at it. Donald also lived in Australia for a while. I spoke with Mrs Johan Sutherland, the widow of Donald’s brother Andrew who is still alive at 95, and she said that he had a watchmaker’s shop in Australia.”
The intrepid traveller seems to have been a man of many talents and hit the headlines in his youth for his athletic prowess. “He was just a notable person,” reveals Alasdair. “There was a report about him in the Northern Times in Golspie, in which he was described as the Rogart Hercules. They have a section looking back to 100 years ago and it mentions his winnings as a heavyweight athlete in the Highland Games, which one of his brothers was also really well known for. His brother, John William, who also went to America, held records at the Halkirk Games that stood for decades. Donald was just a man of many talents, in fact the whole family were.”
It is not known who taught Donald to play the pipes but it seems there were plenty of pipers in the Rogart area and they all learned from and influenced each other. “I did ask Johan where did all these people learn, and she said it was just that there was lots of pipers in Rogart. It was like, I like what you’re doing there, and you’d show me a wee bit and then maybe someone else would. There just seemed to be loads of pipers.”
The last time Donald Sutherland visited Scotland was in 1938, and then he settled and lived the rest of his life in America. He was married twice and still has family there. Alasdair added: “There is certainly family from a second marriage: relations there I’ve never met, but I know that the Sutherland family in Rogart, from whom I got the pipes, are in contact with them from time to time. There are also relations in Nova Scotia as well.”
The set of pipes bequeathed to Alasdair have an interesting story about their creation. The wood and metal for the pipes came from an old trailblazers’ wagon that Donald came across on a farm in Oregon. The pipes came into Alasdair’s possession via a nephew of Donald Sutherland, Mr Neil Sutherland.
Alasdair picks up the story: “When Donald died they were sent to his nephew, Bert Sutherland, in Rogart. Bert and I have been quite close over the years and just before Bert died we had been talking about putting the pipes into a museum. Bert died at the very start of 2008, and after a while I had a word with his brother Neil, from Rogart, and said ‘look, do you remember that Bert and I were chatting about maybe looking for a home for his pipes’. And Neil said ‘Look just take them. They’re sitting in a corner rotting in a box, not doing anyone any good. If you can look after them, you take them’. And his mother Johan, was there at the time just said ‘well make sure you don’t sell them’. So that’s how I ended up with the pipes.
“I think the pipes are made of oak. In fact, that’s what Hugh Cheape thought when he had a look at them as well, and the interesting thing about them is the oak came from the tongue of a covered wagon that crossed to Oregon with the settlers. There’s a chanter with them and at the bottom of the chanter it says ‘Donald Sutherland Glide, Oregon 1962’. Bert Sutherland told me that the pipes crossed America twice – ‘once as a covered wagon and once as a set of pipes. Even the metal came from the fittings that were on the wagon’. If you look inside the drone, the tuning slides are lined with metal. Donald made a really nice job of them.
“The only thing he didn’t make was the chanter, he ordered that from a company in Canada. I was trying to get the original chanter going but I found it awful squeaky. I really didn’t have the time or the reed resources to sit down and get it going so I just stuck my modern chanter in it… I’m not sure that that’s a good thing because my feeling is the pipes would be happier a lot flatter than the modern pitch. I’ve stuck in an old set of ezeedrones and I had to screw the nut right in to get them as sharp as I possibly could and they’re still tuning quite low. They squeak when they start, though if you touch the drones they’ll go all right, I think they’ve got the proverbial neck squeeze to get up to modern pitches and they just don’t like it.
“The one other thing that may have some relevance to the Oregon pipes is that Donald Sutherland also had a set of pipes which, if the stories be true, were said to have been played at The Battle of Waterloo. These pipes presently belong to a cousin of mine. I did have a chance to look at them for a wee bit and I thought I would try putting the drones into the stocks of my modern pipes to see how the drones sound. And they wouldn’t go in to my modern pipes. They were too big to go in, and to make a long story short, I can’t get the drones of the Oregon pipes into my modern stocks either. So I wonder, did Donald take his sizes and his bores for the Oregon pipes from those old pipes.
“Hugh Cheape has seen pictures of these old pipes and he dated them, owing to certain external features, probably about 1830 which would obviously be too late for Waterloo but at the same time, stamped on the drones is DC Cameron Dundee. However, the Cameron in Dundee that Hugh knew of at that time had different initials so perhaps they were made earlier by the father, I don’t know.”
The Oregon pipes are not the only artefact Donald Sutherland has left to his family, or indeed the wider piping community. In the 60s, Hugh Macpherson Highland outfitters in Edinburgh published Donald Sutherland’s Collection of Highland Bagpipe Music. In the preface to the book, Hugh Macpherson writes:
“This unique pipe music book compiled in the United States by Donald Sutherland, a native of Rogart, contains some very attractive tunes, which will appeal to pipers in all parts of the world. It has been a labour of love, because, like so many Rogart men, Donald Sutherland reared in a lovely Highland parish, thrills to the sound of the piob mhor, which is all the sweeter when one is six thousand miles from home.
“I am particularly pleased to publish this music book, because Donald Sutherland and my father, Robert A. Macpherson, were boyhood friends in Rogart, and, indeed in their early days, were heavyweight athletes of no mean prowess.
“To all those who have assisted, Donald Sutherland expresses his sincere thanks. He is particularly indebted to Pipe-Major Donald Shaw Ramsay, B.E.M. for his helpful advice.”
The last time Donald visited Scotland was in 1938 so he must have sent these tunes across for Hugh Macpherson to publish, and it seems that he was in regular correspondence with Donald Shaw Ramsay. “Donald Sutherland seemed himself to be pretty strong on 6/8 marches although he did produce a couple of piobaireachds as well,” said Alasdair. “There are a few jigs in there by him, and a few 2/4s but other tunes in the book, like the MSRs, tend to be credited to other players. The 6/8s are kind of interesting: they’ve got kind of a nice bounce to them. There are also a lot of tunes in there by Donald Shaw Ramsay, so there must have been some coming and going between the two of them. I think Donald Shaw Ramsay was in the West Coast of the States for a while as well, but I’m not exactly sure.
If pipe bands were looking for something a wee bit different, particularly in the medley sections, they could find something of interest in the Donald Sutherland Collection, but they may have to adapt the tunes somewhat to suit pipe band competition.
“With the amount of work that’s in the tunes, I don’t think you could play them at modern tempos. You’d have to hold back a wee bit, maybe even if I may say, play in a more Highland style. I associate the quicker tempos with the players from the south more than the north. Maybe that’s a personal prejudice,” Alasdair said.
Unfortunately, Alasdair is the last Scottish relative of Donald Sutherland who plays the pipes, and Donald’s nephew, Bert Sutherland now deceased, played the Button Accordion. “Bert was a five row box man and a superb player,” said Alasdair. “I played the small pipes along with him, and tried my best to keep up with his encyclopaedic memory of tunes — I just couldn’t believe it.”
However, thanks to Alasdair’s hard work and research, the story of Donald Sutherland’s pipes and tunes is now being passed on to future generations and also among the local community. He has been doing his bit to keep the family heritage alive by playing concerts featuring Donald’s tunes and pipes and telling the story of the pipes made from the wagon that crossed America.
By John Slavin. First published in Piping Today magazine #40 in 2009.