The sound of the pipes will be ringing in the air tomorrow as eight of the best pipers in the world gather to celebrate one of Stornoway’s most famous sons in a unique competition.
The Americans have The Donald — and they can keep him, frankly — but we have the musical legacy of Wee Donald. Unlike the other one, who’s about as Hebridean as a genetically modified pineapple, Wee Donald is the real deal. A legendary piper, composer, tutor and Seaforth Highlander, whose musicality, prolific writing, sense of humour and general humanity makes him someone to be really proud of.
To give him his Sunday name, Wee Donald is Pipe Major Donald Macleod and the competition taking place tomorrow in the Caladh Hotel is the 23rd PM Donald Macleod Memorial Competition, which is organised by the Lewis and Harris Piping Society on an annual basis and regarded as a particularly special and prestigious event on the piping calendar.
Nowhere else in the world is there a piping competition that celebrates the music of a particular piper in that piper’s home town.
Wee Donald is arguably one of the most famous pipers of the 20th Century, having won all the major competitions in his day, including the Gold Clasp at the Northern Meetings eight times.
He was also a prolific composer who penned very many tunes, including around 30 piobaireachds.
When you consider that our entire collection of piobaireachds numbers around 320, written over some 500 years, that’s a pretty impressive contribution.
For those who don’t know, the brief potted history is that Wee Donald was born in Stornoway in 1916 and was initially taught to play the pipes by his father, then John Morrison, the renowned PM Willie Ross, and for 25 years by the famous John MacDonald of Inverness, who was the ninth generation of teaching tradition going back to Donald Mor MacCrimmon and the beginning of Highland Classical Music in Skye in the 17th Century.
Our Donald enlisted in the Seaforth Highlanders in 1937 and his record in the Second World War is well documented. He was captured at St Valery, after the Highland regiments were sacrificed by Churchill, and was being forcemarched to a prisoner of war camp when he managed to give the slip to the Germans (who called the kilted soldiers ‘the ladies from hell’, remember). Wee Donald was back in Fort George, near Inverness, by Christmas 1940. The following February, at the age of 25, he was appointed Pipe Major.
Like so many men of his generation who endured the horrors of war, he never really spoke about it, although Shen (my father, John Smith) recalls hearing him talking about it during a radio interview years ago. In his typically modest and humorous style, he quipped: “the Germans were throwing away the wee ones”. He wasn’t very tall, hence the nickname…
Wee Donald was a noted tutor and became famous for his inspirational teaching style as well as his compositions and incredible musicality as a performer, which is said to owe a lot to the Gaelic traditions and singing style of his homeland.
What makes the Donald Macleod Memorial Competition so special is the fact it takes place in the place of his birth. But what makes it so prestigious is largely the line-up: eight of the current best pipers in the world, who are invited to take part on the back of their success in competitions over the previous year.
This year (tomorrow) we will be seeing reigning winner Willie McCallum, Roddy Macleod MBE, Stuart Liddell, Finlay Johnstone, Angus MacCall, Callum Beaumont, Gordon McCready and John Angus Smith.
The Lewis and Harris Piping Society, who organise the event, make sure the pipers are well looked after and organiser PM Iain Murdo Morrison thinks the great Hebridean hospitality is part of what makes it such a good competition.
“We make them feel very welcome and we make them feel at ease. We treat them with passion and that’s what musicians in general terms like. It’s island hospitality.”
Everyone in the society has a huge fondness for Wee Donald. Chairman John Kennedy — seen here with all the trophies for various categories in the competition (apart from the main trophy, which the overall winner gets to keep for a year) is full of tales about him.
It might be more accurate to say John Kennedy — or John’s Da as we knew him, growing up, because he has a son also called John — is just full of tales. But on this occasion, the tales were all about Wee Donald, and I recorded some on my iPhone. He played a tune too — Flett of Flotta — on his electric chanter!
I even managed to get the video uploaded to YouTube (shared with you here, dear reader) and felt exuberantly pleased with myself until my husband said: “Darling, every 12 year old on the planet can upload to YouTube”. Well, that’s as maybe. But not every 41 year old…!
Pipe Major Iain Murdo Morrison, organiser of the competition and piping secretary of the society, is another person who holds Wee Donald very close to his heart — in no small part because Wee Donald actually tutored the young Iain in his 20s while he was stationed in Germany, and focussed on piobaireachd. Wee Donald would post tapes of instruction all the way to Germany from Glasgow.
“It started making sense to me,” said Iain. “I understood the way he was phrasing the tunes and the songs and I never looked back. It was absolutely out of this world.”
He added: “He’s renowned all over the world. If you listen to Scots music, you’ll hear two or three of Wee Donald’s tunes being played every day of life. There won’t be another one that will compose the many beautiful pieces of music like Wee Donald.”
Asked what Wee Donald meant to him, Iain said: “Everything — particularly coming from the island myself. What that wee man has taught the whole world means everything to me, hence the reason I take so much pride in trying to organise and continue this competition.”