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Updated 05/09/2013


Pipe Major Donald MacLean of Lewis
Pipe Major Donald MacLeod, M.B.E

Pipe Major Donald MacLean of Lewis (1908-1964) (shown above) was known variously as “Big Donald MacLean” and “Donald MacLean of Lewis,” as recalled in Donald MacLeod’s popular 6/8 march. References in piping books to “Pipe Major Donald MacLean” are generally to him.
Born in 1908, his interest in the pipes began in 1916 when his older brother Murdo took up the instrument to help in the recovery of a lung wound suffered in the Great War. Donald borrowed his brother’s chanter and soon both were being taught by Peter Stewart of Barabhas.

He joined the Seaforth Highlanders at age 18 in 1926 and was posted to Aldershot, where he came under the strong influence of Pipe Major, D. R. MacLennan, half-brother of the famous G. S. In 1931, while a Corporal with the 1st Seaforths, he earned his Pipe Major’s Standard Certificate at the Army School of Piping under Willie Ross and became pipe major of the 2nd Battalion Seaforths in 1936 – the youngest pipe major in the British army at that time. His piping pedigree would also include piobaireachd studies with Angus MacPherson, son of Calum Piobaire. Donald MacLeod started him on piobaireachd during the war as a way to strengthen his fingers for light music playing. Big Donald became later became particularly well known as a march player.

On June 12, 1941, he, along with the likes of Donald MacLeod, John Wilson, George McIntyre and many other pipers in the 51st Highland Division, were captured in France at St. Valery. He would spend the next five years as a prisoner of war in Germany and Poland. It was during this time that he wrote his famous competition march “Major David Manson at Clachantrushal” on a practice chanter borrowed from fellow piper Alex Craig. David Manson was a retired officer of the Canadian army who worked as a Glasgow silversmith. He had visited Donald’s home before the war and gave him a set of engraved silver pipes. “Clachantrushal” refers to a monolith – said to be the largest standing stone in Scotland – that stands near the home.
At war’s end he took over the Scottish Command School of Piping, then moved to the Highland Brigade training school, finally retiring from the army in 1948 after 22 years. Though he was famous in military piping circles, he was little known outside of that realm. This changed dramatically in the years following the war. As Seumas MacNeill wrote in his 1964 Piping Times obituary of Donald MacLean, “Those of us who had heard of him only vaguely were amazed to find that he was a piper of the very first rank."

"It is probably true to say that many of the competitions following the cessation of hostilities were completely dominated by Pipe Major Donald MacLean.”

He was renowned for his powerful fingers and robust instrument, which only he could blow. MacNeill again: “His instrument was a legend itself and few pipers could blow it. Those who did were never quite the same afterwards.”
He won the Gold Medal at Oban in 1951 with “MacDonald’s Salute” and at Inverness in 1953 with “Black Donald’s March,” and later become a regular adjudicator at the games and major gatherings. In 1954 he visited Canada with dance-band accordionist Bobby MacLeod at the request of the B.C. Pipers’ Association and was a huge success.
He was an excellent Highland dancer, and he taught piping and dancing in Skye for some years before being offered the job of managing instruments at the R. G. Lawrie company in Glasgow. Ads for this company during the 1950s and 1960s feature Donald MacLean’s iconic photo, unmistakable because he played with his right hand on top. If there was a 'Best Dressed Piper' award at a games he attended, he usually won it.
On August 29, 1964, after attending the Cowal games, he collapsed on the street in the town of Innellan near Dunoon. Resuscitation efforts failed and he died before the ambulance arrived. He was 56.

Pipe Major Donald MacLeod (shown above) was born in 1916 in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, in the Scottish Hebridean Islands. He was initially taught the pipes by his father, “Doyle”, and went on to be tutored by P/M Willie Ross then John MacDonald, Inverness with whom he studied for 27 years. John Morrison of Assynt House was a benefactor to many young people in Stornoway and district; it was he who took Donald to the Northern Meeting for his first major junior competition, which he won.

He enlisted in the Seaforth Highlanders in 1937 and his Pipe Major was the well known late D. R. MacLennan. Donald was promoted to pipe major after only four years. During World War II he served in France with the 51st Highland Division, was taken prisoner by the Germans at St. Valery, escaped during a forced march and eventually managed to return to the UK. In 1945 he piped his battalion across the Rhine during an assault crossing - even though he had been advised not to do so by his commanding officer.

During his army career he was highly successful in piping, winning all major competitions. He retired from the army in 1962 and from competition in 1966, he then went on to judge young people and major adult competitions. He especially enjoyed judging at the junior competitions, often held in the local school.

The Glasgow based Scottish Pipers’ Association, each year in November, invited Donald and Duncan Johnstone to give an evening recital. It was always a very popular event and in 1977 Donald decided it was to be his farewell appearance, it was a very memorable evening.

He published six books of light music covering all types of composition, many of which are modern classics. He also published a collection of piobaireachd.

Composing always seemed effortless to him. He had a love of the countryside and of nature as the titles of many of his tunes imply. The tunes would be almost complete in his mind before he reached for a sheet of manuscript or paper, whichever was at hand. While still a competitor at the Northern Meeting, where the Jig was the final competition, the competitors were waiting for the Judges to complete their deliberations; Donald picked up a programme and began writing, a short time later, as the results were announced, he had composed a Jig which he aptly named “The Judges’ Dilemma."

He was awarded the Membership of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1978 for outstanding service to piping.

The Donald MacLeod Memorial Competition, which was established from an idea by Pipe Major Iain Morrison of Lewis, is an invitational competition held in Stornoway and celebrates Donald’s life and work. Started in 1994 by the Lewis & Harris Piping Society, it was instituted to honour “Donald Macleod, one of the best all-round pipers of the 20th century“. In addition Donald is considered one of the century’s best composers. The pipers are chosen from the best competing pipers in the world, making it a very successful and popular competition.