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Updated 04/26/2013


Donald MacLean's Farewell to Oban
Archibald MacNeill

Donald MacLean's Farewell to Oban was composed by Archibald MacNeill, a blind piper from the island of Gigha. It is said (perhaps apocraphylly) that Donald Maclean came to Oban to compete for a piping trophy, but when his performance failed to inspire the judges to award him a prize commensurate with his own perceptions of his skill, he left in a huff. Musicologist and indexer Charles Gore has remarked that Scottish accordion player Phil Cunningham brings Shetland fiddler Aly Bain to Oban on occasion and they play - as an encore - "Donald McLean's Farewell to Oban" with a couple of "bum notes" thrown in at carefully chosen intervals, perhaps "to illustrate his distemper...or maybe it's an indication that he (MacLean) wasn't that good and the judges were right."

Oban (An t-Oban in Gaelic meaning Little Bay) is a resort town in Argyll and Bute, Scotland. Despite its small size, it is the largest town between Helensburgh and Fort William.

During World War II, Oban was a busy port used by merchant and Royal Navy ships. The RN had a signal station near Ganavan which is now a private house. Also near Ganavan was a anti-submarine indicator loop station which detected any surface or submarine vessels between Oban, Mull and Lismore. There was a controlled minefield in the Sound of Kerrera which was controlled from a building near the caravan site at Gallanach.

Pipe Major Donald MacLean (shown above) was 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.

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. 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.

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.