Pipe Major Donald MacLean (1908-1964)
This larger-than-life piping character 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.
On June 12, 1940, 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 and the “Heroes of St. Valery”. 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."
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.”
|Donald MacLeod and Donald MacLean
with the 2nd Battalion Seaforths
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.
JM, May 2009 with notes from the Piping Times, September 1964, June 2002, March 2009, The Piper and Dancer Bulletin, October 1964.