Trad / roots: Scottish musician Allan McDonald on the lure of the bagpipes

Expert and master player Allan McDonald will reveal the mysteries of the bagpipes when he comes across to Belfast from Scotland this summer. He told me how he fell in with the much maligned and misunderstood instrument

Allan McDonald is from the tiny village of Glenuig on the west coast of Scotland
Robert McMillen

PEOPLE in this part of the world are used to hearing the skirl of the bagpipes as one of the north’s 65 marching pipe bands make their way in various processions or in one of the many band competitions both here and in Scotland.

However, the sound of a solo piper is something completely different and the Belfast Summer School of Traditional Music has a real treat in store, as a man described as “the single most important living source of Gaelic musical culture” is due to come to the city to both teach the much misunderstood and much maligned instrument, take part in demonstrations and give a talk on the history of solo pipe music.

Allan MacDonald or Ailein Domhnullach was born in 1956 in the tiny village of Glenuig on Scotland’s west coast.

Some people are driven crazy by remoteness while others see it as idyllic. How does Allan remember his birthplace?

“Well, looking back on it, it was fantastic. I mean there were only five of us in the school; the time we had after school was spent fishing. I was always in boats and on water,” he recalls.

?Apart from that, the only entertainment would be the ceilidhs in the now disappeared Glenuig Hall.

“People used to walk the five miles across the hill from Kinlochmoidart to be at the dance and five miles back again or they’d come from Lochailort, eight miles down the loch by boat – my father ran the boat – and that was the most exciting thing, whenever there was a dance in the village,” he says.

“There’d be some pipers there and I had the Jew’s harp and the mouth organ but as a child I was happy just living in my own wee world and not caring about anything except boats and fishing."

It wasn’t until Alan went to school in Dunblane, 127 miles away from Glenuig, that he began getting formal tuition.

“The Queen Victoria school has military associations but it was for the common or garden soldier. If you were a sergeant or above, you didn’t send your kids there. We were only there because my father was in the army during the war. It was originally an orphanage and then it was for disadvantaged children and we were certainly that,” says Allan.

“At the time it was nightmarish because it was like going to another land altogether, but looking back on it, I’m glad I went because I got my piping there, from a man from Campbeltown, Pipe Major John MacKenzie.

“At the school everyone had to do piping, or drumming or dancing for the first two years and I was naturally a musician. I lived and slept music."

However, like his brothers, Iain and Angus, also fine musicians there is also a touch of the academic in Allan and he has deeply researched the history of the pipes and its music.

Pìobaireachd had an important role in society where different tunes were played at different social occasions. However, following the battle of Culloden in 1746, the final confrontation of the Jacobite rising, the pipes were banned, as were kilts and tartan. When the Act was repealed in 1782, the music had changed. As Allan described it in another interview, “the cultural standards of Anglo-British society were being imposed on the Highlands and on piping”.

“After Culloden, our village was burned, our people were raped and cows destroyed. It was really brutal, and then about 1756, they started setting up the Highland regiments and it was decided that the soldiers wouldn’t go into battle unless they had a piper with them. So the pipers became cannon fodder, like at the Plains of Abraham in Quebec.”

(The Scots were like the Irish in that they fought for whoever would pay them. It was Brigadier-General James Murray who accepted the French surrender from Major Jean-Baptiste-Nicolas-Roch de Ramezay – a Scottish Ramsay!)

Although Scottish bagpipes were used in battle as far back as the 15th century, Irish pipes were heard at the Battle of Crécy on August 26 1346 during the Hundred Years War so that tradition of war piping were very much a part of Gaeldom – and don't forget that Gaeldom stretched from the south of Kerry to Braemar in the north of Scotland and to Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.

Away from the battlefield, changes were made in rhythm and in pitch of the bagpipes, with competitions set up to reflect the tastes of the more genteel in society.

Piping was closely linked to Gaelic song because after the ban on the bagpipe, people came up with puirt a beul or mouth music, where people would lilt a tune in the absence of an instrument.

In 1995 Allan finished an M.Litt thesis at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Scottish Studies that explored the relationship between piobaireachd and Gaelic language rhythms in song. From this work came radical new interpretations of piobaireachd that he has played frequently in public and on his 2007 recording Dastirum.

“There are two kinds of piping, 'live' music and pibroch. ‘Pibroch’ is a very general term and it just means piping but it came to mean a sort of 'classical' music of the Highland bagpipes, which I think has a pompous air about it as if the music has remained static, as if it were still played as the early notators recorded it,” he says.

As for his own music, his innovative quick-waltz arrangement for The Foxhunter’s jig caught on in a 78th Fraser Highlanders medley that won the 1987 World Pipe Band Championship and can probably be considered the official launch of that extremely popular time signature in the piping world today.

His slow airs and reels have also moved the tradition forward, though with his obviously firm grasp on the past.


Allan MacDonald will be teaching Highland Piping at the Belfast Summer School of Traditional Music, with classes taking place between Monday July 31 and Friday August 4, 10am-1pm at the Ulster University Campus in York Street.

He will also be giving a talk entitled 'Éire agus Alba – Ireland and Scotland – Shared repertoire in traditional music' where he will discuss and demonstrate the shared common repertoires in the musics of Ireland and Scotland on Thursday August 3 at 5pm at the Skainos Centre, Newtownards Road.

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