Obituary: Donald MacPherson, spell-binding piper with unique talent who excelled in his playing of piobaireachd

Donald MacPherson: a spell-binding piper with unique talent who excelled in his playing of piobaireachd
Donald MacPherson: a spell-binding piper with unique talent who excelled in his playing of piobaireachd
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Born: 5 September, 1922, in Glasgow. Died: 21 April, 2012, in Edinburgh, aged 89

DONALD MacPherson, BEM, who has died aged 89, was a wonderfully gifted musician whose mastery of the bagpipe led to him achieving unrivalled success in the world’s most prestigious piping competitions.

From his first appearance at a major Highland gathering in 1948 until his last competitive outing 42 years later, MacPherson built up an astonishing record that will almost certainly never be surpassed.

On his debut at the Argyllshire Gathering, MacPherson won the Gold Medal for piobaireachd, a Holy Grail for pipers that can only be won by the most skilful exponents of the bagpipe’s classical music.

With that prize under his belt, he became only the second piper ever to take first place in the Senior Piobaireachd competition for former winners of the Gold Medal on the same day.

That rare double signalled the arrival of a unique talent who had an apparently effortless ability to produce an extraordinarily rich and sonorous tone from what can be a notoriously temperamental instrument.

While lesser mortals struggled to set up a properly tuned bagpipe, MacPherson was able to create a spell-binding resonance that was often compared to a church organ.

The stunning effect of MacPherson’s flawlessly true chanter scale harmonising with an unwavering wall of sound created by his drones, took bagpipe tuning to a level of perfection that marked him out from his contemporaries. He produced a tone which the top pipers still strive to emulate today.

His superb ear was combined with immaculate fingering technique and an instinctive gift for musical expression. With these attributes, it was perhaps unsurprising that, in 1954, he was to win the other highly sought-after Gold Medal for piobaireachd, which is presented at the Northern Meeting in Inverness. He won the Gold Medal and Clasp at Inverness at the same event, being the first piper in history to do so.

From then, he was to win the Clasp at Inverness for former Gold Medallists on nine occasions – the most first places in that event ever accumulated by one piper.

At the Argyllshire Gathering, Oban, he holds the record for most wins in the Senior Piobaireachd. He won that competition on no fewer than 15 occasions.

A piping career that was remarkable for its longevity as well as its quality came to an end with his last victory at Oban in 1990 with a memorable rendition of Lady MacDonald’s Lament when he was 68 years old.

A lack of space prevents all of MacPherson’s major prizes being listed here, but as well as piobaireachd he also excelled at the light music of the bagpipe. He won all the big prizes for Marches, Strathspeys and Reels several times over.

Born and educated in Glasgow, as a boy he played in the Glasgow Shepherds Pipe Band under Archie MacPhedran.

But it was his father Iain who taught the young MacPherson to pipe. MacPherson’s father had been taught by Pipe Major John MacDougall Gillies, one of the great players of the early 20th century who could trace his piping to the MacCrimmons of Skye.

After leaving school, MacPherson trained as an engineer serving his time with the West of Scotland Engineering Company in Finnieston.

When war broke out he volunteered for air-crew in the RAF and trained in England and South Africa. Later he was stationed in Egypt and Italy. Just before he was demobbed, he was returning to base near Naples in an army truck. The truck careered into a ditch and MacPherson sustained a serious injury to his left arm that saw him laid up for eight months.

That he overcame this set-back to compete so brilliantly was an achievement in itself. Indeed, his subsequent success at piping competitions was all the more remarkable, given that he spent much of his working life south of the Border – many miles from the piping scene.

Piping came so naturally to him that he was able to perform consistently at the highest level even though at various times in his life he did not pick up his pipes for several years on end.

During one of his spells away from the pipes, he took piano lessons and became an accomplished pianist.

His engineering career took him to Wiltshire, Exmouth, Bearsden and Edinburgh. In retirement, he spent four years living in Wales before he moved with his wife Gwen to Balbeggie, Perthshire.

Pipers everywhere regarded MacPherson as a gentleman in the truest sense. He remained unassuming and modest, despite his many achievements and the admiration in which he was held by other pipers. It was the distinguished piping judge Major General Frank Richardson, who once remarked: “I would go 20 miles to hear a piper but I would go 120 miles to hear Donald MacPherson.”

As well as being a master player, he was a talented composer of pipe tunes and in his spare time he passed on his knowledge to some of the best pipers of the generations that followed him. He also played at many recitals throughout the UK and abroad. After he retired from competition he became a respected judge at piping contests.

He was awarded the British Empire Medal for services to piping and was also piper to the Lord Provost of Glasgow. More recently he was inducted into Scotland’s Traditional Music Hall of Fame.

His playing is recorded for posterity on several albums including a CD recorded in 2002.

His album Donald MacPherson – A Living Legend saw him give immaculate interpretations of some of the most demanding tunes in the piper’s repertoire in his 80th year.

MacPherson is survived by his wife Gwen, who he married almost 65 years ago, their three children Heather, Fiona and Katrina and three grandchildren.