In 2004, when a CD celebrating Donald MacPherson’s piping mastery was given the title A Living Legend, this was no record company hype. It wasn’t even a matter of opinion. It was simply a statement of fact.
Donald’s performance over a truly remarkable forty years at the top of competitive piping bears this out. Just as important as his ability to compete, if not more so, however, were the innate musicality in Donald’s playing, his feeling for both pibroch and light music and the matchless quality of his sound. This was a piper who, whenever he stepped onto a platform, inspired a hush of anticipation.
Donald was born in Glasgow on September 5, 1922. His father, Iain, was an army piper during World War l and later received instruction from Pipe Major John MacDougall Gillies, a former president of the Scottish Pipers’ Association. When a hand injury curtailed his piping career prematurely, Iain transferred his enthusiasm for piping and love of bagpipe music onto his sons, Iain and Donald.
Donald’s first recollection of playing bagpipes is when, at the age of twelve, he moved up from the Life Boys to the Boys Brigade. His pride in being invited to join the pipe band and at being given his first set of pipes was short-lived, though. When Iain Snr. saw the half-sized set of pipes that an officer had pieced together from an old sheepskin bag, a torn cover, some green cord and a few old reeds, he wasn’t best pleased.
With new a bag and reeds installed, Donald began learning from his father and would always be well prepared for the next band rehearsal. His father’s gentle insistence that Donald should always try and put a song in the music would stay with Donald throughout his career.
Donald’s run of competition successes began with the Glasgow Battalion of the Boys Brigade Championship. After serving in the RAF during World War ll, he entered the Oban meeting for the first time in 1948 and became only the second piper to win the double of Gold Medal and Open Pibroch.
Six years later he became the first piper to win the double at the Inverness meeting. His prize haul – including a record fifteen firsts in the Senior Piobaireachd at Oban; a record nine firsts in the Gold Clasp event at Inverness; and six firsts in the Former Winners March, Strathspey & Reel event at Inverness – is all the more remarkable considering that Donald was a self-confessed practice dodger. He also dropped out from competing for several periods and so might have won even more medals.
It was with some relief for the opposition, then, that Donald retired from competing after one final success at Oban in 1990.
His involvement with piping has continued, though, as a judge and teacher. Judging has taken him to Canada, Nova Scotia, the USA and New Zealand and earned him a reputation for basing his assessments on fairness, knowledge and understanding through his own experience as a competitor.
Well into his eighties Donald continues to pass on his skills, emphasising the importance of good sound quality and warning pupils in his warm, good humoured way about the danger to lampshades and light bulbs that is the weapon of mass destruction, the bass drone.
Donald passed away aged 90 on April 21, 2012.