PM Iain MacDonald

PM Iain MacDonald

1950 – 2020

Pipe Major 1973 – 2020

Iain MacDonald was born and lived in Glasgow but spent a lot of his childhood on Great Bernera, just off the coast of the Isle of Lewis. This was where Iain would first pick up and learn to play the basics of the chanter. After Iain and his family moved from Glasgow to Barrhead, on the outskirts of Glasgow, he first learned to play the pipes through the Rover Scouts Pipe Band in Barrhead, where he played up until he was about 16, when he stopped to start up a rock band with some school friends. The band was initially called The Thieves but then changed their name to Incision, due to a clash of names with another band, and those who knew him will be surprised to hear that Iain was actually the singer and front man of the band.

Iain decided to go back to playing the pipes, with much persuasion from his mum, and started getting lessons at the College of Piping. While he was getting tuition there he received lessons from the legendary piper Duncan Johnstone. Duncan’s initial advice to Iain was to go back to basics and start from scratch using the College of Piping Tutor Book. To Iain’s own admission, this was probably the best advice he could have received as very quickly he realised that he maybe wasn’t as good a piper as what he thought he was. Once Iain brushed up on the basics and start progressing really well, he was offered tuition in Piobaireachd from PM Donald MacLeod. 

Iain, in some ways, could be regarded as a pioneer in bridging the gap between Pipe Band music and tradition folk music. During the ‘70s Iain was playing in such bands like the Battlefield Band, Tinkler Maidgie and Kentigern while playing with the Neilston & District Pipe Band. As you can see in the picture to the side, Iain is playing a set of small pipes. During the ‘70s, there wasn’t really any makers of small pipes so Iain borrowed a set of small pipes from a museum and, while working in the Royal Infirmary in Glasgow, managed to get them x-rayed and then went to a bagpipe maker to recreate them from the x-rays. In some way you could say that Iain was at the forefront of the resurgence of the small pipes.

After playing with the Neilston & District Pipe Band for a few years in the early ‘70s, at their AGM Iain’s name was put forward for the position of Pipe Major by Ian Plunkett, who would become the Pipe Major of the Strathclyde Police Pipe Band. Iain got the backing he needed within the band and was duly voted in as Pipe Major at the age of 23. After establishing himself as Pipe Major for a few years and while holidaying in Northumberland with his wife, daughter, brother-in-law and sister-in-law, he came across the small rural village of Rothbury. While staying at the caravan site he noticed a sign advertising the Rothbury Highland Pipe Band outside the nearby POW hut. Iain started asking around for more information on when their practices took place and he was pointed in the direction of Drum Major Jack Miller. After a long chat in the pub, Iain had decided that he would drop into their practice that week. With Iain forever wanting to collaborate with different bands he decided that he would try and organise a trip back down but bring along a few players from Neilston. In October 1975 Iain and quite a few band members took the trip down to nearby Alwinton for their agricultural show and thus began a friendship with Rothbury Highland Pipe Band that goes on to this very day. 

In 1978 Iain took Neilston & District to, what was then, Czechoslovakia to the world renowned Bagpipe Festival in Strakonice. During the 2 week trip they played in shopping centres, schools, factories, surrounding villages, Wenceslas Square in Prague as well as playing on stage and participated in parades through the streets of the town. This was the first major trip for the band and allowed Iain to do one thing that he loved doing and what he was brilliant at and that was to network with other bands and agents. After this trip they got enquiries from all over. The band spent the following years travelling to places such as Portugal and Israel and eventually after 6 years they headed back to Strakonice and the band have been playing at the biennial festival ever since. Iain always loved heading back to the town to meet with the many friends that he had made over the 40 years he had been visiting. 

Another band that Iain loved collaborating with was the Tokyo Pipe Band. During the ’90s, Neilston travelled to Japan on a few separate occasions with the last trip being to Tokyo. During this trip Neilston first came across the Tokyo Pipe Band and in particular their PM, Atsushi Yamane. Iain would spend the next 25 years travelling to Tokyo every October to be the piping judge at the Japan Highland Games, where he always loved meeting up with his great friend Yamane san and talked about bagpipes over a whisky and a Chu-hi.

Despite spending a lot of time leading the pipe band, Iain’s love for folk music never went away. In the late ‘70s he, along with a few Rothbury locals, were brainstorming at the Newcastleton Music Festival and decided that it could be replicated in Rothbury with the main focus being on traditional Northumbrian music, songs and poetry. Thus the Rothbury Traditional Music Festival was born with Iain being one of the founding members. This festival is still going to this day and is getting stronger and stronger every year. During the ‘90s Iain helped create the Caulbums Ceilidh Band along with artists that he had played with before like John Gahagan, Sandy Stanage, Sylvia Barnes and Frazer Mclellan. The band played at a lot of folk sessions around Glasgow but also had the chance to travel abroad to places like Rostov-on-Don in Russia and Nurnberg in Germany.

Throughout the 47 years that Iain was PM of Neilston the one thing that he was passionate about was always bringing in new learners, whether it be young or old, and teaching them everything he knew about playing bagpipes. This started not long after taking control of the band when he persuaded both his brother-in-laws and his wife’s cousin to join in 1974. To this day, 95% of the pipers in the current band were taught by Iain. Through the many years as PM Iain taught hundreds of people but it’s safe to say that his proudest achievement would have been teaching his own family his love of bagpipes and music, especially his own kids, Fiona and Finlay, and his grandson, Joe. In total Iain had a hand in teaching 12 family members the pipes and was also PM to another 6 family members who had learned the drums. Latterly Iain helped found the East Renfrewshire Schools Pipe Band and taught school kids in Williamwood High School and also Carlibar Primary School. Also during the first week in August Iain would hold piping masterclasses as part of the Piping Live bagpipe festival that is held in Glasgow every year. He would showcase his huge array of bagpipes from around the world including Uilleann bagpipes from Ireland and the Bock bagpipes from central Europe. Not long before his death, Iain was incredibly proud to hear of the news that his son, Finlay, had been appointed the Piping Director at the National Piping Centre in Glasgow. This news came soon after Finlay was announced as the new Artistic Director of the Piping Live! Festival that is held in Glasgow every year. 

Iain’s influence in the Neilston & District Pipe Band and also the folk scene in Glasgow and beyond cannot be underestimated and neither would be where it is today without the ideas and drive Iain had to bridge the gap between Pipe Band music and folk music.

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