One of the best known books used when learning to play the bagpipes is The College of Piping Tutor 1. This book was written by Seumas McNeill and Thomas Pearston. Both men learned to play the bagpipes from Archie McNeill, the blind piper. His teaching methods became the basis of the tutor. Who was Archie McNeill and why was he called the blind piper?
Archie McNeill was born February 23, 1879 in Glasgow. When he was young his family moved to the village of Rhu. It was here, where at the age of 10, he had an accident that slowly caused him to loose his sight.
He started learning to play the bagpipes when he was about 15. A piper, Roderick Fraser, worked on the same yacht and agreed to teach him if he bought a practice chanter.
A few years later he started taking instruction with John Wallace, composer of “Liberton Pipe Band.” Wallace was a teacher on the training ship C.T.S. Empress. He started a juvenile band composed of boys from the ship. Archie took lessons from him for a few years, until Wallace left the C.T.S. Empress for other employment.
By the time he was in his late teens he had completely lost his sight. He moved to Glasgow where he worked at the Blind Asylum making brushes. I was here that he became part of the Glasgow piping scene, where many local pipers would meet at a local pub on Friday nights.
Archie soon started giving piping lessons. Although he could not see, he was said to have perfect hearing. He was also a strict instructor. He would at times place his fingers over his students to feel how far they were lifting off the chanter. He was also able to hear minute crossing noises that others did not.
In 1917 Archie became the pipe major for the 139th Glasgow Boy’s Brigade Pipe Band. His students in this band included his sons, Donald and Alex, as well as his nephew, Seumas MacNeill, Thomas Pearston, and Wee Donald MacLean. The Glasgow Boy’s Brigade won’t the World Juvenile Championships in 1919, 1920, and 1923. He continued to teach there for 17 years.
Archie worked at the Henderson Bagpipe Workshop after WWII testing the quality of the chanters and drones. He was a committee member of the Scottish Pipers & Dancers Association, a precursor to the Scottish Pipers Association which he was also a member of.
After the College of Piping was formed in 1944, by Thomas Pearston and Seaumus McNeill, Archie became an instructor there and would also teach at the Summer School sessions. He also wrote articles for the Piping Times and would act as a judge at piping competitors.
Archie McNeill died on October 23, 1962. In addition to being the “grandfather” of the College of Piping he is also known for his compositions. His most famous tune is “Donald MacLean’s Farewell to Oban.” He also wrote the great strathspey “Islay Ball.” His other compositions include; “the Detroit Highlanders,” “David Ross of Rosehill,” "Verna Leith’s Wedding March,” and the “Gareloch.”