The playing of bagpipes has been around for thousands of years. The Highland bagpipe and its music has existed for mere hundred. The unique style of playing and its’ associated traditions could have been lost without the standardization and writing down of the tunes. One of the unknown heroes in keeping the music alive was Donald MacDonald.
Donald MacDonald was born around 1750 in Skye. Both he and his father, John, had learned to play the bagpipes from the MacArthurs, pipers to the MacDonalds on Skye.
Donald served during the Napoleonic Wars in both the Caithness Highlanders and the Argyllshire Militia, volunteer militias, as a piper. He spent many years deployed to Ireland, mainly in the south. During this time, he regularly took part in recruiting parties as a piper. He also eventually became Pipe Major of the Argyllshire Highlanders.
Donald would take part in competitions sponsored by the Highland Society, whose president was the Colonel in Chief of the Caithness Highlanders. He placed third in 1801, second in 1811, and took first in 1817. He was about 50 years old and his prize for winning was a set of Prize Pipes. At the time these were usually the best set of bagpipes available.
Donald MacDonald started making bagpipes and other musical instruments in the periods between his deployments. He eventually set up shop in Edinburgh, at the top of High Street. He was known for making Highland bagpipes as well as Northumbrian and Irish bagpipes and other military band instruments. He also spent time to collecting and studying bagpipe tunes.
Joseph MacDonald published his Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe in 1760. Even with that, there was no standard system for writing bagpipe tunes down. The Highland Society of London would give prizes to pipers who could produce written copies of tunes. Donald MacDonald won five guineas in 1806 for his settings.
While Donald was not the first person to write bagpipe music down, he is responsible for most of the standardizations still used today. He continued the tradition of starting the bagpipe scale on low A, rather than C that most other people were using. He was the first to start writing all melody notes with the tails pointed down and all gracenotes with the tails pointed up. This clearly separated the two types of notes and made the music easier to read.
Donald MacDonald's published A Collection of the Ancient Martial Music of Caledonia in 1820. This book contained 23 piobaireachds and 24 jigs, reels, airs, and strathspeys and is considered the first book of tunes exclusively for the Highland bagpipe. In 1828, he published a second volume, A Collection of 119 Quicksteps, Strathspeys Reels and Jigs.
The Highland Society of London appointed Donald MacDonald as their pipe maker in 1832. This was one of the best endorsements a maker could get at the time. It is believed that it was MacDonald who standardized the measurements, bores, and configuration of the three-drone Highland bagpipe we play today. His pipes were awarded as prizes for several years, with one set going to Angus MacKay in 1835.
Donald MacDonald died in poverty in 1840. He left behind two widowed daughters and four grandchildren. His three sons had died before him. Much of his work has been overshadowed by the work of Angus MacKay, who published the classic work A Collection of Ancient Piobaireachd in 1839. This is still held in high esteem by many pipers.
Before he died, Donald was working on another manuscript of piobaireachd music. The unpublished manuscript contained 49 tunes along with historic notes. This manuscript was given to one of Donalds students, the grandfather of Major-General C.S. Thomason. It eventually made its way to Thomason in India and became one of the main sources for his book.
The works of Donald MacDonald most likely saved much of the Highland music that was in danger of being lost. He inspired others to continue the collection and publication of ancient piobaireachd. It may have taken more than 100 years, but for the last 30, Donald MacDonald's work is memorialized in the annual Donald MacDonald Memorial Quaich competition where pipers perform MacDonald's settings of piobaireachd. His contributions were invaluable to bagpiping as we know it today.