Published: January 31, 2005

Bonawe Quarry, Argyllshire, Scotland

It’s unusual to publish a photo of a Scottish granite quarry, but the Bonawe Quarry, about a half-hour’s drive north from Oban, Scotland, is not just any pile of rocks. This is the where the great piper John MacColl as a young man worked to pay for travel to Glasgow for tuition from the legendary Donald MacPhee in the late 1870s.

According to William Donaldson’s seminal work, The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society, “by the look of things the enormous Breadalbane estates were responsible both for the Easdale slate quarries and the employment, therefore, as a piper in the western part of the estate of Colin Mòr Campbell (of Nether Lorn Canntaireachd fame), and also the granite quarries at Bonawe, which give employment . . . to John MacColl when he was saving up to pay for his studies with Donald MacPhee.”

Born in Kentallen on Loch Linnhe on January 6, 1860, “John MacColl was the youngest of the seven children of Dugald MacColl, the tailor of Kentallen, and his wife Elizabeth MacInnes. He won the Oban Gold Medal in 1883, the Gold Medal at Inverness in 1884, and the Former Winners medal there in 1888. After a spell as piper to Neil MacDonald of Dunach, he made his living entirely from the games circuit and from teaching. . . . As well as being an outstanding composer of ceòl beag (he was one of the founding fathers of the modern ‘competition march), he was an expert yachtsman and golfer, a shinty internationalist, and a Gaelic singer, at which he also competed.

“When Donald MacPhee died prematurely in December 1880, MacColl returned home to continue his lessons with Pipe-Major Ronald MacKenzie. This is sometimes assumed to be Ronald MacKenzie, (1842-1916) pipe-major of the 78th and nephew of John Bàn; but there were, rather confusingly, two champion pipers called Ronald MacKenzie in this generation, and John MacColl’s teacher was ex-pipe-major of the 42nd, Black Watch, and winner of the prize pipe at Inverness in 1873 and the gold medal in 1875 (d. 1911). This latter Ronald MacKenzie was piper to Neil M. MacDonald of Dunach (some three miles south of Oban) where MacColl’s future wife, Helen Carruthers, worked as a housemaid. John MacColl and Helen Carruthers were married at Dunach on 21st June 1894 with her sister, Jeannie Carruthers, as one of the witnesses, hence the titles of two of John MacColl’s classic march tunes, “Jeannie Carruthers” and “Mrs. John MacColl.”

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