Remembering Alasdair Gillies: Colin MacLellan
and sitting at just the right angle atop his Glengarry bonnet, he gave the judges the full military salute before striking up his pipes.
The tune was “George Ross’s Farewell to the Black Watch,” one of the lesser-known of Willie Lawrie’s march compositions, but no less a tune than any of his others. Alasdair started his performance, stepping off confidently and marching clockwise in a majestic sweep around the perimeter of the large platform. The two minutes or so of music that followed were something that will stay with me forever, because the march was full of life, played with exuberance and daring and with finger technique at least the equal of anything that I had ever heard. He was 21 years of age, and it was scarcely believable that someone that young, as he was, competing for the first time in the marches at the Argyllshire Gathering, could put on a performance of such perfection, of such style, panache and class.
I heard Alasdair many times after that of course, as we all did, but I never thought that I had heard a march played by him, or anyone else for that matter, quite as well as he did that day.
I don’t think I actually met him for some years after that; our paths never really crossed. It wasn’t until the early 1990s or so that we actually met, I think. By that time invitational competitions such as the Dr. Dan Reid Memorial in San Francisco and the G.S. McLennan competition in San Diego started cropping up, and Alasdair and other big names from Scotland would fly over to play at those.
I think Alasdair and I found that we had a bit in common, and we talked and shared in that. We were both sons of famous pipers, and we both liked to think that we were Highlanders, although Alasdair was born in Glasgow and spent the first part of his childhood there and the rest up in Ullapool. I was born in Dingwall, where Alasdair went to school, but I spent my childhood in Edinburgh, although I spent almost all my holiday time in the Highlands.
We also shared a rather unhealthy passion for one of Glasgow’s famous football teams, along with quite a few other pipers who were also coming over for those events! On those trips when I first saw him, I will remember the big broad, welcoming smile – and then always followed by his rather peculiar way of giving a sideways shake of his head before his inevitable greeting of, “Hi, boy!” delivered in his rather unique accent which was unsurprisingly a mixture of Glasgow and Highland.
I really didn’t know Alasdair better than anyone else – I think at most times he was in fact quite hard to get to know. But he was my friend and we had many good times together.
By then he’d won the Gold Medal at Oban, and he couldn’t wait to tell me that one of the first people to greet him was my father, Captain John MacLellan. My Dad of course was in the Queen’s Own and Alasdair, with great glee, told of how he came straight up to him: “Congratulations, Alasdair, you’re number 47!” Alasdair however was as smart as him, and he immediately knew that the reference was to the fact that Alasdair had just become the 47th person from the regiment to have won the Gold Medal.
Years later, we went to the Winter Storm workshop in Kansas City to teach where they have a very nice tradition of issuing the teaching staff with high-quality rugby shirts, emblazoned with sponsors patches and logos, and with a large number embroidered on the back, which invariably references a key year in each teacher’s piping or drumming career. Of course Alasdair could pick from a lot of numbers by that time, but one year I believe he had asked for number 47 for the back of his shirt.
Then the age of e-mail came along, and through this I corresponded with Alasdair. I remember the very first e-mail I received from him. It was long, and it was beautifully written. He didn’t waste his time at Dingwall Academy prior to becoming a boy soldier. Those e-mails were always a bit of a chat, about life, about piping, and almost always ending in reference to the trials and tribulations of our favourite football team, which I think was really the main reason for writing. How I wish I had kept them.
Shortly after all of this, Alasdair and his family moved to Pittsburgh, to teach at Carnegie Mellon University. I’d been invited to judge at the Loch Norman Highland Games, near Atlanta. In North America it’s encouraged for the . . .