Happy Father’s Day from pipes|drums! Calum MacDonald remembers his larger-than-life dad, Roddy MacDonald
By Calum MacDonald
If you heard the words “Grand Altogether” across a games field, in a beer tent, at the hospitality room or in the pub, you knew exactly who it was: Roderick W. “Roddy” MacDonald. I’m not proud of everything my dad did – LOL – but I will say this: he definitely lived life to its fullest and those who were around him had a lot of fun.
It all started for my dad in the early 1940s. “Himself,” which he liked to refer to, well, himself as, was born in Perth, Scotland. Soon after, he moved to Dunoon, where he would be introduced to bagpiping at an early age.
His instructor was none other than Neil Henderson, nephew of the legendary John McLellan of Dunoon and uncle to today’s star piper Alasdair Henderson.
As my father progressed, my Isle of Skye grandfather said in his Highland accent, “Boy, it’s time to go to the wee man across the water.” That would be Donald MacLeod, with whom he ended up getting not only an incredible knowledge of piobaireachd, but a phenomenal set of cocuswood Duncan MacDougall of Aberfeldy pipes. These are the ones that I still play, and which were used by David Atherton to create the Atherton MacDougalls. (A special shout out to Jim McGillivray for making that happen.)
After serving with the 8th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders (I occasionally sport that fancy purple tie), learning the electrical trade, the Clan Sutherland USA sponsored my mum and dad to immigrate to America in late 1963. They ended up in Boston. It must have been a very cold winter, because I was born in August 1964.
As in most families, one person really drives decisions. My mum wasn’t having anything to do with another Boston winter, so back to Scotland we all went, this time from freezing cold to just cold pishing rain. As soon as my pop returned, in the mid-’60s, Donald Shaw-Ramsay invited “himself” to try out for the new Invergordon Distillery Pipe Band and, to no surprise, he made it. That was an experience of a lifetime for any young player. Invergordon Distillery had famous players like John D. Burgess, John MacDougall, Trevor Dear, Bert Barr and Alex Duthart. In a few years, they won everything except the World’s, where they were second. Hmmm.
Wouldn’t you know it, my mum was done with the cold, pishing rain, and it was back to the US again, this time ending up further south in Delaware after a few stops along the way. It didn’t take long for my dad to get involved in the piping scene, and he became pipe-major of the City of Wilmington Pipe Band. Those of you who played at the Canadian National Exhibition Inter-Continental Championships in the late-60s and early-70s will remember this band that was made up of, kids but at the back end had former Invergordon bandmate Kit Reynolds as lead-drummer and his son Graham, both of whom my dad brought over.
Here is a trivia question: Who did my dad asked first to come to America before Kit Reynolds? Answer: Alex Duthart. Now that would have been interesting.
That wee band did very well and its members ended up becoming very good soloists, winning top prizes all over North America and Scotland. My dad continued to compete, winning pretty much everywhere including the North American Championships a few times.
For whatever reason, he decided to get involved with what is now called the Eastern United States Pipe Band Association and competed less. I won’t go into too many details, but if you want some good reading, he wrote a book called Forty Years of the USPBA/EUSPBA. Let’s just say that my dad and his buddies railroaded across whatever they thought was best for the future of the association and, as it turns out, it was probably the right way to go. Membership increased, judging, teaching and certification programs were created, workshops taught, and spectacular players and bands were developed. The Delaware connection was established.
How many remember the Delco Workshop and Delco Highland Games? If you don’t, you missed out on some of the best educational and social experiences of a lifetime. People like Dave Armit, George Bell, Alex Duthart, Matt McConnell, Bob Gilchrist, Sandy Jones, John Wilson, Reay Mackay, John A. MacLellan, Donald MacLeod, Seumas MacNeill, and Hamilton Workman taught, judged and shared their knowledge with many, including me.
Nothing like being 12 years old, getting pulled out of bed and asked to play for everyone in the hospitality room, late at night. It may sound cruel, but for me it was a terrific educational opportunity.
Imagine this: hundreds of enthusiasts in the Valley Forge Holiday Inn Conference Center during a winter storm every February for three, if not four, days. Hmmm: “winter storm.” That would be a good name for an event! Guess what room we had” Yup, the one next to the hospitality room with adjoining doors to a suite that my dad thought was his own private social center. Nothing like being 12 years old, getting pulled out of bed and asked to play for everyone in the hospitality room, late at night. It may sound cruel, but for me it was a terrific educational opportunity. All the judges, teachers and select individuals got to enjoy a private party, hosted by my dad, paid for by Delco, and I got free instruction.
I haven’t even mentioned the dancing connections that took place in those same hospitality rooms hosted by my mum, Gladys, and her gang of dancing hoodlums, but that’s a Mother’s Day story. I won’t go into the real classic stories of my pop and his gang breaking into pools after hours, interrupting those formal planned ceilidhs for their own sing-song, off-the-cuff piping and drumming in the middle of nowhere at all hours, consuming libations out of a trunk bar belonging to a well-known Canadian named Mackay, missed flights (plural) from Scotland because Big Angus and he just had to talk more about that set tune in the airport pub. The list is long; ask me sometime for a laugh!
As the years progressed, my dad continued to teach me and the many others who came through our front door. The cost: free – not just for me but everyone. Yes, free for all and you only had to show improvement each week. My mum was the same in Highland dancing: she taught for free.
Through the lower grades my dad and I would play together in the DelMar & District Pipe Band. You could almost refer to this band as “City of Wilmington 2.0.” Many of the same names, just the next generation, including his original pipe-sergeant, Big Al McMullin.
It’s hard to name all of the students who succeeded under his tutelage, more than I can name, but they came from Florida to New England and even as far west as Kansas City. My dad was an incredible teacher, with an eye for talent, ear for music, but wouldn’t hesitate to tell you if you were rubbish.
My son, Liam, showing an interest in piping really got his attention. Liam benefitted from his tuition early on thanks to technology, the only difference was Liam’s corrections were presented a lot more nicely than I ever remember. Like my father, I was fortunate to be able to work with and teach Liam, then play alongside my son in bands such as the Grand Celtic for years, and now the 78th Fraser Highlanders.
Although to the average family our obsessions towards the Scottish arts dominates our lives, I wouldn’t change it for anything or anyone. Okay, maybe a few things could have been changed, but most were valuable life lessons that helped create who we are today.
To all the fathers out there and those who have passed, thank you for your lessons in life, your support and your patience.
You are greatly loved and appreciated.
Happy Father’s Day.
Just like his late father, it seems like everyone knows Calum MacDonald. One of the genuine good guys in piping, he is an accomplished piper and leader of pipe bands, and now contributes his knowledge on the judging panel of the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario. An American by birth, he has lived in the town of Elora, Ontario, and is the proud father of Liam, who carries on the tradition of MacDonald family piping excellence.