Ledger of a legend: Capt. John MacLellan’s incredible run of 1950s solo success
Captain John A. MacLellan MBE was one of the greatest pipers of all time. He was a teacher of renown, a composer of the highest order, a publisher of magazines and collections, head of the Piobaireachd Society’s Music Committee, Senior Pipe-Major of the British Army, a Regimental Sergeant Major, and his career as a competitive solo piper is the stuff of legend.
He remains the only piper in history to win the Grand Slam of the world’s biggest prizes in a single year. In 1958, he captured the Clasp and Silver Star MSR at the Northern Meeting and the Senior Piobaireachd and Former Winners MSR at the Argyllshire Gathering.
He won a massive amount in a relatively brief period of competing, at least by today’s norms. “Captain John” competed from 1946 to 1965 but didn’t compete from 1948 until returning in 1957 – a full nine years out of action while his military career took precedent.
In the back of a piobaireachd book, he kept a meticulous handwritten ledger of his successes over the 12 years that he competed at the Argyllshire Gathering and the Northern Meeting.
In addition to that legendary year of 1958, it shows that he won a stunning 21 first prizes, five seconds, 12 third prizes, five fourths, and one fifth. He had a stretch of eight consecutive first prizes at Oban, a record unlikely to be equalled, let alone surpassed.
These were heady days competing against the likes of Donald MacLeod, John D. Burgess and John MacFadyen and all the greats of the games.
“He’d have been 25 before he competed, so as you can see, it was right in at the deep end with rather instant success,” said the son of the “The Captain” Colin MacLellan. “He started again in 1957 when he came back from Gibraltar, where he was posted as Regimental Sergeant-Major of the Seaforth Highlanders. My mother and father and my newly-born sister, Kirsteen, settled in Dingwall and lived at the Drill Hall bungalow, and he had all day to go across to the Drill Hall and practice. He often told me he was at it for hours every day with three sets of pipes going.”
John MacLellan’s success spanned well past the major gatherings. He competed “round the games,” as almost all solo pipers used to do routinely. He would succeed the great Willie Ross as head of the Army School of Piping at Edinburgh Castle.
“He went to Edinburgh Castle in 1959, and it really was a dream job; he had reign to do exactly as he wanted, although resources were short,” Colin MacLellan continues. “A big part of his enjoyment of competing came from attending the “Highland” Highland Games – places like Dornoch, Glenfinnan, Arisaig, Strathpeffer and the like, we were always up in Rogart where my mother’s folks were from during the summer months. He’d take off and go around the games. He didn’t have anything to do with reporting to a commanding officer or anything like that. Sometimes as kids, we’d go along, but at the time, we were only interested in the shooting galleries and the funfairs, not the piping.”
The handwritten competition summary is a fascinating historical insight into the fantastic career of Captain John A. MacLellan MBE, a ledger of a legend.