July 31, 2010

Old School: thoughts on ceol mor with four piping legends – Lt.-Col. David Murray

As a high school student in 1989, Iain Speirs, the son of course of the equally famous Tom Speirs and grandson of the truly renowned Jock Speirs, dreamed up a project that merged academics with his passion. He decided to investigate where piobaireachd stands as a living art with prominent active competitors of the time, and with four legends of the game: Captain John A. MacLellan, MBE, Seumas MacNeill, James Campbell and Lt.-Col. David Murray. While the other three have since died, Col. Murray in his eighties is still going strong.

The 17-year-old Iain Speirs keenly forwarded a set of questions to the piping luminaries, and then arranged to meet in-person with each, recording the interviews, the material from which he used for his school project.

As with the late James Campbell of the third instalment, Lieutenant Colonel David Murray also never competed as a piper, except for the occasional “amateur” contests put on by the Royal Scottish Pipers Society and other organizations. Yet his knowledge of piobaireachd was respected, particularly because of the tuition he received from the greats, Robert Reid and Willie Ross.

David Murray was commissioned into the Cameron Highlanders in 1941 and following World War II he was with the Royal Scots and Black Watch regiments. As a soldier in the Camerons he fought with the 1st battalion – previously the 79th – at the Battle of Kohima and then in the campaign in Burma in 1944. His military career continued for another few decades, including appointments with the Royal Malay Regiment and with the Queen’s Own Highlanders.

He served the Scottish piping community mainly as an organizer and a judge. He was the piping convener at the Northern Meeting for many years, and was often seen on the judging benches of many of the top competitions, including the Clasp at Inverness and the Senior Piobaireachd at Oban. He was also the Deputy Producer of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

He served as the President of the Piobaireachd Society for six years and in the 1970s and ’80s was a frequent commentator on and host of piping radio broadcasts on BBC Scotland. His “Noble Instrument” show – which, interestingly, he describes as a “magazine” – was a favourite for its strong opinions and analysis of piping history.

One of Murray’s greatest contributions so far is his book, The Music of the Scottish Regiments, published in 1994 and again in 2001 by Mercat Press. The well received work tracked the origins and evolution of music’s use in the military, including the role of the Highland pipes and the establishment of the instrument’s forms of light music for specific purposes and, primarily, from drums and bugles over the last 400 years.

Lt.-Col. D.J.S. Murray will be forever remembered by the eponymous 4/4 march and reel by the late Pipe-Major Angus MacDonald.

Now retired from the piping scene, he still lives in the Lammermuir Hills in the Borders region of Scotland.

Twenty-one years later, Iain Speirs admits that he does not remember too much about his meeting with David Murray: I interviewed Colonel Murray at his house and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. He was extremely open and enthusiastic and at one point he went off to get his chanter to demonstrate the points he was making.”



  1. Brilliant, of all these great interviews this one strikes home the most. If you love the big music then reading this is a boost to your stand. While friends and all say that the piobreachd is just too much maybe they’re not giving it the chance it deserves. Great stuff.

  2. It would be very interesting to read an interview with Murray today, to ask him some of these same questions, to ask him if things have changed for the better over the last twenty years ago. Very valuable interview series. Thanks for publishing it here.

  3. That’s a very moving interview. Here is someone talking about questions rather than fixed answers, discussion and debate (rather than rules and dogmas), the possibility of different interpretations and ways of doing things. Open-ness and thinking, rather than the closed book and one way of doing things. Music to the ears. Thanks you for this great interview.



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