Contrary to his ubiquitous surname, David Macdonald has no family history of playing, or making, the bagpipes. His desire to learn them was as much about not having to play the saxophone at school, as it was that the bagpipes were ’cool’.
“I convinced my Mum that the bagpipes were much better for me than the saxophone, although my love for the pipes actually came in waves. I was like every kid who has ever learned - I wanted to be on the pipes straight away, and was a little frustrated that the chanter had to come first. It took me more than 12 months, but with Mum’s support, I persevered and after getting on the pipes, again went through the usual frustrations most kids have. My Mum would set me small goals initially and that kept the frustration in check. One of my mates from school, Richard, also played. Our practice sessions were organised by who ever started playing first. The sound of the pipes would bring the other into the park that was near both of our homes. Neither of us really had any idea what we were doing, it just about having fun.”
Many pipers have a strong pipe major to thank for their development, and David is no different. Although taught by David Bail at Haileybury College, one of Australia’s top private schools, David credits three women for his career in piping.
“I actually have three strong women to thank for my piping career. My Mum, for her encouragement, especially for setting goals for me that kept me focussed.
Rebecca Lyons’ (of Lyons Bagpipes) younger brother Sam was in Scouts with me. It was Rebecca’s encouraging me to to go down and see Ian at Moorabbin City Pipe Band that helped me transition from a school band to the senior ranks. Dorothy Cowie told me I should apply for West Australia Police Pipe Band (the pipe major of that era, James Cowie, is her son). Dot was very active in the Victorian Highland Pipe Band Association and would tell me what was happening and ‘who was who’ in the local piping scene as I drove the 140 km round trip to pick up and drop her off to pipe band meetings.”
David joined Moorabbin City Pipe Band (at that time in Grade 3), where Ian Lyons was a tutor, and began to develop from a schoolboy piper to a professional musician. David would soon be a guest player with WAPOL, competing against 78th Fraser Highlanders in the US Championships at Michigan. This led to him being offered a full time position in 2001.
“I travelled with WAPOL to compete in the US Championships in 2001 when the band was lucky enough to win the Grade 1 competition. I became a full-time member of the band in October of that year. It was great to achieve my lifetime goal in piping and to compete in Grade 1 in the Worlds, but the competition in 2003 was gut wrenching. We missed out on qualifying by one place, having played as good as we ever had in the qualifying MSR. Waiting for final qualification announcement in 2004 was rough. The RSPBA announced the places alphabetically, so the first five announcements were torture. It was brilliant making the cut, but I think a few of us went grey in those final minutes…”
After 4 years with WAPOL, a CD recording, two Grade 1 Worlds campaigns and flying back to play with Moorabbin in the Australian Championships; it was time to come home to Melbourne. Meeting and marrying Sarah, his greatest supporter, could be seen as his greatest success from his time in West Australia; and while his time with WAPOL was fulfilling, the pull of family brought David and Sarah home to Melbourne - and a change of kilt for David. Never satisfied with going about things the easy way, David had a less than perfect start to his return, but he took it in his stride.
“I had the audition with Victoria Police after having had my wisdom teeth removed a few days before. Luckily, I ignored the doctors advice not to play for a few weeks and performed well enough to get the job.”
David did have one last hurrah with WAPOL. Recalled to play in the first Kremlin Zoria International Tattoo in 2007 was a great way to end to his time with the band from the West.
“I was fortunate to be invited back to the band when a member had to pull out at short notice. It was a fantastic spectacle performing at a Military Tattoo in Red Square with projected historical images of WW2 tanks and Russian soldiers onto the walls of the Kremlin throughout the performance. It’s a memory that will stay with me for a long, long time.”
David’s playing time with both West Australia and Victoria Police Pipe Bands was outside of the late 90’s dual world championship period (Vicpol and Wapol won the Grade 1 and Grade 2 World Pipe Band Championship on the same day in 1998). He occasionally fields the question, “Did you win the worlds with Victoria Police?” with aplomb.
“While I didn’t play in those days, it’s still a privilege to play the pipes for a living; to work at something you have a passion for. ”
Whether the adage, ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts…’, is attributed to an ensemble judge in the beer tent or the Greek philosopher Aristotle, the principle remains the same. David Macdonald is not only a talented piper, with an excellent ear for presenting a harmonic bagpipe, but is also a 24-hour endurance mountain bike competitor and Gold medalist in the Victorian Emergency Services Games. He competes in the local solo competitions and has added the role of band tutor to his repertoire. David has been working with the City of Hobart pipe band from 2009 and has assisted it’s young pipe sergeant to successfully make the step up to the pipe major role.
In 2013, David was asked to guest again with WAPOL under James Murray for their 2014 Grade 1 campaign, including performing in the pre-tournament concert. Although grateful for the opportunity, David turned down the invitation. A prior commitment to play and assist a country Grade 3 band with it’s tuning and sound presentation for the Championships took precedence – so you can add integrity to that list.
In 2008 David turned his hand to the restoration and repair of vintage bagpipes.
Much of the ethos required to repair or restore a vintage instrument probably came from his father. A lifelong mechanic, Bruce Macdonald helped David learn about how things work, and more importantly, to fix things that have stopped working.
“No-one bothers to try and fix things these days. The disposability of our modern lifestyle has always bugged me and I guess I get the ability, and the desire, to fix things from both my Mum and Dad. Mum is an excellent seamstress. There was virtually nothing she couldn’t rescue or refit from one of my elder brothers to fit me. Dad is the same, just from a mechanical and manufacturing aspect. He’s basically been working on the same Hot-Rod for the last 45 years. Everything from rebuilding the engine to designing and manufacturing the panels.”
It was only when Ian Lyons acquired a set of WW1 era Lawrie’s in very bad shape, that David started on the bagpipe restoration journey.
“The very first set I fixed up had an awesome provenance. Ian wanted to get them restored but didn't have a local contact. I had no idea as to how I would fix them but thought, ‘I'll give it a go’. It was a bit of a leap of faith on Ian’s behalf. I took them over to my Dad’s and we sat down to figure it out. My brother had an old metal lathe, so starting with very fine sand paper and steel wool to strip them back, it kind of started from there. At this stage I had no experience in turning wood. I didn't know one end of a lathe from the other or even how to use a chisel. So I guess the 'lightest touch' principle evolved from there. Dad and I restored that first pipe together, and I relied on his knowledge and mechanical problem-solving mind as a guide. Working in the same garage from where my earliest memories came, where Dad fixed everything from our old video recorder to rebuilding my brother’s car was really rewarding. It was a great start, but I was quite aware of my lack of experience and I did knock back work initially as I didn't want to risk ruining someone’s pride and joy.”
David progressed steadily. Learning to turn replacement tuning pins and repair techniques, combining a natural talent for precision and gathering skill and experience as he went, he quickly developed a reputation for high quality work.
Cameron Bell of New South Wales Police Pipe Band has sent several sets to David for restoration, none as historically valuable as the full silver pipes of PM Willie Gray of the Glasgow Police (as featured in Piping Today XX).
“I had known David for quite awhile and remember when he first started refurbishing bagpipes. We would often catch up competing at the R U Brown Solo Contest together in Adelaide, and that’s how I came to know of his restoration skills. When I first purchased Willie Gray’s MacRae bagpipe it was in quite good condition and mostly needed the combing and beading refurbished.
Entrusting exceptional vintage pipes like these to another can be daunting to some pipers, but Cameron knew they were in safe hands.
“I really didn’t have any concerns at all. I knew David well and his reputation for excellent work and refurbishment techniques made me feel at ease. Not long after they were finished we happened to be in the same town, so David made arrangements to hand deliver them. When I opened up the box the transformation was just incredible. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The silver mounts were beautifully polished, the combing and beading was exquisite and the wax finish was up there with the best restorers I’ve seen. I knew then that David had a special talent in refurbishing bagpipes and I thoroughly recommend him to anyone who needs their prize pipe refurbished.”
David has always had very strong principles on restoring and repairing bagpipes.
“From my first attempts at restoration, the aim was to have the lightest touch possible. Having an artefact like the MacRae pipe under your hand, spinning at up to 900 rpm can be a bit nervewracking, but after a while, you realise that trusting your hand only comes with experience, and the only way to get that experience is to work lightly, carefully and steadily.”
The most nervous David has been restoring a bagpipe was with his tutors Sinclair’s. David Bail’s pipes always seemed so perfect to David, always harmonic, always rock solid. Being asked to not only refurbish them, but to see if he could refine the re-boring previously done to McDougall specifications, there was a tiny pause in David’s hand as he started his lathe.
“I was a bit shocked when my old teacher asked, to be honest. In my school band I was voted ‘Boy least likely to succeed in piping’ (laughs). When he rang me, I’d just won the Victorian Pipers Association Gold medal on a set of pipes I made from Mopane. Almost 15 years after he taught me to play, he asked me to restore his pipes. It was like ‘the circle is now complete’. To be honest, all I did was refurbish them. They needed nothing done to them. His pipes are still better than any pipe I have played – modern or vintage.”
David often finds himself in the right place at the right time. Looking on eBay for old pipes to fix up, he came across a 14 piece African Blackwood Bagpipe kit. It was at that time that the pipe-making idea was born.
“Seeing that kit on eBay sparked the idea of making a set of pipes that our friend Paul Giacometti could play at Sarah’s and my wedding. It seemed a natural progression from restoration to manufacture. After working with so many sets from all the big makers; Lawrie, Henderson, MacDougall and Glen, I had ideas of what sound I did and didn't like. After endless carpooling with Ian Lyons on the way to work, talking at length about what I would make, the overriding feeling was, ‘do your own thing, don't make them to a specific makers dimensions and most of all, don’t just make an exact replica of something’. For me it became about creating my own aesthetic, my own sound, my signature.”
While the craft of manufacturing bagpipes has leapt into the 21st century with the coming of CNC engineering and has led to precisely engineered yet affordable bagpipes made available to the masses; the appeal of a bespoke, handmade bagpipe certainly still exists. David found it difficult in Australia to find a mentor for both his restoration and pipe making, so turned instead to a master wood turner who taught privately.
“I found a guy called Vic Wood. Seriously, his surname was Wood! Vic showed me basic turning, beading and combing techniques and how to sharpen my chisels. After that, I taught myself and have developed my own ways of doing things but it was still based on the solid fundamentals from Vic. There's a point when turning wood that you know your chisel is blunt and you can not only feel it, but hear it's not cutting nicely. I can still hear Vic saying from across the room, "Your chisel is blunt, David!". He couldn't see me working but could hear it. As I went on, I researched ‘guns drills’ online and use them for my bores. On my first set of pipes I decided silver ferrules were ‘the thing’, so I learnt how to silver solder from a silversmith. I also had to learn the different way imitation ivory turns. I had a few pieces explode on me when I first started…”
David had found the people to teach him many of the basic skills required. The rest would be up to him. Applying the lessons in wood turning, and silverwork, the principles gained from restoration and some adapted home made tools; David developed his style through experimentation. That David takes great pride in his work is evident, and this comes in part from his father.
“I know where every mistake and every glitch is in my first set of pipes, but also where every lesson is in those glitches. I can be a bit obsessive with the finish and the final sound. A lot of that comes from the feeling, ‘Would my Dad be happy with that?’. A few years ago, Dad resprayed his Hot-Rod - twice. To everyone else, the paint job was perfect, flawless, but to him it still wasn’t quite right. So he did it again.”
Having that passion for perfection is essential when you’re making something you hope to last, however, once the pipe leaves the workshop, it’s out of your control.
This is something David understands well.
Says David, “When learning to make bagpipes, understanding the difference between raw timber and the finished product is important. It’s a bit like pragmatism vs mysticism: Timber is only timber until it’s a bagpipe. Restoring a vintage pipe is different. There’s it’s history, the exceptional tone that age brings to some woods and the value of that history to the owner.”
It might only be wood, but that wood is becoming significantly harder to come by. Ebony, Cocus and Lignum Vitae have for centuries been regarded as some of the best tonewoods. These woods worked well across a large range of instruments and all appear to develop tonally with age. Unfortunately, due to over harvesting, a significant amount of these great timbers have disappeared. With high quality Blackwood also becoming scarce, especially the more mature stands, David has started to experiment with other exotic woods such as Mopane and Australian woods like Western Myall (Acacia Papyrocarpa), Miniritchie (Acacia Cyperophylla) and River Jam (Acacia Coriacea). This has the potential for aesthetic development as well, and even though purists swear by Blackwood as the best timber for pipes, there may come a time when Blackwood goes the same way as Lignum Vitae, Ebony and Cocuswood.
Making bagpipes is a craft of precision and artistry. A few thousandth of an inch can make a significant difference to tone and steadiness - that is how certain makers develop their sound, and thus their reputation. The curing of the timber and how long and how well it has been seasoned also all have an effect, but the final character of the bagpipe comes from the piper.
“Ian Lyons once said to me, ‘no matter what pipes you get, they end up becoming a reflection of you, of your playing and your personality’, and that’s what is rewarding about this process. I’ve discovered the pipemaking process can be quite fulfilling developing a relationship with the piper, and involving them in the design of their instrument. Rather than just having them order a set of pipes from a website, their involvement and their setup of the bagpipe at the end, completes the picture.”
I have just set up my 2014 David Macdonald Mopane bagpipes with black mounts with gold tuning slides. Slightly chunkier in the mounts and the bells than his Mopane set, and despite having essentially the same bores as David’s set, they have a character all their own. In the end, it does come down to the piper on the end of them.
David Macdonald makes and restores bagpipes in consultation with the piper, with the final product reflecting the character of both individuals.