Oban lockdown inspires tribute to ‘Scotland’s forgotten music genius’

Duncan ‘Duggy’ MacGregor create the tribute website to Pipe Major John McLellan DCM at the urging of his late mother, who was Jock’s great neice.

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Pipe Major John McLellan DCM, a composer from Dunoon and Jura whose First World War song may replace Flower of Scotland as the national anthem, is the subject of a tribute website and Spotify playlists created by Duggy McGregor while locked down in Oban.

Pipe Major John McLellan ‘is probably Dunoon’s, if not Argyll and Bute’s best known composer of bagpipe music,’ writes Dunoon-born Duncan ‘Duggy’ MacGregor on his tribute website, created while working in Oban during lockdown.

‘Although John McLellan’s name and music legacy is well established within the bagpipe music world, he isn’t as widely known with the public as some of his famous contemporaries,’ he explains.

‘The aim of this website is to remember the man and his music, and gather all the relevant information about Jock into one place online. It was my late mother’s wish that I create the website to Jock as she was his great niece, and she often talked to me about him and his accomplishments.’

Altogether, John McLellan wrote more than 160 melodies and songs. His most famous, The Road to the Isles, became one of Scotland’s most popular tunes after it was covered Sir Harry Lauder in 1926, followed by Andy Stewart, Moira Anderson, Kenneth McKellar, and Isla St Clair.

The Road to the Isles, which McLellan wrote when he was just 16 years old and living on the Isle of Jura, has endured the test of time, and many of McLellan’s other compositions continue to be performed by pipe bands from Scotland and beyond, such as Bonnie Dunoon, Mary Darroch, Cowal Gathering, Dream Valley of Glendaruel, Glen Caladh Castle, The Sheiling, The Taking of Beaumont Hamel, My Home Town, Men of Argyll, Colonel McLean of Ardgour, and South Hall, to name a few.

McLellan also made a big impact on Scottish folk music, with artists such as The Red Hot Chilli Pipers, The Battlefield Band, Calisaig, North Sea Gas and Skippinish recording renditions. Button accordionist Graham Irvine believes McLellan to be ‘Scotland’s forgotten music genius’, but he was also a decorated war veteran.

John McLellan, or Jock as he was known, was born in St Andrew’s Street, Dunoon, on August 8, 1875, one of six children to Neil McLellan and Mary Darroch McLellan, who hailed from the Isles of Islay and Jura respectively.

‘They came to the Scottish mainland to find work in 1869, and after marrying in Greenock, decided to settle in Dunoon,’ explains Duggy. ‘Unfortunately, the family later endured great hardship, when Neil McLellan tragically died of pneumonia while still in his early 40s. John was eight years old when his father died, and his mother decided it was best for them to return to her native Jura.

‘John spent his formative years on Jura and while he was there it appears he learned to play the bagpipes, and a few other musical instruments too. He also learned to read music, though there aren’t any records from that time to tell us who taught him, or indeed who helped him develop this amazing talent.’

In 1892 John turned 17 and joined the Highland Light Infantry (HLI), serving overseas in Malta, Crete, Egypt, and then, 1899, the Boer War in South Africa, where John won the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM). After taking a bullet in the ankle, Jock ignored the wound and continued to play his bagpipes to rally the troops. While he was recovering in hospital, he composed Lochanside and The Battle of Magersfontein, which is still played by pipers to this day.

John left the army in 1903 and after his return to Scotland he joined the Govan Police Pipe Band, later the City of Glasgow Police Pipe Band and Strathclyde Police Pipe Band.

John became Pipe Major of the 8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in 1919, a year after the Great War ended, and remained in that post until he retired in 1930.

When John died in Dunoon Cottage Hospital on July 31, 1949, the Anglo Boer War Association recorded this tribute: ‘McLellan’s fame as a composer of pipe music as well as a piper spread far from his native shores, and he will long be remembered in every corner of the world where Scotsmen foregather.’

‘Considering Jock wrote many of his most popular tunes over 100 years ago, and during his life he never actually published his own collection of pipe tunes, it’s amazing so much of his music is now available online,’ writes Duggy. Many of Jock’s tunes continue to be performed by pipers at highland games, and today his music can also be heard online on YouTube and Spotify.

At the end of August 2020, The Cowal Highland Gathering in Dunoon, held the world’s first virtual highland gathering, including the Lads of Argyll’s tribute to McLellan.

When MSPs recently called on the Scottish Government to replace the unofficial national anthem Flower of Scotland, the contenders included songs by Robert Burns, Dougie McLean, and a tune by John McLellan, Bloody Fields of Flanders, set to Scots lyrics by the poet Hamish Henderson for the peace marchers at Holy Loch in the 1960s. It was beamed to millions across the world from Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games in 2014, under its new name Freedom Come All Ye.

You can read more about Pipe Major John McLellan DCM on Duggy’s tribute website johnmclellandcm.weebly.com, and listen to McLellan’s many tunes via Duggy’s playlists on Spotify.