About Ben Macdonald

Roll Back the Years (part 1)

My association with music, in common with most musicians, begins in childhood. A monstrous black piano (well it is gigantic to a bairn just becoming acquaint with his environment!) sat in the lounge and could make sounds that were wholly in keeping with its dark gargantuan appearance. It could also make little tinkling noises but then would try to snap your hand off if you climbed on it. It fascinated me. More so later when I came to understand that it was an instrument- that you could create music on it. My music was the thunder and lightening stuff of all kids – until I got predictably chased off.

The Challenge

Eventually my protests led to the challenge – “If you want to play it you should learn properly.” So I joined those other cleaned and polished kids, music satchel in hand (a dead giveaway to your macho mates who would never indulge in such a “sissy” activity) and before long, constantly practiced exam pieces sounded quite accomplished, and Little Richard impressions brought admirers round the piano.#

A Family of Pipers

I was taught to play classical music and to look disdainfully at more common forms such as traditional, folk and pop. The closest I got to traditional Scottish Music in childhood was to sit quietly with my toys on Saturday night when great Bands such as Jimmy Shand and Bobby McLeod performed on the radio. That was followed by a piping recital. It was usually too complex for me to enjoy but as my Dad had been a Piper the music was often around. I never had the opportunity to hear him play. Dad had been a Regimental Piper in the Seaforth Highlanders during the Great War but shrapnel wound in his right elbow left him unable to play. There was a chanter at home but my piano teacher would not allow me to pick it up, as it would “interfere with my piano technique.” In those days teacher knew best.

I have often wondered if I would have made the grade as a piper. The Macdonald tradition in piping however has been in good hands. Over the years the Thurso Pipe Band has regularly listed many of my uncles, cousins, nephews within its ranks.

Teenage Rebellion

I suppose it was teenage rebellion, which broke the hold of the Classical only music mentality for me. If Mrs Gunn, my music teacher for 10 years (both privately and in school) was disappointed that I was leaving school to take a job rather than go on to higher education, she could not believe it that I turned up as the Keyboard Player in a local band (“The Five Dollars”) a few weeks later for a school “prom.”

That was my first semi-pro gig. We got £8 between the five of us. I think that the left over ten shillings paid the roadie. Little did I realise that it was the start of an incredible journey through the years and through the country, leaving me with a vivid mental scrapbook of colours, sounds and people – from showbiz glitz to the edge of the underworld, from great show bands and showmen to modest musicians, hugely talented but content to keep it mostly to themselves.

A Better Musician is Out There

I recall a village hall gig in the north of Sutherland where our group were the support act to the internationally renowned Corries. The previous week they had played several nights to full houses at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh. Now here they were in a small local hall sharing their dressing room with the support act, the hall keeper’s dog and six or eight “tea ladies” (the room doubled as the kitchen.) I asked Ronnie Brown how they motivated themselves for such a small venue and audience after playing to thousands. His reply was a profound lesson to me. “You must always remember, no matter how good you think you are, there is someone out there in the audience, no matter how small, who is a better musician than you, but is appreciating and applauding your talent. They deserve the best you can give them.” That philosophy has served me well over the years.

Would you like to hear the rest of the story. Join us soon for the next installment of 'Roll Back the Years,' or alternatively Join the Ceilidh to be informed when the site is updated.

Back to Top

Next Live Broadcast:
1 Days

Images of Scotland - Photography by Ben Macdonald

Photography by Ben Macdonald Moments captured. Join Ben on a photographic tour of some of Scotlands most hidden treasures

Roll Back the Years

Ben Macdonald Read about Ben Macdonalds Life and Times.

Free Scottish Music Download

Download a couple of Ben Macdonald's latest traditional Scottish Music recordings - FREE

Scottish Music LIVE On-Air

Visit MORAY FIRTH RADIO (MFR) to listen to 'All Scottish' and hear Ben and John, live every Thursday night 19:00-22:00 GMT