Don MacLeod of Vernon plays the pipes outside Dunvegan Castle

Don MacLeod of Vernon plays the pipes outside Dunvegan Castle

A piper goes ‘home’ to Scotland

Vernon pipe major Don MacLeod packs up his bagpipes for an emotional trip to the land of his ancestors

It was an emotional homecoming for Don MacLeod as he sailed into the harbour on the Isle of Eigg, one of the Hebridean Islands, just south of the Isle of Skye.

To celebrate his 60th birthday, MacLeod was returning to the place his grandfather had left at the turn of the 20th century.

“It’s hard to put into words how I was feeling,” said MacLeod, a Vernon fitness trainer, bagpipe teacher and pipe major with the North Okanagan Pipes and Drums.

Earlier this year, MacLeod and his wife, Grace, travelled to the place of his ancestors, arriving in Aberdeen, Scotland. It was a dream come true for MacLeod, who had long yearned to make the journey back to his ancestral homeland.

The couple was lucky enough to have local tour guides in their friends Roy and Eunice Ferguson and their children, Dan and Emma.

MacLeod first met the Fergusons when they moved to Armstrong several years ago before returning home to Scotland in 2013.

“I taught their son Daniel to play the pipes while they were here,” he said. “We had become very good friends while they were here and were very sad to see them leave.

“We stayed with them in Alford, just outside of Aberdeen, and traveled around Scotland with them in a nine-passenger Volkswagen van. They were our tour guides and ‘interpreters’ of the Scottish language.”

Among the many highlights of the trip, the Isle of Eigg stands out. The sun was shining as MacLeod and his travelling companions approached the island on the Atlantic Ocean; overhead, two jets flew past and inadvertently made the sign of the Scottish cross with their jet streams.

“Dan and I took out our pipes and stood on the back of the ferry and played as we pulled into the harbour,” said MacLeod. “It’s  always an honour for me to perform like that with my students and I had the privilege to play pipes with him on the ferry and at all of our other sites.

“My must-see on this trip was definitely Eigg, and I had the sense that I’m coming home.”

The travellers were met at the ferry by third cousin Duncan Ferguson, whom MacLeod had been emailing in anticipation of the trip, as well as Ian Campbell, a fellow whom MacLeod assumed was a local historian but turned out to also be related — his fifth cousin once removed.

“We walked along and went up through a forest and as we were walking, we saw a great big white house and I was told that was my great-grandfather’s house.”

Another spot marked the place where his grandfather had built his home; Grace sat in the middle of what would have been the house and MacLeod pulled out his pipes and played a lament for his long gone relatives.

Then it was off to his great-great grandfather’s home. MacLeod learned a little more about his relative: it turns out that Lachlan MacLeod had his own still and supplied whisky to the whole island.

“My great-grandmother was a McQuorrie and my great-grandfather was known as the grand piper of Eigg.

“I played my pipes on my birthday at my grandmother’s cottage. We celebrated with a whisky cake and a bottle of champagne.”

A highlight of MacLeod’s trip to Scotland was a visit to Dunvegan Castle, ancestral home of the Chiefs of Clan MacLeod for 800 years.

When MacLeod signed the guest book, he noticed another Don MacLeod had already signed it. It turns out his namesake was visiting from Merritt. And then he met a Donald Ian MacLeod at the castle, from Aberdeen.

“There are quite a few of us around the world, and it was great to tour the family castle — it’s the oldest working castle in Great Britain, but when I asked why they didn’t have a piper playing in front of the castle every day, I was told that the chieftain won’t allow it.”

For MacLeod, Scottish food highlights included fish and chips and a deep-fried version of that classic Scottish dish, haggis.

“I love haggis and this made it even better.”

Back home in Vernon, MacLeod has been busy going through the more than 1,000 photos he took during his once-in-a-lifetime holiday to his ancestral home.

“This has been the perfect holiday, I was worried about Grace as this was all about me and my heritage but she absolutely loved it, so my worries were for nothing.”

The MacLeods toured the country for 17 days, including stops in Glasgow, Inverness, Edinburgh and the Isle of Skye.

MacLeod spends a good part of his day playing, teaching or thinking about the bagpipes. Grace, born and raised in the Philippines, is right there alongside her husband.

“Grace puts up with them — she plays tenor drum in our band and she’s very good, but if she didn’t have pipes in her life, it wouldn’t bother her.”

The North Okanagan Pipes and Drums practises Wednesdays at 7 p.m. at the House of Dwarfs Daycare Centre, #108, 5145-26th St., and new members are always welcome. For more information, please call MacLeod at 250-260-1001, see or just drop in to the weekly practice.