Gordon Duncan (1964 – 2005)

a Brief Biography

They say that music flows in the blood, and if that is true, then there was always likely to be plenty of it pumping through the veins of Gordon Arthur Duncan. Born at Turriff Cottage Hospital, Aberdeenshire, on the 14th of May 1964, he was the youngest son of Jock and Frances Duncan who at the time were tenants on a farm at West Monkshill, some three miles north east of the village of Fyvie. Jock worked the soils of the small, mixed farm while Frances kept house and made wonderful cheese in this beautiful rural setting looking out to Benachie. This north east neuk of Scotland had been home to both sides of the family for generations: working the land, singing songs and playing tunes had been the way of things for as long as Jock could remember. His mother had been a very fine pianist, and was in great demand as an accompanist for many’s a fiddler around the ferm touns of the area.  His older brother, Jimmy, was himself a grand fiddler, taught by the great J.F. Dickie, and he brought players and singers from all around to regular soirees at their parents’ home which became the favoured ‘ceilidh house’ of the district. Jock’s sister, Marion, was a fine singer, and regular visitors included their father’s cousin, Charlie Duncan, a master of the bothy ballads, and whose repertoire and style were a significant influence on the youthful Jock.

All this, of course, was long before Gordon was born, but the music had become deeply rooted within the family, and Jock carried it on, serving as the conduit for its journey down to the next generation. Jock himself had learned the pipes in his younger day, although regular headaches when playing prevented him from following that road for very long, but he retained a deep love for the sound and music of the pipes throughout his life. Jock’s own great cultural contribution was in the form of song. His repertoire of bothy ballads, cornkisters and the ‘muckle sangs’ – the big ballads – was second to none, and by the time Gordon was growing up, Jock was becoming recognised as one of the greatest traditional singers of his generation anywhere in Scotland.

Jock and Frances initially raised their family there in the north east, with Ian, Moira and Frances May all appearing in turn, before Gordon arrived some nine years later. Soon afterwards, Jock decided to leave the farming ways behind, and took up a new career with the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board. His first posting was in the far north, the whole family moving with him to Caithness where they settled at Durran just a few miles from Thurso. The three older children all went to school there, but Gordon was not yet of age, and stayed at home, amusing himself with singing. Young Frances remembers that when he went to bed each night, still young enough to be in a cot, he used to sing “Yellow Submarine”. He was too young to pronounce the words, but the tune was spot on and after every chorus he would change key, getting higher each time. The song seemed to go on for ages!

After just short of two years in Caithness, the family headed south to Perthshire, moving into one of the ‘Hydro Electric Houses’ just down from the Pitlochry Dam and across the River Tummel from where Pitlochry Theatre now stands. 3B Tummel Crescent was to remain home for Jock and Frances for the rest of their days, and Gordon would call Pitlochry home for the rest of his. The family had to keep a close eye on him in those first few years there, as he would be playing away in the garden one minute, and within seconds he would disappear. He loved the river that ran past the back of the house and that was where he was usually to be found, just standing there, hands in his pockets and gazing at the water, a happy boy (though interestingly, he never learned to swim!) All his schooling was undertaken in Pitlochry and he was later to pay tribute to that fact with one of his best-known compositions, ‘Pitlochry High School Centenary’. And in his first few years at school it wasn’t so much music as sport which attracted him. Gordon was a natural athlete, and he excelled at distance running in particular.

Elder brother Ian had begun to learn the pipes while the family were still living in Aberdeenshire, receiving his early tuition from Pipe Major James Robertson of Banff, composer of several well-known tunes including Farewell to the Creeks which he had composed while a prisoner of war in Germany in 1915. He was serving in the Gordon Highlanders at that time, and was a close friend of one of the greatest pipers and composers of all time, GS MacLennan. Gordon therefore grew up hearing the practice chanter and the full pipes being played regularly in the house by his older brother, who was some 13 years his senior, and who was already playing to a very high standard by the time Gordon was born. And so it was of no great surprise when, aged 10, Gordon too began to show interest in the pipes, and it was Jock who gave him his first lessons in Pitlochry, Ian having by then moved out of the family home. Gordon instantly became inseparable from the instrument. Before he set off for school every morning he would practise, developing the finger strength and dexterity that would later allow him to play so intricately. His sister, Frances, remembers that Gordon would come straight in from school, head upstairs to his bedroom, and practise his pipes for hours, keeping time with his foot. “I remember Mum telling me he went through the floor with his foot as he always stood in the same spot in the bedroom!”

With Gordon progressing rapidly, and clearly besotted with the instrument, Jock felt he had taken him as far as he could, and decided it was time to find a more experienced teacher. He settled on Walter Drysdale of Methil in Fife, a tutor of huge ability who was always willing to take on young players as long as they worked hard and committed themselves to practise. And that was never an issue for Gordon! Walter had been a very successful competitor in his own day, but his demanding job as an engineer and manager at the Westfield mine in Fife, at the time the largest open cast mining operation in Europe, meant that he found it very difficult to get time off to compete. He took to teaching and judging instead, and was hugely committed to both. A no-nonsense kind of man, Walter was a hard task master and made sure that his pupils developed a meticulous finger technique to their playing, as well as a nuanced understanding of the music itself. It was a powerful combination, and Gordon continued to thrive. In his early teens he began to compete in junior competitions, and success came immediately, winning prizes every time he went out. As the photographs of the time show, by the age of 15 he was bringing home a major haul of trophies, and was starting to earn a reputation as one of the most promising young players in the country. He continued to go to Walter for tuition for around 14 years in total.

Meanwhile Ian had completed his schooling at Pitlochry High School and then Breadalbane Academy before heading to Aberdeen University to study Electrical Engineering. While at University, Ian joined the University Officers Training Corp to play in the pipe band (and find somewhere to practise!) with his friends Jack Taylor, Bill Wotherspoon and Willie Donaldson. Being in Aberdeen also gave Ian, Jack and Bill the opportunity to take a bus to Braemar for lessons in piobaireachd from the two men considered to be the greatest teachers of their day, Bob Brown and Bob Nichol, ‘the Bobs of Balmoral’. All three friends were competing successfully in the adult solo competitions, with both Jack and Bill going on to win the prestigious gold medal. After graduating from Aberdeen University Ian moved to Dundee to complete a year of teacher training college before starting work as a maths teacher, returning home to take up his first teaching post in Pitlochry High School. In the summer holidays Ian, with Roderick S MacDonald and Jim Menzies would take Gordon with them to compete at Highland Games all over the North of Scotland. Gordon’s initital piping career, therefore, followed the common pattern. He learned in a highly traditional style, studied and played pibroch as well as light music, embraced the culture of competition, and looked set to challenge for all the top prizes, awards and accolades that path could bring for the world’s top players. It was only later that Gordon decided to follow – indeed to help create  – a new piping path altogether.

As well as competing in solo competition, Gordon followed the other conventional route for pipers, and joined the local pipe band. Ian had played in the Vale of Atholl in his teens before he went to university and within months of coming back to work in Pitlochry, Allan Cameron, the pipe major, decided to retire and Ian was asked to take over. At that time the Vale of Atholl was a ‘parade’ band rather than a competing band, and marched down the main street of the town twice weekly in the summer tourist season, and performed at the ‘Highland Nights’ in the recreation park, almost next door to the Duncan home in Tummel Crescent. One of the first things Ian did when he became pipe major, in 1974, was to ask Allan Cameron to help him teach the young players coming through the band. He knew that any musical organisation needed to attract and train a regular flow of young players, and Allan turned out to be an excellent tutor. He taught a core group of young pipers from Pitlochry, including Gary West, Malcolm Robertson, Sharon Walker and Stevie Saint.

The Vale of Atholl Pipe Band played at their first pipe band competition at Scone Palace in 1975, and then competed at their first world championships in the border town of Hawick in 1976. Pipe bands compete in a graded system, rather like the football leagues, and new bands begin at the bottom of the ladder, in Grade 4. They could hardly believe it when at the prize giving at the end of the day, 6th place in Grade 4 went to – the Vale of Atholl! It was their first taste of success, and although modest in nature, it was the sign of things to come. In the piping ranks was a young Gordon Duncan playing alongside his brother and some of the other young pipers who were being taught by Allan Cameron. Things didn’t go so well at the world championships the following year, the band finishing in last place! But by 1978 the young players were gaining in experience and the Vale swept the boards in Grade 4, winning all five major championships including the World title, resulting in promotion to Grade 3. 1979 saw the band repeat that same feat at the higher level, taking all five titles once again. For those who had joined the band the previous year, they didn’t know what it was like not to win! Having been promoted to Grade 2 in time for the 1980 season, reality kicked in, and the band found it much tougher to get into the top end of the prize list. The pipe corps was doing well, but the drum corps needed new blood and leadership. Top drummer, John Moneagle, was invited to join and he had the experience and drive required at that level, and results began to improve. Promotion to Grade 1 came at the end of 1983.

By then Gordon had taken part in several overseas trips with the band, including one to Germany in 1978, followed by the first taste of Breton culture with a trip to Lorient Festival on the west coast of Brittany in France in 1980. That was to be the first of many for Gordon, who took to the Breton style of piping immediately, and they certainly took to him! Now in his mid teens, Gordon was developing a style of playing that began to move him away from conventional approaches to piping, and along with a small handful of others, he began to stretch the musical boundaries which at that time were still rather strictly held – and policed! His musical influences were many and varied, but along with the rest of the Vale, Gordon was especially attracted to the music of Ireland. The big folk bands that emerged from there in the 1970s were standard listening fare on the band bus – Planxty, the Bothy Band, and a little later, the Moving Hearts enlivened many a long trip, while Scottish bands such as the Tannahill Weavers, Ossian, the Battlefield Band and Silly Wizard were well represented too. Away from the folk scene, Gordon also loved the heavy, guitar-led sound of the likes of The Damned, Black Sabbath, Motorhead and in particular, Irish rock guitar hero, (for whom he was later to write a tune), Rory Gallagher. All this, and more, was grist to the musical mill for Gordon, whose edgy, exciting, unpredictable and highly innovative approach to playing began to turn heads and ears wherever and whenever he ‘got the sticks out’. Sitting on a stool in the corner of a bar, he’d fire into a set of reels, and within seconds the whole room was mesmerised. Little wonder that the hundreds of musicians from all over the Celtic world who gathered in Lorient each year began to seek him out. They had never heard his likes before. It was at this time that he also began to earn another kind of reputation – for doing daft and crazy things! Whether sitting pillion on a motorbike playing his pipes as his host sped through the streets of Lorient, or playing a tune half way up the mast of the Rothesay Ferry, the folklore surrounding Gordon Duncan’s exploits is legendary – and all true!

And there was more to come! Top flight status in the pipe band world brings a good deal of attention, respect and kudos, and the invitations for overseas trips and concerts began to flood in, including one to travel to the Santa Rosa Highland Games in California in 1984. It was on that trip that Gordon’s famous ‘Xray machine’ incident took place. The band flew from Heathrow to San Francisco, a journey which involved a change of plane on the east coast of the States. After landing in Newark, they were negotiating security en route to the next flight, and several of the younger band members were gathered around one of the luggage Xray machines, watching the operator’s screen, intrigued to see what a skeletal bagpipe looked like as it passed through. Suddenly, the operator shrieked, as a distinctly human skeleton appeared on her screen, as moments later Gordon emerged feet first, lying flat on his back, and playing his practice chanter! She didn’t see the funny side! It did inspire a great logo, however, one that can be seen on t shirts, music books, websites and indeed tattooed on the skin of at least two of his pupils, to this day!

A lot of the material that the Vale of Atholl were playing at that time was arranged by Gordon, who had taken on the role of pipe sergeant in the band. To begin with, he introduced quite a bit of the repertoire from these folk bands they had been listening to on the coach journeys, adapted from their original Irish versions to fit the more limited nine note scale of the highland pipes. To arrange tunes in this way is far from easy, and requires a real flair and imagination in order to avoid the impression that they have been forced into a new shape against their will, as it were. Gordon certainly had the knack, however, and it was also very good practice for his own emerging composing interests. Soon he was writing his own tunes, slipping them into the pipe band repertoire, but increasingly performing them in his own recitals and gigs too. One of the first to be released to the world remains one of his best known to this day – Andy Renwick’s Ferret, the first pipe tune in the world to be composed using a note which doesn’t normally belong to the scale of the highland bagpipe – a C Natural – opening up the ability to play in a minor key. But there were plenty more in that vein, and by his mid-twenties, Gordon was becoming recognised as one of the most exciting composers of his generation and like GS MacLennan almost a century earlier, he developed a style or flavour of tune which he made very much his own. They are played throughout the world to this day, not only on bagpipes, but on a whole range of instruments. Many of them have earned the ultimate accolade of often being mis-labelled as ‘trad’!

Another innovation which began to take place from the 1980s in particular was the move of a select few pipe bands into the realm of full concert performance, and along with the likes of Dysart and Dundonald and the 78th Fraser Highlanders, the Vale jumped at the chance to take to the stage as well as to the competition circle. Gordon’s compositions and arrangements, which didn’t always go down too well with the more conservative-minded judges (which was nearly all of them!), were ideally suited to a concert setting, while the close friendship he and Ian had developed with Roddy S MacDonald, another prolific composer of modern times, allowed the Vale to integrate his exciting new approach into their set list too. On several occasions, the band shared a stage with singer and bouzuki player, Davy Steele, who had recently joined the folk band, Ceolbeg. Gordon had already gained some experience of playing in folk lineups, and spent a brief spell playing with Ian Sherwood and Hudson Swan (later recording an album with them in 1990), and he filled in on occasional tours with the emerging folk rock band, Wolfstone. But he jumped at the offer to join Ceolbeg, and toured with them for two or three years. They were a part time outfit, however, and when an invitation came to replace piper Iain MacInnes in the Tannahill Weavers, Gordon accepted. He had begun to serve his time as an apprentice joiner by then, but the lure of a full time career in music was stronger than his desire to learn a trade. ‘The Tannies’ had been touring regularly for over two decades by then, and were hugely popular throughout Europe, North America and beyond, and so many thousands of people each year were given the chance to see and hear the new star of Scottish traditional music – Gordon Duncan. His reputation as a new, exciting and innovative musician was growing very quickly and he was in great demand to tour and record with a wide range of other musicians, including internationally acclaimed singer, Dougie MacLean. It wasn’t just his piping that attracted these top musicians, as he had also become known as one of Scotland’s finest exponents of the low whistle. He had travelled to Ireland in his early twenties to learn from the best, and along with the likes of Iain MacDonald and Fred Morrison, he began what has become recognised now as a distinctly pipes-influenced new style of whistle playing in Scotland, that has been taken up and moved on by many players from the next generations.

From a relatively young age, Gordon began to show great skill as a teacher, and as all those who benefitted from his advice and guidance always remark, he was very encouraging and generous with his time. The early 1980s had seen the development of a juvenile band, which proved to be a wonderful feeder band for the senior Vale. Sponsored by the Scottish Youth Hostels Association the SYHA Vale of Atholl were led initially by James Bain from Crieff and then by Sharon Walker from Pitlochry, and later by Gordon. He took his role very seriously, always travelling back with them from competitions on their bus, rather than joining his mates in the senior band. Invariably the pipes would come out, Gordon would start things off, and then hand them round the bus, encouraging everyone to have a tune. To hear Gordon in full flow in those relaxed and informal situations was hugely inspirational for all of these young players, but two in particular became hooked. Ross Ainslie and Ali Hutton, now internationally renowned players in their own right, always acknowledge the debt they owe to Gordon, and both have continued to share Gordon’s music with the world.

To be continued….