Pipe Band History: P/M Ian Duncan and Vale of Atholl PIpe Band

This short interview was made in 2001 when P/M Duncan retired after his landmark time at the Vale of Atholl Pipe Band. As well as taking the band from Grade 4 to the top of Grade 1 in 11 years, Ian and his brother Gordon set the trend for much of the pipe band music that is played today. A significant achievement. Ian is now a respected senior solo adjudicator and pipe major of the non-competing Atholl Highlanders Pipe Band.

Top Three in the Worlds from the Depths of Grade Four

by P/M Ian Duncan

‘From  my earliest days I have always been involved with bands. I was started on the pipes by Jimmy Robertson, the man who wrote the 6/8 march Farewell to the Creeks. This was when we when I lived up In Banffshire. I also had lessons from my father Jock. When I was 14 we moved to Pltlochry and I continued my lessons with Dr [Kenneth] McKay at Laggan, and when I went to university in Aberdeen I had instruction from Bob Brown and Bob Nicol [the ‘Bobs of Balmoral’] and later Bert Barron [St Andrews].

‘This was essentially tuition for solo piping but my early lessons had involved the band scene as Jimmy Robertson had taught the Turriff and District band. The Vale of Atholl band had been formed in 1906. They were never a competing band. Local piping tutor Allan Cameron, winner of the Balvenie Medal for services to piping, taught all the local pipers, and in 1974 when I took over the band, I kept Allan on to teach the youngsters.

‘At this point I was teaching maths but then I took on teaching piping in the evenings in the local schools before going on to be a full-time piping teacher in the schools in 1979. My first contest with the Vale was in 1975 when we were 6th out of six bands in the Scone Palace Grade Four competition and we were last in Grade Four in the Worlds that year! It didn’t seem possible to get to the top but within two or three years we won all five majors in Grade Four and followed this up by winning all five in Grade Three.

Ian with the Vale…his late brother Gordon, on whom he relied so much, is far left

‘All the while I was teaching youngsters and building up the strength of the band. In all we achieved ten majors in a row. Once in Grade Two we hit a bit of a barrier; we were always first in piping but last in drumming. I had to headhunt a few drummers and after four years we made it from Grade Two to Grade One. That was in 1983. Drumming was always a problem for us but we did manage to attract the likes of Paul Turner to play with us and that was a big bonus. If I had my time again then I think I would have headhunted drummers a bit sooner, but at the start I didn’t know how good we were going to get.

‘The old marking system seemed to favour us better. Now there is a lot more emphasis on drumming competition. When we started you could survive on good piping. The best we managed in Grade One was third in the Worlds in 1989 and 1990 as well as a British title in ’89, and a European in 1988. It took us 11 years to go from the bottom of Grade Four to winning the European Championship at Glenrothes in 1988. My big influences early on were Muirhead & Sons, and Strathclyde Police, and I also liked the new ideas and excitement generated by Dysart and Dundonald. Bob Hardie was always very supportive. When we were in Grade Three he always told people watch out for us and that was very encouraging. 

Vale of Atholl in 1993 on receiving a £75,000 five-year sponsorship deal with Pitlochry-based textile firm Macnaughtons

‘I like to think that as well as being a successful competing band the Vale helped forge new frontiers for the pipe band. Some of our new stuff didn’t go down well with the judges but we were able to put on three concerts in Ballymena for example and achieved a name for innovation. This was largely down to my brother Gordon and to Roddy MacDonald of London [now Queensland, Australia]. Gordon in particular was a real help to me. He was in charge of all the musical arrangements and I couldn’t thank him enough. He was my right hand and I couldn’t have achieved what I did without him. 


Perfect for Xmas! 

‘We did attract a fair bit of interest from abroad and made trips all over the world including Japan, Malaysia and a particularly memorable visit to Santa Rosa in California in 1984. We also made three CDs. In the end I suppose I was worn out by the band and the hard work and the hassles. However, despite retiring from the band I am still fully involved in piping. I am the schools teacher for Dundee [since retired]. I suppose I have had hundreds of kids through my hands over the years but I am very happy doing it. It is something I really enjoy. Andy Renwick has taken over the band with my blessing and I wish him well. I think most of the membership are staying on. Looking back I am happy that we managed to stay in the big time for 10 years or so achieving 86 first prizes. I am now aged 50 and will have more time to spend with Chris and our family and that is something I am really looking forward to.’

Does anyone have memories of their time with the Vale in these glory days? Please comment below or email pipingpress@gmail.com