A larger than life character, John MacAskill was born in 1944 and died in 2003. When he won the Gold Medal at Inverness, Seumas MacNeill wrote: ‘When the winner was announced men of discernment looked for ways to escape, men of experience prepared to batten down the hatches and men of neither are still wondering what happened.’
John’s family was from Berneray in the Western Isles and, though his father and uncles were pipers, learned his piping at the College of Piping, joining the classes there in 1957. Later he received instruction from Donald MacLeod and Angus MacPherson, hence the latter’s inclusion in the picture. When he started competing Dr John was immediately successful in the amateur ranks and later, when medical studies allowed and the urge was on him, would have a go at the professional.
He told me that, like Duncan Johnston, he really did not enjoy competing and once he had his Gold Medal that was enough for him. Thereafter John concentrated on teaching, judging and his doctor’s duties. He combined general practice with work for the Scottish Football Association’s medical team. He travelled the world with the SFA and enjoyed nothing better than being helicoptered into the big stadiums, floodlights, massive crowds – the perfect stage he said for the man with the ‘best fingers in Scotland’! Those fingers had brought him, in addition to his Gold Medal, the March at Inverness in 1964, at Oban in 1966 and the NM Strathspey and Reel in 1970.
He taught abroad on many occasions and this picture shows him at the Coeur d’Alene school in Idaho in 1971 with P/M Bob Hardie. Two more different personalities it would be hard to imagine, the one diffident, modest, taciturn versus the other’s ebullience, immodesty and engagement. Both brilliant in their own way, they got on famously.
Dr John’s life was cut tragically short by cancer, an illness he said he hated and was convinced had a viral connection. He left us a number of good tunes however and these will be a lasting legacy wherever and whenever Highland music is played.
Dr John’s reel Lexie MacAskill is the essence of simplicity and all the better for it. This, and an immediately attractive melody, ensured its instant success. I can’t remember whether the tune was written for Dr John’s mother or a sister of the same name. Here it is:
The important thing is to make good use of the off beats and not to play either too round or too pointed. Be careful to give the crotchets their full value. The second part is often rushed when pipers fail to do so. Be careful of the E doubling from F and D – keep them clean. As it is Christmas, here is a free audio lesson in how to play the tune. Firstly we have the tune at practice speed and then closer to performance tempo:
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• As ever we would be delighted to receive any further stories or information on Dr John.