Next month sees the annual Duncan Johnstone Memorial competition held at the Piping Centre. A few weeks ago piper, composer and adjudicator Stuart Finlayson, New Zealand, regaled us with tales of the late master piper who was so influential on so many people. Today we begin the first part of an interview conducted by our Editor Robert Wallace in 1996 shortly after Duncan had been awarded the Balvenie Medal for Service to Piping (above)….
Some of the loudest cheers at the recent Glenfiddich Championship were for the announcement that Duncan Johnstone had won the Balvenie Medal for services to piping. The award was in recognition of more than 50 years as a first-rate teacher, composer and performer. No one deserved it more. In these amusing and informative reminiscences Duncan, no mean raconteur, talks about his first half century of dedication to piping. We chatted in the back room of the comfortable home he shares with his wife Isa on the south side of Glasgow.
How had it all begun?
I was nine years of age when I started piping. I was living just off Paisley Road in Glasgow. A mate of mine was going for lessons. My father was from Benbecula and was mad keen on piping but was a very a poor piper himself. He got me to go along with this pal of mine to Angus Campbell. Angus was a policeman and lived at Anderston Cross. He was from Ballachulish and had been taught by John MacColl and Willie Lawrie. He was an excellent and very correct. Everything had to played spotlessly clean. I remember competing on the practice chanter in 1938 and Calum Johnstone from Barra was the judge so I won a prize.
I’ve still got it to this day. Do you know what it was? – bear in mind I was only a boy – wa whisky flask! It must have been an investment for when I was older. When I got on the pipes I joined the St Francis Boys Guild band and that was good fun. Then I left school and did my time as a cabinet-maker but kept going to Angus until the war broke out and I had to go into the Navy. I didn’t want to go into general service on destroyers and battleships and things like that, so I put in for training on submarine survey boats and minesweepers. I was based at Lowestoft for a while then I was sent to Malta.
I didn’t have my pipes with me at all but I do remember meeting some army bandsmen in the Mediterranean. I was on an ASDIC (Anti Submarine Detection) boat, the sort that listened out for the U-boats. Our job was to go ahead of the convoys and take them right through to Alexandria in Egypt. They would go on through the Suez Canal and we would head back to Gibraltar and begin all over again.
Well, it was dodgy I suppose: We did that for a while and then when the Germans were moved out of Italy, and the Italians had caved in, I was put on to minesweepers and we had to clear up mines in the seas around Italy. I was there for quite a while and then we were moved to Greece. It was while I was in the Aegean that that I met some pipers.
We had put into an island for supplies etc. I was sitting down in the mess deck. I should have been drinking my daily tot of rum but we used to bottle it and keep it for a party. You couldn’t do that on the destroyers. You had to drink it in front of the officer but we only had three officers on the ship – the skipper, a first lieutenant and a cadet. They didn’t bother.
This particular morning I was in the mess and I heard a pipe band. Now we were tied up right at the village main street. So I jumped up on deck right away and there was the Black Watch pipe band. They marched up past the boat, counter marched and formed a circle, and then played for a while. The minute they stopped I went up to the Pipe Major and asked him if he would like to come on the boat for a dram. He says ‘oh aye, sure’. So he came down to the mess deck along with his pipe sergeant. I got out my bottle of rum – it was real Jamaica rum. Inside half an hour the pipe major’s eyeballs were birling.
He says ‘listen, we’re having a do tonight in the billet just down the road. Would you like to come with one of your pals?’ I said ‘definitely’ and asked him his name. He said ‘Tom McWhirr’. Well, I’d never heard of piper of that name and I asked him if he had been playing the pipes long. He said he’d learned the pipes in BB and that he used to play junior football in Glasgow.
They left then and we had a job getting them up because there was just a hole in the deck and a straight ladder down to the mess deck. We had to make sure we were right behind them to get them up. So me and my mate who was from the east end of Glasgow, went to the billet that night. The soldiers we playing the pipes and they had beer and whisky; you name it, they had it. We were having a great time. McWhirr got me to sit beside him and he got his pipers to play. Most were just Army players and I asked if I could have try. They all looked at one another then McWhirr said ‘on you go’.
I started taking the drones out to turn them on to my right shoulder. No, no they said you don’t do that. McWhirr said ‘let him carry on’. They were all laughing. So I started to play and could tell they were impressed. When stopped McWhirr said ‘you never told me you were a piper!’ I said ‘you never, asked!’
We had a great night altogether. The following morning the CO of the Black Watch came down and asked the skipper if I wanted to transfer to the regiment. He would make sure I got straight into the band and they would give me pipes and all that. I asked if could think it over. But the war had ended and I was wanting an early demob to go back and finish my time, so I turned him down.
• Read later excerpts of this interview here