Saturday (March 10) sees the annual Duncan Johnstone Memorial competition held at the Piping Centre. Duncan was a master player, teacher and composer. Never a great competitor, however in this third instalment of this interview with editor Robert Wallace in 1996, he talks of the famous evening when he beat P/M Donald MacLeod in the final of the SPA Knockout in Glasgow……
Did you never have a go at Oban and Inverness?
No, never, though I used to learn the tunes every year and I still look them up. I was just not interested enough on competing, in whether I could beat Tom, Dick or Harry. I liked to play well right enough. I played once at Cowal. It was old George MacDonald who was judging and the tune he gave me was Grain in Hides and Corn in Sacks. It was a bad day so we were playing inside a hall. I was going great guns but in the crunluath a mach I went into In Praise of Morag. I finished the tune and turned round and MacDonald was laughing his head off. But I won the strathspey and reel that day.
Apart from that contest I did a few other games such as Taynuilt and Luss. John MacDonald of the Glasgow Police (below) took me up to Lochaber once and I played once at Braemar when I was in the Glasgow Corporation Transport band under big Donald MacLean. I enjoyed my time with the band and we had one memorable trip to Fontainbleau in France in 1953. lt was all part of the Coronation celebrations. I remember playing for Donald who was a helluva good dancer as well as being a top piper.
Who were the pipers who impressed you then?
There was Donald MacPherson in piobaireachd. He was brilliant, but he wasn’t the same master at the light music. Another was Bob Hardie. His technique was just like Bobby Reid, really good hard technique. John and Roddy MacDonald and latterly wee Donald MacLeod. I got on well with the wee man. He had retired from the Army and came down to run Grainger’ s shop and I used to visit him regularly when I was a joiner on the Clan Line.
People still talk about the famous ‘knockout’ competitions between you and him.
The first one was run by the Scottish Pipers’ Association in 1964. I wasn’t invited to play but John MacFadyen was the president and he called in at my house in Aitkenhead Road one Saturday. He suggested we should go up to the pipers’ club that night in the Highlanders’ Institute where they were making the draw. I went up with him because we often enjoyed a dram together John and I. I was sitting in the audience and John was on the stage with the committee. He came walking up to me and said Ronnie MacCallum, or maybe it was John MacKenzie, had called off an would I stand in. I said okay and was drawn against Hector MacFadyen, Pennyghael, in the first round. I managed to beat him, which was good for me because Hector and his pal Jimmy Young were winning prizes all over the place.
My secret was giving the audience a mixture of everything and trying to limit my tuning. That seemed to go down well. I used to start with the heavy stuff, good strathspeys and reels and then take it down into some 6/8s and then finish with the jigs and hornpipes just to get the feet really going.
I can’t remember who I got in the next round, but I got through to the final against the wee man [P/M MacLeod]. I remember talking to him the day before and I asked him if he was all ready for the final the following day. He said, ‘No, no, Tuncan, I haven’t looked at my pipes all week!’ I said to myself ‘aye, that’ll be right’.
On the night John MacFadyen tossed up and I lost so I had to play first. All the contestants who had been knocked out in the earlier rounds were there. They had been invited to the meal with us beforehand so there was quite an atmosphere. When we finished we went down to get the pipes going and Donald was having a problem with his new Grainger chanter. John, who was his partner in the business, was in with him trying to sort it out. I eventually got rid of them and got a chance to tune up and went on and played. When I finished I thought I had played well. I put the pipes away and came up to listen to the wee man and by God his playing was outstanding. I said to myself you little so-and-so. But then the result came out and I had won it. it. The audience had voted for me. Donald came up right away and shook my hand and said well done.
The following year Donald had dropped out and I got to the final against Iain McLeod of the Edinburgh Police. I lost the toss again and had to play first but in the end I got the vote of the audience. Ian came up and shook my hand and said, ‘What the hell have you got against the MacLeods!’ After that I didn’t want to take part again but the following year John said I would have to defend my title having won it twice. So I agreed and got to the semi-final where I was picked against John himself. Angus MacLellan was playing in the other semi against Iain MacFadyen, John’s brother. Needless to say it was a John and lain final… definitely a carve up!
• The final part of this interview to follow. Read other instalments here.