Over the last few weeks we have been running the interview our Editor Robert Wallace conducted with Duncan Johnstone, master player, teacher and composer, in 1996. This is the final instalment of that interview ……
When did you start teaching?
I didn’t start teaching until the 1970s. I opened the school in Robertson Street in 1976 and when it closed in 1979 I started teaching in the house. I must have had dozens of pupils; I just can’t remember how many. I had a lot of good ones who stopped you know, and a lot of bad ones who didn’t (laughs).
I never felt it was difficult to put the message over. The pupil’s ability didn’t bother me. They had come to learn and I could always find a way round a problem. Teaching is always a challenge because you never get two people playing the same. It is just as hard to teach a good player as it is a bad one. The good ones think they know it all and give you queer looks when you try to tell them something – but I enjoy every minute of it.
It is the easiest thing in the world to pick someone up for a mistake but you mustn’t hammer them for it. Anyone can make a mistake. I’ve missed plenty of doublings myself. But I am a stickler for clean technique and getting it right. I suppose I’II keep teaching for a while yet. Some days I’m grateful I’ve no pupils then I get bored and I feel like dragging someone in off the street to teach them the pipes!
Do you think the standard of playing has gone down over the years?
Very much so. The style of playing has gone down. I listen to a lot of playing on the radio and I don’t get any music out of it at all. There’s some very good technical playing and good pipes but it is all so methodical it leaves you cold. I suppose judges have a duty to make sure good expression is rewarded. Everything is judged on the bagpipe now.
What do you think of the kitchen piping scene?
I think it’s here to stay because nearly every kid who comes to me knows some of it. They can play that stuff but they can’t control the fingers enough to play a 6/8 march. To tell you the truth I can’t play any of it and I don’t understand it either. Mind you I taught the man who started it, Neil Dickie. He used to live in Castlemilk and then emigrated to Canada. He was a good player.
I remember once Neil Angus MacDonald interviewed me on the radio. He said ‘Tuncan, I think you are a good player but I hate these hornpipes’. There weren’t many people playing hornpipes then so I suppose he regarded it as the kitchen piping of its day but we didn’t have false fingering.
When did you start composing?
I composed my first tune when I was a young boy in the St Francis Boys’ Pipe Band. I made a slow march then and I can still remember it to this day. I never even wrote it down but I’ll never forget it. I can’t remember how many tunes I’ve composed or collected but I picked up a lot by ear out in the islands.
It is difficult being original all the time. I’ve just finished a strathspey for Father MacInnes out in Ecuador. He became a great pal of mine when I taught at Feis Barra. I wanted it to be a lively tune just like himself, so I took the first part of a slow air and built a strathspey from it. P/M Angus MacDonald is bringing out a book three and has asked me if he can publish it [init].
The piobaireachd I wrote for my son the Lament for Alan has been included in a book of remembrance for the Dunblane tragedy.
What did you think of winning the Balvenie Medal?
I was delighted and thrilled. Isa took the phone call from a friend who had been up at the Glenfiddich. He told her I had been given a medal and she said ‘what for?’, then he explained. I am very, very grateful. It is nice to have a bit of recognition.
• Read the earlier instalments of this interview here and here is the short obituary for Duncan, written by his pupil P/M Iain MacDonald, Neilston Pipe Band as it appeared in the Glasgow Herald newspaper:
‘Duncan Johnstone, piper; born July 25,1925, died November 14, 1999. Born in Glasgow of Hebridean parentage, Duncan began his piping career at an early age with instruction from his father. Thereafter, he had tuition from Angus Campbell of Ballachulish, who recognised Duncan’s outstanding talents. During the war years, he saw active service in the Submarine Surveillance Mine Sweeping Service in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, and, on his return from war service, he resumed his piping instruction under the tutelage of Donald MacLean of Oban, and Roddy MacDonald of South Uist.
‘Duncan combined his piping career with completing an apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker in Glasgow’s shipyards, where he became, in time, foreman joiner with the Clan Line and Stephen shipyards, before taking up a full-time position as piping instructor at the College of Piping in Otago Street, 1974-1978. He was a well-respected teacher at home, and a very popular choice at numerous summer schools in North America. However, he was never more at home than with his family and friends from the islands, and was the first instructor and soloist at Feis Barra in 1980. During the late 1970s, Duncan had a school of piping in Robertson Street, Glasgow, where he produced two books of pipe music and three commercial recordings.
‘As a composer he excelled, and his masterpiece, Farewell to Nigg, which was played at his funeral service at St Helen’s Church, Langside, by his son, Neil, on cello, will be a lasting tribute to his composing skills. The service was conducted by Monsignor Hart and readings by Donald John MacInnes to a large congregation of family and friends. Laments at the church and graveside were played by Donald MacInnes of Strathclyde Police Pipe Band. In 1980, his son, Alan, lost his fight against leukemia and his courage prompted Duncan to compose a most poignant piobaireachd, Lament for my Son, Alan.
‘Duncan’s forte was undoubtedly as a soloist, but he had a brief association with the St Francis’s Boys’ Guild Pipe Band and, in the 1950s, was a piper and latterly Pipe Major of the City of Glasgow Corporation Transport Pipe Band. One of his accolades and proudest moments was when he made it to the final – and won – the Scottish Pipers’ Association Knockout Competition in 1964, against his dear friend Pipe Major Donald MacLeod, this being the first of this series of contests which exists to this day. He went on to win the competition again in 1966.
‘In 1996 Duncan was awarded the Balvenie Medal by Messrs Wm Grant & Son for his lifetime commitment to piping. His passing leaves his widow, Isa; sons Alex, Angus, Duncan, Ian, and Neil; daughters Margaret and Seonaid; and grandchildren.’