I talked yesterday of the Piobaireachd Society Conference and the clear air in Highland Perthshire, writes the Editor. Yesterday evening, after a lengthy meeting, I took to it and strolled over Thomas Telford’s elegant Dunkeld Bridge, stopping at an inn for a well-earned refreshment.
The place was called ‘The Taybank’ and I was delighted to find on the wall a framed memorial to the late Gordon Duncan. In a glass covered display to the left of the bar are his reeds, pipe chanter, whistle, blowstick and a fitting tribute from former Scotsman journalist Jim Gilchrist.
Written in 2005 a few days after Gordon’s passing aged only 41, it reads...’Gordon Duncan was arguably the most innovative and influential piper of his generation. A virtuoso on the Highland bagpipe who pushed out the envelope in terms of technique and inventive musicality, his exuberant pyrotechnics and unorthodox and gleefully irreverent approach enraged a few among piping’s old guard but inspired many young pipers to follow in his turbulent wake and take the instrument to the limit.
‘Best known as a soloist, Duncan, who was found dead at his home at Edradour, Pitlochry, last Wednesday, was also for many years a catalytic element within the ranks of the innovative Vale of Atholl Pipe Band of which his older brother Ian was pipe major. A compulsive composer, during his tragically short life he left a wealth of often idiosyncratic pipe tunes, many of which are now well established in the international pipe band and solo repertoire.
‘Perhaps the most popular, the reel Andy Renwick’s Ferret, is thought to have been recorded by more than 100 pipe bands, pipers, folk groups and others, while others now well established in the piping repertoire and beyond include The Belly Dancer, The Famous Baravan, Zito the Bubbleman and Pressed for Time.
‘Listening to him play, with a fluid ease and an insouciance which could make many a lesser piper feel like consigning his own instrument to the nearest bonfire, you were aware of both his utter musicality and how grounded he was in tradition and technique. His last CD featured both ‘straight’ 2/4 marches and pibrochs as well as a rip-roaring adaptation of its title tune, Thunderstruck – a number by rockers AC/DC, whose music comprised just some of the eclectic elements which informed his music from Irish, Breton and Galician piping to heavy rock.
‘Duncan was born in Turriff, the son of tenant farmer Jock Duncan (well known in the folk scene as a bothy ballad singer) and his wife Frances. Soon after Gordon’s birth, Jock joined the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board and moved, via a brief spell in Thurso, to Pitlochry where Gordon would live for virtually all his life.
‘He was initially taught the pipes by his father, then was sent to Walter Drysdale of Methil, who polished his playing, enabling the young player to make an impact on the junior piping competition circuit. Playing note correct for judges didn’t sit well with his maverick creativity however, and he gave up competing in his late teens.
‘Sometimes living as close to the edge as he played, Duncan plied a day job as a refuse collector with the local council, and was known to scribble a new tune on the back of a cigarette packet. He spent time with such notable folk bands as Ceolbeg and Wolfstone, while his years in the Vale of Atholl Pipe Band along with Ian as pipe major saw the band evolve within a decade from a local band pottering about Grade Four in the competition stakes into a formidable Grade 1 outfit which won the European Championship in the late Eighties.
‘Gordon was really my mentor,’ said his brother. ‘I was good at running a pipe band, but anything I did really revolved around Gordon and his musical ideas. If we’d played safe and perhaps a bit more boringly we might have got the World Championship. But we were more extrovert in the stuff we did, thanks to Gordon. He was quite special, unique…….’
‘Not a few of these tunes are likely to be aired at his funeral at the Church of Scotland in Pitlochry ………which is expected to attract some of the world’s best known pipers. Duncan is survived by his mother and father, brother and two sisters and by his son Gordon and his wife Mary.’
Well done to the Taybank for upholding Gordon’s memory in this way. I think he would have appreciated it.