A Memorable, Unpublished Tune from the late P/M John D Burgess

A beautiful slow air by the late John D Burgess is published today. ‘Nancy’s Lullaby’ is one of the few tunes John ever composed.

John’s widow Sheila has given permission for it to be published on Piping Press. The tune commemorates the passing of Nancy Sutherland the late wife of John’s great friend Col Sutherland, Caithness.

Col takes up the story….’I first met John around 1964 in Invergordon when he was playing with the distillery band. We became very good friends. 

‘When I married in 1965 John played the pipes at our wedding and also at Nancy’s funeral and my son Ian’s wedding.

‘On leaving the Glasgow City Police 1970 Nancy and I had taken over the Latheronwheel Hotel and when John was in Caithness, either judging or giving a recital, he would stay with us at our hotel.

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‘During this time we would visit some old friends and he would give them a few tunes on the pipes to their great pleasure. Nothing was a bother for John; he enjoyed doing those things.

‘John loved coming to visit us as his great-grandmother was a Henderson from Reay in Caithness.

‘After Nancy’s death in 1994 I was living in Latheron and he phoned to say he was coming north and would arrive at noon.

‘I popped out in the morning to get some shopping and on my return at 10.30am John was sitting in the car; typical John, never late, always early.

‘He said, ‘While I was waiting for you to return I composed a small slow air. I was looking out on the lovely garden and thinking of Nancy, so I’m going to call the tune Nancy’s Lullaby in her memory.

Col, Nancy and their grandchildren pictured in 1989

‘As I had no paper I have written it on the back of an old fag [cigarette] packet, and I’ll rewrite it when I return to Saltburn [his home near Invergordon, Easter Ross].’

‘On his return John could not find the fag packed but low and behold about a year later he found it in the pipe case he had had with him that day!

‘He then wrote it out and sent me a copy. It is a beautiful tune.’

PP Editor Robert Wallace added: ‘John gave me a copy of this tune in the early 90s and I played it at a recital in South Africa that year and promptly forgot all about it. 

‘It was in conversation with Col at the Northern Meeting this year that the tune came up and luckily he had kept his copy. I asked if he would mind it being published on Piping Press and he readily agreed, as did Sheila.

‘John was very pleased with the tune, in particular the unique D to C ending.’

Here it is in John’s own hand:

Listen to the tune here:

Download a PDF: nancy’s lullaby

We are grateful to the ‘Box and Fiddle’ archive for the following resumé of John D’s life and career: When George Cockburn from Edinburgh/Moffat penned his memorable 6/8 march ‘John D. Burgess’ in the early 50s he had clearly recognised the potential of a young man he had met in Edinburgh and in writing his tune he further ensured that the name would be remembered indefinitely.

John Davie Burgess was born in Aberdeen on 11th March 1934 but moved to Edinburgh as a boy when his father, John W. Burgess, took up a post as Lecturer in Veterinary Medicine.

John Snr was also a piper and he started the young John on the practice chanter at the age of four and taught him his first tune, Highland Laddie.

At school John had some tuition from James Gordon, then at the age of six he became a pupil of the great P/M William Ross at Edinburgh Castle. He played a half set of pipes for a short time but was playing the full-sized bagpipe and competing at the age of seven.

His first competition was in 1941 at the Highlanders Institute in Elmbank Street, Glasgow, and he did not win any prizes. However by the following year it was a different story and from then on it was prizes everywhere he played.

Reports from juvenile competitions from the 1940s are full of glowing reports of the young prodigy carrying off all the first prizes at various events, commenting on his outstanding ability, his delicate fingering, the maturity of his playing and also in one report remarking on the smart appearance and the confidence with which a slightly-built twelve-year-old strode up and down the platform.

John was a pupil at the Edinburgh Academy but he never played in the school’s pipe band on the orders of Ross. John would keep his pipes at Edinburgh Castle and go there straight from school for his piping sessions.

John Burgess, boy prodigy

After winning all the juvenile prizes, John turned professional at the age of fifteen and shot to instant stardom in 1950 by winning the Gold Medal at Oban, his first major event , playing In Praise of Morag, and following this with the Gold Medal at Inverness playing Castle Menzies. John was then aged 16 and thus became the youngest ever Gold Medallist.

Not only did he win the medals, he also came second in the Oban Open Piobaireachd with the ‘big’ Nameless tune Cherede Darievea, and won the March. At Inverness, John won the Strathspey and Reel, was second in the March and third in the Jig. In 1951 he added the March at Oban and completed the full set of light music prizes with the Strathspey and Reel at Inverness in 1953.

John’s sharp wit was evident from the start. In 1951 John and ‘big’ Donald MacLean were heading for the Games in South Uist. This was the time of the Cambridge spy scandal which involved Soviet secret agents Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean.

The perfect stocking filler for the young piper….

When the ferry arrived at Lochboisdale the newspaper billboard greeting them proclaimed ‘Burgess and MacLean in Russia’. John immediately quipped ‘You know, I thought the journey took a bit longer than usual.’

During the war many dozens of aspiring Pipe Majors from across the Empire had attended P/M Willie Ross’s courses at Army School in Edinburgh Castle. Close links had been established which remained after the war and in 1952 P/M Willie Ross and his star pupil, now 18 years of age, were invited to tour Canada and the USA thus carrying the legend of piping brilliance to a wide and appreciative audience.

During his competitive career John won the Open Piobaireachd at Oban in 1972, the Former Winners MSR at Oban five times and at Inverness twice. His prizes at other events are too numerous to mention, the only major prize which eluded him being the Clasp at Inverness.  

On leaving school John enlisted as a piper with the Cameron Highlanders, which did not please Willie Ross who had wanted him to join the Scots Guards. 

John served from 1952 till 1955 and during this time completed the P/Ms course. In 1962 he rejoined the Camerons as P/M of the 4th/5th Cameron Highlanders T.A. serving until 1965. 

His Army days obviously stayed with him throughout his life, as he liked to end his recitals and leave the stage to The March of the Cameron Men.

Following his Army service John became a piper in the Edinburgh Police band in 1955 under P/M Donald Shaw Ramsay and took over briefly as P/M in 1958 when Ramsay was shot and wounded whilst on duty.

P/M John D. Burgess, Edinburgh City Police Pipe Band

The following year he handed the post over to P/M Iain McLeod. When the Invergordon Distillery set up their band of so-called ‘all stars’ in 1965, again under P/M Donald Shaw Ramsay, John was recruited for the band. 

When the band folded John stayed on in the north and became the Schools Piping Instructor for Easter Ross.

In 1989 John was awarded the MBE and was obviously proud of the honour despite the fact that he said it stood for ‘Miserable Bugger from Edinburgh.’ 

He made many recordings including ‘The Art of the Highland Bagpipe’ Vols I, 2 and 3, ‘The King of Highland Pipers’, ‘John Burgess plays the Great Highland Bagpipe’ and the video ‘A Piping Legend.’ John died in 2005 at the age of 71 in Raigmore Hospital, Inverness.

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