John Davie Burgess was born in 1934 in Aberdeen. His father was a distinguished veterinary surgeon and the family moved to Edinburgh with his practice.
John Burgess Snr. was a piper too and determined that his son would have the best of tuition from the off. At the age of six he was taken up to the Army School at Edinburgh Castle where he came under the strict control of P/M Willie Ross, master of piping and especially of that in the military.
Young John proved to be a natural, easily transitioning from the chanter to a half set of pipes and then the juvenile competition circuit. Here he was an instant success. He amazed audiences with his confident mien and ability to tune his own instrument. Ross was immensely proud of his prodigy and filmed him, aged only 10, parading with pipes in his rooms at the Castle.
All the classic pieces came quickly to John, especially the big marches, strathspeys and reels. Finger perfect, the music seemed to flow from his young hands as one born to it. His contemporary competitor, the late John Finlay (who, as a pupil of Robert Reid, could give as good as he got), spoke of how on one occasion at the Highlanders Institute in Elmbank Street, Glasgow, the young John D. was sliding down the bannister of the stairway when the steward called on him to come and play; he was ‘on’. Fixing his bonnet, he picked up his pipe, strode into the room, tuned up and won the contest.
John was sent to the Edinburgh Academy for his schooling but did not play in the school band (reputedly on the instruction of Ross) and continued to sweep all before him in the juvenile solo ranks. His playing showed none of the callow interpretation or awkward fingering one might associate with the tyro. No, John Burgess was svelte and sophisticated from the start, so much so that the transition to the professional class aged just fifteen did not, in a musical sense, seem untoward.
And so it proved. John D Burgess staggered the piping universe by winning both Gold Medals in the same year, 1950, when aged only 16. His tunes were the demanding In Praise of Morag and Castle Menzies. Those who heard him play testified that he was well worthy of his prizes: they had nothing to do with Ross’s towering presence. The boy won these contests fair and square.
On leaving school John enlisted as a piper in the Cameron Highlanders much to the chagrin of Ross, a Scots Guardsman through and through. In time Ross forgave him and the two remained friends until the latter’s death in 1966. In the next several years John added all the light music prizes at Oban and Inverness to his list of successes – and this against the biggest names of the day. His fame became international when, in 1952, he went with Willie Ross on a celebrated tour of Western Canada, listeners astounded at the ease with which this young man could deliver the big MSRs, the most difficult technical passages posing no difficulty for his precise, deft fingering. He made it all look so natural.
John D. Burgess went on to win the Open Piobaireachd at Oban in 1972 and the Former Winners’ MSR at Inverness on five occasions and at Oban three. The only prize to elude him was the Clasp at Inverness and none of those who were there to hear his last attempt will forget it.
The Caledonian Hotel Ballroom was packed; the door opened and in walked John in full regalia, powder horn, red piped tunic, gorgeously white sporran, tartan hose and buckled shoes. There was an audible gasp as he took to the stage and started to tune his gleaming instrument. For John D. Burgess was not only a brilliant piper – he understood the importance of the dignity of the instrument and its music. (One can only wonder at the aversion he would have felt to some of today’s unkempt, shirtsleeved, occasionally golf-trousered pipers.) John ‘s tune was the Lament for Ronald MacDonald of Morar, that supremely plangent melody. Like his dress the instrument was immaculate in its tuning, high G never a waver, and he completed the tune to a standing ovation – the first and only time I have ever witnessed this at a piobaireachd competition. A note error ended his chance of the big prize, but those who were there will not readily forget the performance.
John saw service in HM Forces with the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders 1952 -55, and then as P/M of the Queen’s Own TA pipes and drums from 1963 to ’65. Prior to this he had been appointed Pipe Major of the Edinburgh City Police Pipe Band, succeeding P/M Donald Shaw Ramsay. In his one season in charge John led this demanding ensemble to the Cowal and British Pipe Band Championship titles and a top three finish at the Worlds. Pretty good going after only one season in the hot seat. John was immortalised in music when one of the band’s pipers, George Cockburn, presented him with a 6/8 march named in his honour. It is one of the best in the canon.
In the mid-60s John moved north to play with the superstar band of the era, Invergordon Distillery. Led by P/M DS Ramsay, this band had Alex Duthart, Kit Reynolds, Jim Hutton, Bert Barr and many other top percussionist in its ranks, along with renowned pipers such as John himself, Joe Wilson, John MacDougall and Jimmy Jackson. When the band folded after winning every major award except the Worlds, John D. remained in the north, settling with his wife Sheila in Invergordon.
It was here that he had the honour of piping for HM The Queen, leading her limousine (above) along the Highland streets amid the bunting and cheers from the crowd during her 1987 visit. Of course, John was no stranger to royalty – he was piping royalty after all, witness the title of one of his LPs ‘King of Highland Pipers’. John was to meet The Queen again two years later when he was awarded the MBE for services to bagpipe music. Richly deserved, the honour was not only in recognition of his contribution as a performer but also as a teacher. He taught in Ross-shire schools for more than a decade with many star pupils one of whom is Niall Stewart, double Gold Medallist and Former Winners’ MSR winner. Niall is himself now a schools instructor based at Kyle of Lochalsh.
John’s fame as a piper was matched by his ability as a raconteur. Those who shared many a judging bench with him will testify to the wealth of stories and anecdotes that poured from his entertaining lips. A long day at the games never seemed so long when you had him for company.
John D. Burgess died in Raigmore Hospital, Inverness, on the 29th of June, 2005. At his funeral, a large crowd gathered to follow the hearse from his home in Saltburn to the graveside. They saw a coffin draped with his Ancient Hunting Ross plaid and on it his favourite practice chanter, his MBE, his two Gold Medals, his Cameron cap badge, regimental ring and blue hackle. As John’s coffin was lowered to his last resting place, his pupil, P/M Brian Donaldson, Scots Guards, played his favourite piobaireachd, the Big Spree.
• There are a few clips of John Burgess on the internet and you can buy recordings here.