The Duncan Johnstone Memorial Piping Competition has taken place at the National Piping Centre for over 20 years. It is held in memory of the famous Glasgow piper dubbed the King of Jigs. As Angus J. MacLellan wrote in Duncan’s obituary that appeared in the January 1999 Piping Times, Duncan was brought up with the music of the Gael instilled in him from an early age and possessed a sharp wit.
Duncan Johnstone (1925-1999) was born in Glasgow of island parents. His mother was from Benbecula and his father from Barra. He was nine years of age when he was encouraged by his father — also a piper — to go with a friend for lessons from Glasgow policeman, Angus Campbell. Campbell was from Ballachulish and had been taught by John MacColl and Willie Lawrie. Campbell was very strict on technique and Duncan won his first chanter competition in 1938. First prize was a whisky flask. Duncan remarked later that this must have been an investment for when he was older.
He joined the St Francis Boys Guild Band and on leaving school he began an apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker. When he was old enough he joined the Royal Navy spending a large part of the last year of the war minesweeping in the eastern Mediterranean.
At the end of hostilities Duncan returned to Glasgow where he completed his apprenticeship and resumed lessons with Angus Campbell. He was later passed on to ‘wee’ Donald MacLean and Roddy MacDonald, both of whom were living in Glasgow.
Through these teachers and regular visits to his father’s home island, Duncan began to absorb the west coast musical influences he was to become famous for. He visited many old pipers on the island in the company of his uncle, Father John MacMillan of Barra, and picked up and memorised hundreds of old tunes and old styles of tunes. Later, many of these would form the backbone of his three collections of light music.
Back in Glasgow Duncan would work these tunes into medleys for Highland and country dances, then very popular in post war Glasgow ballrooms. The job of the piper was an onerous one. The Eightsome Reel alone often required a two part reel played 29 times to complete the dance. Duncan used to test his memory by playing 29 different reels with only a dance band drummer to accompany him. It was at these dances that he honed the sense of rhythm that was to characterise so much of his playing.
Despite his growing reputation he ventured out to compete occasionally and never to Oban or Inverness, though he learned the tunes each year as they were set.
“I was never interested in whether I could beat this man or the next,” he once said. “I always wanted to play well but not with the idea of beating anyone.”
In 1964 John MacFadyen, then president of the Scottish Pipers’ Association, organised the first Knockout Competition, the format being that two pipers would each play for a set time and the audience would vote for the winner. Duncan hadn’t entered but under pressure from John, stood in for John MacKenzie, Dunblane, who’d had to pull out.
Duncan defeated Hector MacFadyen, Pennyghael, and, after further success, made it through to the final against none other than Pipe Major Donald MacLeod. Duncan related how he met wee Donald the day before the final:
“I asked if he was all set for the big night. He just turned to me and said slowly, and with a straight face, completely deadpan: ‘No, no, no, Tuncan, I haven’t looked at my pipes all week’.
I said to myself ‘aye, that’ll be right’ and had a quiet laugh.”
On the night Duncan played first, and although Donald followed with some outstanding playing, Duncan was given the audience’s verdict.
Duncan’s said later that his ‘knockout’ secret was to keep the audience on his side by limiting his tuning and giving them a ‘bit of everything’. He’d start with some good strong strathspeys and reels and then take the tempo down with 6/8s and other marches and then lift it again with jigs and hornpipes.
He won the Knockout two years later and that more or less completed Duncan’s foray into the world of competitive piping.
He began teaching in earnest in 1970 mainly from his home on the south side of Glasgow. From 1974-1978 he was an instructor at the College of Piping then opened his own school, also in Glasgow, in 1978. He was the first piping instructor at the inaugural feis on Barra in 1980.
He also taught extensively abroad, conducting summer schools and giving recitals. It was whilst he was on one of these recital tours that he received word that his son, Allan was dangerously ill from leukaemia. Duncan returned home immediately — but, tragically, his son passed away a few days later. Distraught, Duncan gave vent to his feelings in the piobaireachd Lament for Allan My Son. It now forms the centrepiece of a composing oeuvre that includes many excellent pieces (Farewell to Nigg, James MacLellan’s Favourite, Isle of Barra March). These and dozens of others, plus his own arrangements of traditional tunes, are included in his collections of pipe music and many of his recordings.
Like all good composers, Duncan improved the tunes he re-arranged: the reel Willie Cumming’s Rant, and the jigs Cabar Feidh and Cutting Bracken to name but three.
Of the light music, Farewell to Nigg may be the most enduring, however. It was this tune that captivated the large congregation at Duncan’s funeral in St Helen’s Church, Glasgow. Son, Neil, played it on the cello. Seldom will it have been played so well or with such feeling. A pupil of Duncan’s, Donald John MacInnes, played at the graveside.
- Listen to Edinburgh-based piper, Lachie Dick, play Duncan’s Lament for Allan, My Son: