Jock Duncan, 1925-2021


Jock Duncan, a true Scottish legend in every sense of the word, died yesterday in Ninewells Hospital, Dundee. He was 95.

Jock, one of Scotland’s finest traditional singers, was born on the farm of Gelliebrae by New Deer in rural Aberdeenshire and grew up in the farming life at a time when horses were still in daily service. When he was three the family took over the farm at South Faddenhill of Fyvie and by the age of 10 Jock could drive a horse and plough expertly.

Like most farming families in the region, the Duncan household was a musical one. Jock’s mother was a pianist who organised musical sessions in the front room and accompanied the fiddlers she invited. His older sister, Marion sang and brother Jimmy played the fiddle. Jock took chanter lessons with Peter Elder (ex-Scots Guards) for a while and could play the mouth organ but his forte was singing the songs and bothy ballads of his native Aberdeenshire.

Jock spent the Second World War years in the service of the RAF. After the war he returned to farming for a short time and formed The Fyvie Loons and Quines bothy ballad concert party. He then took a job with the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board in Caithness and then in Pitlochry in Perthshire.

Jock married Francis and they had two sons and two daughters. Their sons, Ian and Gordon, would go on to become household names in piping.

Jock never lost his Doric (Scots) speech nor his love of ballads. In 1975 he entered and won the bothy ballad competition at Kinross Festival, beginning a long run of similar successes at folk festivals. In 1996, at the age of 71, he released his first album, Ye Shine Whar Ye Stan!, followed five years later by Tae the Green Woods Gaen. Son, Gordon played on the first album. At the Edinburgh International Festival in 2000 he was awarded a Herald Angel for services to ballad singing. This formed part of a unique family hat-trick which saw sons Ian and Gordon also receive the award subsequently. Jock was inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame in 2006. His last public performance was at The Old Fruitmarket in Glasgow during the 2012 Celtic Connections festival.

Jock Duncan was a link with a bygone age. As a youngster he recorded on tape the stories of soldiers from his native north-east who had survived the horrors of the First World War. For years these men never spoke to anyone about their experiences but they opened up to Jock. It took many years of punching away at the keys of an old typewriter for Jock to transcribe the tapes onto paper. In 2017 the transcriptions were made into a one-act play by Gary West called Jock’s Jocks. Early in 2018, they were published in book form.

Jock’s Jocks cast with Jock. Blair Atholl Village Hall, 2017 (Photo: Stuart Letford).

In addition, Jock was a frequent correspndent to the letter pages of the Piping Times and contributor to journals such as Common Stock, published by the Lowland & Border Pipers’ Society. His article on 19th century Aberdeenshire pipers, Francie Markis and Robert Barclay that appeared in the March 1990 issue provided insight into the life and place in the community of pipers in that area.

Jock is to be buried in Fonab Cemetery, Pitlochry alongside wife Frances who died in June 2017. Son, Gordon, who died in December 2005, is also buried there as is grandson, Alex who died last September.

As we lament the loss of such a figure from an almost-lost Scotland, we extend our sincere condolences to the Duncan family.

• Listen to Jock in 2012 with BBC Scotland’s Euan McIlwraith.