By Stuart Letford

Duncan Johnstone wasn’t really one for competitions – his 1964 victory in the Scottish Pipers’ Association’s Knockout series was pretty much his only foray into solo piping contests. As he put himself, “I was never interested in whether I could beat this man or the next. I always wanted to play well but not with the idea of beating anyone.” In his lifetime, Duncan (1925-1999) published three books of traditional and modern pipe music and three solo albums. He was awarded the Balvenie Medal 1996 for his piping achievements.

The Duncan Johnstone Memorial competition is usually the first graded solo piping competition of the year. It didn’t take place last year because of the ongoing pandemic and, with the Competing Pipers’ Association (CPA) reluctant for it to be held online this year, the National Piping Centre (NPC) decided to stage this recital in Duncan’s name instead. The evening was recorded a few weeks ago and broadcast tonight.

Appropriately, it was the NPC’s former Principal, Roddy MacLeod MBE who kicked the evening off, speaking first of all about the background to the competition. There had been, said Roddy, a need for B Grade pipers to help develop their track record for Silver Medal qualification. Together with NPC staff member, Colin MacLellan (also a former pupil of Duncan’s and who was President of the CPA at the time) the competition was established. It remains one of the CPA’s most popular competitions, possibly because competitors are required to play one of Duncan’s tunes in their jig performances.

Up-and-coming piper, John Dew of Crieff, Scotland played the first music of the evening, three jigs beginning with Duncan’s Jock Anderson of the Glen followed by two of John’s own, the first of which was inspired by Duncan and called, er, A Jig Inspired by Duncan Johnstone, and then L. A. Kent.  

John Dew. In fine form at the Duncan Johnstone Memorial Recital.

John, a recent graduate of the BMus (Traditional Music – Piping) Degree course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, sounded great: excellent technique, plenty of expression and a fine sounding pipe. The evening was off to a good start. John’s second set, a medley, began with the ground of the Marquis of Argyll’s Salute before launching into some two-parted strathspeys and reels to be found in Duncan’s collection. I enjoyed John’s MSR, particularly his March, a tune of his named in honour of one of his piping teachers, Complements to the Teaching of Willie McCallum.

John has had some success in the Duncan Johnstone Memorial Competition in recent years. In 2017 he was first in the C Grade Piobaireachd and third in the MSR. In 2018, he placed fourth in the B Grade MSR. In 2019, he placed first in the B Grade MSR and second in the B Grade Piobaireachd, playing, if I remember correctly, Lament for the Children. He was also third in the Open Jig that year.

Duncan Johnstone, of course, wasn’t known for just strathspeys, reels and jigs. His 6/8 marches are full of music and swing. John played two 6/8s next, the first being Duncan’s Dominic McGowan and then one of his own, The Battle of Hamel. John played a few of his own compositions tonight – The Hamilton Wonders I found really good – and on this showing it is clear he possesses an ear for a good melodic line. His earlier pieces were first aired in the pages of the Piping Times but he has now produced his own first collection of music.

Roddy MacLeod MBE then spoke about Duncan once more. He was 14 when he first went to Duncan, at the College of Piping, and he was quite nervous at first. He said Duncan would stand and beat on a table, trying to get his pupils to play on the beat. When Duncan began teaching from his home, Roddy continued to go to him. It took several weeks, Roddy went on to say, before he relaxed in Duncan’s class. Roddy spoke warmly of Duncan’s humour, an example of which was the hidden meanings in some of his tune titles. “Duncan was an avid Celtic fan and he knew that I was quite an avid Rangers fan. He said, ‘I’ve written a new tune and I’d really like you to tell me what you think of it.’ I played the tune. He said, ‘Play it again, do you like it?’

“I said, ‘Yes, it’s really good Duncan, I do like it.’

“’Play it again,’ he said. He made me play it about three or four times.

“’I’ve called it Linowt.’

“I said, ‘So, is that a place? Where’s Linowt?’

 “What it was, was that the previous weekend Celtic had beaten Rangers two-nil and if you spell ‘two nil’ backwards you get ‘lin owt’. This was his way of really rubbing it into me that Celtic had beaten Rangers …  he had lots of humour and lots of things like that, for example, and this was why so many of his pupils were very loyal to him.”

Roddy MacLeod MBE, Duncan Johnstone’s most successful pupil, in full flow at tonight’s recital.

Roddy opened his musical contribution to the evening with two of Duncan’s 6/8 marches, Iain M. Campbell of Oban and the sublime Meg MacRae. Roddy sounded as good as ever. Right from the start, he positively commanded the stage, marching with total confidence. From there, he then gave us an MSR: Father John MacMillan of Barra (Duncan’s uncle), Arniston Castle and The Sheepwife.

It was Roddy who played Duncan’s poignant pibroch, Lament for Alan, My Son. It is a powerful piece, full of pathos. The music came to Duncan as he listened to his dying son’s labored breathing. The long high Gs are the intake of breath and the following E with high A gracenote the exhalation. Roddy played it superbly.

Dougie Pincock, former piper with the Battlefield Band and director of The National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music, joined the recital from his home in Wester Ross. He also spoke warmly about his former teacher and how his music was popular with folk bands from the 1980s and 90s. Dougie kicked off his recital with The Streaker, James MacLellan’s Favourite and The Skyeman’s Jig.

Dougie Pincock. Lovely music from a rain-lashed Wester Ross.

The evening’s final musical contribution came from the National Piping Centre’s director of piping, Finlay MacDonald – also a pupil of Johnstone – who put together a band with award-winning fiddler Marie Fielding, founding member of Capercaillie, Donald Shaw, and guitarist Steve Byrnes. Finlay played Border pipes.

He spoke, firstly, though, of his own lessons with Duncan and, as Dougie Pincock had also pointed out, how Duncan’s music sits very well with folk and ceilidh bands as well as solo pipers and pipe bands. To demonstrate this, Finlay’s band played sets comprised of Duncan’s tunes or tunes associated with Duncan, tunes that Finlay got from Duncan when he was teaching him. They began with Duncan’s arrangement of the 6/8, Invercharron Highland Games before Meg MacRae received another airing: it sounded great in this setting, too.

L-R: Marie Fielding, Finlay MacDonald, Steve Byrnes and Donald Shaw.

The band was tight and the sound was fairly well balanced. Indeed, one characteristic of this evening was the high production standards in lighting and sound.

This was a warm celebration of Duncan Johnstone and his music. Well done to all concerned in making it happen.

• The recital can be enjoyed until next Saturday (April 17). Tickets are £10 and can be bought from: https://www.thepipingcentre.co.uk/play/livestream/watch-now