John Davie Burgess died in July 2005, having achieved worldwide fame as a child prodigy on the pipes before maturing into one of the foremost exponents of Scotland’s national instrument.
He was born in Aberdeen on March 11, 1934 but the family moved to Edinburgh when at a young age. His father, John, was a lecturer in veterinary medicine. John Senior was also a piper (and member of the Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society) and it was he who started the young John (aged four) on the practice chanter. He received further lessons from James A. Gordon.
At the age of six – six – John’s father arranged for his son to go to Edinburgh Castle to the redoubtable Pipe Major Willie Ross, who was a friend. From his rooms at the top of the castle, Ross taught piping to hundreds of soldiers from all over the British Empire while enhancing his own reputation as a player and composer. He became Burgess’s mentor.
John’s first competition was in 1941 at the old Highlanders Institute in Elmbank Street, Glasgow. The competitions were open amateur and John didn’t win any prizes. By the following year, though, it was a different story. He won five firsts. From then on it was prizes everywhere he played. Reports of juvenile competitions of the period are full of glowing reports of the young prodigy carrying off all the first prizes at various events. Initially, he played a half set of pipes but by the age of seven was competing in juvenile competitions with a full set.
By the time, John was receiving his education at Edinburgh Academy. However, on the orders of Willie Ross, he never played in the school band. Ross kept John’s pipes at the castle and the youngster would travel there straight from school for his piping lessons.
In the late 1940s, having won all the juvenile prizes, some several times over, John turned professional. He was aged 15. He shot to instant stardom. In 1950 he won the Gold Medal at the Argyllshire Gathering (playing In Praise of Morag) then the Gold Medal at the Northern Meeting (playing Castle Menzies). He was 16 and had become the youngest ever Gold Medalist. At his first attempt, too, a feat that is unlikely to be repeated. What is sometimes forgotten is that, in addition to the Gold Medals, at Oban he also won the Open Piobaireachd (playing Cherede Darieva) and the March while at Inverness he won the Strathspey & Reel and placed second in the march and third in the Jig! (The following year, 1951, he added the March at Oban and completed the first full set of light music prizes with the Strathspey & Reel at Inverness in 1953.)
After this success, in 1952, John and Willie Ross went on a tour of America and Canada where they delighted North American audiences.
By now, John was attracting a great deal of media attention. A report in the Piping Times said his playing was not as might be thought, just a faithful and accurate copy of his great master’s playing but “shows a mature understanding of the pieces he plays.” A letter in the PT criticised the youngster’s appearance at Oban, saying his clothes did not fit. John was clearly affected by this criticism as, in 1992, he commented that Highland dress was not easy to come by in those days and he was in fact wearing his father’s jacket and kilt (held up by braces).
In the 1940s, the pipe music tumbling effortlessly from the youngster’s fingers astonished professional pipers, who travelled long distances to hear him play. News of the virtuoso reached pipers serving in Burma during the Second World War, who could not believe that at home there was a youngster “barely taller than the bass drone”, as Lt. Col David Murray put it, who could play as well as the established masters.
On leaving school, John joined the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, his father’s regiment. It had always been assumed that he would follow his tutor into the Scots Guards and his choice of regiment infuriated Ross, who is reported to have flung Burgess’s pipes back into their box when the young piper informed him of his choice of regiment. He was promoted to corporal, but left three years later. He then joined Donald Shaw Ramsay’s Edinburgh City Police Pipe Band, eventually becoming its Pipe Major after Ramsay was shot and injured. John handed over to Iain MacLeod the following year.
From 1962 to 1965 he was Pipe Major of the 4th/5th Battalion Cameron Highlanders TA, taking charge of a band filled with Gaelic speakers from South Uist.
In 1965 there followed a spell working for the Invergordon Distillery, which had recruited some of the best-known solo pipers in Scotland to form a band. When the band folded he stayed in the north, working as the piping instructor for the state schools in Easter Ross. As a tutor he passed on his art to hundreds of pupils, many of who have become leading lights on today’s piping scene. In his own quiet way, he also provided a great deal of support to pipers who fell on troubled times.
In his younger days pipers had been content to marvel at John’s dazzling finger technique but as he grew older aficionados listened for the expression he brought to his playing of the light music of marches, strathspeys, reels, jigs and hornpipes. His subtle interpretations of piobaireachd became even more sought after. He gave many recitals and made ten recordings, including an album called The King of the Highland Pipers. At the conclusion of his recitals, he would invariably march off the stage playing The March of the Cameron Men. John’s successes in competitions are too numerous to mention. He won almost all of them, some many times over. The only prize that eluded him was the Clasp at the Northern Meeting.
As if his fame was not enough, John was immortalised in George Cockburn’s popular 6/8 march, John D. Burgess, published in the Edcath Book 1. When Seumas MacNeill reviewed the collection in 1953, he remarked that this tune was a favourite and predicted it would be heard a great deal in the future. Since then, tunes were made for John by Pipe Major Angus MacDonald MBE and Angus Lawrie.
A man of considerable style, Burgess always looked immaculate in Highland dress, believing that his turnout complemented the noble instrument and its music. He had an inexhaustible fund of piping stories and was an entertaining – if at times rather a risqué – raconteur. As Colin MacLellan put it, “John Burgess was my hero; he gave more piping pleasure to more pipers than anyone who ever lived”.
In later years John was a Senior Judge for both ceòl mòr and light music and his services had been in demand at competitions everywhere. When he was appointed an MBE in 1988 he quipped that it stood for “Miserable Bugger form Edinburgh.”
John died on June 29, 2005 from complications resulting from a car crash near his home in Invergordon. He did in Raigmore Hospital, Inverness, aged 71, and was buried in the kirkyard of Alness Parish Church on July 4. He was buried in his Ancient Hunting Ross plaid on which wife, Sheila and children, John and Margaret had placed his pipe, his MBE, his two Gold Medals, his Cameron cap badge, blue hackle, regimental ring and Sheila’s father’s practice chanter, which John preferred to use.
Pipe Major Calum MacKenzie (1st. Batt. The Highlanders) played Lochaber No More as the coffin was carried from the hearse to the graveside. After the committal, Pipe Major Brian Donaldson played John’s favourite piece of ceòl mòr, The Big Spree.
• Thanks to Tom Peterkin and Jeannie Campbell for their help with this article.
•• For further information on the life of John D. Burgess, take a look at the website John’s son, John, created.
• Watch this video from the early 1980s showing John playing Bobby Cuthbertson and The Swallow’s Tail. This footage is taken from a documentary Seumas MacNeill made. Seumas can be seen tapping his toes and generally enjoying John’s playing.