Famous pipers: Gordon Duncan


Gordon Duncan (1964-2005) inspired a whole generation of pipers in his own lifetime in a way no piper has ever done before or since. As the December 2015 edition of the Piping Times stated, his influence on the current generation is apparent even though some are perhaps too young to realise it.

Born in Turriff, Aberdeenshire to Jock and Frances Duncan, Gordon was associated with the Perthshire town of Pitlochry for most of his life. He first went to Walter Drysdale at his home in Methillhill in Fife when aged around 13 and maintained regular lessons with Walter for 12 years. Gordon’s superb technique and his phrasing of the big tunes can be credited to this relationship.

As an adult, Gordon was a regular face at many highland games but he largely eschewed senior competitive solo piping. Instead, he chose the folk world and the pipe band world, enriching both. He was certainly the equal of any piper who gained success at Eden Court Theatre and the Corran Halls. Gordon toured with the Tannahill Weavers amongst other folk bands and joined his elder brother Ian’s pipe band, the Vale of Atholl. He was part of the band’s rise through the grades to Grade 1 and became the band’s Pipe Sergeant and Musical Director during a period when the band’s concerts and meldeys influenced the entire pipe band world. That influence is still apparent today.

After the infamous Piping Times Knockout final of 1994 where Seumas MacNeill decried the piping heard, Gordon, who was the runner up, recorded his first album, titled Just for Seumas, for the Greentrax label, at the suggesting of Hamish Moore, the Dunkled pipemaker. Gordon went on to record three successful solo albums for the label and they remain the label’s biggest selling piping releases.

Walter Drysdale.

In the modern era, the big names in piping remain Willie Ross, G. S. MacLennan, John MacColl, Donald MacLeod and Peter MacLeod Snr. Outstanding performers who also composed superb tunes. To those names should be added that of Gordon Duncan. To those who would question having Gordon’s name in such a list, time will tell, but pipers, folk groups and ceilidh bands will be playing Gordon’s music 100 years from now in addition to the music of those illustrious greats. That, surely, is a safe predicition.

It has been said elsewhere that Gordon never graced the cover of Rolling Stone magazine but that he should have. He didn’t play the guitar or drums in a rock band but he was the closest thing to a rock star the piping world has ever known. He was the ‘real thing’. His charisma, humour and inventiveness came through his playing. When he played he gave you his all, whether in an auditorium in front of 2,000 people or in the pub in front of three.

2005 was a terrible year for piping: Martyn Bennett died in January, John D. Burgess in July and the year ended – on December 14 – with Gordon’s passing by his own hand. He was only 41. He is survived by his brother and two sisters, as well as his son, Gordon, and his wife, Mary.

In Gordon’s memory, a trust was set up early in 2006. By August this year, it had made an incredible £106,000 in donations to various good causes in piping. Brother, Ian is chairman of the trust.

We are unlikely to see Gordon’s like again.

Ross Ainslie
Before I met Gordon I wasn’t really interested in piping. I was more into football. My initial tutor, Norrie Sinclair, sent me up to the Vale of Atholl Pipe Band in Pitlochry and that was where I first met Gordon. He was the Pipe Major of the Juvenile band. I was 11-years-old and I hadn’t heard of him — nor the band, for that matter. For the first month at practices Gordon took me aside for about 15 minutes to give me a wee ‘push’. He maybe saw something in me.

That would have been in April 1994 and by the summer I got to go on a trip to Germany with the band. The following January was the Vale’s junior competition and I won the trophy for ‘Most improved Player’.

Around that time I remember buying Just for Seumas, and it was a turning point. It really made me realise that this was what I wanted to do with my life. I immersed myself in it. When The Circular Breath CD came out, it reinforced that feeling in me. I met Ali Hutton through the pipe band and he also felt the same about music. He bought himself a guitar and a year later I got myself a bouzouki and we started to jam a lot together working on tunes with some harmony.

Gordon photographed in early in 1994 for the Just For Seumas cover.

As I said, Gordon was the Pipe Major of the Juvenile band but it was when the band was improving and winning competitions that we realised the stature he had in the piping world and wider folk music world. All of us kids tried to impress him. He was also in the Grade 1 band but we felt he was ours. He would travel home from competitions on our bus, not the Grade 1 band bus. His pipes would be brought out and passed around. He encouraged us all to play. I’ll never forget these times and will always be thankful to Gordon for giving so much of his time and experience to us kids. All the time I was in the Vale it was one of the best parts of my life.

Eventually, Ali [Hutton] and I became close friends with Gordon, as did Bruce Erskine who was in the band. We used to go up to his house near Pitlochry. We’d go up for the whole night and just hang out and listen to music. We’d get his thoughts on music as well: we’d play and he’d comment.

He’d let you know for sure what he thought. He was a great cook, too. He always had a stew on or ham hock soup or white fish and parsley sauce. I remember his house always being roasting hot. The heating had been rigged up incorrectly — he only got charged 5p per month! I remember he used to heat the kitchen by putting the oven up full blast and had the door held open by his boot!

One of my first tours was a trip to Spain. Gordon took a chance on me, Ali and Morgan MacDonald as we were only young, but he treated us with mutual respect. We had a wild time! (And many, many more through the years.) I miss his mischievous nature; he certainly had a glint in his eye!

When arranging sets, at the back of my mind is the question: “Would Gordon like this?” or “What would he say about this?” My general approach is to not be too stuck in the traditional way, to have no fear, and not be afraid to experiment. And to write tunes! Seeing Gordon write tunes gave me the confidence to do it. His composing was fearless. He was a wonderful composer. In his tunes he showed us that it’s OK to go beyond the range, beyond the instrument’s limitations and produce something interesting. Pressed for Time and The Belly Dancer are just two eamples that come to mind. I remember Gordon had a Jock McCann chanter and with a specific reed, could produce a Bb note (which never happens!) from this. Gordon used the chanter to sculpt the masterpiece that became The Belly Dancer, which is a true testament to his creative mind.

For the last couple of years of Gordon’s life I was living in Grandtully where my mum owned a hotel. I was working in the kitchen there and also trying to start my career as a musician. I was definitely struggling with money but it was great to be living near Gordon. I would finish my shift in the hotel then get a lift over to Gordon’s for a tune and I was seeing him at least twice a week when I was around. I really treasure those times, as we became very close friends. I remember one Saturday morning I got a phone call from him: “Have you heard the new Flook album? Get yer a**e over for a listen. It’s great!” So I went over with my pipes. Flook had recorded two of Gordon’s tunes — Pressed For Time and Ramnee Ceilidh. We got our pipes in tune and we played along with the album all day. I said to Gordon he should contact the band and join them if they came to Scotland, so he emailed and just by chance they were in the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen the following Saturday. So Gordon, wee Gordy [his son], Neil Ferguson [a friend of Gordon’s] and myself headed up together and we played with Flook. We had a great night.

I miss my good friend very much and I will always be indebted to him for giving me a life full of music.

Ali Hutton
I first met Gordon during my early years in the Vale of Atholl Pipe Band. I was taught early on by Peter Stewart from Scone. Pete often spoke about the Vale’s amazing wealth of talent, musicality, and of their ability to nurture pipers through Novice Juvenile to Grade 1 level. In particular he spoke very highly of the Pipe Major, Ian Duncan and his brother, Gordon. When he had decided I was ready to join a pipe band he invited Ian to his house to come and hear me play. Ian then invited me to join the Novice Juvenile band under its Pipe Major, Angus Clarke.

This is where I became instantly aware of Gordon’s musical presence. There was a real energy and passion in the band that came all the way from Gordon and Ian. The music was exciting and there was an amazing drive in everyone’s playing. It felt like everyone in the band was aspiring to be like Gordon. It was when our Juvenile band was created under his leadership that I finally met him and understood where all of this amazing playing and music stemmed from.

I knew straight away that I wanted to play exactly like Gordon. Until then I’d never heard, or felt piping like his. Most youngsters want to be pilots, astronauts, or footballers. I wanted to be Gordon Duncan. He used to play tunes for us at the back of the pipe band bus on the way back from competitions, and this is where I really began to understand what his playing was about. There was drive and attitude pouring out of his fingers. When he gave me a tape of his first solo album, Just for Seamus, my mind was blown. I remember putting it on in the car on the way home from practice. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so much excitement listening to music like that night.

I don’t think I ever considered him strictly as a ‘tutor’. There were times when I would go for lessons from him, but also times when I would be in the house just listening to music, playing different instruments or learning other types of music. This never felt like formal lessons. It was just sitting with your friend and hero and absorbing everything he did and said. I would listen intently to everything he played and said. He used to have a lot of other instruments in the house, whistles, guitars, bouzouki, bodhrans etc. This is the reason I play other instruments as well as the pipes. After we’d finish going over pipe tunes he’d ask if i wanted to grab a guitar or bouzouki off of the wall. He’d show me chords that he knew then I’d try and jam along with him playing tunes on the whistle.

If it wasn’t for Gordon I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing today. He was inspirational, encouraging, mild mannered and easy to be around. He used to make me tapes of all sorts of music — Scottish, Irish, Breton, Spanish, rock, and some weird stuff, too. This is how I was introduced to folk music and folk bands. Bands such as Wolfstone, The Bothy Band, Battlefield Band, the Tannies, Moving Hearts, etc. I remember going to see Gordon playing with Wolfstone in Glasgow the night before my Higher Geography exam. It was one of the most memorable gigs I’ve ever seen. Gordon playing in a band with electric guitars, drums and bass. Exactly as he should have been. The following day I fell asleep in my Geography exam and failed. Now I play pipes in band with electric guitar, drums and bass.

I think Gordon recognised how much I looked up to him. He saw I was being inspired by what he was doing. I was always asking him for tunes that he’d written, or tunes that the Grade 1 band were playing. I wanted to learn everything. I used to practice for three hours every single day. I worked hard on my solo music, band music and everything other kind of tune that Gordon gave me. I think he probably saw in me the same passion as he had for piping.

Gordon would ask me to play at recitals with him, allowing me to perform opening spots. He took me to my first ever Celtic Connections festival where I played in a concert of young Scottish pipers. I’d never seen anything like this in my life. There were musicians everywhere. I remember being in the Festival Club and Gordon came running in to ask me to meet someone. I remember walking through a large crowd and then coming face-to-face with the legend that is Paddy Keenan. This was Gordon’s hero. Paddy was sitting there wearing his trademark hat, lipstick on and two lovely ladies vying for his attention. What I remember from this was how much Gordon was in awe of Paddy, how he looked up to him and respected him. I’d only ever experienced people being in awe of Gordon. It was a cool thing to see him in awe of his musical hero in the same way as I was in awe of him.

Padrig Sicard and Gordon.

I admired the fact that Gordon was very humble about his music. He was quite a shy, quiet guy. I admired how much he encouraged us youngsters to be the best we could be. He always had time for young players. He would always give up his time to ready you for competitions, help you fix your pipes, sit and play music, listen to music, or just have the craic. He was like this with everyone. He encouraged and inspired everyone that he ever met.

Musically, he was the greatest piper that there ever was, and will be, as far as I’m concerned. Not only did he inspire pipers but also fiddlers, whistle players, guitarists … everyone. The tunes he wrote are played on every instrument, all over the world. To this day I don’t think he fully understood the reach of his music. He was, and still is, an inspiration to musicians all over the world. Gordon wrote tunes that were outwith the standard pipe scale. He found ways to use notes that no one was using in pipe tunes. Tunes such as The Belly Dancer, and Thunderstruck are examples of how he took piping to a whole other level.

His kindness was felt by people in all walks of life. Gordon worked as a refuse collector with his local council for years and made a lot of friends on his daily rounds. He loved doing that job.

You can feel Gordon’s presence through the piping world. I think most pipers are inspired by him in some way. You can definitely hear his influence in the playing of young pipers. Pipers are pushing the boundaries a lot more these days because of his attitude towards piping and composition. His piping style has had a massive impact on the way pipers approach traditional music.

Allan MacDonald
I first heard Gordon holding an audience outside’ the tent’ at the Cowal Games in 1980 or thereabouts when he would have been around 16. I never really got to know him until we went off to the Lorient festival, seated together on the bus on the long haul overnight from Glasgow to the Channel ferry, arriving in Lorient both bewildered and bedraggled. It was always good fun to be with Gordon with his unassuming nature swathed in good humour and creative ludicrousness enhanced by the elixir of spirit(s) that cut him apart from most of the rest.

I remember it was at least my first encounter with good priced wine so we decided to find some good local wine in the supermarket to give us a head start before visiting the café-bars that were resounding with pipes, bombardes and binious. As we lay on the public lawn after our retail fix, celebrating our bargain buys, a local, to whom we had offered our vino, lifted the bottle and read the label without tasting the contents and said, “This is cooking wine!” It was the start of a hilarious time with great music and tunes in the bars followed by me losing him for a while until hearing the pipes from the back of a motorbike as he was pillioned around the streets playing to pedestrians in the passing.

Allan and Gordon.

His behaviour was as unconventional as his music and that is what made his music so identifiable – working within the tradition and taking it that bit further with creative ease. As the Gaelic phrase states, “He didn’t buy his music” – it was in his people, in his blood borne out by his brother, Ian, whom I had already known from my Aberdeen days.

Gordon and I would ‘phone each other on occasions when the ‘muse’ was in the air and we would play lots of things to each other over the phone, discuss recordings and all sorts of banter. He was so impressed by the electronic chanter that he went off and got one himself and more tunes were laced with C naturals and F naturals obtainable on this particular chanter.

We had a healthy respect for each other’s music that ended in some wonderful musi sessions in Scotland, Brittany and Ireland. The all-night playing at Brian Vallely’s William Kennedy festial, the Blair Castle/Pitlochry sessions where the late Dr. John MacAskill awoke us for champagne breakfast as a prelude to a whole day of music around various premises in Pitlochry … these were all unforgettable musical memories full of good spirits and laughter. He was a tonic; the musician’s musicians and the people’s musicians all in one. I smile when I think of him in my memories.

Roy Gullane, The Tannahill Weavers
It is already very well documented that life with Gordon was seldom far from riotous. He could never really sit still for long, so the endless hours spent cooped up in the van would, more often than not, descend into chaos, as he tried to get you involved in something, anything, to pass the time. This could range from singing crazy songs, which would have us in stitches, to swinging on the back of your seat while you tried to get yourself immersed in a good book, and anything in between.

What is not so well documented is what a gem he was with the kids. I know on a personal level that my own daughter, Mariélle, thinks of him fondly to this day. She still talks about the time he stayed at our house, and all the fun she had with him. Apparently, his favourite game was to try to convince her that she had the colours all wrong.

Atholl Highlanders Gordon and brother Ian toast the Duke of Atholl at Blair Castle in 2005.

“That’s not red,” he would say. “It’s green.”

“What colour is that, Mariélle?”

“That’s blue.”

“Naw, naw. That’s tartan.”

She loved it. She knew he was pulling her leg, I hasten to add. It really pleases me that she still keeps in touch with Gordon’s son, young Gordie, as she does with other ex-band members’ kids. Her ‘Tannahill cousins’ she calls them.

I particularly remember, somewhere in Germany, I think, a guy with his young son approached Gordon after a sound check, to ask if he would have a look at his son’s bagpipes. To call them ‘Woolworth’s quality’ would probably be talking them up. Add to that the fact that they were totally falling apart and you have mission impossible, but undeterred Gordon set about getting them to play, even donating his own spare reeds. He ended up spending so much time on them that he didn’t have time to eat before the show, and he went back to them when we were done. He did get them going, though. Above and beyond the call of duty, but oh so typically Gordon.

• Watch Gordon in full flow in 1998 at the Lorient Interceltic Festival: