Pipe Major Ben Duncan reflects on his NYPBS experience and military career

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By Pipe Major BEN DUNCAN: alumnus of The National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland.

I grew up in Edinburgh in a non-piping family but I was always fascinated by the spectacle and sound of the instrument. Inspired by the buskers on Princess Street and the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, my mother searched high and low for someone to take me on as a four year old boy. After phone calls for phone calls, my hopes were finally answered, and I began to take tuition from Jennifer Hutcheon at Craigmount High School Pipe Band in 1993. I then moved from tutor to tutor, pipe band to pipe band, before ending up with Donald McBride and then Harry McNulty through recommendation from Maj Gavin Stoddart.

Harry was a huge inspiration to me and had a real way with teaching kids. His ear and ability to get the most out of an instrument was also incredible and I owe a great deal to him for my own understanding and ability to set up an instrument today. My lessons were delivered in the Sinclair’s shop where Harry used to help his cousin Alastair with making reeds and setting up the new instruments. This was great for me to see real craftsmen at work.  I was soon hoovering up the tunes and into my first solo piping competition.

My first solo competition was in 1997 at the Poppy Factory in Edinburgh for the Royal British Legion Scotland Championships. This was my first experience of the piping giants of the day. Gordon Walker, Brian Donaldson, Stuart Samson…the list goes on. I was in awe as they trod up and down the wooden floors in their glistening brogues, eating up the Braes of Castle Grant, the Atholl Cummers & Mrs MacPherson of Inveran and spitting them out in true style and panache. This solidified my ambition to one day become a professionally competing Army piper. I was 3rd in the under 12’s March that day playing “King George V’s Army”.

•Pipe Major Ben Duncan leading the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.

In 2000 I auditioned for the City of Edinburgh Music School and was accepted, beginning long term instruction from Andrew Wright. Andrew has been the biggest influence in my playing, a fountain of knowledge with piobaireachd, he has a very particular style and approach to tunes which has manifested itself well into my playing. He also transformed my light music playing, which took a great deal of work but I am eternally grateful for now. I still go to Andrew for piobaireachd today, getting through 9 or 10 tunes at a time.

In 2002 I attended the very first audition course for The National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland. The idea of this ‘super-band’ for under 18’s was extremely appealing and I was over the moon to have been selected for the original line-up, along with Samantha Stewart. We were the only two to be selected from the 12 of us on the course. Following the reams of audition courses, the final 32 players were picked and we got together for our first performance in the theatre at the RSAMD. The very first tune played was “La Boum”, with the solo performed by Emma Buchan. This was a monumental moment which ignited the ascension of The National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland.

A year or so in, it was decided that the appointments within the band should be held by the kids within, so it was back to The National Piping Centre for another audition/band leadership course. Following an extensive selection process, I was lucky enough to be selected as the Pipe Major and Alasdair Henderson as the Pipe Sergeant. A sound team was also chosen, consisting of Keith Bowes, Kyle Warren and Struan Thorpe. Between the five of us we were left to our devices to produce the concert, write the music and harmony parts, conduct the practices and performances and most importantly…tune the band!

As a young 14 year old, this was the greatest challenge ever thrust upon me and I absorbed every second of it. What other 14 year old has the chance to tune up their own pipe corps of 32 players and is expected to deliver a concert good enough for a paying public? This for me was an opportunity which shaped me into the Pipe Major I am today. I will be for ever indebted to Paul Warren for the chance and to the now star-studded line-up of really good guys, who made it all work, bouncing ideas of each other and overcoming whatever hurdles thrown at us. Sometimes you just need to be thrown into the deep end to see if you can swim…and we swam!

The band then went on to perform at various concerts at Piping Live!, Celtic Connections, the Nanning Folk Festival, with Carlos Nunez and at various other events but the greatest moment for me was sharing the stage with the mighty Field Marshall Montgomery Pipe Band at the William Kennedy Piping Festival in Armagh. I still remember the wall of sound from their sound check, mesmerising stuff! Our claim to fame was that we sold more CDs that evening than FM, maybe because everyone already had theirs but we’ll take it! We returned to the William Kennedy in 2006 which was my last gig as Pipe Major of the band. I think this was probably the best we had ever sounded in my time in the band and was a great send off.

In 2007 I followed my dream of joining The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards as a piper and Challenger 2 Main Battle Tank Crewman. I served on combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, performed all over the world at various Tattoos, concerts and parades, recorded an album which went on to win ‘NS&I Album of the Year’ at the Classical Brit Awards, performed for Royalty, heads of state and shared a stage with countless A-list celebrities at Sting’s 60th birthday party in New York.

In 2012-13 I completed the Army Pipe Majors’ Course attaining a Double Distinction and was posted as an instructor to the Army School of Bagpipe Music & Highland Drumming in 2016, where I went on to become the school’s Pipe Sergeant. This was the absolute highlight of my Army career thus far, being able to shape and motivate the next generation of pipers, fully submerging myself in piping and getting the very best out of the students. I loved going to work!

My time at ASBM&HD also gave a firm platform to pursue my solo piping, which I got back into in 2011 after a few years of continuous deployments and exercises. In 2017 I won the A Grade MSR at the Northern Meetings and went on to win the A Grade Strathspey & Reel at the Argyllshire Gathering the following year, gaining me entry to the Former Winners for both. Other notable prizes include the Lochaber Gold Axe for P/A Piobaireachd in 2021, winner of the 2019 B Piobaireachd league, 2nd in the Former Winners MSR in London 2021 and champion piper at various competitions up and down the country including Braemar, Blair Atholl, Argyllshire Gathering and Blairgowrie.

In 2018 I was appointed Pipe Major of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, the greatest honour of my Army career. I had always dreamt of this job and to finally have the opportunity was humbling. There was of course a lot of work required to try and rebuild a band, manage soldiers’ lives and careers, keep the chain of command at bay with agreed amounts of soldiering whilst still having output as a Pipes & Drums. Ask any Army Pipe Major and they’ll tell you, “it’s the best and worst job on the planet” and “if the soldiers aren’t complaining, something’s wrong!” It has been truly epic though and the experience I gained from my time with NYPBS has been worth its weight in gold.

•Celebrating their Grade 3 win at the World Pipe Band Championships and their Champion of Champions title in 2022

In 2022 I was awarded the Duke of Kent’s Medal for meritorious service to the Regiment and Pipes & Drums by HRH Duke of Kent. In this year’s pipe band season, the band won the Scottish Pipe Band Championships, the Worlds and Champion of Champions in Grade 3B and the Worlds was my last gig as Pipe Major.

Ben competing in the Gold Medal in 2022

I left the Army on September 1, 2022, to take up post as the Assistant Pipe Major at George Watson’s College in Edinburgh, which I’m still incredibly excited about.  Also on September 1, I was 5th in the Highland Society of London Gold Medal which was a great way to finish up my career.

I am still in touch with many of the original members of the NYPBS and always reminisce fondly of our antics on and off the stage. I have made friends for life, learned skills in tuning, musicianship, music writing, leadership and hold my time in the band extremely close to my heart. It gave us all a platform to express ourselves as musicians performing our original compositions and collaborating with some of the finest in the business. It’s quite the machine and continues to flourish 20 years on, which is amazing to see!