Gordon Duncan Remembered

Gordon Duncan, one of Scotland’s most influential and innovative musicians, died ten years ago this week at the age of 41. Stuart Cassells wrote this piece at the time, and has given us permission to reproduce it here.

Like everyone I am completely saddened and stunned by the sudden passing of Gordon Duncan.

Gordon Duncan was without doubt the biggest influence on my piping career. The first pipe band tape I got as a young piper was the Vale of Atholl ‘No Reservations’ and from that point I dreamt as a young boy of one day playing in the Vale of Atholl pipe band. I was very lucky that at the age of fourteen I joined the band and was playing alongside Gordon and had the privilege of learning from him first hand. I think it is always difficult as a young boy in an adult band surrounded by adult company, but Gordon was someone who always took an interest in me and encouraged me. It was Gordon who arranged for, organised and then produced the Greentrax ‘Young Pipers of Scotland’ CD which featured myself, Chris Armstrong, Gordon McLean and Andrew Wright.

From my recent thoughts, the contribution and influence that Gordon Duncan has had on Piping, Pipe Bands and Scottish Music can never be over estimated.

The outstanding medleys, music and recordings of the Vale of Atholl pipe band without a doubt changed and evolved the music and medleys of pipe bands. In my opinion, The Vale of Atholl were the innovators and before their time in pipe band music. They were often criticised by the traditional judges for being too adventurous in their tune selection – I have heard it said by a prominent judge that if they had changed their music ‘The Vale’ would have certainly been World Champions. Yet 10 years on, so many tunes that I played in the band, composed or arranged by Gordon Duncan and were considered too off the wall are now being played by the World Championship winning bands of recent years. I hear the current World Champions are planning on finishing their competition medley next year with a tune we finished our medley with in 1995. 
Looking through the programme of last years World Championships there must be more tunes in it composed or first arranged for the pipes, by Gordon Duncan than by any other composer.

His immense contribution to pipe bands doesn’t stop there. Gordon along with Steven Saint, were the Pipe Majors of the Vale of Atholl juvenile bands when I was in the grade one band. At that time the Vale of Atholl juvenile band were the best in the world and featured some amazing pipers. And not only were they amazing pipers but they were also amazing musicians, many of them multi-instrumentalists. In particular Ally Hutton and Ross Ainslie became prodigies of Gordon. Ally and Ross are now recognised as two of the most outstanding musicians and multi instrumentalists in the Scottish Music scene at the moment, gaining enormous respect from luminaries such as Donald Shaw and Phil Cunningham. But there was so many more young musicians in that band who’ve went on to greater things, that if I were to list them I would be afraid I would miss one or two.

He was an influence and inspiration on every young piper of my generation and on young pipers all over the World. I’ve been to many festivals in Brittany, Galicia and Asturias and when you hear phenomenal young Breton pipers such as Sylvain Hamon, Xavier Boderiou and Alexis Meunier who can play every tune on Gordon’s three recordings gracenote for gracenote, you then understand the amazing influence Gordon has had on young Breton Pipers. I have also heard many of his tunes being played on the Gaita by Asturian and Galician pipers. Such is the fame of Gordon in these parts that P/M Ian Duncan once told me that when he goes to Brittany, Asturias or Galicia he is known and introduced to people as Gordon Duncan’s brother.

Is there or has there ever been another piper to have had this effect and influence on so many piping traditions all over the world?

Having said all this, it wasn’t until I became a student on the Scottish Music course [at the then RSAMD] that I really appreciated how huge Gordon Duncan and his compositions were. Until then I was very much a piper in the piping scene, who was never really involved in the Scottish folk music scene. But after starting at the Academy I started listening to folk bands that I’d never listened to before. I started playing a lot with other folk musicians who were playing instruments such as fiddle, accordion, flute and clarsach. It amazed me how much they loved playing pipe tunes and in particular playing Gordon Duncan tunes! Tunes such as The High Drive, The Famous Baravan, Andy Renwick’s Ferret are session standards known by every Celtic folk musician the world over!! Have you ever heard Brian Finnegan from the band ‘Flook’ playing Gordon Duncans’ ‘Pressed for Time’? Absolutely amazing! I would say at a good session featuring many instruments, there are more Gordon Duncan tunes played than by any other composer from any other instrument. It’s not until you hear these tunes played by a fiddler or accordion player that you realise there is nothing false about playing a C natural or F natural on the pipes, and the pipers who call these notes ‘false notes’ are narrow minded in music and need to take their blinkers off!!!!

There is no such thing as right or wrong in music – there is just good music and bad music! – and good musicianship and bad musicianship.
The playing of Gordon Duncan taught me that. Don’t let anybody ever tell you something is wrong, this is something which still survives from when the British Army were the main patrons of piping. Gordon Duncan helped remove these constrictions and barriers on piping with his pioneering work with other instruments.

For many years, the pipes stuck to themselves and other folk instruments used to shun the bagpipes because pipers never understood the instruments, their tuning and key signatures and never wanted to. There also used to be a certain elitism amongst pipers where they thought that their pipe music and piobaireachd was more important and more significant than ordinary folk music.

Gordon Duncan was at the forefront of breaking these barriers down and opening minds, hence the title of his first solo recording being ‘Just for Seamus’. This was in relation to Seamus McNeill stating after Gordon’s performance at the Knockout final that “if this is what piping has come to then I’m sticking to my fiddle”. Well I have heard Gordon playing the fiddle, and I hope he is up there showing Seamus how to play it just now – and if Seamus is like most fiddlers here in Scotland he’ll be playing Gordon Duncan tunes!

Many so called ‘traditionalists’ didn’t approve of Gordon’s music, but what many of these traditionalists don’t realise is that Gordon Duncan was a bigger traditionalist than any of them. Gordon has sourced, re-introduced and re-invented many of the old pipe tunes which were very nearly forgotten about. He has put countless traditional tunes from other instruments and other traditions into the repertoire of the highland bagpipes, including many old Gaelic ‘puirt-a-beul’ which were lost to the highland pipe repertoire. Gordon also loved piobaireachd. In my experience I have found that many of these ‘traditional’ pipers don’t actually know their traditional music and remain ignorant of it.

In my opinion, Gordon’s contribution to bagpipes, the pipe band scene and to Scottish Music is unsurpassed.

The Principal of The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama [at that time John Wallace] once told me in a conversation about classical music that you have great musicians, then you have legendary musicians. The difference being that legendary musicians change the repertoire for their instrument. On this basis Gordon Duncan is without doubt a legend. And on that basis, that would put him into that very elite group of legendary highland pipers of which there are only a few and would consist of G.S. McLennan, Donald McLeod, Duncan Johnstone and Donald Shaw Ramsay.

The saddest thing about writing this is that I will never hear another electrifying performance by Gordon Duncan and that there will never be another Gordon Duncan composition.

Thank you Gordon for everything you gave me.

Stuart Cassells is General Manager of the Famous Grouse Experience at Glenturret Distillery in Crieff. He was a founder-member of the Red Hot Chili Pipers and is a former BBC Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year. Photo of Gordon Duncan courtesy BBC Alba.