DCSIMG

Gordon Duncan

Born: 14 May, 1964, in Turriff, Aberdeenshire.

Died: 14 December, 2005, in Pitlochry, aged 41.

GORDON Duncan was, arguably, the most innovative and influential piper of his generation. A virtuoso on the Highland bagpipe who pushed out the envelope in terms of technique and inventive musicality, his exuberant pyrotechnics and unorthodox and gleefully irreverent approach enraged a few among piping's old guard, but inspired many young pipers to follow in his turbulent wake and take the instrument to the limit.

Best known as a soloist, Duncan, who was found dead at his home at Edradour, Pitlochry, last Wednesday, was also for many years a catalytic element within the ranks of the innovative Vale of Atholl Pipe Band, of which his older brother, Ian, was pipe major. A compulsive composer, during his tragically short life he left a wealth of often idiosyncratic pipe tunes, many of which are now well established in the international pipe-band and solo repertoire. Perhaps the most popular, the reel Andy Renwick's Ferret, is thought to have been recorded by more than 100 pipers, pipe bands, folk groups and others, while others now well established in the piping repertoire and beyond include The Belly Dancer, The Famous Baravan, Zito the Bubbleman and Pressed for Time.

Listening to him play, with a fluid ease and an insouciance which could make many a lesser piper feel like consigning his own instrument to the nearest bonfire, you were aware of both his utter musicality and how grounded he was in tradition and technique. His last CD featured both "straight" 2/4 marches and pibroch as well as a rip-roaring adaptation of its title tune, Thunderstruck - a number by rockers AC/DC, whose music comprised just some of the eclectic elements which informed his music, from Irish, Breton and Galician piping to heavy rock.

Duncan was born in Turriff, the son of tenant farmer Jock Duncan (well known in the folk scene as a bothy ballad singer) and his wife Frances. Soon after Gordon's birth, Jock joined the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board and moved, via a brief spell in Thurso, to Pitlochry, where Gordon would live for virtually all of his life.

He was initially taught the pipes by his father, then was sent to Walter Drysdale of Methil, who polished his playing, enabling the young player to make an impact on the junior piping competition circuit. Playing note-correct for judges didn't sit well with his maverick creativity, however, and he gave up competing in his late teens.

Sometimes living as close to the edge as he played, Duncan plied a day job as a refuse collector with the local council, and was known to scribble a new tune on the back of a cigarette packet. He spent time with notable folk bands such as Ceolbeg and Wolfstone, while his years in the Vale of Atholl Pipe Band, along with Ian as pipe major, saw the band evolve within a decade from a local band pottering about Grade Four in the competition stakes into a formidable Grade One outfit, which won the European Championship in the late Eighties.

"Gordon was really my mentor," said his brother. "I was good at running a pipe band, but anything I did really revolved around Gordon and his musical ideas. If we'd played safe, and perhaps a bit more boringly, we might have got [the world championships]. But we were more extrovert in the stuff we did, thanks to Gordon.

"He was quite special, unique."

In the sleeve notes to Duncan's first solo album, Just for Seamus, the piper and pipemaker Hamish Moore wrote: "This man is precious and should be one of Scotland's living national treasures." Following his death, Roddy MacLeod, the principal of the National Piping Centre in Glasgow, described him as "a great traditional player but, as everybody knows, he pushed back the barriers. It's just a tremendous loss."

Ian Green, the managing director of the Greentrax label for whom Duncan recorded, described himself as "devastated" at the news of his death: "He was a very rare talent indeed, and a sad loss to the Scottish traditional music scene."

Among the younger generation of pipers on whom Duncan had such an impact is 26-year-old Stuart Cassells, the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician 2005, who played in Vale of Atholl and was one of the players on the Young Pipers of Scotland album which Duncan produced for Greentrax. Cassells described Duncan as "without doubt the biggest influence on my piping career.

"Looking through the programme of last year's World Championships, there must have been more tunes in it composed or first arranged for the pipes by Gordon Duncan than by any other composer."

Not a few of these tunes are likely to be aired at his funeral, at the Church of Scotland in Pitlochry tomorrow (12.45pm), which is expected to attract some of the world's best-known pipers.

Duncan is survived by his mother and father, brother and two sisters, and by his son, Gordon, and his wife, Mary.

 
 
 

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