Piping Live: An oral history of Highland lives is given voice in a book and a play

A scene from Jock's Jocks
A scene from Jock's Jocks
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Four years ago, during the Glenfiddich Piping Championships at Blair Castle in Perthshire, two pipers met: one was Gary West, broadcaster and chair in Scottish Ethnology at Edinburgh University, who was covering the competition for BBC Radio Scotland; the other was Ian Duncan, a respected teacher and long-time pipe major of the renowned Vale of Atholl Pipe Band.

Duncan handed West a thick envelope crammed with documents, and, opening it, the broadcaster realised that its contents were priceless. They were typed transcriptions of interviews with veterans of the First World War, almost entirely from North-East Scotland and largely in their own broad Doric tongue, which Duncan’s father, the folk singer Jock Duncan, had recorded and transcribed over some five decades.

“The minute I opened it I could see that this was gold dust,” recalls West, who has edited Duncan’s interviews into a book, Jock’s Jocks, to be launched next Tuesday at Glasgow’s Piping Live festival. “I wasn’t a historian of the First World War, but I knew enough to know that this volume of stuff from Scotland, mainly from one region, in their own language and told in such a matter of fact way was unique. There are other oral histories of the First World War but very little presented in the original dialect.”

West, who describes Jock Duncan as “an extraordinary ordinary man,” has known the family all his life, growing up in Pitlochry, where Jock lived while working with the Hydro-Electric Board. Duncan, however, had grown up amid Aberdeenshire’s farmlands, managing a pair of horses and a plough by the time he was ten. He was steeped in Buchan horseman’s lore and bothy ballads; hence his familiarity in approaching his interviewees and recording their experiences, both as “fee’d” farm workers and amid the carnage of the trenches.

Jock, now 94, is known as a traditional singer but had learned the pipes and schooled both his sons in piping before sending them to professional teachers. His younger son was the late Gordon Duncan, a phenomenally gifted piper and composer who died tragically when just 41 and whom West, who was taught by Ian Duncan, knew from his youth. Jock, he recalls, would run both himself and Gordon to piping competitions and was “a supportive voice and presence”.

It was Gordon who first hinted to West early on that his father was given to tapping away mysteriously on a typewriter. It wasn’t until Ian handed over the manuscript, however, that the magnitude of his project was revealed. Despite his famously animated performances of bothy ballads (his Tradesmen’s Plooin’ Match is a show-stopper) Duncan is self-effacing by nature: when West asked him about his mammoth project, he replied, “Ach weel, I wis jist newsin wi the neebors, ken.”

These “neebors” had endured shellfire, machine-gunning, gas, mud and lice, recounting their experiences in varying strengths of Doric which Jock had painstakingly rendered into readable form. References to pipers in the trenches clearly resonated with West. Davie Stewart of the 4th Gordon Highlanders, for instance, recalled how the regiment lost 13 of its pipers at Loos – his brother Robin among them. Playing under horrendous conditions were such piping greats as GS MacLennan and William Lawrie – composers from a generation who, as West puts it, “had a real sense of how to put a tune together in a lasting way”.

And West will be piping himself in a one-act musical play, also titled Jock’s Jocks, which he distilled from Duncan’s interviews and will perform at Tuesday night’s launch along with his son, actor and fiddler Charlie West, and singers Chris Wright and Scott Gardiner.

Both play and book constitute a testament of valour, endurance and humour under appalling conditions, infused with sheer, resilient humanity. Jim Gilchrist

Jock’s Jocks is published by the European Ethnological Research Centre and NMS Enterprises Ltd – Publishing. The launch is at the National Piping Centre, Glasgow. Piping Live! runs from today until 18 August