Obituary: Duncan McDiarmid, piper and farmer
When the Duke of Atholl’s private army, the Atholl Highlanders, visited the United States in 1978, they were taken by an enterprising bus driver through the streets of the Bronx. As they drove along the crowded streets, Duncan McDiarmid hoisted himself through a hatch in the roof of the bus and treated the bemused New Yorkers to a blast on the pipes.
The recital, and the bus, only came to a halt when the NYPD became concerned that he would entangle himself in the overhead cables. Although he never lost the urge to liven up proceedings, Duncan, who died at his home at Weem on 9 September this year, was a respected figure in Scottish agriculture, as a successful and forward-looking farmer, NFU convener, and long-serving member of the Scottish Land Court, as well as an accomplished piper, and well-loved man of Breadalbane.
Duncan Diarmid McDiarmid was born on 18 November 1931 at Rannoch where his father farmed the hill farms of Invercomrie and Finnart. He was educated at local schools and Merchiston Castle, where he played in the first XV, and learned the pipes from Pipe Major Hance Gates of the Edinburgh City Police Pipe Band. His father’s initial wish was that he should pursue the legal career he himself had been denied, but Duncan chose to follow generations of his family into farming.
His time at agricultural college was cut short when, in 1949, his father became a member of the Scottish Land Court, as Duncan was later to do, and he was called back to take over the two hill farms, along with Mains of Murthly at Aberfeldy. In 1954 he and his father purchased part of the Menzies Estate at Weem, including the then derelict Castle Menzies, which was later sold to the Clan Menzies Society. Thereafter Duncan managed the entire enterprise until he was joined by his younger brother John.
In 1961 he married Margaret Hamilton of Crosswoodhill, West Calder, and they set up home at Castle Menzies Farm where they brought up their three children, and where Duncan remained for the rest of his life. As a farmer he was a man of great energy and ability, always embracing new ideas and technology, and keen to develop new markets.
By his thirties he was active in the NFU, initially at local level, and later on the national stage where from 1969 to 1976 he was convenor of the Organisation and Publicity Committee which controlled the organisation throughout Scotland – a demanding job for a man with a young family, frequently taking him away from home. He was one of the “Six Wise Men” convened in 1976 to plan the future of the Union. His unstuffy manner and can- do approach enabled him to get on with all sorts and conditions of men, and made him lasting friendships which he maintained, often by unannounced visits, throughout his life. He was asked to take on many other jobs and seldom refused.
For 30 years he was a member of the Scottish Agricultural Consultative Panel for which, after the UK’s entry into the EEC, he spent much time inspecting and grading marginal farms all over Scotland. He was also a member of the Scottish Hill Farming Advisory Committee, for 20 years a director of the Moredun Animal Research Institute, and a General Commissioner of Income Tax. In 1976, he was asked to join the Scottish Land Court, which was set up in 1912 to adjudicate landlord/tenant disputes in crofting and agricultural tenancies. He remained a devoted member of the Court for 20 years and, as colleagues came and went, became its lynchpin. Again he travelled all over Scotland and the islands inspecting farms and crofts, fixing rents and settling disputes of all kinds.
His deep interest in the people and the land they worked never lagged, and he was always determined that the Court should retain the trust of the communities it served by taking full account of the practicalities of crofting and farming, while at the same time applying the law correctly. After retirement he wrote a fascinating account of his time in the Court’s centenary publication, No Ordinary Court.
He was a gifted musician and could play the piano and accordion well, but his first love was the highland bagpipe.
As a young man he travelled to Balmoral to study piobaireachd, the classical music of the pipes, with Pipe Major Robert Brown, who taught the music in the traditional way, by singing. In the 1960s and ’70s he won many prizes on the highland games circuit and competed successfully at the Northern Meeting against the best players of the day, although the timing of those competitions conflicted with harvest and stock handling work, restricting his time for preparation. Throughout his life he always found time to play the accordion for gatherings and dances.
He was a member of the Atholl Highlanders for over 60 years, serving as Pipe Sergeant for over 20 years and Pipe Band President until his death. He was a great supporter of the pipe major, Ian Duncan, and of his late brother Gordon, the hugely gifted piper, composer and musical maverick, in whom, with his propensity for hi-jinks, he found a kindred spirit. The name McDiarmid is very ancient in Breadalbane, and Duncan came of the the Baron McDiarmid branch, probably so-called because they were bailies or judges in the pre-1747 Baron Court.
He contributed an enormous amount to the social and cultural life of highland Perthshire. He was at various times President of the Aberfeldy Show and of the Aberfeldy branch of An Comunn Gaidhealach, for whom he ran the local mod for many years. As a result of his daughters’ interest in horses he became involved in the Blair Castle International Horse Trials, ending up as the director in the 1990s.
He also gave talks and broadcast on agriculture, piping and Perthshire history. At his funeral, Weem Church and a marquee were full to overflowing, testifying to the widespread affection and regard in which he was held. Mourners were greeted with his favourite accordion music and song and, after being piped from the church, his coffin was played to the graveside by the Atholl Highlanders pipe band, full of distinguished players.
As his coffin was lowered the champion piper Douglas Murray played the piobaireachd Munro’s Salute, a tune which Duncan himself had played with success in competition.
His wife Margaret died in 2013 after a long debilitating illness during which Duncan nursed her devotedly. In his final years the companionship of Penny Grant brought much mutual happiness and fun.
He is survived by his three children, to whom he was a constant source of support and encouragement, and, in his own words, seven “cracking” grandchildren.