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stories from some of the world's top pipers

Ian Duncan

Although Ian was pipe major of The Vale of Atholl Band, he has acknowledged that he couldn’t have done what he did without the help of others. He’s already mentioned Alan Cameron, but it would be impossible to tell Ian’s tale without mention of his brother Gordon, sadly no longer with us. “Gordon spent a lot of time putting together the tunes for the medleys.  He was also great at helping the other pipers in the band. He would quietly take guys away and adjust reeds or whatever needed doing, but he did it quietly, behind the scenes and without a fuss. I once dropped Gus Clark and Gordon took him away, gave him a reed, and sorted the problem. Before I knew it Gus was back playing with the band. Gordon just had such a great way with people and I was kind of more ruthless. I would just have told him ‘your reed’s out of tune you’re not playing.’ That was the way it worked.”

In a classic case of good brother, bad brother, Ian was happy to play the baddie. “If you’re about to go on and there is something wrong with a reed you’re better just dropping the player. You can’t really take a reed out or move a reed without it being unsettled for ten minutes or so, and it’s maybe a confidence thing as well. You’ve lost confidence in that piper or that reed and he maybe needs a new reed, or a wee chat. I don’t remember any resentment, although there may have been some in the background that I didn’t know about. I once gave one piper a hell of a bollocking because I dropped him and he said ‘Yes, I can go to the beer tent now’. ‘No, that’s not the attitude; you should be desperate to play’, I replied. I have to confess that I might not have used those exact words.”

While Ian was giving some of his players a hard time, Gordon was encouraging the others, especially the younger players in the bands such as Ross Ainslie, now a prodigious player and composer in his own right.  Ross says, “I could hardly play, maybe just a few tunes on the chanter, but Gordon would take me aside and get someone else to run the band. He just really took to me. I don’t know whether he just saw something in me but after six months I got a prize for most improved player. I was practising all the time. It got to the point that it was football or music and music won. I had football trials for Scottish Schools, but I was just more into my music pals rather than my football pals. We won the World’s with Vale of Atholl with Gordon, and then I went into the Grade 1 band when I was eighteen.”

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