I still remember vividly the night my dad arrived home after work with a new pipe band tape for me.
It was entitled No Reservations, by the Scotrail Vale of Atholl Pipe Band.
I was nine years old, had been learning the chanter for around a year, and up until then my only experience of the sound of pipe bands was from watching and listening to the Queen Victoria School pipe band. A military school for the sons of Scottish servicemen, my dad attended the school between 1958 and 1964, and longed to be a piper for the band.
But though his first choice was piping, it was decided he was to be a Highland dancer at the school. However, his love of bagpipes continued to grow and before I was old enough to make my own choice, he enlisted me in the ranks of the local pipe band, Wallacestone & District.
Like most children, I found it difficult to motivate myself to practise. Until the night I was given that new cassette tape of the Scotrail Vale of Atholl Pipe Band.
I put it into my dad’s car’s tape player on my way to pipe band classes and I’d never heard bagpiping like it. It was fast, cool and just totally different to what I knew or thought bagpipes sounded like.
I was totally enthralled and I made a decision that night that when I got on to the bagpipes, I wanted to play in that band! To me, my ambition to play in the Scotrail Vale of Atholl pipe band was like a young Ryan Giggs wanting to play in the FA Cup Final for Manchester United.
I started to attend pipe band competitions across Scotland and would always look for the Vale of Atholl band and follow them all day. Their music just seemed so fresh and non-traditional and it excited everyone involved in piping.
I soon learned that the source of this musical inspiration was the Pipe Major’s brother, Gordon Duncan. Gordon was a piper heavily influenced by the revived Scottish folk music scene, the Celtic music scene and by other bagpipers from different traditions such as Brittany, Ireland and further afield.
He was bending and sliding notes, using vibrato and playing at a speed I didn’t think was possible. He was a genius.
Gordon Duncan built up a reputation as being the most innovative bagpiper and composer of his generation. His compositions are now played by all sorts of musicians in every corner of the globe and he’s left a legacy
of young pipers all playing in his unique and dynamic style.
As a young teenager, I attended every concert and recital that Gordon Duncan performed at and would hang off his every gracenote. I went on to become a successful competitor in junior solo competitions, joined the newly promoted grade one Torphichen and Bathgate Pipe Band when I was 12 years old, and then when I was 14 I achieved my dream of being invited to join the Vale of Atholl pipe band.
I was now playing in the most exciting pipe band in the world at that time and, even better than that, I got to stand next to Gordon Duncan.
To get direct instruction and guidance from Gordon rapidly improved my musicality as a bagpiper and I began to gain a reputation myself as being ‘innovative’ and entertaining at recitals. However I was never the innovator, I was merely the student.
I used all that I learned from Gordon Duncan to win the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year in 2005 and then, later that year, went on to become the first graduate from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) with an honours degree in bagpipes.
It was during my time at the RSAMD that I came up with the idea to form a modern bagpipe group called The Red Hot Chilli Pipers. As the founder and band’s musical director, I took the music of Gordon Duncan and made it accessible to the world. The Red Hot Chilli Pipers went on to perform at the biggest festivals and theatres and have sold over half a million CDs worldwide.
Many people give The Red Hot Chilli Pipers credit for changing the world’s perception of how the bagpipes can sound and be played; however, we were merely playing in the same style and with the compositions invented by Gordon Duncan.
I’m honoured to have been told by Gordon’s brother Ian that the Red Hot Chilli Pipers have inspired more young people to play the pipes than Paul McCartney’s Mull of Kintyre.
Gordon Duncan should accept much of that credit.
Gordon Duncan sadly died in 2005. He has left behind an incredible contribution to bagpiping and inspired traditional musicians worldwide. He was my inspiration and the bagpipe guru I worshipped and strived to emulate.
I’m not sure how my life would’ve been different if my dad had never brought home that cassette tape that night but I certainly would never have accomplished anywhere near what I did with bagpipes without the inspiration of Gordon Duncan.
- Stuart Cassells has a BA Scottish Music – Piping, BBC YoungTraditional Musician of the Year 2005, and founder and original musical director of The Red Hot Chilli Pipers.
This feature originally appeared in 2016.