These days, if someone plays with a band for five straight years, they’re a veteran. Considering that Ian Duncan was with the Vale of Atholl Pipe Band for 36 years – 26 of those as Pipe-Major – he is an extraordinary exception to the conventions of modern bands.
Under Duncan’s direction, Vale of Atholl was one of the world’s most consistently excellent bands. While the group did not manage to win a World Pipe Band Championship, and won only two RSPBA majors, it became world famous for its adventurous and innovative musical arrangements. There was never a dull moment in a Vale of Atholl medley under Ian Duncan’s watch, and the band’s March, Strathspey & Reels were always played with the touch of the top soloist leading the band.
While some winning bands were cranking away at medley content culled from the Scots Guards, Vale of Atholl was diligently adapting Asturian rhythms, obscure Gaelic songs, and original material from the imaginations of the band’s fast-fingered pipe section. The Vale’s music was often received by the judges like a teetotaller being offered a cold pint While not always popular with stuffy judges, Vale of Atholl was a piper’s band – always pushing the musical envelope, testing new ground and, as the 78th Fraser Highlanders across the pond did, establishing a musical avant-garde for pipe bands.
Ian George Duncan was born in 1950 in Fyvie, Aberdeenshire. In his interview, he speaks about his history as a piper, from early childhood lessons with his father, to study with the local teacher, to working with Bob Brown and Bob Nicol at Balmoral in the early 1970s.
Music flows through the veins of the Duncans. His father, Jock Duncan, is one of the foremost tradition Scottish singers of today. His younger brother, Gordon, is a virtuoso non-competing solo piper, with several celebrated recordings to his credit.
Because of Duncan’s strong allegiance to his band, he decided to pre-empt a promising solo career, which already included prizes in Highland Society of London Gold Medal competitions at Oban and Inverness. With an extremely strong teaching ethic (since 1979 he has been the bagpipe teacher for Dundee city schools), Vale of Atholl rose from Grade 4 to Grade 1 under Duncan’s guidance. When the band was promoted to the highest grade in 1983, it was already seen as the place to be for young, music-loving pipers who might enjoy quality content more than big prizes.
The band’s three recordings – Both Sides of the Tracks, Salutations, and Live in ‘Well – are free-spirit romps through the then-current trends in pipe band music. Much of what one heard for the first time when those recordings came out, is part of today’s band mainstream – true testament to visionary musical leadership.
If it’s fair, history will consider Vale of Atholl during Ian Duncan’s tenure as Pipe-Major not for the prizes the band won (which were consistently many), but for the way the band changed the pipe band world by pricking up its ears to new musical ideas. Few would dispute the fact that The Vale inspired more new music than most bands that actually won a World Championship.
When Duncan departed Vale of Atholl after the 2000 season, giving way to current Pipe-Major Andrew Renwick, he dropped out of the pipe band scene for almost a year. He even missed the World Pipe Band Championships for the first time in over three decades. At the end of 2001, true to his lifelong dedication to the idiom, he got the band itch again, and decided in December to join the ScottishPower Pipe Band as a back-rank piper.
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