Updated: John D. Burgess memories

Published: July 31, 2005

The death of John D. Burgess on June 30 was a loss to the world of piping. He was buried today before only close friends and family. We asked a number of pipers to provide a few thoughts, and following is a selection of responses that try to capture at least part of his personality and spirit.

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For over the past 22 years I have had the privilege to have known, admired and been taught by one of the most famous and successful pipers of modern time. At the age of 10 in Bridgend Primary School, Alness, the chance came to learn a musical instrument. With most of the class already trying different instruments I waited, not wanting to commit myself to anything until one day the teacher asked if anyone would like to learn the bagpipes. It was then I was taken and introduced to a man that I have looked up to and been inspired by ever since.

Trying to describe John in a short paragraph is almost impossible, it is very hard finding where to start. He was a phenomenal wealth of knowledge, with tunes, history, dress, pipers, pipes and their makers. Not to mention his immaculate turnout, sharp wit and very dry sense of humour.

Lessons with John were always something to look forward to, an experience that was never timed. I never had a regular 45-50-minute lesson you might receive from some instructors. When phoning up to arrange a lesson he would always say, “just come around coffee time” (11 o’clock), and it would be well after 5 before Shelia (John’s wife) would be through asking if we were wanting dinner.

He always had a great way of explaining tunes, relaying the way he was taught to play them first. Then going through all the other different styles and why they might have been played like that. The great thing was that he would never need music, regardless of what tune we were going through at the time. He was a great encyclopaedia with regimental history and information about Oban, Inverness and all the big piping events, always annoyed when programmes, books, or the piping press would make and print errors.

I think every piper that was taught by John will always remember his prized possession, a small razor sharp penknife that Willie Ross gave him. It was always in his pocket, whatever he was wearing, ready to scrape a reed, or cut off a bridle etc. I remember even as a young boy being told that if I didn’t have a certain piobaireachd memorised for the next lesson that the same small penknife would be used to cut certain parts of my anatomy off. Again all this back to John’s wicked sense of humour.

He always had a soft spot for the Glasgow Police and was absolutely delighted when I joined. I only wish he could have seen the band when we travel up to Tain at the end of the month for the British Championships. Not only will I miss him greatly but also it’s such a great loss for the whole piping world. I’m positive that all members past and present of both the City of Glasgow Police and Strathclyde Police Pipe Band’s share in my thoughts and send our condolences to Shelia, John, Margaret and their families at this time.

– Donald MacKay, Glasgow

John D. Burgess was a piper with a capital P. He was much more than that, though. He was a fine person and a very good friend.

I first heard him when he was a young man of 18 or so. He was just an amazing piper. I have not heard better fingers on a chanter since that day. We later met on the competitive piping circuit, and we became firm friends.

My abiding memory of him is laughter. Whenever he was around, he made you smile. That, in itself, is a great gift. He was a very good friend to me in the dark days I experienced immediately before, and sometime after the death of my first wife Valerie. He would call and check how I was doing, and just give words of encouragement to help me when the wick on the candle was burning low. I will miss him greatly, especially the long phone calls, and chats in the car going to competitions, when between us, we set the piping world right. If there is a big piping competition or recital on the other side, then MacCrimmon, MacKay and the rest better get practising, because someone just as good as them is heading their way.

– Hugh MacCallum, Dunblane, Scotland

Regarding John D. Burgess I have many strong memories. He was one of the most naturally talented pipers of all time and made a great mark in piping. His accomplishments as a child prodigy will probably never be equaled. P-M William Ross brought a young John Burgess to Vancouver (before I was born) where John performed an amazing recital. All in attendance were astounded at his ability.

John had a tremendous flair for the dramatic, which showed itself in many ways – his carefree style, trend-setting clothing, command of the stage, even the way he smoked a cigarette. When I first heard him play in the former-winners MSR at Inverness I recall his dramatic entrance. Striding confidently from the back of the Caledonian Hotel ballroom, John emerged wearing the Ross tartan from head to foot: socks, kilt, tunic, bag cover, etc. A magnificent looking piper he was!

I heard him play some really great tunes. Two that stand out vividly for me were his “In Praise of Morag” at Oban in the mid-1970s and his dramatic breakdown midway through “Lament for Ronald MacDonald of Morar” at Inverness. I will miss seeing and talking to him as will many, many others.

– Jack Lee, Surrey, British Columbia

Some immediate thoughts come to mind regarding J.D. My father introduced me to John circa 1957 at the Uist & Barra competition. The thing that struck me about John was not only the way he was dressed – the consummate dandy of course – but that he constantly wore gloves even though it was an indoor competition. He only took them off to play: a habit I’ve encouraged my students to do. Blood leaves the extremities when one gets nervous thus resulting in cold fingers.

John had a talent unequalled in his day, but also a magic for introducing obscure tunes and styles of playing them, like “The 91st at Modder River” with GDE grace notes on B as opposed to the more common taorluath at the beginning, and rounding out the ending phrase in each part. It was quite unique to hear. Also his treatment of Delvinside, “the old style,” as he called it, from A’ the four-note run G’-F-E-D, as opposed to the more common F-E-D.

He was a disciple of Willie Ross. This was most obvious when Reay Mackay invited him to play a recital at Mosspark Armoury in Toronto around 1976. John played a selection of 2/4 marches, strathspeys and reels exactly as they are written in Willie Ross’s collection. In the middle of “Lord Alexander Kennedy,” I think it was, his bass drone stopped. In typical Burgess fashion he simply allowed enough air out of the bag to restart his drone all the while never missing a beat. A true professional in the truest sense of the word.

It was for his razor wit that John will be remembered. On one occasion an admirer told him that he’d give his life to be able to play like John, to which JD replied “I already have.” On another occasion JD was asked why he played so quickly. John’s answer: “Because I can.”

There wasn’t much that happened in piping that JD did not know he was kept informed by his “agents in the field,” as he referred to them.

Piping has lost a great treasure. The last of the “young old players,” as he referred to himself is no more. Gone to play with the MacCrimmons and all the other greats of piping who have gone before.

– George Campbell, Oshawa, Ontario

Around 1975 or ’76, when I was first starting to compete, I found myself in the company of John Burgess walking up the hill towards the games ground at Portree. About 30 yards away, an elderly lady was sitting behind a table with a tin cash box, taking the admissions as the players made their way into the park. In those days there were no entry fees; you just paid the regular admission price in order to get in. After a pause in the conversation, John announced somewhat grandly, “Well, Colin Roy, I am going to teach you something now which will stand you in good stead for the rest of your piping career.”

I thought I was about to receive a quick lesson of some aspect of competing, perhaps about how to present yourself to the judges or something of that sort. But, no, without a further word, John strode purposefully up to the table and stated confidently that “MacFarqhuarson sent me.”

Only mildly surprised by this announcement, the startled lady waved him in without John having to reach into his sporran at all, and he waited up the hill for me, grinning triumphantly.

To this day I have never entered a games ground without thinking of John and the fictional MacFarqhuarson – I am sure it was a one-off because I never heard of him trying it since that day. I thought about trying it myself, but I know that I have neither the panache nor the courage to bring it off. He probably soon forgot about it, but it is a memory of John Burgess that I shall always treasure and never forget.

A little later on, it was a great treat when John would sidle up to the company (or us to him, which was more likely) with a twinkle in his eye while having to wait between competing at the different events at the games. After he retired from playing, around 1979 or so, and started judging it made little difference; he was always keen for a chat and a little joke and he was never distant after he became an adjudicator. One day a poor chap was playing in a march competition as a few of us listened, including John. This fellow wasn’t really a good player, but he was getting through it with too much going wrong until rather inevitably he fluffed a doubling or two and John’s right eye widened, the eyebrow raised to an incredible height.

“You know,” he said, “this judging, you have to carry an incredible amount of all this stuff with you, the Kilberry books, the Piobaireachd Society, the pads of paper, but there’s something I’m missing which I’ll have to get, and that’s a monocle, you know the one-eyed eye-glass with the little string on it. Not that my eye-sight is bad or anything, but you can imagine the effect, just when a chap turns around and makes a little tick in his playing, he’ll look at the judge to see if he’s noticed, and just at the right moment I can just drop the thing right out of my eye and that will be that.” And then John did a little demonstration, which was one of the funniest things I ever witnessed.

He was never one to repeat his stories, but over the years the monocle must have been one of his own favourites because on a couple of other occasions while listening to a piper he would get a devilish look on his face and say, “Oh, there’s a small tick . . .” and I knew that the monocle story was either on his mind or about to be given another airing. It was as equal a delight to hear it again as it was to watch the faces of those who had not been fortunate enough to have been previously regaled with it.

John Burgess was my hero; he gave more piping pleasure to more pipers than anyone who ever lived.

– Colin MacLellan, Edinburgh

It was August 1994 and I was in Scotland to compete at the World Championships with the band that I played with at the time. I would always use the World’s trips to do as much Piper & Drummer stuff as possible, and that year I arranged to interview Burgess. I made the four-hour drive to his home in Saltburn, a smaller village just outside of the small village of Invergordon.

After the interview, we were sitting around chatting, looking at photographs and some of his trophies and medals. He also opened a wardrobe to prove, once and for all, that he owned only four sporrans, contrary to the tongue-in-cheek report in “Too Hot To Print” that his collection would be taken on a world tour – a bit of mischief that he loved. Conversation turned to the World’s and the band’s chances for Saturday. Burgess proclaimed his admiration for the 78th Frasers and said that he thought “you boys could do it – you could do it!” He remarked that he was going to travel to the contest since he agreed to make an appearance at a pipe-maker’s stall. He then went to get something.

Since Burgess had been teetotal for many years, I was surprised when he returned with an unopened bottle of malt whisky. He ceremoniously cracked it open and after he poured me a tumbler he wafted the scent under his nose, closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. I asked him if he was tempted to have some, and he definitively said, “No, never.”

But here’s the great Burgess-ism: He said, “You take this bottle of whisky back to your band and tell all the pipers that, if they pour a wee bit on to their hands just before playing at the World Pipe Band Championships [he would never say “World’s.” It had to be “World Pipe Band Championships”], you will be sure to win. Tell them I, John D. Burgess, guarantee it.”

Now, all bands travel to the World’s with the big prize in their dreams, otherwise, why go? As I pulled away from his house he shouted, “Now, don’t forget about the whisky!” I couldn’t wait to tell Bill Livingstone and the rest of the pipers that we have the secret, amber ingredient to ultimate success on Saturday. Everyone was completely on-board with the idea.

Saturday came, and I made sure that the whisky was on the bus. The contest was still at Bellahouston Park and the two Grade 1 events were back-to-back. The band had a good tune-up, and we were ready to go on for the MSR. We stopped on the way to the line and everyone crowded around and stuck out their hands for a splash of the miracle-whisky. We all very seriously rinsed our fingers with it. Amazingly, not one of us had actually tested it beforehand to see if it would turn our fingers to stickum.

It didn’t, and we got through a decent performance, but it was nothing amazing, and, after the prizes were announced, we all thought that the whisky must have been a dud batch or something until it dawned on us later that night that we had been put up to a practical joke that only one man in the piping world could pull off.

This was vintage John D. Burgess mischief. He had sent me on my way from his house knowing that all bands would do just about anything to do well at the World’s, including the absolutely absurd notion of washing their hands with booze before they play. He was probably on the phone to his cronies within seconds of me leaving his house snickering about what was going to happen. And I’m sure that he was on the park spying on us, enjoying the day’s real fun.

I didn’t know John Burgess well, but I was honoured to know him at all. His sense of humour and intelligence matched his musicianship and sense of drama. We’ll not see his like again.

– Andrew Berthoff, Toronto

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