Jock Duncan - 1925-2021

Tue, 06/01/2021 - 15:40
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His was a life well lived, a voice well used, a curiosity well channelled, a passion well honed. Jock Duncan, singer of songs, collector of stories, cultural giant, extraordinary man.

We stood among the gravestones at Fonab to say our farewells, restricted by law to a gathering of 20, barely a tenth of those who would have wished to have been there, I’m sure. That might have been fine by Jock, though, a man who cared little for fuss, but who cared a great deal for folk.  For his folk, for other folk, and for the folk.  Gordon junior had piped his grandad’s hearse down the main street past the locals who were spread out by the requisite distance on the Pitlochry pavements. At the graveyard across the Tummel, hearts were heavy as we stood near the final resting place of three generations of Jock’s loved ones, Frances, Gordon and Alex: to have outlived your wife, son and grandson is a hard burden to thole for anyone, and there must have been deep pain indeed for all the Duncan family who stood among us. Mary the minister led the tributes, Geordie Murison and Scott Gardiner gave us a couple of songs, I said a few words in eulogy and played a tune or two on the wee pipes, drams appeared, and we bid farewell to the extraordinary ordinary man who was Jock Duncan.

Born on the small farm of Gelliebrae near New Deer, Aberdeenshire in 1925, there was music all around Jock from the start. His mother was a gifted pianist, and was the accompanist of choice for the many fiddlers of the district, and then for those some miles to the south west around Fyvie after the family’s move to the farm of South Faddenhill in 1928. Jock’s brother, Jimmy, was himself a fiddler, taught by that great master of the slow strathspey, J.F. Dickie, and he brought players and singers from all around to regular soirees in the house, young Jock soaking up every nuance and syllable of the songs, ballads and cornkisters, and every phrase and inflection of the pipe and fiddle tunes.  Faddenhill became the local ceilidh house, a key social and cultural hub of the community, a gathering place for a grand splore. Jock’s sister, Marion, was a fine singer, and regular visitors included their father’s cousin, Charlie Duncan, a master of the bothy ballads, and whose repertoire and style were a significant influence on the youthful Jock. The great John Strachan, too, who would later appear on the bill of the first Edinburgh People’s Festival ceilidh in 1951, was no stranger to Faddenhill, and later in life, Jock often talked of him with great admiration.

The farm had been in the possession of Jock’s grandfather, and so when Jock’s father took it on in 1928 it was very much a family concern. Jock was keen to learn the ways of the farm, taking on the role of orra loon or apprentice, and he was comfortable driving a pair of horses behind a plough by the age of 10. On leaving school at 14, he began to work full time on Faddenhill, no doubt mixing with the older men all around the district at sales and marts, and on the many occasions when neighbours helped each other with the tasks that needed more hands than most smallholdings could supply themselves, such as when the travelling steam threshing mills came round. As fellow singer, Joe Aitken, mentioned after Jock’s passing, he was just about the last of the bothy singers who had actually lived the lives of the stories they sang.

Having grown up amongst the men who had returned from the Great War and who still bore its scars, the year Jock left school it started all over again. Jock was keen to go, but had to wait until he was 18, joining the Royal Air Force in 1943, and soon finding himself in France for the final two years of this latest world conflict. Although he talked little of it, no doubt the experience gave him some insight into the psyche and cruel realities of war. It was an experience he would put to good use in his knowledgeable and empathetic style of interviewing which fuelled one of his lifetime’s projects, gathering the memories and experiences of The Jocks.

After the war, Jock returned to farm work in the North East, where he met and married Frances, and where Ian, Moira, young Frances and Gordon arrived in turn. Yet farming was changing: tractors were replacing horses and combines were replacing people, and so Jock was one of thousands of his generation who turned to new ways, in his case to help power the nation. Jock and Frances took the decision to embrace the new life offered by working with The Hydro Board, and so leaving farming and their native county, they moved the family first to Caithness, then later to Pitlochry in the mid 1960s where they settled for the rest of their days.

As a Pitlochry boy myself, I well recall the first time I came across Jock. I must have been very young, barely yet at school, and I was taken to a concert in the church hall. I had already been weaned on the songs of the north east, my parents having a small vinyl collection that included the likes of the Barnyards O Delgaty, The Muckin O Geordie’s Byre and the Bonnie Lass O Fyvie, but suddenly here on stage was a man actually singing my songs for real. When I say singing them, I really mean living them: he wasn’t just reciting their stories, he was embedded deep within them. And from that moment on I was hooked on the singing of Jock Duncan. He fascinated me from the off: his deep-rooted Doric tongue seemed impenetrable at first, but soon grew familiar enough for me to at least catch the gist most of the time. Our shared world was the world of piping: he had learned for a while himself as a boy, although it was song that became his own main mode of performance in adult life. But in Ian and Gordon he had two sons who were destined to become famous names in piping, Ian as a prolific teacher and one of the most respected pipe band leaders of his generation, and Gordon as an innovating genius whose compositions and unique virtuosic style of playing opened up entire new directions for the art. All three – Jock, Ian and Gordon – have been inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame, the only family to date with three members thus honoured. Tragically, Gordon was admitted posthumously, having died in 2005 at the age of just 41. All three also won Herald Angel awards, Jock’s being earned at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2000 for services to ballad singing.

What struck me back then as a young boy was Jock’s incredible depth of knowledge of the traditions of piping, of the repertoire and of its history, and he was generous to a fault with his advice. By the time Gordon and I joined the local Vale of Atholl pipe band in the mid 1970s, which Ian led, Jock seemed to be ever present for the first few years, serving as parking attendant at the weekly ‘Highland Nights’ held through the summer in Pitlochry, and supporting us at competitions far and wide. He was particularly in his element when we visited his native north east, on trips to Turra, Old Meldrum, Keith and Aberdeen, where he and Frances would help keep our bellies full in the camper van, serving up infinite bowls of broth and imploring us to “tak some loaf”. Our nights were spent in sleeping bags on the hard wooden floor of the Millbrex village hall, kept by Jock’s pal Harry Panton, a man who knew how to pour a generous dram. It was on these trips north and east that I began to understand a little of the world Jock had come from, and about which he sang so powerfully in his songs.

It must have been just about the time I first met him that Jock began to branch out and to test his talents well beyond the local community and it was at Kinross festival in 1975 at the age of 50 that he entered - and won - his first bothy ballad singing contest. The depth and understanding of his repertoire, with a strong and melodic voice to carry it, were a revelation to many, and it was immediately clear that here was a classy and authentic exponent of the real thing. Jock went on to perform widely around the country and beyond, recording two full albums in his seventies, Ye Shine Whar Ye Stan in 1996 and Tae The Green Woods Gaen in 2001. His repertoire was enormous, not just the farm songs of the north east, but with plenty of the muckle sangs in there too – the Scots and Doric versions of the international ballads that have been studied and collected far and wide. Several of them he had known since he was a boy – The Cruel Mother he learned from the singing of George Kidd, grieve on the neighbouring farm to the Duncans in the mid-1930s, while Glenlogie came from a teacher at Fyvie school around about the same time, Grace Leslie. Yet for me it is Jock’s powerful performances of The Battle Of Harlaw which bear the gree. Learned as a boy from the singing of his father’s cousin, Charlie Duncan, a finer version than Jock’s I’ve yet to hear.

Yet while Jock gave voice to a hundred songs and more, from a very young age he took it upon himself to also give voice to people, and to a very specific group of people at that. While still in his teenage years, he began to chat to the neighbouring men about their time in the army during the Great War. We can maybe imagine this inquisitive young lad dropping the odd question into the conversation as they forked oats together into the threshing mill or lifted tatties one October. Perhaps as the country headed for war once again, and Jock realised it might be his own turn soon, a concerned curiosity led him to seek out some sense of ‘what it was like’. Or maybe the neighbouring men themselves began to drop the odd aside into their ‘newsin’ as renewed talk of war made it all come flooding back. But whatever the immediate motivation, Jock got them talking. In the early years he would return home and write their stories down from memory, often in standard school-learned English, and a few men later wrote their memories down for him themselves. But the bulk of the collecting was carried out much later, in the 1970s, the conversations being recorded onto cassette tape. In all, Jock interviewed 59 men representing 25 battalions from 14 regiments, transcribing every word as spoken, and being very careful to represent the nuances of their speech as accurately as he could on paper. The resulting book, published in 2019 as Jock’s Jocks: Voices Of Scottish Soldiers From The First World War, represents one of the most important and insightful collections of personal testimonies of those who fought in one of the most momentous conflicts in human history, gifting us a truly unique glimpse into the lives of those who left the farms of Aberdeenshire, Angus and Perthshire for the fields of Flanders and France and the shores of Gallipoli. The 50 years and more Jock spent collecting and transcribing these stories make him, without doubt, one of the key Scottish oral historians of the 20th century. And yet when I asked him what motivated him to undertake such a mammoth task from such a young age, he dismissed his role in typically Jock Duncan fashion: “Ach, I was just newsin wi the neebors, ken?”

It has been a great privilege to have worked with his family and others to help bring his book to publication and to have created a short play, also Jock’s Jocks (why waste a good title!), based on the stories he spent over 50 years collecting. The greatest privilege, though, is simply to have known him all my days and to have heard him sing.

Jock passed away on March 25th at the age of 95. His was a life well lived, a voice well used, a curiosity well channelled, a passion well honed. Jock Duncan, singer of songs, collector of stories, cultural giant, extraordinary man - we thank you, and we salute you.

by Gary West