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The Highland Bagpipe by Gary West

In my last column, I celebrated the piping history of my native Highland Perthshire, an area that has echoed to the sound of chanter and drones for centuries. Yet, it is a story that by no means belongs only to the past, for the hills and glens of Atholl and Breadalbane continue to produce players of great ability to this day. Indeed, piping has probably never been healthier there, and given the riches of the tradition in the past, that is quite a remarkable fact. Pipe bands such as the Vale of Atholl, founded in 1907, and the much younger Pitlochry and Blair Atholl, have youth development policies that encourage young children to take up pipes and drums, offering them the chance to learn from masters, to develop their talents properly and fully, and to travel the world -- and it's an invitation they take up in the hundreds.

And just as in generations gone, every so often characters emerge who rise above the rest in terms of skill, flair and influence, and pull the art form up to new heights of achievement. I mentioned a couple last time: John Ban MacKenzie, piper to Lord Breadalbane, and Angus Mackay, Piper to Queen Victoria. To those names must now be added another from my own generation -- Gordon Duncan.

Born in 1964, a native of Pitlochry, Gordon died tragically at the age of 41, but the musical legacy he has left us is immeasurable. "Genius" is a word that we sometimes use too generously, applying it to artists who are merely "brilliant"! Genius really involves using that brilliance to take one's art to a new level, to add a new dimension, to reshape the way we hear it, conceive of it and play it. It means having what it takes to transport us to a whole new place entirely. The world of piping, and, indeed, of traditional music more widely, generally agrees that Gordon did this, and so I have no qualms about using the term to describe him. He was a musical genius.

The full text of this article is available in the Spring 2012 issue of Scottish Life.

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