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John D. Burgess


John D Burgess - An Obituary.

John D Burgess, who died on 6th July, 2005 aged 71, achieved world-wide fame as a child prodigy on the bagpipes before maturing into one of the foremost exponents of Scotland's national instrument.

In the 1940s, the pipe music tumbling effortlessly from the youngster's fingers astonished professional pipers, who travelled long distances to hear him play. News of the virtuoso reached pipers serving in Burma during the Second World War, who could not believe that at home there was "a laddie the size of a bass drone" who could play as well as the established masters.

Originally taught by his father John, he began playing aged four on a scaled-down practice chanter - the instrument which learners use to develop their technique before graduating to the full pipe.

His amazing facility for the complex finger movements and system of grace notes that characterise pipe music led him to Edinburgh Castle, where he received lessons from the redoubtable Willie Ross.

For decades, Pipe Major Ross ran the Army School of Piping. From his rooms at the top of the castle, he taught piping to hundreds of soldiers from all over the British Empire while enhancing his own reputation as a player and composer. Ross, a great character who once told an American tourist that he was thinking of moving out of the castle because "the wife was finding the cleaning a bit much", became Burgess's mentor.

As Ross's prot�g�, Burgess began competing against adults, and won many amateur contests. While still a teenager, he turned professional and became the youngest piper ever to triumph in the two most prestigious competitions for piobaireachd - the classical music of the Highland pipe.

In 1950, aged just 16, he won the Gold Medal at the Northern Meeting at Inverness and the Gold Medal at the Argyllshire Gathering at Oban at the first attempt, a feat that is unlikely to be repeated. After this success, Burgess and Ross went on a tour of America and Canada where they delighted North American audiences.

Born in Aberdeen on March 11 1934, John Davie Burgess, often known as "John D", was educated at Edinburgh Academy, then joined the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders. It had always been assumed that he would follow his tutor into the Scots Guards. Indeed his choice of regiment infuriated Ross, who is reported to have flung Burgess's pipes back into their box when the young piper confessed what he had done.

He was promoted to corporal, but left three years later. He then joined Edinburgh City Police, which had a very fine pipe band; he eventually became its Pipe Major.

There followed a spell working for the Invergordon Distillery, which had recruited some of the best-known solo pipers in Scotland to form a pipe band of "all the talents".

From 1962 to 1965 he was Pipe Major of the 4th/5th Battalion Cameron Highlanders TA, taking charge of a band filled with Gaelic speakers from South Uist. Although he did not have Gaelic, his playing ability won him the respect of his pipers.

Burgess's playing developed as he absorbed knowledge from many sources, including Angus MacPherson, a Highland hotelier whose family could trace its piping lineage back to the MacCrimmons of Skye, the legendary pipers responsible for the greatest piping compositions of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

In his younger days pipers had been content to marvel at Burgess's dazzling finger technique, but as he grew older aficionados listened for the expression he brought to his playing of the light music of marches, strathspeys, reels, jigs and hornpipes.

His subtle interpretations of piobaireachd or ceol mor (the big music), the classical repertoire that pipers regard as the highest form of their art, became even more sought after.

A prolific prize-winner around the Highland games circuit, he gave many recitals and made many recordings, including an album called The King of the Highland Pipers.

A man of considerable style, Burgess always looked immaculate in Highland dress, believing that his turn-out complemented the noble instrument and its music. He had an inexhaustible fund of piping stories and was an entertaining - if at times rather a risqu� - raconteur.

Latterly, he worked as the schools' piping instructor for Easter Ross, based at Alness. As a tutor he passed on his art to hundreds of pupils, many of whom have become leading lights on today's piping scene.

In his own quiet way, he also provided a great deal of support to pipers who fell on troubled times.

John D Burgess was appointed MBE in 1988.

He is survived by his wife, Sheila, and by their son and daughter.

It was left, we believe exclusively, to �The Telegraph� to prepare and include a valuable obituary on John D. Burgess. We are therefore pleased to reproduce it here.

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