A National Treasure
Biography (Courtesy of Springthyme Records site, 2005)
Jock Duncan is a link with a bygone age. Born in 1925, his conversations are peppered with tales of the fee'd men and 'chaumers' on the farms in his native Aberdeenshire. He was fourteen when he heard his first radio (his mother, having lost most of her male relatives in the First World War and thus being anxious to keep up with events of September 1939, bought one) and he grew up in a self-contained area around New Deer and Fyvie, where - it sounds like a cliche but it was a fact of a far from easy life - they made their own entertainment.
Farm workers wrote songs about the meanness of their bosses or celebrating great victories in local ploughing competitions and as a boy Jock would sit and listen to these and ballads such as the Battle of Harlaw ("fourteen miles as the crow flies from our front door") at the musical parties his mother, "a great pianist", organised "ben the hoose" at Faddenhill farm.
Jock's brother was a fiddler who took lessons from J.F. Dickie, a contemporary of the great James Scott Skinner, and invited squads of fiddlers to these parties. Jock himself took chanter lessons for a while (his own sons Iain and Gordon are crucial figures on the Scottish piping scene). But it was the songs that fascinated him and when, in 1931, a Beltona 78 rpm record of George Morris singing Hash o' Benagoak appeared in the house, he found his pop idol. "I thought it was just magnificent," he says. Who says pop idols' songs are ephemeral? Sixty-five years on, Jock finally committed it to CD himself.
At fourteen, Jock left school to work on his father's farm, although he had been helping out after school and during the holidays since he was eight, keeping up with the men's work rate and learning more about the background to the songs they sang. A year or two later he sang in public for the first time, in the local hall, at a Meal and Ale celebration where bowls of the heady sounding concoction of meal, ale, whisky and honey (he rattles off the exact recipe) helped to loosen inhibitions.
After war service with the RAF he returned to the north-east of Scotland. He worked on farms and formed a concert party called the Fyvie Loons and Quines [boys and girls in the Doric patois] before a job with the Hydro Board took him first to Caithness and then to Pitlochry in Perthshire, where he has lived ever since. The north-east songs and his rich Doric speech never left him, though, and over the years he has been a regular competitor (and winner - eight cups one year) at bothy ballad competitions such as Kinross, Auchtermuchty and Turriff.
Aside from the richness of his delivery, what comes over is his background knowledge to the songs. This is typical of someone who has learned through the oral tradition. When he describes the scenes at Harlaw, which, he points out, in the interests of a good song have, like many another tale of heroism, been wildly exaggerated, it's as if he was there. And when he chats about characters such as Bonnie Jean o' Bethelnie and Bogie's Bonnie Belle, it's as if they lived a few miles down the road from him. Which, of course, they did - but not in Jock's time.
A performer who likes to physically describe the action of his songs - his hilarious rendering of the Tradesmen's Plooin' Match sees him driving a team of imaginary horses across the stage, complete with instructions and cajolings, he found the recording studio inhibiting. He had never sung with accompaniment before and found that very strange, although former Battlefield Band fiddler Brian McNeill, who produced Ye Shine Whar Ye Stan, helped by visiting the Duncan home several times to run through arrangements and "make me feel important."
With the album's release his career has blossomed further, with higher profile appearances at Glasgow's Celtic Connections winter celebration and at Edinburgh International Festival, where The Herald newspaper awarded Jock one of their coveted Herald Angels for his performance of the Tradesmen's Plooin' Match as part of the official festival's Work, Sex & Drink series devoted to Scottish song. He also keeps busy doing the rounds at competitions and taking workshops at schools.
The latter bring him great satisfaction. "I just go in and talk to them about farming and horses and people, sing them a few songs, and the children bring me drawings and compete for my attention," he says. "You have to keep people entertained. Some of these big ballads with lots of verses would put them to sleep - they nearly put me to sleep sometimes and I'm singing them, but if you give them something light first they're more prepared to listen."
Biography (Courtesy of Springthyme Records site, 2005)
JOCK DUNCAN was brought up in the ballad-rich farming country around New Deer and Fyvie in Aberdeenshire. He has been singing traditional songs and bothy ballads as long as he can remember.
Jock's father had the farm of Gelliebrae beside New Deer and Jock was born there in 1925. Three years later Jock's father took over at South Faddenhill of Fyvie when Jock's grandfather gave up the farm. Jock grew up to take his part in the every day work of the farm and by the age of 10 he was good enough to be driving a horse at the plough.
One of the major influences on Jock's music was his mother. Jock writes: My mother was what I would term 'the stang o the trump' [the best of the bunch], a fine pianist and accompanist to the many fine fiddle players who graced the great splores [house ceilidhs] she organised in the ben the hoose end at Faddenhill. We could listen or participate singing the ald Scots sangs and ballads, the ald bothy ballads and the new cornkisters of Willie Kemp and George Morris. They were my pop idols made famous with the advent of their '78' Beltona records in the early 1930s. Halcyon days indeed!
Jock's elder sister Marion was a great singer, and also his father's cousin, Charlie Duncan, who often visited Faddenhill. It was from him he picked up the style of Harlaw and many of the bothy ballads including Drumdelgie. Jock's brother Jimmy played fiddle. Jock also plays moothie and diddles and as a boy he took chanter lessons with piper Peter Elder (ex. of the Scots Guards) who had a 'wee shoppie' beside Millbrex School where Jock was a pupil.
Another major influence was the great traditional singer John Strachan, farmer at the farm of Crichie the other side of Fyvie. Jock's father and mother knew him well and often invited him to the musical evenings at Faddenhill on a winter evening. John Strachan brought his songs into the local schools and to the WRI concerts in the local village hall telling stories and singing songs accompanying himself with a concertina on his knee. Jock well remembers singing along with the chorus of Down by the Farmyard Gate. During the war the BBC broadcast an occasional programme of songs and John Strachan stories live from Crichie. Jock's brother, Fred remembers hearing the programme when out in the desert in North Africa in 1943. Jock learned his versions of both Bonnie Udny and Rhynie from John Strachan.
When he finished school at the age of 14 Jock worked for a couple of years at Faddenhill. Then in 1943, when he was 18, he joined the Air Force and finished up in Lyon in France. After the war Jock was back in the North East working on farms for a short while and during that time Jock formed a bothy ballad concert party 'The Fyvie Loons and Quines'.
Then Jock moved from the area taking a job with the Hydro Board working first in Caithness and finishing up at Pitlochry where he has lived ever since. Being out of the North East put him out of touch with other singers and on his return visits he found the ballad singers fast disappearing. But Jock never lost his rich Doric speech nor his love of the old ballads and songs nor his sense of 'place' and knowledge of local tradition and history. His enthusiasm for, and knowledge of, traditional music has no doubt been partly responsible for launching his two sons into the world of piping, Iain as Pipe Major of the Vale of Atholl Pipe Band and Gordon being involved there and also as a very highly regarded solo piper.
In 1975 Jock entered and won the bothy ballad competition at the Kinross Festival and he has taken part in the Auchtermuchty Festival every year since it started in 1981. In 1978 Jock took part in the Bothy Ballad King competition held open air before an audience of over 12,000 at Turriff where he gained third place. Jock is now recognised as one of Scotland's finest traditional singers. The richness of his repertoire and quality and style of his singing reflect the pedigree of his musical influences. His knowledge of traditional songs, including as it does several of the older classic ballads and his all inclusive repertoire of bothy ballads is today unique.
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