JOCK DUNCAN: A BIOGRAPHY
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.
Jock Duncan was inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame during the Scots Trad Music Awards December 2006 in Fort William and had earlier been made an Honorary Member by the TMSA for his major contribution to traditional singing in Scotland.
Peter Shepheard © 1996