John D. Burgess was a legend, not only for his renowned ability as a piper, but for his wit, sartorial splendor and, at least equally at the top of the list, his mischief-making.
It’s impossible to put into words the man and the character he was. Suffice it to say, the piping world will never see his like again. His death just more than 10 years ago was a sad loss for piping.
I can’t say I knew him well, but my work on the Piper & Drummer / pipes|drums since the mid-1980s brought us together, and to have been able to call one of my greatest inspirations as a kid piper even an acquaintance was my honour and great fortune.
Burgess loved the “Trailing Drones” section of the magazine (then print-only) with its bits of gossip, hearsay, occasional red herring BS and, even most of all, the frequent many-a-true-word-said-in-jest content. At Inverness in the early 1990s or so Burgess took me aside in the upper foyer where the light music events used to take place, to let me know that he liked it and whispered in my ear that he was willing to be a source – to be an “Agent in the Field,” as he would say. He had his own team of operatives feeding him intel from his various fields.
He had no email or newfangled “Internet,” so he asked if he could phone me with his scoop. Occasionally I’d answer my line at work and it would a mischievous Burgess with a scandalously juicy tidbit. (For those with back-issues, you can have fun trying to identify the Burgess-isms that got in.)
“Helloo, Andrew, it’s John Burgessss . . . I have a message for Mr. Harry Tung. You tell Harry . . .” he would say in his carefully articulated and maybe a bit affected Highland accent, which was an important part of the extraordinary Burgess brand. I usually had no idea what he was talking about when he delivered his scoop, and he would never explain it, leaving me to trust him that it was rich scandal. So I would dutifully relay it to Harry and then edit whatever came back and hope not to get sued. It was all great fun.
On trips to the World Championships with the 78th Fraser Highlanders in the 1980s and 1990s (joined 1988, left after 1997) I would try then, as I do now, to do one or two significant interviews for this magazine.
I relayed a story many years ago, and was reminded of it recently. I think it bears repeating.
In 1994 Burgess agreed to do an interview, and I believe it is the only substantial published conversation he did in his life. I hired a car and drove from Glasgow to his home in Saltburn, very near Invergordon, about five hours away. I had imagined him to have a palatial estate, maybe with a gated driveway, and a couple of greyhounds at the door.
His home was nothing like that, but it by no means disappointed. A small seafront house overlooking the Moray Firth, several parked oil rigs off in the distance, the Black Isle, ancestral home of the John/G.S./D.R. McLennans on the other side. I was greeted warmly and humbly. He was of course well turned out, but inside the house there was hardly an indication that he was even a piper, no medals or trophies anywhere, and certainly no sign of this being the residence of the King of Highland Pipers.
It was a great, frank conversation, and by far the most memorable of the more than 100 interviews I’ve done. He was forthright and candid, and was taking the whole thing seriously. It was clear that he knew this would be a record of his life, and I was gratified that this little boy from Missouri was entrusted with his insights and stories.
I was at his house for maybe three hours. He provided sandwiches, biscuits and tea, and even offered a dram of really nice whisky that he kept in the house for guests even though he was teetotal for decades after successfully fighting his well-known debilitating addiction to alcohol.
When I was getting ready to go we talked a bit at his front door about the World Pipe Band Championships. He knew Bill Livingstone, of course, and I think had a fondness for him, as the only wit in piping that compares with Burgess’s I think is Livingstone’s. Burgess said that he had “a very good feeling” about the 78th Fraser not just doing well, but winning the World’s on the Saturday. I was taken aback. Here was John D. Burgess putting his money on the 78th Fraser Highlanders, a band that at the time had fallen down the ladder a bit and would have been happy simply to finish in the top-six.
Wow, I thought, wait’ll I get back to Glasgow to tell the guys!
“Yes, yes, you tell Mr. Bill Livingstone that John D. Burgess expects big things – big things! – on Saturday. In fact, let me get something for you to take back to the band.”
At this point Burgess went back inside and returned with an unopened bottle of malt whisky.
“You take this and bring it to the park on Saturday,” he said. “When you’re tuning up with the band, I want you to gather together all of the pipers, get out the bottle and, ever so gently, pour a drop or two on the hands of each piper. Rub it in well, and I guarantee that it will hasten the result you deserve.”
“Really?” I asked. “You think that will help?”
“Oh, yes. Ooohh, yes. You tell Bill that John Burgess recommends it,” he said with his twinkling eyes.
I was sold. The five-hour drive back to Glasgow probably took three, and I arrived to the band breathless with my excitement about the King of Highland Pipers’ prediction and explained his prescription for winning with whisky. Bill and the rest of the pipers were sold.
Saturday came. I put the special Burgess bottle in my pipe case, and kept it at the ready. Without actually testing the effects of whisky on the hands beforehand, the 14 or 15 pipers gathered around, hands extended and I had the honour of putting a splash of it on everyone’s mitts.
The band had a good following then, and in those early-Internet days bands had secrets that would only be known if you witnessed them. Members of other bands would clamour around far more than they do today, trying to divine techniques and tricks. I remember noticing a few WTF?! expressions from those looking on as we rubbed our hands together with the water of life and miracle cure for not-winning. If it happened today, there would be a dozen crappy videos of it and probably something of a pipe band meme.
I believe Burgess actually made the trip to the World’s that day for a promotional appearance with a bagpipe maker, and I suspect he was somewhere around watching this gullible group actually fulfilling what must have been one of his most unlikely mischievous tricks.
Assuming you have never played with whisky on your fingers, you’ll be wondering what the effect was. None of us in the band actually tested it in advance (that might have spoiled the magical powers), and to think that any band – let alone a contending Grade 1 group – would do this blindly at the biggest competition of the year perhaps speaks to the sorry desperation that we competitive pipers and drummers suffer. Thankfully, whisky isn’t sticky, and pretty well evaporates, probably a bit like rubbing alcohol.
How did we play? I think it was okay, but nothing noticeably added as a result of the golden nectar being applied. I’m not even sure where we ended up in the final result.
But I do remember this event, and the unique, mischievous and fun spirit that was John D. Burgess.