An undisputed giant of modern Scottish piping, John D. Burgess was much more than an extraordinarily gifted player. He was also an inspiring teacher, a technical innovator, a rigorous yet beneficent adjudicator, an encyclopaedic wellspring of bagpipe lore and a marvellously charismatic showman, famed for his razor-sharp humour.
Born in Aberdeen in 1934, John was just four when he started playing, on a cut-down practice chanter fashioned by his father. At age ten, his already blossoming talent resulted in his acceptance for tuition by the legendary Pipe Major Willie Ross, who ran the Army School of Piping at Edinburgh Castle. John’s performances on the juvenile competition circuit saw him hailed as a boy genius, with professional pipers travelling from far and wide to listen, open-mouthed, as this “laddie the size of a bass drone” displayed a technique and flair to match many established players twice his age and more.
Turning professional himself at sixteen, John eclipsed even his own precocious achievements when he won the coveted Gold Medals for piobaireachd on his first appearance at both of the top senior piping competitions, the 1950 Argyllshire Gathering in Oban and the Northern Meeting in Inverness, becoming the youngest ever winner of either in a feat that remains unequalled to this day.
Unlike many child prodigies, John went on to enjoy a long, fruitful and illustrious career, including periods with the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, the Edinburgh Police Pipe Band – of which he eventually became Pipe Major – and the all-star Invergordon Distillery Band. His involvement with the last outfit saw him settling permanently in the Highlands, where his piobaireachd playing was further enhanced under the renowned guidance of Angus MacPherson, whose piping lineage links directly back to the MacCrimmons of Skye. Although his playing was firmly rooted in time-honoured traditional disciplines, John was also a modernizer, whose “Mason’s Apron Hornpipe”, adapted from the classic reel, is still regarded as a turning-point in the development of today’s piping repertoire.
Following his retirement from the performing arena at the end of the 1970s – after he’d won all its major titles, many of them several times over – John became one of the piping world’s most sought-after competition judges, meanwhile influencing generations of younger players through his work teaching schoolchildren. Following John’s sad death in June 2005, a tribute from one ex-pupil likened the experience of being tutored by such an icon to receiving guitar lessons from Eric Clapton. John’s many outstanding contributions to Scottish music were previously honoured with an MBE in 1988, while his various recordings, including the aptly-titled King of the Highland Pipers, rank among the piping catalogue’s all-time exemplars of technical dexterity, rhythmic command and intensity of expression.