Ali Hutton - remembering an inspirational hero


Ali Hutton is remembering his introduction to Celtic Connections courtesy of Gordon Duncan. As a small early teen, looking quite different from the tattooed piper and multi-instrumentalist who tours the world these days with Treacherous Orchestra, Old Blind Dogs et al (he was, if he remembers correctly, in full pipe band dress), Hutton had no idea who the guy in the black fedora was that Duncan, his piping teacher at the time, was so insistent that Hutton meet.


“I just saw this bloke who looked like something out of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower and there was Gordon absolutely in awe of him,” says Hutton. “It turned out to be Paddy Keenan from the Bothy Band but it was interesting because Gordon was behaving towards him the way people would behave towards Gordon and yet Gordon seemed to be completely unaware of the effect his music and his piping had. I don’t think he really grasped that he was a hero to so many people.”


Duncan, who died in tragic circumstances in December 2005, will be honoured in a Celtic Connections concert, Just for Gordon, on January 24. The concert’s subtitle, Celebrating a National Treasure, would probably astound Duncan, whom fellow musicians and music fans around the world consider a genius but who’s job officially was as a refuse collector in Pitlochry.


One of the many, many stories that surround Duncan has him on a trip to New York with the Vale of Atholl Pipe Band, cheerfully showing a local bin man how they emptied bins in Perthshire. It was on the same trip or similar that Duncan’s band mates were treated to the sight of a skeleton playing a chanter passing through the airport x-ray scanner, a scene that Hutton has somewhere among his tattoos.


Even as the smallest band member among the Vale of Atholl’s new intake, it didn’t take Hutton long to feel that there was a presence around the musical director of the band’s Grade 1 outfit.


“I’d been going to a tutor in Scone for solo piping lessons,” says the Perthshire-born Hutton. “I think I was about eleven or twelve and at one point he suggested I should audition for a pipe band. So Gordon’s older brother, Iain, who was the Vale’s pipe major, came along and I played for him. I was then invited to join the novice juvenile band and I think I can safely say that if I’d joined any other pipe band I probably wouldn’t be playing music as a career. I think I’d still be playing the pipes, possibly in another pipe band or as a hobby, but I suspect I wouldn’t be playing guitar and the other instruments I now play professionally.”


The reason for this was Gordon Duncan. At the time Hutton joined, the Vale of Atholl had revolutionised the pipe band repertoire. This was a concert band, playing not just Scottish music but also Irish, Spanish, Breton and whatever else had inspired Duncan.


“It was really exciting,” says Hutton. “The tunes were always mesmerising and intriguing and even in school playgrounds guys from the juvenile band would huddle together and play this music that the Grade 1 band was playing.”


When, along with his Treacherous Orchestra colleague, Ross Ainslie, Hutton was talent spotted by Duncan and taken under his wing, Duncan’s mentorship became as a complete music teacher rather than a piping instructor.


“He’d take us through the pieces that we had to play for solo piping competitions and then he’d just play us stuff,” says Hutton. “He had a way that made you feel inspired to play the solo repertoire, rather than feeling it was an exercise, and when we started going up to his house he had all these instruments on the wall. I learned to play the guitar without any lessons because Gordon could show you how harmonies and chords worked. It was like putting together a jigsaw without realising that’s what you were doing.”


One of Duncan’s greatest strengths was being able to hear almost anything in his head and transfer it to the pipes. This, for Hutton, explains why AC/DC’s Thunderstruck became a pipe tune in Duncan’s hands, or more accurately, fingers. It also shines a light on his composing – and it’s in large part as a composer of innumerable tunes that have passed into the tradition that Duncan’s reputation will continue to thrive, he says.


“I remember hearing Gordon playing Thunderstruck for the first time because he tried to teach us it and it was way beyond us at the time,” says Hutton. “There were other songs like that one that he was cooking up but I can’t remember what they were. The thing about his own tunes, though, is that he was never trying to be innovative. He heard something like the Bellydancer in his head and he made it sound natural. That’s why I think his music will always be played, because it’s so accessible. I credit him with allowing me to become a professional musician, playing all over the world, and everywhere I’ve been people are aware of him. The reach of his music is vast – and he didn’t realise this.”


From The Herald, January 6, 2016


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