Eulogy (Part 1)

A transcript of the eulogy delivered, by Lt. Colonel David Murray (Rtd) , at the Memorial Service held in the Old High Church, Inverness on 6th September 2005

John was born in Aberdeen on March 11 1934.
His father, John W. Burgess, was a veterinary surgeon who became Professor of Surgery at the Royal Dick Veterinary College in Edinburgh. Father John was a piper, a member of Royal Scottish Piper's Society, well known in piping circles in the capital. He gave young John his first lessons on the chanter at a very early age.

One of the few pipers teaching in Edinburgh before World War 2 was James A. Gordon, although he was better known as a highland dancer and a reedmaker than as a piper. Jimmy Gordon took John through the basics, but soon realised that the little boy showed both an unusual talent and a marked ability.

Up at the Castle was another friend of the Burgess family, PM Willie Ross, late of the Scots Guards employed by the Piobreaoch Society as instructor to the Army Class, the Piper Major's Course.

Willie had no son of his own and, in due course, began to take an interest in young John who, every day after school, went up to the Castle and there he would sit absorbing all that Willie had to tell him, and all that Willie had to teach him.

He was a quick learner with an alert and retentive mind, and supple and agile fingers.

He was soon competing in juvenile competitions, and within a very short space of time, began to win prizes - his fame spread rapidly.

In World War 2, the piping grapevine still operated worldwide, and in far off Burma, pipers heard of this little boy, barely taller than the bass drone, whose playing was causing such a stur back at home.

At the age of 15, young John began to enter professional competitions.
A year later, in 1950, he made history by winning the Highland Society of London's Gold medals at both the Argyleshire Gathering and Northern Meeting. He was the youngest piper ever to do so. A great acheivement indeed.

But 55 years ago, the world in general, and this country in particular, was a different place. The term teenager had not been invented. Sixteen year olds were still regarded as little more than boys, and piping was a man's world. Some noses were badly put out of joint, and some memories would turn out to be long indeed.

At the time John intended that piping should only be a hobby. His father was a leading authority in this country on the anatomy and physiology of the horse, and John's real interest was in horses.

He was working at a racing stable in Yorkshire in 1952, with a view to eventually gaining a trainer's licence when he summoned to go with Willie Ross on a tour of Canada and the United States. He was also due to be called up in March for his two years National Service.

At Edinburgh Castle, one of the staff officers was Brigadier Alistair MacLean of Pennycross in Mull, later to become famous as the producer of the Edinburgh Military Tatoo. Alistair MacLean could charm the birds off the trees when he wanted to, and he persuaded young John to enlist as a regular soldier in the Cameron Highlanders, his own regiment, and not the Scots Guards as everyone had assumed he would, including Willie Ross.

Willie was put out but took it well. He was realist. It is difficult to understand now, just how high was Willie's reputation and standing in piping worldwide and amongst the Scottish military hierarchy. There has been no-one like him since. He was know and respected by all the senior officers in the Highland Brigade and in piping in the Army, Willie's word was law. He knew that he could influence affairs in the Scottish Command in Edinburgh Castle much more readily than he could down in Bird Cage, the Scots Gaurds headquarters in London.

The tour of Canada and the United States was a triumph. Willie Ross talked, John Burgess played and afterwards Willie and John socialised. Willie's social skills were unrivalled. He had immense presence, he was at ease in any company, his manners were perfect. John learned a lot from watching and listening to Willie and there was a lot of Willie in the older John.

On their return, John's life underwent a remarkable change. From the comfortable hotels and warm hospitality of Canada and the States, he found himself in a 30 man barrackroom in the Cameron Barracks in Inverness. After his recruit training he was posted to the 1st Battalion in Edinburgh. The PIper Major was Evan MacRae, later to become a lifelong friend of John's. The pipeband of the time consisted of 24 pipers and 12 drummers. The Battalion had just come home after spending 9 of the last 10 years overseas in the Far and Middle East.

1952 was the year of the Queen's first state visit to Edinburgh. The Battalion and the Pipe Band were run off their feet with what were called public duties. Parages, Guards of Honour, Holyrood House Guards, Castle Guards, Retreat Beating, and performances in the Park. The Pipe Band played before the Queen at Holyrood one evening, then came the Edinburgh Military Tattoo followed by a tour of the Regimental area in Inverness and the Islands.
John's arrival in the Battalion therefore didn't cause the stur it might have done. Everyone was far too busy.

An old soldier, Jimmy Hughes, took John under his wing. Jimmy was a good player, but was more famous for having nine children. It was Jimmy who taught John to bull up his brogues, his belt and his dirk scabbard, wash his sporran tassles and all the other tricks of the highland soldier's trade, and a few other tricks besides.

The Cameron Highlanders regarded the wearing of the kilt and the highland dress as a priviledge, and they had turned it into something approaching an art form. It was Jimmy Hughes who taught John to turn himself out in the style for which he later became famous. His bearing and smartness he had learned on the parade ground, John was in fact a natural soldier. Jimmy Hughes and John remained friends for life, and although Sheila was allowed to press John's kilt, she was never allowed to touch his brogues.

When the Edinburgh Military Tatoo was over, the Pipeband toured the regimental area of the Islands. This was the Highlands of 50 years ago remember, when conditions were primitive by modern standards. The band had to live hard, the weather was foul, the Minch so rough that the Lochmore tied up at Lochmaddy instead of going on to Lochboisdale. At Lochmaddy, the pipers played in a the leigh of Nissan hut in a hollowing gale. Everyone was tired, sore from sleeping on drillhall floors, but wherever the Pipeband played, afterwards, someone would ask for a tune from John Burgess. John Burgess was as tired as anyone else but he always rose to the occassion, as he was to do all his life, and gave a brilliant display of solo piping. He was then only 18.

We soon learned just how much clout Willie Ross wielded back at Edinburgh Castle. We were told to send John Burgess back to help Willie out with the Army class although he was years junior to the students and the course was nothing like as intense as it is now. But Willie was nearly 70, then considered a great age and he had recently lost his wife. For various reason, John had to be shown as having passed the course. The rules then said he had to serve 5 more years before his discharge but, back at the Castle, Willie pulled some more strings and John was allowed to go when his first 3 year engagement was up. He had made full corporal, good going for a three year man. He was an institution in the Battalion, when he tuned up all the other pipers gathered round to listen. But things had changed in the Battalion, as they have a way of doing in the Army, and the Pipeband was no longer regarded as important. John was sorry to leave his friends. In fact, he left in tears. He was still only 21.

... to Part 2