Eulogy (Part 2)

Part two of the 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

He joined the Edinburgh City Police and became Pipe Major of their Pipeband, which had won the the World Championship in 1954.

When the Chief Constable of Glasgow Police heard that the Edinburgh City Police Pipeband had won the World Championship he was, understandably, a bit put out.

He sent for his own Pipe Major, Angus MacDonald, who came from North Uist and also a Cameron Highlander, and demanded to know why. Angus said that the Edinburgh City Police Pipeband consisted of 50% civilians. The Chief Constable of Glasgow then rang up his opposite number in Edinburgh and made some pointed and pithy comments on the World Champions. Then the order went out, no more guest players. So John took over a band with only 7 pipers. However he soon handed over to Iain MacLeod, under whom the pipeband went on from strength to strength.

John eventually decided that 30 years in the Police force, like 22 years in the Army, was too much to contemplate, and eventually resigned.

He stayed in Edinburgh, and for a time was Pipe Major of a Territorial Army unit, the Queen's Own Lowland Yeomanry. When in camp, the pipers were required to play at a function at the Officer's Mess, John duly led them in. The Officers paid not the slightest attention and simply talked louder while the pipers played. When the Mess Steward called the pipers forward for the second set, John refused. This was mutiny... high drama ensued. Appalled, the Mess Steward appealed to the Adjudgent. John told the Adjudgent the pipers would play when the officers stopped talking. The Adjutant went back into the Mess, the Officers stopped talking, and John led the pipers in for the second set. One up to John D!!

In 1963, the Pipe Major's appointment in the 4th/5th Camerons Highlanders, a Territorial Army battalion of the 51st Division, became vacant. I was commanding the Battalion at the time. John volunteered for the post. We recruited in Inverness-shire, Skye and the Outer Islands excluding Lewis which was Seaforth territory. It was difficult to get the Pipeband together. There were some outstanding players from South Uist and Benbecula among the pipers, and one of them was Calum Campbell who died so tragically in the January storm over Benbecula and South Uist. With John as Pipe Major, the 4th/5th took second place behind the then World Champions at the Divisional Pipe Band competition in 1963. John won all the Solo piping events. Alas more noses badly out of joint.

John's example in dress and turnout was also quietly noted by the band. So much so that, much to everyone's surprise, in 1964 the 4th/5th Camerons won the Marching and Discipline competition at Cowal, not bad for "West Coasters". However as time went on, it became clear that the 4th/5th didn't have what John was looking for. Although he was a man with literally hundreds of acquaintances, he seemed to have very few real friends. Hard though it may be to believe, beneath the convincing outward show that he could put on more or less at will, he was essentially a lonely man.

John moved on and joined the band at the Invergordon Distillery was forming under Donald Shaw Ramsey. And here, in 1966, there occurred the event which was the turning point of John Burgess' life. One not mentioned in any of the articles, obituaries or tributes that have been published since his passing. All make much of his brilliance as a piper, the perception of his interpretations, the breadth of his repertoire, his extraordinary dexterity, his technical and musical skill, his wit, his charm, his popularity, his fund of stories. And quite rightly, this was the public face of John Burgess. But the first three decades of his life had not been easy. He had been encouraged to compete and was expected to win when he was still a child of seven. As he grew up the demands on him continued and, with these demands came the stress and strain of playing always to the high standards he had set himself, because in piping audiences there are always those very ready to be critical. He made it all look so easy. It seemed to occur to no-one that these apparently effortless performances involved a sustained mental and physical effort that at some must inevitably take its toll.

Now 55 years ago, most pipers took a dram, and a good dram at that. Not all of them but the majority did, and there were always those punters on the fringe who were keen to be seen drinking with the star. It was a hard drinking Army too, and I include the Cameron Highlanders. At the Regiment guest nights, at the Officers Mess, after the pipers had played it was the done thing for the senior officers to have a word with the pipers and treat them to a large dram or two. Other officers did the same, the pipers were good company. It was "good form" to give the pipers a dram or two, or three. Thus it was that all too many young pipers had too many drams forced on them at too early an age, in many cases with tragic results in later life. We can all name some of the casualties. And with the dram comes guilt, remorse, self-reproach, shame, repentance and stress and strain on the individual and those closest to him.

In 1966, in Invergordon, John Burgess met and married Sheila Ross, the charming and musical daughter of an Alness family. Her father, John Ross, had served in the Great War in the Royal Horse Artillery, and later as a piper in the 2nd Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders, the old Ross-shire Buffs. Much of the time, he was in India. Sheila's brother, also John, played in Invergordon Distillery pipeband. The couple setup home in Invergordon, moving house to Alness and Ardross, where young John and Margaret were born. Eventually settling at Maybank in Saltburn with the children. Sheila, for her part, had from the start always known exactly what she was taking on. To cut a long story short, she it was that persuaded John to face up to the fact that he was ill. Suffering from that problem that most pipers, at one time or another, have shared to some extent and one that very few find it possible to overcome alone. John agreed that he needed help and made contact with one of his old and true comrades. Within hours his Regimental friends had rallied, they had been there too. They were to stand by John and support Sheila throughout the following difficult months and years. In due course, together, they brought John safely back into the real world. Although John was rightly proud of his unrivalled piping record, his two Gold medals, his cups, shields, stars, banners, quiach or whatever, he was prouder by far by the victory he had won over himself. That victory he owned principally to Sheila. Sheila had given John Burgess back his life.

In 1972, John became Schools Instructor for Easter Ross. He began to teach private pupils as well. He taught them all thoroughly, attentively and well. We heard some of them today.They are competing and are winning prizes. There the story might well have ended but John and Sheila decided that they would devote their lives to helping those unfortunates who find themselves in the iron grip of that addiction in which all too many pipers have become trapped. John's standing in the piping world gave him a unique authority. Pipers listened to him when he said, "If John Burgess could do it, then you can do it too." When a patient is discharged from the clinic, dried out, he is at his most vulnerable. John would meet him at the hospital gate, take him home to Maybank, in many cases to live there for weeks or even months, cared for by Sheila, until he felt able to face the world again on his own.

And Sheila, in giving John back his life, also gave back to us the man we had long longed to meet and the man we are honouring today -
the man who brought us all to our feet with Ronald MacDonald of Morar, who could play Bealach nam Brog like nobody else, the man who knew how Glengarry's March should be played and much more. A March player who's Lord Alexander Kennedy and Kilbowie Cottage were as memorable as Robert Reid's. Whose dancing music had a lilt and charm all of it's own, the man who invented birls on the top hand, the fair, unbiased respected judge, the piper without compare in our time. Always kind, thoughtful and patient to his pupils. A friendly and well-liked neighbour. In short, a thoroughly nice and decent man, John was utterly devoted to Sheila, and she to him. Wherever in the world his piping took him, all he wanted to do was to get back home, back to the love and security he had craved for so long and which he finally found with Sheila, John and Margaret in Saltburn, looking across the Cromarty Firth to the Black Isle, the country of the Cameron's and the MacLennans.

Of John D Bugress, we all have our stories, our own memories, which we shall treasure and we'll tell our stories again and again. I only knew John lost for words once... years ago at breakfast, in the Lochboisdale Hotel in South Uist, a smiling, young waitress came up to us with the menu. John greeted her with "You're looking very happy this morning Mairi". Mairi replied, "That's because it's yourself I'm looking at John".... I think we all know how she felt.

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