By Fergus Muirhead
That John Wilson would end up playing the pipes was never in doubt. His father William was a piper in the 8th Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. His uncle, Archie, Pipe Major of the 8th Battalion, was killed, like a lot of his colleagues, leading the battalion into battle at Longstop Hill in 1942. The battalion suffered heavy casualties in this battle, one of the decisive engagements in the North Africa campaign, and the Wilson family, and the piping scene in general lost a gifted and talented player.
After the war John’s father became Pipe Major of the Campbeltown Pipe Band and the young John found himself drawn to the music. “He started for me with a house that was always full of young pipers being taught by my father and as a toddler I was brought up in that environment. My father had a very small practice chanter made for me when I was four or five and I would sit in with the boys and try to imitate what was going on.”
This informal involvement didn’t last long and soon Wilson senior decided that his son should take his piping to the next level. “The serious stuff started when I was about six, that’s when my father told me I needed to start to learn to play the chanter. He taught me in a very standard way in the sense that we went through the basic exercises and we got together with the embellishments and the ornamentation and how to play these properly and then he showed me one or two basic tunes in terms of understand timing and rhythm.”
All fairly normal up to this point you might be thinking. But after John had picked up his first couple of tunes the teaching regime changed, and Wilson senior surprised his son with the direction he took. “He taught me piobaireachd! I always recall that he gave me Salute to Donald and Massacre of Glencoe and I could play them both before I could play Glendaruel Highlanders. And I was about six years old! He used to tell me that piobaireachd was the ultimate challenge and that if I could handle the subtleties that were required in piobaireachd playing and the technical demands of piobaireachd playing then the rest would be simple.
It wasn’t long before John was strutting his stuff on the competition boards, and since his first outing he has had a phenomenally successful competition carees, winning more prizes than we have time to list here. “My father was the man who took me through the initial stages and through junior piping where I was very successful from a young age. I competed for the first time at Cowal when I was barely nine and got third in the marches.”
Afer this early success John’s teaching was altered to include tuition from the great Donald MacLeod, but it is to his father that John remains grateful for that early work. “My father put in place the essential strands of maintaining my instrument, tuning it and building up a repertoire of MSR and piobaireachd before I went to Donald MacLeod.”
His early lessons with Donald MacLeod involved what would nowadays be called ‘distance learning’ and it was actually a number of months after the start of their lessons that the two actually met. “I was about 10 when I first went to Donald and we communicated initially through the medium of reel-to-reel tape. Donald would send me a tape with instruction on two piobaireachds and I would return a tape with my version of the tunes. Donald would then return a tape to me with a critique on the tunes and another two to learn, and so it went on. Maybe six or eight weeks passed between Donald sending me the tunes and me receiving his feedback so in a fairly short space of time I had built up about 18 or 20 tunes.
And then teacher and pupil actually met! “Of course in the early years I couldn’t have told you what Donald looked like. He could have been a giant of 6ft 5in like Ronnie Lawrie. I didn’t pay attention to music books so I had no idea. So you can imagine that when I met him for the first time at the Scottish Pipers’ [Association] junior competition in Glasgow it was a great surprise and thrill.”
Although the best part of half a century has passed since these early lessons, John remembers them fondly and talks enthusiastically about Donald MacLeod’s teaching style, love and knowledge of the music. “I remember the first tape that I was sent contained Glengarry’s March and Patrick Òg MacCrimmon. He told me they were both extremely challenging pieces. On the one hand you could form the impression that Glengarry’s March was a small tune that didn’t demand much — when in reality the necessary phrasing and expression demanded a great deal. Then you had the Lament for Patrick Òg, which was a classic and the technical difficulty and phrasing was there to be seen and the challenge in that tune was proving yourself able to handle it. I always remember him saying on the tapes ‘here’s a big tune that you need to be able to handle, and, by the way, here’s a wee one that you may think is not that difficult but the difficulty lies in the focus which you have to place on phrasing and movement’. He wanted to get his message across and he was very much into forward movement in his phrasing and shading in his playing, Of course, his singing was just wonderful and that is the real way to communicate when you are teaching someone and I still use it all the time. It is the only way to get people to understand the nuances of style and expression because you can’t demonstrate that just by playing or by looking at the staff notation.”
I got the impression that John would have talked all day about these early lessons with Donald MacLeod. John has a real passion for the music and it is obvious that he was deeply affected by the years he spent with Donald MacLeod. Having said that he is also conscious of the way he introduces piobaireachd to his own students today. While he is keen to show his pupils the delights of piobaireachd early on, he is also aware that for some it can be daunting. “I am very quick to get young players on to piobaireachd. You can sometimes see their wee faces when you mention piobaireachd and you see the sudden realisation that I’m going to teach them ‘that slow stuff’. Piobaireachd is held in a sort of mystique and while I don’t wish to be disrespectful to the academics, in this world it is a feeding ground for them and this can be off-putting for beginners who can only go on what they have heard about it. I firmly believe that it is the music of the people and, arguably, it was there before the light music so it’s even more a part of our music than the light music is.”
John is in full flow now and it’s one of the most interesting sights and sounds in the piping world. He has a reputation for being quick with an opinion if he believes strongly in something, and it’s obvious he believes in the importance of the classical music within piping, although he would probably be upset at my calling it that given his previous comment about it being the music of the people, as well as what he says next!
“The mystique surrounding piobaireachd is, in my opinion, misplaced and, regretfully, there is a bit of snobbery attached to its study. That’s a difficult term to use for someone who was steeped in and brought up with piobaireachd and taught by canntaireachd from the minute I put a chanter in my mouth. I got piobaireachd tuition from my father and from Donald MacLeod for 20-odd years and so I’m not being disrespectful to them or to piobaireachd but there is a wee bit of snobbery there and it irks me because piobaireachd is music and an art form and should be detached from that way of thinking. Some purists get offended when some of our progressive players play around with the theme of a piobaireachd. Now I’m not saying that we shouldn’t respect piobaireachd in its purest form and hold it in esteem but we should also be open-minded with the music and be grateful that people are recognising that not only is it a fundamental part of what the Great Highland Bagpipe is about but that is has great value as a musical form.”
I managed to find a space in between John’s words to ask him about his move from Campbeltown and how he ended up in the police in Glasgow.
“I left in 1967 to go to Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh to study architecture. When it came to my year out, after three years of studies I decided that I didn’t really have the flair to be a really good architect. I had visited a few firms and had seen people in their 50s sitting doing development drawings (and I hope no architect out there in their 50s takes exception to this) and I thought that it didn’t fit in with what I had imagined life would be like as an architect. I hoped becoming an architect would give me the opportunity to be creative and get involved in design teams. But it became clear that it was a very competitive apprenticeship and a lot of people didn’t come through it.”
But for John it wasn’t just disillusionment with the course that made him leave university. “Of course, the piping was suffering terribly as well. I was still competing but I wasn’t achieving what I thought I should be achieving. I was going to competitions when I knew I was ill prepared. The course was really tough and took a lot of time. Studio time took up day to day work and I was studying a lot at night so I wasn’t getting a lot of piping in, and that played a big part in the decision.”
I asked John what advice he had for youngsters today facing the same dilemma. “That’s hard because things worked out okay for me in the end. It’s easy for me to say that when you hit the crossroads you need to go where your heart tells you to and things will be okay, that it’s just about making a conscious decision. For me it was easier because I realised I had probably made the wrong decision in the first place. I realised I was a people person and I had to look for a job that allowed me to use these skills.”
That job and these skills took John to Glasgow and a hugely successful career in first Glasgow and subsequently Strathclyde Police, ending up with the rank of Chief Superintendent and Divisional Commander of A Division in one of the force’s highest profile jobs in charge of policing Glasgow city centre.
“When I left university I was looking for a job that would let me be ‘out there’ dealing with people. So in 1971 I joined the City of Glasgow Police. Although it was the career that attracted me, I joined with the view that it might give me a bit more time for my own personal piping. But the pipe band wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. I had a view from day one that if it turned out to be the right job I could build a career for myself. I would have a good, structured working pattern and would find time for practice and competition and if liked this job I might be lucky enough to build a good solid career.”
His move to the City of Glasgow Police did indeed allow him to devote more time to practice and this led to a hugely successful career in solo piping as well as great success with the Police Pipe Band. “I got right back into competition. I won the Senior Piobaireachd at Oban in 1971 and that was the start of my competing getting back on track. Then the band came into play. Angus MacDonald was the band president and Ronnie Lawrie had just stepped down as Pipe Major in favour of Ian McLellan and there was an approach asking me to join. So I started playing in the band then under Ian. We became Strathclyde Police and from 1972 to 1974 we were on the rise. We had a lot of people coming in who were really good players. Jim Wark joined the same day as me and then David Pirie came from the Scots Guards and Alistair Ross from the 214th BB and, of course, Harry McAleer came over from Northern Ireland. You sensed that something was on the boil. We won the World Championship in 1976 for the first time and that was the beginning of the ascendency.”
It wasn’t all plain sailing, however, and then, as today, the whole question of career development versus playing in the pipe band became a real issue. “There were people like me and Gregor McLeod who were finding that there was a conflict between career development and playing in the band and a number of players left. In 1979, the band had a meeting with the then Chief Constable, Patrick Hamill. He was told in no uncertain terms that throughout the Force there was a clear conflict at divisional management level in terms of their overview of people who played in the band gauged against their ability to progress in the force. As a result of that meeting he formed the Strathclyde Police Pipe Band Unit. After that, the issue of career development was removed from Divisional responsibility and passed centrally to HQ to remove any suggestion that there was an element of prejudice in terms of career development because a police officer was in the band.”
As well as helping band members with the issue of career development, the formation of the Band Unit seems to have acted as a platform for one of the most successful periods that any pipe band has ever enjoyed at any level of competition. “When the Band Unit was formed, that was when the band went from strength to strength and we went on the famous run from 1980 to 1986 and so it went on until I left the band at the tail end of 1989. Just after that, following another promotion, I effectively gave up solo competition as well when I realised that it was no longer viable in terms of giving it the time it needed.”
By now John was well on the way to a successful career in the police but he also continued with this interest in piping by moving from the competition board to the judge’s seat. Is it a natural progression, I wanted to know? “It was certainly natural for me to move to judging, but I’m not suggesting it should be for everyone. It is an interesting point. There is an issue with competing pipers, in that, they want to look at judging panels and look at the individuals sitting there and feel confident in the profile of these individuals as people who have ‘done it and got the t-shirt’. But there are others who would argue that because you are a top class piper, or played in a top class band at the very top level, it doesn’t naturally follow that you will be a good adjudicator. There is an element of truth in that. I didn’t find any conflict. I think being a policeman helps a lot as a judge. It’s about clarity of thinking and assimilation in how you rate one performance against the other 28 or so that you have listened to.”
John reckons that his career in the police undoubtedly helped him as an adjudicator and has no doubt about the central issue in terms of the way judges are perceived by the competitors. “There is an issue of credibility and it won’t go away.” Although John believes that credibility in the eyes of the competitors may only come from success on the competition arena, there are exceptions to this rule. “I can reflect back on my early days and look at people like James Campbell of Kilberry and Archie Kenneth who were extremely well regarded authorities in piping but weren’t successful senior pipers by any means. There were very few people who would have argued against their credibility and their place on senior judging benches. Their credibility stemmed from their exceptional background in piobaireachd. James Campbell was the son of Archibald Campbell of Kilberry who compiled the Kilberry Collection.”
John reckons that the preparation and time that competitors give to their art these days means that they have to be able to have confidence in the panel that is testing them. “It’s such a serious business now. The pipers of today have a clear vision of what it’s all about. They know how much work they have put in to get to the levels they have reached in stretching themselves, and they have to feel that the people who are sitting in front of them totally understand what it’s all about.”
While he is adamant that competitors need to have respect for the judges he is also vocal on the lack of musicality that he hears in some performances. “I still feel that a competition frame of mind has developed which is a bit unhealthy in terms of performing. People see the concert performance and the competition performance as two entirely different things and I think that there is, perhaps, a perceived message that has come out from judges which has contributed to this as well. The individual aspect of interpretation is being sterilised in many competition performances and some players clearly think that the whole ethos of playing in a competition is having a good set of pipes, not making any technical errors and, in terms of your timing and your general expression, just playing it ‘right down the middle’. I have judged competitions where I have sat and heard the same performance time after time after time. Good bagpipes, good solid fingering but not a lot to excite you, not a lot to generate any sense of emotion. It’s like people being very careful and cautious and almost, to some extent, just going through the motions.”
How does John see this changing? “Change has to come from competitors and judges alike. I would love to see even closer links between the Competing Pipers’ Association and the adjudication panel. It would be great to see, for example, a composite workshop between those two groups to sit down and talk about performance and what it should be all about. I don’t wish my colleagues on the adjudication register to think for one minute I’m suggesting that that are totally responsible for this attitude because they are not. I’ve spoken to competitors who have admitted that they look at judging panels and then they try to decide how to play. As a performer I never did that in my life. I played what was in my soul and the musical values I respected. In terms of MSR playing, for example, I would put myself down as a guy who pretty much liked to have ‘a good kick at the ball’ when I was up their on the platform. I believed in driving the performance along and if someone had said that the judges on the panel liked things rounded down a bit, there is no way I would have done that.”
That all sounds well and good but what would John do if faced with a choice of laying the judges’ way and winning a prize or playing it his way and missing out on the prize list? “You have to ask, what is is that is important? Is it only about being in the prize list? For some it might be and that’s because it’s such a big competitive world out there and the importance of building a track record is absolutely paramount to these individuals, because in many ways that is what supports them for entry to the Northern Meetings and Argyllshire Gathering, But I wouldn’t have changed even if it rook me out the prize list.”
I talked to John last time about his involvement in piping more generally where he is still in demand as an MC at prestigious events, including the Glenfiddich Championship where he charms audiences and competitors alike with his easy flowing delivery and informative content. He is also a keen promoter of the variety that we are seeing in piping today, and the coming together of the pipes with many other traditional instruments, he is also keen to see this development continue with the Great Highland Bagpipe becoming more integrated into the mainstream traditional bands. “The issue is whether you are simply focusing in on what these bands are doing with a piece of bagpipe music or simply sitting back, taking, a relaxed wider view and asking yourself if it’s entertainment. Does it sound good musically as opposed to saying that’s a really traditional bagpipe composition and they’ve changed the time signature and the rhythm and it’s totally offensive to me? There are people who will never be moved from that position. But there are also people who are totally open-minded – and who would embrace almost anything – who would argue that it’s hard to ‘knock it’ if these bands are pulling in the crowds. Surely, all of the people can’t be wrong all of the time? I think we should embrace all who play the bagpipes and recognise that there will be extremes, but that happens in every art form. Why should piping be any different?”
It’s been a whistle-stop tour through one of the most respected and productive careers in piping in recent years. If you were looking for a list of achievements and prizes won then we’ve run out of space but I don’t apologise for filling this piece with John’s own words rather than a list of trophies won. He is an engaging and charismatic character who brightens up every space he inhabits with a word and interesting story and it was important to let him speak. So I will let him have the last words in response to my question about the state of piping today and the future of his involvement in it.
First of all, his view on the state of piping today. “It’s as healthy as it’s ever been. When I look at the opportunities for young people to come on board, and the numbers that are actually playing and the raw talent that I hear, you have to say that it’s in a good state of health and probably as good as it’s ever been.”
And lastly where does John Wilson fit in? “I would like to think that I will still have all my faculties about me to enable to carry on judging and I’d like to think that I could contribute something to opening up further dialogue between the Competing Pipers’ Association and the judging fraternity to make sure we’re all on board and all together in terms of what we’re looking for on the competitive platform. I’d also like to continue just putting something back into teaching because I got a lot out of piping between what my father gave me and what Donald MacLeod gave me, and there is so much talent out there that I think it’s important that people like me that have something to contribute can continue to put something back.
“So that’s it, nothing earth-shattering. Just keep her steady on course!”
• From Piping Today, issue number 45.