Famous pipers: J. D. Ross Watt

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By Stephen Beattie

James Downie Watt was born on June 10, 1869 in Leamington, Warwickshire, England and raised by his parents, John Ross Watt and Jane Warden Ritchie, both of whom hailed from Scotland. James – J. D. – was one of 10 children, three of whom died in infancy. His surviving siblings were Alfred Harry Watt, Eleanor Jane Watt, Lilian Mary Watt, Jessie Campbell Watt, Andrew D. Watt and George D. Watt.

One fact unearthed during my research was that the family altered their surname from Watt to Ross Watt and sometimes Ross-Watt. The reason for the change is not clear nor is there a clear date for when the change took place. From various records consulted, it appears that the family has been selective in when and how they applied the change.

A young J. D. Ross Watt in 1891.

J. D.’s father, Dr John Watt, was a dentist and had a practice at 13 Euston Place in Leamington where, incidentally, there is still a dental practice operating to this day. J. D. followed his father’s profession studying in both Edinburgh and Glasgow. In the 1891 Census for Scotland, he can be found, aged 21, lodging at 3 Caledonian Road, in the parish of St. Cuthbert, Edinburgh. Prior to this, in 1889 he is known to have worked as a Clerk at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

The August 1891 edition of the journal, Medical News, lists the following:
ROYAL COLLEGES OF PHYSICIANS AND SURGEONS EDINBURGH. – The following candidates passed their Final Examination for the triple qualification in medicine and surgery in July 1891 and were admitted L.R.C.P & S.E. and L.F.P & S.G. – James Downie Ross Watt, Leamington Spa.

J. D. became fully registered in Scotland on February 1, 1892 and later that year he applied for a UK passport. Between then and 1896 he emigrated to South Africa, ultimately settling in East London, British Kaffraria (now Eastern Cape). He married Miriam Cooper on June 29, 1896 in King Williams Town, South Africa by Baptist minister the Rev. John Edgar Ennals, B.A., B.D. and they went on to have five children.

There is no clear evidence of where and when J. D. was taught to play the pipes but in one of his books, he refers to two tunes with the comment: “first two learnt in boyhood days” so it was most likely in the UK. Further, according to a letter he wrote on June 3, 1924 and which appeared in the July 12, 1924 Oban Times, he received tuition from both Dr Charles Bannatyne and Lieut. John McLennan, both well known names in piping. J. D., in fact, wrote letters to the Oban Times on a number of occasions from 1908 to 1930 on the subjects of canntaireachd and piobaireachd with his opinions of how each should be approached. Following the death of Tain chemist, piper and Inverness Gold Medalist, John Peter MacLeod in 1920, J. D. wrote an appreciation piece for the paper.

A short biography about J. D. Ross Watt appeared in the ‘Notices of Pipers’ in the August 1975 Piping Times. (Note the erroneous reference to him being a native of Midlothian:

WATT, J. D. R. A native of Midlothian. Emigrated to S Africa as a young man, and was a piper in the Kaffrarian Pipe Band until the Union. In competitions out there won several prizes for piobaireachd and marches. Instructed many pupils, three of whom became pipe majors.  During the Great War of 1914-18, he made pipe chanters from different kinds of wood and furnished chanters to at least one pipe band, for which he was thanked by Earl Haig. Was a performer on the fiddle which he learnt to play in Edinburgh in his early days. A frequent contributor for many years on piping subjects to the Oban Times. Resided latterly in East London, where he died in the 1940’s. A dentist by profession

Piping Times, August 1975.
J. D. with some of his piping medals.

J. D. was involved with the East London Caledonian Society Pipe Band which was formed by brothers, John and James Forbes in 1920. Field Marshall Haig agreed to be patron of the band and the first Pipe Major was Jimmy Munro.

When at work and in between patient appointments, J. D. was known to often play his bagpipes at his Oxford Street surgery. In September 1940, on the occasion of his granddaughter’s first birthday, he played the pipes whilst marching down Oxford Street.

In 1934 J. D. produced ‘The Empire Book of Pipe Tunes Volume I’, and followed that, in 1936, with the publication of ‘Volume II’. Although he was resident in South Africa, the books were published in the UK by Paterson’s Publications Ltd., 36/40 Wigmore Street, London, England.

With a total of 233 tunes, J. D.’s two collections featured a broad range of tunes, some of which are from his own pen and others he has arranged. For a number of them, however, it is difficult to differentiate between those he composed and those he arranged.

He included compositions from 23 other composers across both volumes, some of whom would undoubtedly have been contemporaries of his. Each volume contains a selection of piobaireachd, many of which were penned by J. D.

In addition to tunes traditionally associated with Scotland, J. D. included tunes from other countries including America, France, Greece, India, Italy, Ireland and Wales, some of which are included in medleys which he arranged. Tunes which are known to have been written by J. D. include: Mermaid’s Wedding, The Bells of Inveraray, Cradle Rocking Lullaby and Cape Colony.

On October 17, 1941, James D. Ross Watt, then living at 8 Webb Street, East London, on his way to post a letter, was injured fatally when he was hit by a passing motorist whilst crossing St. George’s Road, Southernwood, East London. He was taken to Frere Hospital but did not recover from his injuries.


• I would like to give credit to Dorothy Butt, J. D. Ross Watt’s granddaughter and Lyndene Butt Adamson, his great-granddaughter, both of whom provided me with information which assisted me in putting the document together. – Stephen Beattie, Stoke-on-Trent, England.