One of my prized “piping possessions” is a signed copy of John Wilson’s autobiography, “A Professional Piper in Peace and War“: the front page, inscribed in broad strokes, “With all good wishes, Michael, from the author, John Wilson, 13th, January, 1979″. Sweet.
He passed away November of that year but not before I had the good fortune of a couple of years of tuition with this 20th century master. Edinburgh born John Wilson was a supreme technician and brilliant competitor, at the top of the heap of great players. His piping was of the finest pedigree. A pupil of Robert Thomson (Edinburgh Castle) and the excellent composer Roddie Campbell he lived, breathed and found his way among the greats of not just his own time but that of the late 19th century. His teachers, the judges and hoi polloi of the day, the whole community, in fact, was thobbing with easy connections to great piping lines. Willie Ross, John MacDonald (Inverness), Angus Macpherson, G S McLennan, the list goes on (and on). This was John Wilson’s world.
Even as a kid I knew this. It freaked me out then and, on reflection, does even now.
Imagine, sitting before a teacher who knew G S McLennan, had heard him perform; he’d heard the great man play his masterwork ,”The Little Cascade” – live! The real thing! Wilson knew, Peter MacLeod, Senior, the composer of “John Morrison of Assynt House”. In fact, he published this fantastic ever-green gem in his first book of music. I have Wilson’s hand-made annotations of the “right” way to play this tune (that’s a story for another time).
John Wilson (he was always, “Mr Wilson”, to me) was the poster boy for great and memorable – and complex -characters: passionate, irascible, charming – and a one-track piping machine – he did nothing by half. One of his great strengths was his resiliency.
It seems to me that from time to time we all face challenges making bagpipe music happen. It could be anything: not enough time to play, no place to practice, a physical ailment like repetititve strain (or worse) or just a big skirling case of BFS (Bagpipe Fatigue Syndrome). Regardless of the “challenge”, (the word of choice in the argot of political correctness) we all must fight to overcome what ails us.
I thought of Mr Wilson today. An example of a man who overcame the childhood loss of a thumb and parts of fingers of his left (or top) hand to become great. Truly great.
His is an original story with common themes we can all relate to. Check out his autobiography.
For now, the next time you suffer a set-back or some other “challenge” consider Mr Wilson and the handicap he overcame – and what he achieved. His perseverance might stand as one of his greatest lessons.
I include a scan from his book. Below you’ll see a photo of his left hand. As he was writing his book I recall him talking about including a photo like this (“too ghoulish?”, he wondered). He thought it important. Looking at it today I’m thankful he did; not the prettiest sight, perhaps, but, boy, what an inspiration.
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