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