John Wilson (Edinburgh/Toronto)

November 6, 2013 on 9:45 pm by Michael Grey | In News, Photographs, Solo Piping, Stories | Comments Off on John Wilson (Edinburgh/Toronto)

A glance at the “this day in history” section of pipes|drums just now reminded me that John Wilson (Edinburgh/Toronto) died on this day in 1979. He was a great hero of mine. Confident, bold, full of epic stories and opinionated in the extreme (oh, and a superb piper, even in the last years of his life). John Wilson both fascinated and intimidated me. Before I attended private lessons at his Willowdale (Toronto) home I’d be in his small classes at Moss Park Armouries (downtown Toronto), in the 48th Highlanders band room; we’d almost always travel home together riding street car and subway – John Wilson never owned a car. I loved his sureness. I loved his stories.

Anyway, most of all, John Wilson inspired me. And surely inspiration is at the core of any teacher’s responsibility to a pupil.

After John Wilson’s passing, with the imprint of his inspiration fresh in my mind, I found myself elected Vice-President of the Toronto Branch of the Pipers’ & Pipe Band Society of Ontario and, along with the branch executive committee, we organized the John Wilson Memorial Recital: a grand recital of a few of Wilson’s most well-kent students: Bill Livingstone, Reay Mackay and Bob Worrall. The year that followed, in fact, saw me Branch President and an even bigger event in the John Wilson Memorial Recital and Competition, this time featuring the British Army’s Senior Pipe Major, Angus MacDonald – true to the mantra of most any 19 year-old, “spend, spend, spend”. I think back now and shake my head a little at the brass that saw me put myself forward for biggish piping leadership roles. But it happened. It’s true.

Anyway, as “a young stripling” [again: nod to James Campbell of Kilberry] I saw John Wilson for lessons – John Wilson – one of the greatest pipers of the first half of the twentieth century. He’d heard G.S. McLennan, Willie Ross, Malcolm MacPherson, Robert Reid and all the greats of the era. He knew them all in their prime. For instance, in Angus MacPherson (Inveran, piper and judge) he said he thought him a “better dancer than piper” – ouch. And so, all opinion aside, John Wilson was undoubtedly one of the grandest of tradition-bearers. I was very lucky to know and learn from him a little.

One thing I remember most about John Wilson’s teaching is that I had no choice in what I learned. He was very dictatorial in what tunes we’d work on – most from his personal collection of music, namely his books one through three. This shouldn’t be surprising, I was then an empty-headed teenager.

I recall working on what I now regard as not-so-great tunes like the jigs “California’s Charms” and “Wee Marie” – tunes from his book three. I also remember lots of work on “Doctor MacLeod of Alnwick”, a 2/4 march by Alex Ross, brother to the famous head of the Army School of Piping, Willie. Many view Dr Mac as a leading 2/4 competition march. I’ve always thought it – and I say this respectfully – not quite up to it, not quite up to our first string repertoire. Anyway, in my case, John Wilson hammered Dr Mac to within an inch of life support. To this day I still dislike the tune’s unmelodious, naive qualities.

And here we come to Alex, brother of the famous, legendary, Pipe Major Willie Ross: and in my experience I’ve always found in piping culture that where there is an instance of two brothers who pipe it is always the less-famous, less-accomplished brother who people whisper – if not proclaim – he “was always the better piper”. I wish I knew more about psychology so I’d be more informed about this phenomenon of impressionism, if not prevarication.
pm alex ross scots guards with mr maclean edmonton 1922 copy
So, to the point, I was recently in Calgary, Alberta (a four hour flight from where I live) and went through the outstanding Glen Bow Museum. I came across a great photograph – and here it is – Pipe Major Alex Ross (brother of Willie) on a visit to Edmonton, Alberta in 1922.

Today I thought of John Wilson and so thought of his lessons – with Alex Ross’s 2/4 march, “Dr MacLeod of Alnwick” close to mind.

Still not a favourite tune today – but a trigger of happy memories.


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