Born in Campbelltown in 1948, from birth John Wilson was surrounded by piping. The Wilson family were well known as pipers in the local area, his father Pipe Major of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
Part of his father’s role involved teaching a local band, so not only was Wilson surrounded by piping, he was surrounded by the teaching of piping as his father would conduct lessons around their kitchen table.
So it was at the tender age of six, that he joined these students at the kitchen table. After a couple of years of the basics, he was started on pibroch, his father telling him: “Your technique seems to be good, so what I’m doing is reaching in to see if you have a musical soul”.
Pibroch is the most challenging of music for any piper, let alone an eight year old. The complexity, nuance, and scale of the music is a test of anyone’s stamina, technique and empathy. So when Wilson began quickly to progress, it was a sure sign of a bright future. Before long, his learning had reached the limit of what his father could offer, and he went for lessons with the legendary Donald MacLeod of Lewis.
At the time, MacLeod was still a member of The Seaforth Highlanders, stationed at Fort George – more than two hundred miles from Campbeltown. So Wilson’s first lesson was a homemade tape, posted down by MacLeod with a tune and some instruction, as well as a note of what he wanted sent back. This continued for eighteen months before they met in person.
This was the start of the twenty one years Wilson would spend as a pupil of Donald MacLeod. Which puts him in a position very few have been fortunate to be in. For one thing, MacLeod himself was one of the great composers and pipers of the 20th century – of both pibroch and light music. But just as importantly, he was a wider link to an older, formative tradition of piping, through John MacDonald of Inverness, and Willie Ross.
This exposure to such a complete understanding of music and piping paid a serious dividend for Wilson when at the age of eighteen, ten years after his father started him on pibroch, he won the Highland Society of London Gold Medal. This made him the second youngest winner in the event’s history, after John D Burgess.
Clearly, he was fast developing an understanding and mastery of his own, with wins in the Open and Gold Medal competitions at the Argyll Gathering, and a Gold at the Oban Gathering following in quick succession. Pibroch was where he started, but his prowess in light music was no less complete, a similarly impressive competitive record including victories in the Former Winners at Inverness and Oban.
Professionally, Wilson studied at Heriot Watt towards a career in architecture. But upon entering the profession, things weren’t exactly as he’d hoped. Because of this, he soon set upon a change of path, joining the Glasgow Police in 1971.
Of course, this made him an ideal candidate to join the then Strathclyde Police Pipe Band, who at the time were poised to begin their legendary 1980s competitive streak, which saw eight of their twenty one world championship wins under Pipe Major Ian MacLellan.
In actual fact, at this time, high level pipe band playing was the furthest thing from Wilson’s mind. For one, his early days in the police were a probationary period, demanding enough as it was. As well was the commonly held theory that solo piping and band playing were two separate disciplines, a divide across which it wasn’t possible to step.
But after some persuasion, across that divide he did step, and in to a legendary pipe band at a crucial point in their history. He moved up to the rank of pipe sergeant, before retiring in 1989.
Later, he played an instrumental role in securing and promoting another piece of piping history – the legacy of his former tutor Donald MacLeod. The tapes MacLeod had sent him were far from the only ones. After his passing in 1982, a huge library of over two hundred and forty recordings of playing and instruction were found in an upstairs room of the house he shared with his wife Winnie.
Clearly, this was a hugely important resource. Hearing through the grapevine of its existence, pipers from all over the world would contact Winnie, asking if there existed recordings of particular tunes.
At her request, Wilson began to catalogue and digitise these, writing liner notes and preparing them for release on CD. Numbering over twenty volumes, he began asking other pipers to contribute liner notes. Now, what we have is a vast and accessible insight into the playing and approach of one of history’s greatest pipers.
Having made these huge strides in piping, Wilson went on to make yet more in the police force, eventually reaching the ranks of Chief Superintendent and Divisional Commander.
Having taken a step back from playing competitively, Wilson remains actively involved in piping, as a teacher and judge. Talking to Fergus Muirhead about the future in 2013 he said: “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”.