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      NELL WILSON AND DAVID                    



It is now 15 years since the colourful and            talented one-time President of the LBPS passed away (see cover picture). Obituaries appeared in COMMON STOCK Vol 2               number 1 of March 1985 and the Piping Times of  September 1984. David Stevenson, a long time friend of the family, recently taped an interview with Jimmy’s widow, Nell Wilson, and below is published part of that interview. My thanks to Sam Allen for               transcribing the tape, to David Stevenson for making it possible, and of course to Nell for allowing us further glimpses into the fascinating character and life of her late husband - Ed.

In her living room Nell and David look through files and photographs; commenting on pictures and other memorabilia.

N.         That’s a picture of Jimmy when he joined the Cameronians. Enlisted in the army

21st July 1935. Transferred to the special Air Service 1939-40; Faroe Islands 1941-43; England 1942-44; parachuted into France 3 times and also Holland and Germany. If I remember rightly he must also have been parachuted into Norway - it doesn’t say here; unless Faroe Islands includes Norway, I think Faroe Islands must have been on the way to Norway.

D.       Is that him playing the accordion?

N.       That’s him playing the accordion.

D.        This is the film GEORDIE - he was a piper in the film GEORDIE

N.        You see him on the film piping Geordie away on the train. After he is in, he marches alongside the train playing the pipes. 

D.        You were married in 1970?

N.        I knew Jimmy in 1938. I went out and about with Jimmy - he was in the army then, based in Hamilton. He went abroad with the SAS. I lost touch with him, and over twenty five years later 1 saw a bit in one of the newspapers about him being in one of the plays, and we met up again, about 1966.

D.        About how old would you be in 1938 - roughly

N.        Nineteen. He was 5 years older than me. He would have been about 25 at the time. So it was quite a story that we met again after all that time.

D.       Was he a piper when you first knew him?

N.       Oh yes

D.       The two of you were invited to this dinner in 1966 by the Scottish-Norwegian Society. That was because of what he did in Norway was it?

N.        I think he made himself a member of the Society, and got an invitation.

D.        They are named invitations - I don’t think you had to buy them

N.        I don’t know about that - this was entertainment we were doing with a wee group to make money for one of the churches. It tells you all about it there. We were very popular in fact and went there several times.

D.       There's a picture of him playing his pipes at a wedding at the Livingstone Church in Blantyre in 1972. I think those pipes were the ones he sold to me - do you remember I came over with the family and he sold them to me

N.        Most of these cuttings are just about the entertainment that we did. We just did it for the pleasure of doing it -we didn’t ask for fees or anything

D.       Well there’s a picture of Jimmy playing the Lowland pipes quite clearly. “Piper Bard and Wife Make Versatile Duo All-Round Entertainers. James and Ellen Wilson. James plays bagpipes, penny whistles and recites poetry and his wife Ellen plays the organ - 22 Crawford Street Burnbank, Hamilton”. You've got lots of cuttings about local entertainments.

N.       Yes, these are just little acknowledgements of what we did.

D.       Here’s a picture of him in Crawford Street, Hamilton, where I used to visit you. This was taken just before he flew out to Rome to treat the Italians to two weeks of  Highland Reels and Strathspeys. The Highlands and Islands Development Board had a stand. They contacted the College of Piping who put them onto to Jimmy, who was an expert on the Highland, Lowland and Northumbrian pipes.

N.     There was a wee joke always about that trade fair because on one occasion they asked if he would play outside the hotel and as he was playing people gathered and he thought this was good and people must be enjoying this. But then a bus drew up and they all got on - he was at a bus stop.  

D.     Here’s another cutting “Jimmy’s 56 now and has been playing the pipes since he was 10, started in the Boy Scouts and was a member of the Cameronian Band during the war”.

N.     Here’s a bit about when he was in the Airborne Service.

D.     Ah yes, he was in the SAS. The badge had a combined French and British flag. Here’s a list of the places you played.

N.     It was just for entertainment. We never had any fees or anything it was just a pleasure to do it.

D.    This is a list of more than 50 concerts that you gave for charity, churches, homes and Senior Citizens’ clubs, including the Masonic Burns Club. Was Jimmy a Mason then?

N.     No, they just got him along to play.

D.    When he wasn’t piping then he was reading “To a Mouse”. And there was a dance to follow. Oh, there’s Armstrong’s Last Goodnight again, that’s the one where you two got back together

N.    We re-met when he had just come back from this show. He did quite a few shows - he got these appointments from the College of Piping. People would apply to the College of Piping and of course it was Jimmy they sent.

D.     More newspaper cuttings. “Quiet hero with a smile and a tune”, Oh that was his obituary. “James aged 69” What year was that again?

N.    1984, This is just an army report which I think was sent to me by a friend.

D.     Piper J. Wilson is listed there as wounded in the Cameronians. And the last in the folder is the finish up of the Cameronians. “1st Battalion’s disbandment ceremony in Douglas on Tuesday 14th May 1968”.

N.     Jimmy didnae actually get to that, that was given to him. He was to be there, but he was ill at that time which was why he didnae go.

D.     “The Liberation of Norway 8th May 1945. The people of Norway wish to thank you 3245314 Private J. Wilson as British Armed Forces for your valuable services in helping to restore freedom to our land” personally signed by Olaf the King in December 1945. Yes, that’s certainly something to treasure.

N.  ..... and the thing I liked about Jimmy was that although all these things were there, he never talked about them, he was always reserved about them. Sometimes he used to be in company with some of the men who would say what they did in the war and I used to say “Why don’t you tell them your experiences?” and he used to say “Ach no”.

D.     Did he ever tell you about them?

N.     Some things he did. I used to ask him - we’d maybe see a war picture and he’s say “That’s the thing I did, jumping out of planes at 3 o’clock in the morning”, things like that. I asked him once what exactly did you do on these things and he said “Well we used to just derail the trains and things like that with Semtex” and a thing like a pencil that stuck in the Semtex and they used to just go off the rails if they knew there was a train with guns,          armoury you know, but he didn’t talk a lot about his experience.

D.     Did he do that in France? 

N.     Well, I think it was more Norway

D.     He told me one story about Norway, I think it was when we were playing some Norwegian tunes on the pipes, and he told me that he’d been parachuted into Norway with some others with the object of blowing up that Hydro-electric dam - I think there was a big film about that. The Norwegians ultimately did it themselves

N.    Well that was the story that he was in, and it was used as the background story. 

D.     What he told me was that they'd been parachuted in and had been given three weeks’ training in Norwegian language, skiing and explosives, and he was walking along a hillside above Bergen, which is a town in Norway that I know, and he was stopped by two of the Herrd, that’s the Norwegian fascist police who were collaborating with the Germans, and they stopped him and asked him who he was and he said “Jakob Jakobson...a joiner from Bergen” and one of them said “I think you’re an English parachutist”. Jimmy of course               didn’t try to explain the difference between English and Scots at that particular moment but he had a pistol under his clothes and they had sub-machine guns in their hands and they told him to come along with them and they stopped at one of the houses of the policemen for some coffee. The wife of one of the policemen said “Who’s this” and he said in Norwegian “Oh it’s an English parachutist” and she said “Are you mad?”  and then she took Jimmy on one side and said to him “Are you?” and he said “Yes”, and so she opened the back door and pushed him out and said “Run then”. 

What happened between husband and wife thereafter we don’t know, but Jimmy got away. Then if I understood his story correctly the Norwegians decided that Jimmy and his friends didn’t know enough Norwegian or enough skiing to get to the dam so they took the                 explosives and got there and Jimmy and the others showed them how to use them and they did the job themselves. Was that the story you heard?

N.     Yes, that’s roughly the story. He never actually told me anything special other than the picture of the event.

D.      When he was working as a barber in Hamilton he also made bagpipes didn’t he, just little ones.

N.      He just did it really as a hobby. He was very, very interested in it you know. I really think that if Jimmy had had someone who could have taught him these things, woodwork and that, he would have been very clever but unfortunately his styles just didn’t come up to  standard and he didn’t get the tuition that he could have done with. But he was always very eager to learn things.

D.       He was a wonderful player and performer. I think he was making wee sets for                    children and older people

N.     If he had been able to learn more - proper woodworking -I think that would have been his life’s work, but unfortunately he didn’t get it. He did very well

D.      He helped to found the fact was quite the inspiration for getting the  Lowland pipes going again

N.     Were they in existence before?

D.      There is a man called Mike Rowan and I think he probably brought Jimmy in, but Jimmy was one of the founder members

N.     I thought there had been an original Lowland pipers’ society and it had maybe sort of defunct and started up again.

D.     I don’t know if he was there right when people had the first idea but I think he must have provided part of the inspiration for it because he was one of the very few people in Scotland who were playing Lowland pipes, possibly the only one at the time. There were one or two who played Northumbrian pipes, but nobody had Scottish smallpipes at that time

I don’t think. I think that seeing and hearing him playing, inspired people to set up the                   society, but somebody else will know that - Mike Rowan will know that better.

N.      Jimmy never talked about the war anyway. He didn’t talk much in that respect other than the pictures that came on and he knew about the background - he didn’t talk much about the war years. I remember that the Stroke Club that he went to asked them all to bring a photograph of them when they were younger and of course there were some very handsome men, but one of them as he said was just in a wee bundle in a wheelchair, unable to speak - you know what a stroke’s like - and he said it was so sad to think that what had been such a fine, handsome man - that was the end of his life to be in a wheelchair like that. It bothered him a lot that, he was very sensitive. Fridays he went of course, but I mean that wee stroke and it made him a wee bit downhearted.

D.      How many years before he died did he have that stroke?

N.      Four years

D.      I remember there was a meeting of the Lowland Pipers in Edinburgh where he was sitting in a chair in the School of Scottish Studies and someone pointed out to me that he wasn’t looking very well, and in fact he'd gone unconscious and I laid him out on the floor and he recovered, and he was alright after that for a bit.

N.      He was in hospital for about a week, but he was back to normal when he came out of there. They said it was a stroke - I was really worried but it was only about a week and he was out and about again. 

D.      But he’d been entertaining for the Stroke Club before he had a stroke?

N.     Oh yes, he could do some things after he took his stroke but he found that his fingers didn’t move so much. It was a bit like arthritis but I think it was a nervous reaction. I used to say that he was a bit off tune with the pipes, but to him he was on tune, but that was the stroke that caused that. We went to America in 1979 when Jimmy retired - I was visiting my sister and she took us to a trade fair. 

Each country was represented and everybody doing their own wee thing and Jimmy discovered that the Irish section were doing Irish dancing and oh we must go and see this Irish dancing. So away we went and sat in the audience and Jimmy got talking to somebody and he discovered that one lot of these dancers usually danced to a tape recorder, but the tape recorder had broken down, so they thought that was them out of this competition. So Jimmy said “Well, I play the tin whistle, I’ll play for the Irish dancers” so they took him away to the back and had a wee practice. Next thing, Jimmy’s up on the stage with his tin whistle playing for the Irish dancers for their dancing, so the local newspaper took some nice photographs. They were all very grateful to him...

Footnote, The Jimmy Wilson commemorative cup is presented each year at the LBPS competitions for pipe and song. Other references:- Common Stock Vol I No 1 December 1993 “The Wee Pipe Bag Tie-er-inner” from Seamus Beag alias Jimmy Wilson; Piping Times Vol 17 No 18 July 1965 “Famous Pipers; Pipe-Major Jimmy Wilson” and in the same issue a Jig titled “Pipe-Major Jimmy Wilson” by Herve Renault.