Obituary: P/M James Jackson 1941 – 2018

Jimmy Jackson was born in 1941 in the village of Jamestown near Balloch on Loch Lomondside. He was the fourth generation of James Jackson or ‘MacFhiachair’ as the family’s surname was known in their native Argyll. His grandfather, an Ardrishaig man who  had been a Pipe Major in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, was a contemporary of John MacColl and a good friend of Pipe Major William Lawrie of Ballachulish. His great-grandfather ‘Old Yame’ was also a piper and both were living when he was born.

When Jimmy’s adoring mother first took him to visit his grandmother (a north Skye woman) and grandfather, the old gentleman never looked at his face but immediately checked to see that he had ‘a good pinkie for the birl’! Jimmy’s father was a well known solo piper of his time, serving as pipe major to the Bonhill Parish Pipe Band who were Grade 1 champions before WW2. As a young boy Jimmy and his sisters spent much of their early summers visiting family in Skye or attending the various Highland games throughout the land and his love for piping naturally developed from this early exposure to the tradition.

Bonhill Parish Pipe Band in 1948

He started learning the chanter at eight years of age and received tuition from an old piper, Willie Dempster, who had been taught by the legendary John MacDougall Gillies. When he reached 12 years of age his father spoke to his own piping tutor, Pipe Major Willie Gray of the Glasgow Police who, after a few pìobaireachd lessons, was delighted to have Jimmy as a full-time pupil. The teacher and his young student had a great rapport and Jimmy learned much from Willie in the garden shed where he held his piping workshops, a real piping haven. 

As he became a young adult, Jimmy and Willie would have long chats – Jimmy revelling in all the old stories about the great pipers of the past, and he often spoke fondly of his old tutor in later life. Willie wrote in a letter that Jimmy was one of the most promising pipers he had ever heard and as Jimmy continued to excel as a young piper he supplemented his knowledge with lessons from P/M Donald MacLeod and another good friendship developed.

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By the age of 17 Jimmy would travel on trains, buses and boats to the various games winning esteemed prizes, or to contests in the Highlanders Institute in Glasgow where he made many piping friends.  When the games were held at Luss, Balloch or Inveraray he would often invite pipers back to stay at the Old Manse in Balloch, the family home, where many a wonderful recital was given by some of the world’s greatest pipers of the era.

Invergordon Distillery Pipe Band with Jimmy second from the right back row

In 1964 he was competing at the Cowal Games when the Pipe Major of the Invergordon Distillery Pipe Band, Donald Shaw Ramsay, invited him to join his world famous band. This was an offer that Jimmy found hard to refuse and soon he was playing with the best pipe band in the world along with some of the world’s greatest pipers – in addition to being given a job at the distillery. It was a dream lifestyle.  He shared accommodation with P/M Joe Wilson at Bisset’s Hotel in Invergordon and with Joe he would go around the piping circuit. He also formed a lifelong friendship with John D. Burgess at this time.

When Invergordon Distillery Pipe Band disbanded, Jimmy got a job with Hoover at Cambuslang and went to live in East Kilbride. During this time a few Dumbarton men decided to form a new pipe band and Jimmy was asked if he would be their Pipe Major. He agreed and in 1969 the Dumbarton Pipe Band competed for the first time in Grade 3 – progressing through Grade 3, 2 and into Grade 1 within four years. During his time at Dumbarton Jimmy helped to introduce a teaching programme which the band continues to this day. His brother-in-law, Gordon Lawrie, later became Pipe Major and his nephew, two nieces and great-niece all went on to play with the band. Jimmy maintained this enthusiasm for the encouragement of young pipers and recentlytook a keen interest in Niall Matheson’s Ross and Cromarty youth band. 

In 1974 Jimmy took up employment at Nigg moving back to Alness in Easter Ross with his family. This was when he became Pipe Major of Invergordon Pipe Band before taking on the role as Pipe Major of Dingwall RBL with whom he had great success. His move back to the Highlands saw him teach and mentor many young pipers locally who have since gone on to have successful piping careers of their own. His influence upon the local and greater piping community continued to grow and his expertise was highly regarded in piping circles.

Jimmy from his early Invergordon days, taken in February 1966 at Dunrobin Castle, Sutherland

He left his job as Production Manager at Nigg and bought the Invergordon Post Office where he and his wife Liz enjoyed many years at the heart of the community. Piping remained at the core of Jimmy’s life with his great friend John Burgess calling in to the post office every other day where they would enjoy telling piping stories and anecdotes in the back office over tea and cakes.

Jimmy was a respected solo piping judge covering many of the contests in the North along with John D and Dr John MacAskill with both the Glenfinnan and Cowal Highland Gatherings becoming annual engagements for him. Jimmy had many other friends among the solo piping adjudicator fraternity, some of whom he had known since his youth.

Dumbarton Pipe Band in 1971 with P/M Jimmy Jackson centre, front row

He was a great mentor to many young pipers and was not only an expert in piping, but a great seanachaidh of piping lore, with a real Highland piping lineage and connection to an era in the instrument’s history rooted in the authentic tradition. Jimmy was deeply passionate about piping often recollecting stories he had heard about the great pipers of old, from Calum Pìobaire to the Cameron pipers to his own piping ancestors through to more recent times and all delivered in his own inimitable style.

Jimmy suffered several forms of cancer over a number of years but fought bravely to overcome them and it came as a terrible shock last October when he was diagnosed with leukaemia. His funeral which took place on Monday the 9th of April at Rosskeen Free Church near Invergordon, was attended by some 500 people from every section of the community. There was a strong piping representation with many of the area’s pipers including Gold Medallists Niall Matheson and Duncan MacGillivary in attendance. The cortege processed from the church led by Gordon Lawrie playing Cumha Mhic ‘ic Alasdair (Glengarry’s Lament) and on arrival at the cemetery the hearse was led by his nephew Griogair Labhruidh who at the interment played a north Skye version of the very old pìobaireachd song ‘Òran na h – Eala’.

Griogair Labhruidh

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