P/M Joe Wilson, Calum Campbell, James Robertson and Farewell to the Creeks

By Ken Rogers, Calgary

I have been following the recent correspondence regarding P/M James Robertson of Banff’s tune, Farewell to the Creeks, and I managed to find correspondence I had with his pupil Joe Wilson.

I met Joe when he was my instructor at the College of Piping in 2005. Subsequently I kept up correspondence with him for a time and was distraught to learn of his passing in 2010.

The picture above is from the Army School of Piping Pipe Majors Course 1959-60. Front and centre is the then P/M John MacLellan, not yet Director Army Bagpipe Music. The pipers (back row) are P/M Angus MacDonald, Scots Guards (who would write a tune in Joe’s honour), James Henderson of the Argylls, I understand a one time tutor of Stuart Liddell, Joe, and Major John Allan who himself would become Director of Army Bagpipe Music. Front row are P/M Halley, Royal Scots Greys and Sgt. Stewart of the 1st Irish Guards.

In his last message to me Joe included a script of the famous Farewell to the Creeks in P/M Robertson’s own hand, written in 1952 (below). As has been reported the tune was composed in 1915 whilst P/M Robertson was a PoW during WW1.

My last communication with Joe was in 2008. My message to him reads: ‘I was most interested in your article on P/M Calum Campbell, Gordon Highlanders. You mentioned that he had sisters in Canada. Well, one sister, Nora, is in Calgary, Alberta. In fact, I have performed a request for her at a Burns’ Dinner.

Farewell to the Creeks in the composer’s hand

‘She asked me to play the Fair Maid of Barra and other tunes that she sang in Gaelic. I have called and left a message at her residence and perhaps she will ask me for a copy of your article. I have been impressed that you were mentored by P/M James Robertson as well as P/M Campbell. What a strong piping foundation you received and what a legacy you can gift to your students.’

Joe replied: ‘Hello Ken. Delighted to hear from you and delighted to hear about Calum’s sister. It would be great if she would contact me. Calum and I became great friends and so did his brother Danny while we were both stationed in Aberdeen. Strange to say it, but Calum and Danny, because of Army service, were seldom in contact with each other.

P/M Joe Wilson who died ten years ago

‘I first heard The Fair Maid of Barra being played by Calum. He, as you may expect, played it beautifully and because of that it became my favourite Gaelic air.

‘The James Robertson who taught me from the age of 8 to 18 was of course the composer of Farewell to the Creeks, not the J B Robertson of the Scots Guards. My tutor took over from GS McLennan as pipe major of the Gordon Highlanders and they were life-long friends so that is where my tuition comes from.

‘I have to say that Calum taught me a lot, particularly about short notes – they hold the secret to good playing. It doesn’t seem like three years since you were at the College. Time flies. I hope that life is treating you very well. I wish you all the very best with your preparations for your Level 5. It is not an easy certificate to get but I have every faith in your ability.’

Before his death Joe completed a superb collection of ceòl beag which contains many of the settings of tunes passed down to him by P/M Robertson which he in turn had had from GS McLennan, and also tunes by Calum Campbell.

The book makes use of double dots and 64th notes which Joe believed, rightly, better express what we actually play on the pipes. The book is still available from the Piping Centre here.

  • Download a copy of Farewell to the Creeks in James Robertson’s own hand here:

Read more about Farewell to the Creeks and P/M Robertson here.

2 thoughts on “P/M Joe Wilson, Calum Campbell, James Robertson and Farewell to the Creeks

  1. I really enjoyed this article, and it prompted me to think of my own interactions with Joe Wilson. In 1984, I took a short course in literature at Queens College in London. One evening, the BCal Pipe Band performed at Royal Albert Hall, just around the corner for my dorm, and I went to see them. After the performance, I went up to say hello and learned of the portion of the band that practiced each week at Gatwick Airport. In retrospect, it was pretty presumptuous of me, but I took the train to Gatwick and visited their next practice! Fortunately, they welcomed me, and I went back for 3-4 more practices. During that time, I met some really great people, and Joe Wilson was one of them. While I didn’t have a lot of interaction with Joe, he was so warm and encouraging. He was particular helpful to me with improving the sound of of my pipes. His most specific advice for my drone sound was very simple, and it worked! He said, “Send 5 quid to this address and tell them I referred you (He wrote down the address for Hepburn’s drone reeds). In a fortnight, you’ll get 5 sets of drone reeds (Imagine that! Well, it was 1984). They will all work! Take a bass drone reed, match two tenors and put them in your pipes. Play for 25-30 minutes and don’t worry if they cut out. Leave them in the pipes overnight with the chanter stock corked. Once the moisture sets in, you’ll have a marvelous set of reeds that’ll last you for a long time.”

    Great times, and it was an honor to spend some time with Joe and all of the guys in BCal that summer. I’m grateful they didn’t chase me off.

    1. I wish I had this advise about 30 yrs ago. I probably ruined every drone I ever plugged in my drones trying to get the sound I wanted right at the start.

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