My Tribute to Balvenie Medal Winner John Wilson

This tribute was given in person at the Glenfiddich Championship held at Blair Castle, Blair Atholl, on October 30, where the writer was Master of Ceremonies…..

The Balvenie Medal is awarded annually at the Glenfiddich Championship to recognize a lifetime contribution to piping. It’s the giving back, selflessly giving of one’s self, that is the key criterion for the awarding of this prestigious medal.

If I may use a term from any policeman’s playbook, this year’s recipient ticks off all the boxes. I’m sure that that policing reference will give you a very good idea as to the identity of this year’s recipient.

By Bob Worrall

As a young boy he was a prize winning force to be reckoned with at the Cowal Games. He moved quickly to success at the Argyllshire Gathering and the Northern Meeting in Inverness, winning the Highland Society of London’s Gold Medal there in 1968 at the age of 18, the second youngest player after John D. Burgess to win it.

John Wilson followed this by winning the Senior Piobaireachd at Oban in 1971 and the Gold Medal at the Argyllshire Gathering in 1983. He experienced equally great success on the light music boards, culminating with wins at both Oban and Inverness in the Former Winners’ March, Strathspey & Reel events.

Born and raised in Campbeltown, John was initially taught by his father, P/M William Wilson who saw service with the 8th Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

It was quickly recognised by P/M Wilson that he had a prodigy on his hands and, that to properly support his son’s piping development, he would have to move him on to the next level of instruction.

Thus began 21 years with the great master player and composer, P/M Donald MacLeod. John’s initial lessons from Donald came in the form of reel to reel tapes which Donald would send from his Army posting at Fort George near Inverness to Campbeltown.

I suppose these reel to reel tapes also marked the beginning of John’s long standing, but contentious, relationship with 21st century technology which, I might add, continues to the present day. 

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Giving back is, without question, the motto which drives John. He continues to travel back to his hometown of Campbeltown to help in the growth of the up and coming pipers in Kintyre. Extremely proud of his heritage, it’s Argyll that is the lifeblood for him.

His workshop instruction has carried him to all corners of the world. He is a true piping ambassador like no other. I suspect that Antarctica is the only continent that has not benefited from his musical knowledge and guidance. Australia, New Zealand, United States, Canada, France, Germany, Scandinavia, Ireland and many other countries have all felt the positive impact of John’s tuition. 

He has served on and chaired the solo piping adjudicators’ panel and has been a loyal supporter of the Argyllshire Gathering, the Donald MacLeod Memorial, the Springbank Invitational and, of course, the Glenfiddich Championship. 

He helped catalogue, digitise and facilitate the release of 21 volumes of Donald MacLeod’s piobaireachd instruction thus bringing Donald’s music and voice to the wider piping world. He was also a major force behind the compilation and release in 2019 of the full, updated, collection of all 27 of Donald’s piobaireachd compositions.

As a young man John pursued a career as an architect. His studies began in 1967 at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. However the draw of the pipes was too strong to ignore, so in 1971 he followed his heart and returned to the west coast and joined the Glasgow Police.

An illustrious career with the Glasgow, and subsequently Strathclyde, force saw him rise to the rank of Chief Superintendent and Divisional Commander of Glasgow’s ‘A’ Division, in charge of policing the city centre. The stories of his tenure are legendary and involved many of the great characters in the Strathclyde Police Pipe Band.

In 1976, five years after joining the police band, John and the band won the World Championship. That was just a little foreshadowing of the history that was soon to be made under the leadership of the legendary P/M Ian McLellan.

John was right there with Ian in the front rank, often in the Pipe Sergeant’s position, along with other piping luminaries such as Barry Donaldson and John’s dear friend, the late Harry McAleer. From 1980 to 1986 Strathclyde Police were undefeated at the World Pipe Band Championships.

Career advancement resulted in John retiring from the band after the 1989 season and shortly after that he retired from the solo board too. This was John’s time to give back to piping and pipe bands everything that they had given him. 

His chairmanship of the Adjudicators’ Management Board for the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association has helped the Association expand the adjudicators’ panel and make it a true reflection of the international nature of pipe bands. 

His skills as a consensus builder and communicator, along with a clear vision of how to support the growth and improvement of pipe bands have helped us navigate through some potentially difficult times.

He is truly one of the great communicators, someone you would describe as a people person and, who I like to describe as the peoples’ friend.

I think all of us as solo piping or pipe band adjudicators are in awe with how John provides adjudication feedback on a critque sheet. I call him the ‘Master of the Metaphor’.

In 2019, John’s contribution to piping was recognised when he was inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame. I know how extremely proud John and his entire family were for this recognition. And, I know how happy his wife Connie and daughter Claire are to be here with him today, and that his son Iain has been able to tune in today all the way from Utah with his wife Keeley and grandchildren Kirsty and Andrew. 

I began by saying that this year’s recipient truly ticks off all the boxes. This is a Balvenie Medal recipient who has played on this stage, adjudicated this competition, been your Master of Ceremonies and now, for his immense contribution to piping, is being asked to come forward to the same illustrious platform to receive the 2021 Balvenie Medal. Please join me in congratulating Mr John Wilson.

1 thought on “My Tribute to Balvenie Medal Winner John Wilson

  1. Sincere congratulations John, what a wonderful tribute, well done Bob. Harry and Freddy Russell would be toasting your service to all aspects of the piping as I am.

    Nat Russell
    PM Vic. Pol.

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