Preview: ‘Jimmy, Memoirs of My Life as A Piper’ by Jimmy McIntosh MBE


The much anticipated memoir of one of piping’s greats is published just in time for Christmas. ‘Jimmy, Memoirs of My Life as A Piper’ by James H. McIntosh MBE, tells the story of a long life completely dedicated to the service of piping both in Scotland and the United States. 

Written in the last few years of his life – he died earlier this year at the age of 95 – the book details his early family life, his time in the Army, his time studying piobaireachd with the famed Bobs of Balmoral, and his eventual relocation to the US. There he mentored countless students in the ‘Balmoral’ style of piobaireachd, teaching in the old way through singing.

By Nancy Tunnicliffe 

Only in this way, Jimmy taught, can the piper understand and convey the proper expression of the tune. His advocacy of meaningful, expressive playing was reflected in his own competitive success and those of his students, many of whom have reached the heights of international competition. 

An avid storyteller with astonishing recall, Jimmy writes as though the reader is an old friend having a cup of tea by the fireside. Following the success of his piobaireachd collection, ‘Ceol Mor in the Balmoral Tradition’, he tackled his colourful life story, writing the entire book out in long hand. 

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In the forty years I knew him as mentor, teacher, and friend, Jimmy always had a project on the go, something designed to spread the word to as many pipers as possible. He developed workshops and piping summer schools, founded the world’s first piping professorship and major at Carnegie Mellon University, gave recitals, made recordings, composed tunes, and taught and adjudicated throughout the world. He also did much to propel the Eastern United States Pipe Band Association onto the world stage. His tenacity in seeing these projects through is legendary. 

It was tenacity he inherited from his paternal grandfather, ‘Toshie’, as he was known to everyone. ‘Toshie’, the book tells us, survived being shipwrecked, afloat in a life boat in winter for seventeen days. Jimmy writes of a childhood in poverty in his home town of Broughty Ferry near Dundee, with seven family members living, sleeping and eating in a two-room house. 

The book’s front cover

When Jimmy was just a lad of fourteen, his father announced that he’d be taking him the next day to enlist in the Army as a piper. One less mouth to feed. Jimmy made the best of the situation – though it was none of his choosing. It was an inauspicious start to an illustrious career that would see him awarded the MBE by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth for his many services to piping.

Jimmy writes of his Army years in rich detail, and of the characters he met and served with there. On his own at a very early age, he developed the can-do attitude that became his hallmark. He writes of his personal life after the Army, his coming to America and establishing himself as a master teacher and performer – and of course, meeting his wife Joyce, who would become his partner in all his endeavours, including the production of this book. 

The book features an extnsive 180 page appendix of letters from colleagues and piping friends such as General Frank Richardson, James Campbell, Kilberry, and Lt Col. David Murray, letters which display a mutual respect they held for each other. There is a lso a wide selection of letters which belonged to James’s father Archibald which James kindly passed to Jimmy.

I’ll  never forget the first time I heard Jimmy play, at Oban, in the late 70s. I had only been studying for four years then, but was very keen. I was eager to try my hand at ceòl mòr but could make no sense of it from the recordings available to me. In fact, the first time I heard piobaireachd, I laughed. Surely this can’t be how it was supposed to be played! It made no musical sense to me at all.

Jimmy receives the proofs of his memoir last year

Then I heard Jimmy play. I was dumbstruck. Suddenly what had seemed meandering and strange fell into an order of phrases, lines, and variations. I remember thinking there was a grammar to it, like commas, periods, and paragraphs.

And that sense of order allowed for so much expression to come through. I was very moved by his performance, and spoke to him afterward. I was delighted to learn that he would be teaching in the US.

Meeting Jimmy that day changed the course of my life and I’ve devoted my life ever since to performing and teaching in the Balmoral style as he taught it.

Jimmy had high expectations of his students. At his summer workshops, we would receive a new piobaireachd on a given day, Jimmy singing as we played on chanter, and we’d be expected to play it the next! I learned the tunes by singing along with our class recordings and was amazed at how firmly the song of the tune stuck in my mind. Whenever I play, all these years later, I hear Jimmy’s voice.

In later years, Jimmy held workshops for judges in his home. We would suggest tunes we wanted to revise, and he would present the tunes in the usual style, him singing – always from memory, even in later years – while we played practice chanter.

After a dinner provided by Joyce, Jimmy would play two or three big piobaireachd on the pipes, continuing this practice well into his 90s, and an inspiration to us all.

So many memories and I am so glad Jimmy was able to leave us this wonderful book of his wonderful life.

  • ‘Jimmy, Memoirs of My Life as A Piper’ by Jimmy McIntosh MBE; 445 pages with illustrations is published by Fulton Books, Inc. and is available from Amazon for $22.95 (£17.50 approx. plus mailing) and Barnes and Noble.

1 thought on “Preview: ‘Jimmy, Memoirs of My Life as A Piper’ by Jimmy McIntosh MBE

  1. I just received my book today through Barnes & Nobles Bookstore this afternoon and what a good read it is. Very informative and an eye opener in some passages. It brought forth Jimmy’s unfailing politeness, kindness, and love for all levels of players whether professional or casual. I heartily recommend it for it will appeal to a very large part of the worldwide fraternity.


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