WW2 Piping: John Wilson ‘Not Dead’ and the Reel of the 51st Highland Division

In January 1940 John Wilson went over to France with his regiment. He was taken prisoner at St Valery in June 1940 and lost his pipe case and all the contents. He spent the rest of the war in prisoner of war camps. 

His ‘death’ was reported in the pages of Piping and Dancing magazine but in the issue of the following month it was reported that he was not dead but had been taken prisoner.

By Jeannie Campbell

During his time in the camps he met some other pipers. This is his account: ‘In the early summer of 1942, we were taken one Sunday for a march to another POW camp some distance away. We were allowed to visit the POWs there and one of them had a practice chanter, the first I’d seen in almost two years.

‘I found I could still play fairly well and I wished I could get one too. My brother Alex told me in a letter that he had sent one to me but I never received it. He sent me another, which I eventually got.’

‘I met three pipers at the Molsdorf camp. One was a Pipe Major MacDonald of the Black Watch. He was from Dundee and he had received a set of pipes from the Highland Pipers Society of Edinburgh through the Red Cross.

‘The other two were pipers of the 7th Argylls who had failed to get away at Le Havre with their battalion. The first was Iain Lawrie, son of the famous composer and player Willie Lawrie, Ballachulish.

‘The second was George McIntyre from Campbeltown. We had some great sessions on the pipes but the Germans were very suspicious of us, for they suspected that we used the pipes to cover the sounds made by tunnel diggers.’

George McIntyre, Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, POW and renowned composer. Very brave, George escaped from the prison camps several times but was recaptured each time

After this John was sent to an officers’ camp as an orderly. ‘Major Bedding, a New Zealand officer, had a set of pipes. He could play a bit too, so the Major, Duncan Cameron and I started to have piping sessions in a vacant room. The Major had no spare reeds and the ones in the pipes were not very good and I wrote home to have some new reeds sent out.’

After the War, in 1949, John Wilson emigrated to Canada. He became an important figure on the Canadian piping scene and was in great demand as a player, teacher and judge. He died on the 6th November 1979 at Willowdale, Ontario.

Jim Atkinson of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders was taken prisoner at St Valery and became a member of a POW pipe band. [Jim’s band is pictured at the head of this article. The year is 1944.]

He was one of the prisoners involved in the creation of a new dance The Reel of the 51st Division. Another who was involved in this was DR Stewart Allward and his account of how it came about was published in the piping magazine Piob Mor in 1947:

‘About a month after June 12th 1940, the day the 51st Highland Division was forced to surrender at St. Valery, the majority of us found ourselves in Germany at Laufer prison camp. It was not long before a few of us who were keen got together and formed a dancing class, both to keep up our own dancing and also to teach others, and we found plenty of support for the idea.

‘Conditions were not ideal, for we had either to dance on the concrete floor of a garage or in one of the corridors of the building. Music was also lacking, though we managed to get someone to play a mouth organ for some occasions.

‘The traditional HD sign of the 51st had been temporarily replaced whilst we were in France by the St. Andrew’s Cross, and after a while, this inspired one of our number, Lt J Atkinson of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders to invent a dance which would incorporate this sign and thus perpetuate the memory of what we used to call the ‘old 51st‘.

‘Having got this idea in mind he decided that the best thing was to combine the dances Scottish Reform and the Duke of Perth in such a way that, when the top two couples joined hands, they would be able to represent the Cross.

‘When we had completed the dance we showed it to Colonel Hunter (RASC, Perth), who was Vice-President of the Scottish Country Dance Society. He approved it and sent it home to the Scottish Country Dance Society where it was approved officially and included in their list of country dances. 

‘We had several suggested names for it, and once thought of calling it The St. Valery Reel but decided that the tragedy at St Valery was not a thing to be remembered by a dance, so it was finally called The 51st Divisional Dance.

Watch a film on the history of the dance…..

‘In 1944, when we were at Eichstatt, a member of the Division, Dugald Stewart, composed a pipe tune especially for the dance, but so far as I know it has not previously been published.’

Wikipedia: ‘Atkinson’s letter home with instructions for the dance was intercepted by the German security service, the Abwehr…. However, another version of the dance reached Scotland where it was published while Atkinson was still a POW and became instantly popular.’

  • To read earlier excerpts in this series type ‘WW2’ in the Search field above.

3 thoughts on “WW2 Piping: John Wilson ‘Not Dead’ and the Reel of the 51st Highland Division

  1. Can you please share the tune 51st Divisional Dance/Reel? I am working on a detailed collection of tunes and history for WW2 and this tune does not appear on Pekars and probably in a tune book long lost to history.

    Thank your Robert Baker also for the info on Cows–trying to find that book for sale.

    Thank you very much
    Milan J Kobulnicky

  2. Re the 51st Highland Division, pipers Iain Lawrie and George McIntyre served in the 8th (Argyllshire) Battalion not the 7th Battallion A&SH.

  3. This is cracking stuff. George McIntyre wrote a 6/8 jig, ‘Three Wee Crows’, about three young German guards; one of my favourite tunes, published in the Minard Collection. John Wilson emigrated to Canada and married Joe Reid`s daughter. I used to own Joe’s pipes. He was in the Gordons. The pipes are now in Brisbane; a set of 1935 Robertsons with flared stocks. John Wilson’s book is one of those that all pipers should have.

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