Review: ‘Jimmy – Memoirs of My Life as A Piper’ by James H McIntosh MBE

When I was asked to review this book of Jimmy McIntosh’s reminiscences, I was delighted to be able to read the story of one of piping’s modern legends. This was the man who was the first Glenfiddich champion, still playing ‘pibroc’h en bord de la mer’ at Cancale in his 90s, a teacher of my teacher, Tom Speirs.

I should also declare one other interest – my own father was born on almost the same day in 1925, rose from rural poverty to become highly respected in his field (surgery), and died in his 90s too.

The first few chapters of the book explain what it was like growing up poor in Broughty Ferry before WW2. Jimmy looks back on these times with little affection, and later in the book exclaims on more than one occasion that he feels anger and shame that people should have to live like this.

By Dr Peter McCalister

One gets the impression that he struggled all his life to ‘do his best’ and fight to get what he wanted. The accounts of those who knew him describe a kind and gentle man – but I also know he could be fierce and determined. I now know some of the reasons for his character, and my own family history reflects the same determination.

He was drafted into the Army by his father, virtually against his will, aged 14. Although he admits the Army made him into the man he was, he did not enjoy Army life and advises readers not to join up. 

During this phase he seems to have met every famous piper in existence, and had some good early teaching from Willie Ross. However in general he is critical of Army teachers, which surprises me as I was taught by an excellent Army P/M (Andy Wilson BEM), but I have no reason to doubt Jimmy’s assessment. 

It wasn’t until he reached his 40s and was taken up by the Bobs of Balmoral that he really began to concentrate on his solo career, and his description of the teaching by them is very interesting. He is not alone in being concerned that (in recent years) piping has lost some expression, and he goes as far as to say that piobaireachd playing has become ‘bland, dull and boring’.

His own teaching tries to reverse that, using singing extensively (like the Bobs) and concentrating on phrasing and expression – a quick Google search for his teaching videos will demonstrate that to the viewer.

‘He describes being deeply hurt and offended by various disagreements over the years. But these sections are greatly outnumbered by his pride in his achievements…..’

He recorded the entire Piobaireachd Society collection as a teaching resource, and gifted it to Carnegie Mellon University in 2001. It would be interesting to see if this could be made available in some digital format, to pipers throughout the world

Much of the book is like chatting to a man in a pub, and it reads very easily. He is a natural storyteller and sometimes repeats himself – one can forgive him for that. Some of the later sections describing his extensive travels, and visits to personal friends, are perhaps of less interest, but he is simply continuing the tale of his life – and remarks that he has always tried to keep mentally alert.

He is disarmingly honest about the people that he met, and some sections made me feel rather uncomfortable as he openly criticises others, including famous pipers past and present. He describes being deeply hurt and offended by various disagreements over the years.

But these sections are greatly outnumbered by his pride in his achievements, especially in his adopted country, the USA. At the end of the book one has the sense of a man who is happy with his lot and (I quote), ‘I have always tried to live a meaningful life, and hope that I have contributed something positive and worthwhile.’ 

There is an unexpected large appendix of facsimiles of historical letters from famous pipers including General Frank Richardson (describing lessons from John MacDonald of Inverness), James Campbell and his father Archibald of Kilberry, and Lt Col. David Murray.

The book has a wide selection of interesting photographs. Here is a small selection:

These are erudite and describe detailed discussions of individual piobaireachd tunes, amongst many other topics. While the writing needs a magnifying glass to read it, the effort pays off. I would hope that one day these could be typed out, for the education of pipers as an important historical resource.

This book is such a resource, and inspires us all to look back and learn from the past. Thanks, Jimmy. 

  • ‘Jimmy – Memoirs of My Life as a Piper’ by James H. McIntosh MBE, 446pp, is available from Amazon books here priced £21.95 and £7.35 (Kindle) or via Barnes & Noble here priced $26.95 and $8.49 (Nook).

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