Published: December 31, 2000

P/M James W.A. Watt, CD, 1922-2000

On Saturday, December 16, 2000, Pipe Major James Watt passed away after suffering a series of heart attacks. He was well known on the west coast of North America, from California to Alaska and all points in between. James was born in North Vancouver in 1922 to William and Roscalina Watt. His father was a sea Captain and an original member of the B.C. Pipers’ Association.

James took up the pipe in 1930 and continued to play until his last days. In the interval, many are the tunes he played and many are those he composed. His principle teacher was the late, great John Gillies, Scots Guards and Seaforth Highlanders. While overseas during World War II, he was fortunate enough to attend Edinburgh Castle under Pipe Major William Ross and to meet that master of piobaireachd, John MacDonald of Inverness. He never forgot John MacDonald’s admonition, “make a song of it, whatever you do.”

Starting in the1930s he followed the sea in the footsteps of his father. He left the coastal ships to work as a pipe fitter’s helper at Brittannia Beach so that he could get in a blow or two with the local Pipe Band under Angus Macaulay. He was called up by the Seaforths in 1939 – he had served previously in the Seaforth Reserve Pipe Band along with Ed Esson, Danny Murray, Billy Armstrong and John Gibson, among others. Following many peregrinations during the war years Jimmy wound up in Europe where, at war’s end he was the Senior Pipe Major in the British Commonwealth.

Winner of many trophies for his piping, he took great pride in winning the MacCrimmon Memorial Cairn and MacCrimmon Memorial Medal in 1941, 1948 and 1950.

He had a varied career after WW II. For a time he had a radio program that featured Gaelic music and song and frequent guest artists who would talk about piping and give a blow on the pipe. Later, he operated a commercial salmon troll vessel. This particular experience was to influence a number of his musical compositions in later years.

James Watt had the soul of a poet, a quality that found expression in both his music and his poetry. His three piobaireachd compositions, “Dunvegan’s Galley,” “Cronan Boreraig” and “Dawning of Day” were tone poems that captured the essence of a particular experience. His 50 or so other compositions were all lyrical in quality – his well known “Brentwood Bay” and “Sailing Before the Wind” exemplify this poetical style.

James Watt took much from piping and gave more back. He was a respected adjudicator and a thoughtful teacher. He was particularly adept in introducing beginners to the music. He said that young players should not choose difficult, elaborate tunes to conquer early in their development. “Learn with simple tunes, like the ’79th’s Farewell to Gibraltar,’ for example. Learn to bring out the delightful music locked in those cold notes printed on a piece of paper. Once able to do that, the door to the world of elaborate and complex music is yours to open.”

He founded the Western Academy of Pipe Music and for 22 years presented a summer school in the Okanagan. A feature of the Academy was the annual award of the Seaforth Trophy to the winner of an Open Amateur competition (march, strathspey and reel of choice). This trophy, dating back to 1912, was presented by the Seaforth Highlanders for perpetual use by the Western Academy. James enjoyed each of those sessions enormously. It was only a month ago that he made a decision to close the Academy.

Until the very end, the music kept going “round and round” as the old song has it. It was a joy to sit with James Watt to talk about piping and listen to him “make a song of it.”

– Ron MacLeod, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

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