In praise of Anne Johnston by her son Finlay on Mother’s Day
Editor’s note: Mother’s Day was invented in the UK as “Mothering Sunday.” It’s traditionally celebrated there on the Sunday three weeks before Easter, while most of the rest of the world celebrates Mother’s Day on the second Sunday in May. We wanted to mark the UK occasion with the great piper Finlay Johnston’s tribute to his mother, Anne, one of the most accomplished competitive pipers of the 1960s and ’70s.
By Finlay Johnston
My mum, Anne Johnston (nee Sinclair), was born in 1954 and is from the Isle of Tiree. She began learning the pipes at the age of 12 with her father, Alasdair Sinclair, at their home in Greenhill. During the summer holidays Hugh Kennedy would visit the island and my mum would go to see him in Kilmaluaig for her piobaireachd lessons.
She began competing the following year. My grandfather would make the journey with her to Tobermory for the games and Glasgow for the indoor junior competitions. He would relive this years later when he took me to my first competition at Tobermory Games.
In 1966, she joined the Tiree Pipe Band and competed the following year at the World Pipe Band Championships in Oban. They gained second place in Grade 4. There was an extra boat put on for the band and all its supporters to return to home the Island. I’m sure a good ceilidh ensued! My grandfather was pipe-sergeant in the band during this time but retired shortly after this due to health issues.
At the age of 16 she moved to Glasgow in 1960 to work in the bank. Her first flat was just a few doors down from the famous Park Bar on Argyle Street. At this time she briefly received some lessons from Roddy MacDonald and then went on to learn from Ronnie Morrison.
Mum joined the British Caledonian Airways (Renfrew) Pipe Band after her sister, Catherine, spotted an article in the Evening Times about the band looking for pipers. She decided to try out for the band and went along for an audition with an entourage! Her mum, dad, aunt and cousin were all in tow for moral support . . . or to intimidate – who knows! It worked out well as she got into the band. Robert Stewart was the pipe-major at the time and met my mum’s sister and his future wife, Catherine Sinclair, through the connection. My mum also met my dad, Tommy Johnston, through the band. He played in the drum corps under Lead-Drummer Joe Noble.
After playing there for two years there was a change of leadership and the new pipe-major didn’t want any females in the band.
Unfortunately, her time with B-Cal was shorter than she would have liked. After playing there for two years there was a change of leadership and the new pipe-major didn’t want any females in the band.
Mum had great success in the solo piping circuit picking up many prizes in piobaireachd and light music. Some notable events would be winning both the piobaireachd and light music events in the same day at the Edinburgh City Police competition, being the first female to win the Silver Medal, and picking up prizes in the Gold Medal.
Unfortunately, she never returned to compete as actively after I was born, which is a real shame. I think it’s something she regrets to this day.
Her piping has impacted me greatly. Some of my earliest memories are of pipes going in the house and her practice chanter was always by the fireplace. Inevitably I would pick it up and mess around on it.
Although I never received any formal lessons from her I’ve had her help from the beginning. A life’s worth of tips, pointers and encouragement. As a bratty child, these offerings of advice weren’t always welcomed! But as I grew older I learned to appreciate it was good information, and it always lined up with what my tutor, Ronnie McShannon, would be telling me. Her ear for music is fantastic. She is a great “leveller” and has always given me honest feedback. I’ve been lucky to have this at home throughout my life. Mum has also done some teaching, notably helping Gordon Bruce achieve the rare double Silver Medal win in 2011.
She doesn’t play too much these days, so it’s easy to forget she ever did. But once in a while she’ll pick up the chanter and it’s a bold reminder of how good a player she was and still is. Crisp technique and fantastic phrasing; a real teuchter swing to her playing! Throughout my career I’ve had many people say to me, “If you’re half the player your mum was, you’ll be doing alright.”
And they are right.
Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers out there!
Finlay Johnston is one of the world’s top solo pipers and instructors. He’s won both Highland Society of London Gold Medals (Oban 2012, Inverness 2015) and the Glenfiddich Championship twice (2018, 2019), and was voted Solo Competition Piper of the Year in the 2018 pipes|drums New Year’s Honours. He now works with Pipe Dreams, makers of Ezeedrone reeds and lives in Glasgow.
Tom Johnston, 1955-2020
July 29, 2020
Finlay Johnston: 2019 Glenfiddich Champion
October 26, 2019