February 08, 2021

James McIntosh, 1925-2021

James Haddow “Jimmy” McIntosh, the great teacher and student of piobaireachd, died in his 96th year on February 8, 2021. He had suffered from congestive heart failure for some time.

While he was a competing piper of the first order, it was as a teacher that he gained his greatest renown. He resolutely passed along the knowledge of piobaireachd that he gained primarily from Robert Bell Nicol and Robert Urquhart Brown – the Bobs of Balmoral – to students around the world, leading several pipers to their own greatness.

Jimmy McIntosh, 1980. [Photo pipes|drums]
Born in Broughty Ferry, Scotland, in 1925, his musician father brought eight-year-old Jimmy to the pipes with the local pipe band. In 1939, the 14-year-old McIntosh joined the Cameron Highlanders as a band boy. It was with the Camerons that he fortuitously elevated his piping, with legends like John A. MacLellan and Mickey MacKay serving in the regiment at the same time. He would stay in the army for 10 years.

After leaving the Cameron Highlanders, he returned to the Dundee area and joined the MacKenzie Pipe Band, and a few years later became pipe-major of the Grade 2 City of Dundee, a band that beat several Grade 1 bands at his last contest with them at Dunblane, Scotland. In 1957, McIntosh was asked to lead a new band with a big sponsorship from the National Cash Register Corporation, which had operations in Scotland.

After success in Grade 2, including winning the Scottish Pipe Band Association’s Open Quartet Competition, the Grade 2 NCR Pipe Band was on the brink of being promoted to Grade 1 when McIntosh rediscovered piobaireachd. The decision to leave pipe bands would change his life, and the lives of hundreds of other pipers, forever.

He was accepted as a pupil of Brown, and had regular tuition from the piobaireachd master, and later  from Nicol. He engrossed himself in ceol mor, and developed a passion for the nuance of the music as taught by these legendary pupils of John MacDonald of Inverness.

At 46 years old, and relatively new to solo piping, he turned his late-blooming to competitive success. In 1971, Jimmy McIntosh won the Highland Society of London’s Gold Medal at the Northern Meeting playing “Tulloch Ard.”

In 1974, he was the overall winner of the first Grant’s Invitational Solo Piping Championship (later the Glenfiddich). He would also win the Dunvegan / Portree Gold Medal (1975) and Portree Clasp (1976), and the Highland Society of London’s Gold Medal at the Argyllshire Gathering in 1978 with “The Big Spree.” That year he returned to the Grant’s Invitational but had a suspected heart attack at the event. By choice, it would turn out to be his final competitive appearance. Years later he said that he regretted retiring so early.

In the tradition of the Bobs, John MacDonald and McIntosh’s other teacher, the great Donald MacLeod, he devoted himself to teaching. Seumas MacNeill had brought McIntosh to North America as an instructor at MacNeill’s summer school at Timmins, Ontario. McIntosh soon established his own “Balmoral” schools of piping in the eastern United States, the progenitor for what today is the Balmoral School of Piping network of events.

Around the same time, McIntosh played a role in the development of a new solo pipe chanter with David Naill Bagpipe Makers. The chanter caught on quickly, and for at least 10 years became the instrument of choice with most solo pipers.

Jimmy McIntosh in 2019.

McIntosh’s popularity as a teacher spread quickly in the US. In 1982, he immigrated to Delaware as a full-time teacher. He would become involved with the Eastern United States Pipe Band Association, rising to president. He made his presence felt with the EUSPBA, introducing new competing requirements for professional and amateur solo piping, making it one of the most stringent circuits in the world.

In the early 1990s, McIntosh worked with Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to establish its first bachelor’s degree in piping, at the time the only degree course of its kind in the world. He and his wife, Joyce (nee MacFarlane) – herself a very accomplished piper whom he met at one of his piping schools – moved to the Pittsburgh area, where they would stay for many years with McIntosh a professor of music at Carnegie Mellon. After he retired and gave way to his successor, Alasdair Gillies, the McIntoshes would move to South Carolina in the 2000s.

In 1994, James McIntosh was awarded the MBE for services to piping. He travelled to Buckingham Palace to accept the award from Queen Elizabeth II.

Jimmy McIntosh’s contributions to piping, particularly in the eastern United States, were immense. His passion for imparting his knowledge was inexhaustible. Among his more prominent pupils were Bruce Gandy, Amy Garson, Alasdair Gillies, Andrew Carlisle, Michael Cusack, Scott MacAulay, Michael Rogers and Tom Speirs.

His methods were often strict, at times having little tolerance for interpretations of piobaireachd beyond what he had learned from the equally rigid teaching of Nicol. He was known as a judge who favoured the music being played just so.

In 2015, at the age of 90, he published Ceol Mor for the Great Highland Bagpipe Presented in the Balmoral Tradition, a 144-page book that paid homage to his work with the Bobs of Balmoral and his interpretation and analysis of more than 70 piobaireachds.

In his pipes|drums Interview of August 1994, McIntosh said, “I don’t know any other way to think than to think about helping piping. I’ve lost some friends because I’ve done things for the [EUSPBA] membership rather than for them. I won’t compromise myself to remain friends with someone. I can’t do that.”

James “Jimmy” McIntosh was known to soften his approach in his much later years. He was renowned for playing at least one full piobaireachd on the pipes into his nineties, still sharing his time and his knowledge with anyone who demonstrated an aptitude and a passion.

On behalf of the piping and drumming world, our sympathies go to Jimmy McIntosh’s family, friends and many pupils at this sad time.



The Big Music in a big way



  1. I attended the Timmins school the summer of 1979 and was lucky enough to be introduced to piobaireachd by Jimmy. He had us beginners playing the ground for Glengarry’s Lament by the end of the second week. I enjoyed his classes and found him to be an excellent teacher and at least with us, VERY patient. Sorry to hear of his passing.

  2. Thank you for the heartfelt tribute to Jimmy McIntosh, undoubtably one of the most influential and beloved master piobaireachd players and teachers of the modern age. As pointed out in the article, he was passionately dedicated to the legacy and lineage of what he called the Balmoral style of piping, taught to him by Bob Brown and Bob Nicol, who learned from the legendary John MacDonald of Inverness. When Jimmy taught his students a piobaireachd, he always made it clear that it was not his interpretation of the tune they were learning, but that he was teaching what he learned from his own teachers, and most often the reference was to Brown. “Brown would insist” was often the preface to a phrase that he would sing, and singing was the sure method by which Brown (and Jimmy) would convey the subtleties of a tune.

    As a long time student of Jimmy, I want to comment on one of the statements in the piece which read, “His methods were often strict, at times having little tolerance for interpretations of piobaireachd beyond what he had learned from the equally rigid teaching of Nicol. He was known as a judge who favoured the music being played just so.”
    I would never have called Jimmy “strict,” he was a kind and generous teacher and, indeed, had strong opinions and was not afraid to share them. Naturally, he preferred the fluidity and rhythmic qualities of Brown and Nicol’s playing over other styles. But I think the idea that he was a rigid judge is an unfair myth perpetuated over the years.

    As an example, many years ago I was apprentice judging a piobaireachd contest with Jimmy at a time when Colin MacLellan was competing regularly in North America. Also competing were future Gold Medalist Donald MacPhee and many of the top U.S. professional pipers, some of whom, including Donald, had taken lessons with Jimmy. Colin’s tune was “The Groat,” which he played musically and skillfully on a fine instrument, but very different from the way I had learned it from Jimmy. At the end of the event Jimmy turned to me and said, “Well, there’s no question who won that contest.” When, as a rookie judge, I asked, “Who?” wondering if the prize would go to a tune played the way he taught it, he said, “Colin, no question.” This was proof to me that he rewarded what he thought was the best performance, regardless of whether it was exactly the way he wanted to hear it played.

    I appreciate Pipes-Drums’ sincere tribute to Jimmy and echo that he was one of the great lights of piping, intense in his passion for the music and dedicated to passing on the lineage of the Bobs of Balmoral. Those who knew and loved him have lost a great teacher and friend.



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