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Wick Girls Pipe Band

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In Memory Of Jim Christie

Pipe-major Jim Christie of Wick
On Sunday, 17th July, 1988, Pipe-major Jim Christie, a much-loved son of Wick, died aged 79. Born at 8, Louisburgh Street on Trafalgar Day, 21st October, 1908, James Mackay Christie was the son of John Christie and Annie Miller of Pulteneytown. Jim’s paternal grandmother, Jeannie Mackay, was one of a number of members of that clan who were evicted from Strathalladale during the Clearances masterminded by the infamous Patrick Sellar.

Jim’s father, John Christie, was a baker working first with Wullie Nicholson in the High Street. Later he went into business for himself and prospered. There were five in his family and he was able to purchase the whole block of houses from the corner of Louisburgh Street - “buying a door to each”.

Jim went to school in Wick - first at the old North School in Girnigoe Street, then to the Academy and later to the High School. He left school in 1922 and joined his father in the bakery which was then sited at 8, Louisburgh Street. His first practice as a piper occurred in 1924 with the Wick Boy Scouts Pipe Band He was taught originally by Donald “Dadda” Davidson and “Auld Fella” Mackenzie. He stayed with the Boy Scouts Pipe Band until its amalgamation with the newly-formed Wick Pipe Band in 1936.

On Trafalgar Day, once again, in 1937 Jim married his lifelong partner Lilias “Lillie” Bremner, daughter of Francis Bremner and Margaret Ann Miller. Shortly after, in 1939, war was declared and the entire pipe band joined up. Jim, who had extremely poor sight, failed his eye-test and so was rejected for military service. It was at this point that he took the decision to start a pipe band of girls only to ensure that the piping traditions of the town were continued throughout the war.

The move, however, was not greeted with the enthusiasm which it clearly deserved, by all in piping circles. There never had been, until then, a pipe band consisting only of girls and there were some who felt the move might bring serious piping into disrepute. The critics could not have been more wrong but it would be some years and much hard work before Jim and his “Lassagies” could prove their worth.

Their first setback came as a result of a shortage of uniforms. Pipe-major Allan of the Wick pipe hand required the uniforms for a Saturday night performance and the following Thursday the Wick Girls Pipe Band had been booked by Wullie Simons to play with a dance band up at the aerodrome. It was clear that the girls would not have uniforms returned to them by that date and at this point Lillie Christie took on the task of making a complete new set of uniforms for the girls, a duty she continued to perform throughout the entire life of the Wick Girls Pipe Band.

The band’s next booking was for the Lairg Show and after that there were bookings in Aberdeen, Inverness and Edinburgh. In 1949 they were invited to London by Sir David Robertson, at that time M.P. for Streatham. Whilst there they played at the Croydon Flower Show, at the Highland Games on Clapham Common and appeared on the BBC television programme “In Town Tonight”. They were also invited to play at a big concert organised by the London-Caithness Association at the Royal Scottish Corporation in Fetter Lane. Their scheduled rendezvous was for 5.00 p.m. at St. Paul’s Cathedral and, as their contact was late, they proceeded to have an impromptu rehearsal on the steps of St. Paul’s: This was not a sight familiar to many Londoners and in no time at all a huge crowd gathered and the roads became blocked. Photographers appeared from nearby Fleet Street and asked the band to line up on the steps of St. Paul’s for a group photograph but police sergeant informed them they would need the permission of the Dean and Chapter for that at which Jim asked “have ye tae have permission to breath?:’ The police insisted that the band would have to move and Jim insisted that they needed to tune their pipes. Eventually the police provided an escort and the band played its way through the crowded rush-hour streets of London.

The band’s beginnings were small - just two lassies, Margaret Couper and Betty Cormack, the latter still playing in a pipe band in New York(see note below).They were later joined by Kathy MacLeod, Jean Bruce, Josie Steven, Jessie Bain, Margaret Henderson and Connie Gunn. During the war the band played many fixtures for the servicemen at the aerodrome and played with many famous dance bands of the day including those of Harold Geller, Ernie Tomasso, Joe Loss and Oscar Daniels-. The band also featured in “Down Your Way” with Franklin Ingilman and with Wilfrid Pickles on “Have A Go”. Later Jim was to be interviewed by a young reporter from the Scotsman newspaper called Magnus Magnusson now better known for his “Mastermind” programme.

In 1947 the band entered a pipe band contest in Edinburgh and the following day the newspaper headlines read “They came, they played, they conquered”. During that week the band played every park in Edinburgh and, when arrangements were made to play alongside the Tank Regiment band on alternate nights the entrance fee was 6d for the Tank Regiment performance and 1/- for the Wick Girls Pipe Band

In 1949 the band played at the Brighton Pavilion for the Tory Party Conference and the instructor for the Dagenham Girl Pipers offered £5 plus expenses for each of the Wick girls who would come and play for his band.

In 1958 they entered the Scottish Pipe Band Association’s Championship competition and carried off the supreme prize.  The band was later further honoured by playing before H.M. Queen Elizabeth II, the Queen Mother, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Princess Alexandra.

Jim was a quiet, unassuming man, whose knowledge of piping was profound. His gift to the piping community and the citizens of Wick is well-known and he will be deeply mourned by all those who knew him. Pipe-major Jim Christie of Wick was a unique man whose passing leaves us all a great deal poorer.

This obituary was written in 1988  - Betty Cormack sadly died a couple of years ago - 19 January 2002