Obituary: James Smart Ballantyne, wartime cryptographer

Born: 19 December, 1916, in Galashiels. Died: 19 September, 2014, in Melrose aged 97

James Ballantyne: Former World War II cryptographer who taught music to thousands across the Borders
James Ballantyne: Former World War II cryptographer who taught music to thousands across the Borders

Jim Ballantyne was a gifted and dedicated musician whose lifelong passion for his métier touched the hearts and souls of thousands.

A boy chorister who became an organist, choirmaster, head of music and octogenarian tutor, he also guided many on their way to successful professional lives as musicians, singers or teachers – quite an achievement for a youngster who at one point seemed destined for a career in banking.

The younger son of Walter and Helen Ballantyne, he was born during the Great War and already had an impressive heritage as grandson of a burgh chamberlain and great nephew of a deputy mayor of Boston, Massachusetts. By the early 1930s he was working as a clerk in the Trustee Savings Bank and within a couple of years he had proved his expertise by coming second in Great Britain in the Thomas Jaffrey banking examinations. He could well have followed his brother Andrew into banking but that same year he also gained honours in Trinity College London’s music exams and was voted candidate of the year by the local committee. Music would eventually win out but not until after World War II had intervened.

He joined the Royal Scots regiment in February 1940 and was was transferred four months later to the 7th Battalion of the York and Lancaster regiment. In May 1942 the now Sergeant Ballantyne was serving with his regiment in India when he was assigned to the United States Army Air Force, 10th Army Airways Communications System’s 3rd Air Depot Group, in Agra to work as a cryptographer, writing and deciphering coded messages.

The 10th AACS squadron’s tasks were to complete part of a communications network reaching across the Atlantic to Africa, the Middle East and specifically, in 1942, to link India and China as well as assist tactical operations in Burma. After the arrival of additional personnel from the United States, the squadron was able to release all but a few of the men who had been on loan from Britain. Ballantyne rejoined his regiment in June 1943 and was in Burma when the Second World War finally ended with the Japanese surrender in August 1945.

Four years earlier he had married his wife Adelaide, an accomplished pianist and tutor, but had had to return to barracks the day after the wedding. Post-war they worked together in her general store in Galashiels until 1950 when he enrolled on a teaching course in music at Edinburgh’s Moray House teacher training centre.

He had his initial practical experience of teaching on secondment to Hawick High School in 1951 and the following year became a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland, taking up his first post as a qualified teacher at St Columba’s R.C. High School, Cowdenbeath, in Fife.

However, the job kept him away from home and he longed to be closer to his family so when an offer came, to work as a as peripatetic music teacher in the Borders, he seized the opportunity to get back on home turf. The post took him to 47 schools scattered throughout the Borders – a thoroughly enjoyable experience on which he was often accompanied by his wife.

Utterly dedicated and always punctual, even in the face of snowstorms, he had been known to teach as many as 19 classes in one day, albeit amounting to less than 20 minutes each.

He received his licentiate to teach piano from the London Royal Academy of Music in 1954 and the following year took a staff post at Selkirk High School. There he became head of music and in March 1962 conducted a choir of 50 girls from the school at a recording session for the BBC’s Overseas Service in the town’s Victoria Hall.

He went on to spend seven years as head of music at Galashiels Academy before retiring in 1981.

From his youth and throughout his long musical career he continued to serve his community: firstly as a chorister and then deputy organist at Galashiels’ East Church; as choirmaster and organist at St Cuthbert’s Church in 1938 and later as organist at several churches in Selkirk, Galashiels and other parts of the Borders where he was regularly requested to play at weddings and funerals.

His final post was at St Ninian’s Church, Galashiels, and, in an interview with his local paper after retiring in 1989, he looked back on his time as an organist, recalling one particular incident in a church with a water-driven organ – an instrument that required two men to operate the pump.

After playing several verses of a lengthy hymn, he began playing the next verse only to find no sound emerging. Walking round to the back of the organ he discovered the pair reading the Sunday papers. They had miscalculated the number of verses and thought the hymn had.

By the time he retired there was a scarcity of organists but it had previously been a very different situation, with multiple applicants vying for every vacancy. Competition was so fierce that one Sunday was allocated to each hopeful with the congregation voting for their preferred candidate.

The successful organist was rewarded with a contract with a clause stipulating that no operatic music shall be played. “Must have been written in the 1890’s”, commented Ballantyne, a time when opera was the equivalent of pop music, “and no-one ever changed it”.

Having given endless time to local churches and tutored music students at home after a full-day’s teaching, in retirement he continued to give music lessons until well into his 80s.

His was such a busy and productive life that it left little time for hobbies, save for an occasional game of golf and one favoured pastime, an outing with his wife to enjoy a picnic and a walk in the fresh air of the Borders.

Widowed in 2008, he is survived by his daughter Muriel, grandchildren Louise, Gordon and Pauline and great-grandchildren Sophie, Emily and Lucy.