Scotsman Obituaries: John Walker, Scots music teacher who found second career as church organist in Norway

John Walker helped generations of pupils into careers in musicJohn Walker helped generations of pupils into careers in music
John Walker helped generations of pupils into careers in music
John Walker, music teacher. Born: 6 August 1934 in Morningside. Died: 13 March 2024 in Perth, aged 89​

John Walker, who died at Kincarrathie House, Perth on 13 March at 89, is remembered by many as Principal Teacher of Music at Dumfries Academy between 1962 and 1987, but went on to a church music career in Norway and in retirement became a prolific contributor to musical life in his adopted Birnam/Dunkeld and more widely around Perthshire and surrounding areas.

An Edinburgh lad, born and raised in Morningside, where his father was one of the local butchers, he had attended George Heriot’s and started his church music career as a choirboy in St John’s, Princes Street. John turned down an Edinburgh University organ scholarship in preference for a James Caird Travelling Scholarship which took him to the Royal Academy of Music in London. There he studied under, among others, Sir William McKie – who had been director of music for the then Princess Elizabeth’s wedding and later the 1953 Coronation – leading to a London University B.Mus and FRCO (Fellow of the Royal College of Organists).

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Studies in London were followed by military service, mostly in Oldenburg, in the then West Germany, where he managed to continue his organ scholarship, mixed with his other duties, and he retained lifelong connections with the area.

John’s first job following a year at Moray House was at Kirkcudbright Academy, where he would meet his wife, Shirley (Manson), before returning to Edinburgh and a teaching post at his old school. In 1962 a promoted post in Dumfries, in a newbuild music department, tempted him back down to the south west for the following 25 years, under the Rectorships of Albert Anderson, Bob McNay and Douglas Smith. With the input of various assistants, who all remained lifelong friends, he took a well-established school choir on to many good things, including several BBC Radio “New Sound” recordings, and contributions to a couple of LPs on the EMI label.

He also continued an above-average rate of certificate presentations, supporting many pupils into their own musical careers. Many will remember the big glass-walled classroom overlooking the River Nith, where he would frequently distract himself and his classes with updates on the snow conditions on the Nithsdale hills, sightings of the goosanders on the river, and the training exploits of rowing crews. He mixed and matched the genres and, back in the vinyl era, the department record collection included the likes of Tubular Bells and the Emerson Lake and Palmer version of Pictures at an Exhibition along with the standard classical works.

Outwith school he maintained his church organ interests with posts at St Ninian’s Episcopal Church in Castle Douglas and St Michael’s in Dumfries. A grouping of local musicians, including John, made frequent appearances on the music club scene round Scotland in the 1970s as the Loreburn Ensemble. Along with a combination of voices, flute, and guitar, this showcased John’s piano playing, which had always gone along side by side with his organ playing. He was also known, in the pre-electronic days, to lug around a German harpsichord he had acquired.

John combined musical strengths with good administrative abilities, and his founding chairmanship, and the very strong steering groups and committees of that time, brought the Dumfries and Galloway Arts Festival – now in its 45th year – into being. But probably his longest-running contribution to the town’s music was his conductorship of the Dumfries Choral Society. “The Choral” prospered under his leadership, the highlight perhaps being the formation, in 1983, along with other groups in the south west and elsewhere, of the D&G Arts Festival Chorus, for a gala performance of the Verdi Requiem, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

But the church organ remained John’s great passion and the unexpected emergence of job opportunities for organists and choirmasters with the Norwegian Lutheran Church led, in 1988, to a surprise move to the rural community of Dale, in the Sogn og Fjordane area of west Norway, several hours north of Bergen. By then entering his mid-fifties, John found a more relaxed lifestyle, enriched, also unexpectedly, by his and Shirley’s engagement, by the local authority, as curators of Lillingstonheim, a minor stately home on the south shore of the Dalsfjord. There, they combined their talents to refurbish a beautiful 19th-century timber building, developing it as a hospitality centre and as a concert venue.

Their many Norwegian contacts were maintained long after their return to Scotland in 1994, with several musical trips to and fro. Guided by his aspiration towards continuing his musical activities into retirement, he firstly took up the post of organist at Dunkeld Cathedral, and then latterly at St Mary’s Episcopal Church in Birnam. These posts were his springboard back into life in the wider musical community, and John became a frequent accompanist for groups such as Chansons (the Perth Chamber Choir), the Perth Jambouree Choir, the Pitlochry Choral, the Alyth Choral Union and the Dunfermline Abbey Choir. An on-off collaboration – Baroque and Blue – with a group of his Academy former pupils played in the south-west, in Norway and in Perthshire and elsewhere for more than 35 years. There was even a family based ceilidh band, a new venture for John at the age of 77. He took on a succession of organ pupils of all ages and in particular supported the careers of young singers who, in the same way as those Dumfries Academy former pupils from years back, have paid fulsome tribute to his influence in their emerging careers.

John and Shirley shared a keen interest in botany and gardening, practised to best extent in the gardens at Rosebank, Shawhead and Lillingstonheim in Norway. He was an avid reader, particularly of history. A keen hillwalker, he continued weekly trips up Birnam Glen and Birnam Hill into his eighties and never lost the desire to travel, whether within Scotland or beyond, his last trip to his beloved Knoydart taking place only last October. He continued his weekly playing at St Mary’s into December, in a long, happy and productive retirement.

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John is survived by Shirley, his wife of 65 years. He was a loving and devoted father to Mandy and David, and leaves five grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.


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