By Scott Williams

  In 1999, thirty-seven year old John Cairns of London, Ontario captured two of the world’s most prestigious piping awards, the Gold Medals at Oban and Inverness, becoming only the eleventh piper in history and the very first Canadian to have won both medals in the same year. Early last July, I had the very distinct pleasure of attending the Ontario School of Piping at St. Andrews College, in Aurora and John was one of the piping instructors. Though I did not have him as my instructor, I was able to sit with him one afternoon after classes to talk with him about his piping career.
         John Knox Cairns was born on April 4th, 1962 to renowned Pipe Major Archie Cairns (Celtic Heritage, May/June, 2000) and his wife, the former Dorothy Joy Baillie, in Pembroke, Ontario. His first piping teacher was his illustrious father, with whom he has studied for most of his life. After high school, he studied classical music, though he found he preferred jazz, at the University of Western Ontario. John worked for the CN for about two years and in 1985, joined the military, running the National Cadet Corps Pipes and Drums Program until the end of June, 2000. He is now the Director of the Southwest Ontario Region of the Canadian Red Cross, and presently makes his home in London, Ontario where he is helping to raise his two children.
         John was about eight years old when his father bought him a child-sized chanter. “I fiddled around with it for a while,” John remembers, “but I really started learning to play when I was about ten. I played for two years in a Boy Scout Pipe Band that my father was teaching before going to the CFB Ottawa Pipe Band that he was also running. Other than some summer school instruction from Captain John MacLellan and John MacKenzie, my father was my teacher throughout all my formative years.”
         John competed for the first time at the City of Ottawa Highland Games in 1972. “My judge was the famous John Wilson, and that was pretty intimidating, I can tell you!” Living in Ottawa, however, he was not able to attend many competitions - Montreal and Maxville being the only others within reasonable driving distance from his home. When the graded system was adopted, John played in Grade 2 and then was promoted to Grade 1 where he won the Champion Supreme award two years in a row. In 1984, he moved up to the Open class.
         “Starting a family and trying to run a pipe band, I didn’t take solo competitions too seriously,” John says. “I picked up a few prizes, but was not able to devote very much time to it. In the 90s, I began working harder at my solo music. I applied to compete in the Silver Medal in Scotland a couple of times, but was turned down because my competitive record was not considered to be sufficient. In 1992, I won the Gold Medal in Cambridge. Then I won the Fergus Gold Medal three times. I also had a chance to play in front of Malcolm MacRae and Jimmy Young in Maxville, and Gavin Stoddart and Iain MacFadyen at the Dan Reid Memorial in San Francisco. These men were influential on the Board that reviewed applications for the Silver and Gold Medal events, and they thought I should have a chance.”
         It came as something of a great shock to John, however, when he found that he was placed among the Gold Medal contestants, completely by-passing the Silver Medal, which was usually a preliminary step, especially for pipers from North America who had yet to make a name for themselves in Scotland. He was also listed to play for the A Light Music, by-passing the B level there as well.
         “It was all a little intimidating,” John remembers. “I would have preferred to play in the Silver Medal and the B Light Music first, just to learn the ropes, but I didn’t have that opportunity. The first year was a mess! I didn’t know where the tuning rooms were, or how to get from them to the performance areas, or anything. The second year was a little better. My execution was good, but the judges thought my style was just that little bit different. I had some instruction by tape from Andrew Wright to see if I could adapt my style to suit their expectations, and in 1999 I won the Gold Medals in Oban and Inverness.
         “And it’s funny, you know,” John continues. “I played better in the light music in 1998 and didn’t take a prize, but in 1999 I took prizes in both the March and the Strathspey and Reel. I guess it was a question of the judges knowing I was playing at the level they expected, and they just waited until 1999 to give me the nod. Thinking of my age, you know, I knew they would only give me so many more chances before they would drop me to make a place for someone younger. It just all came together for me. I knew I had played well. I had given it all that I could.”
         John played “Lament For Finlay” at Oban, and knew that he had played well. “But I was not very confident about taking the prize,” he remembers. “When they called my name at the informal announcement, I had to go up to the steward and ask if he was sure it was me! All three judges had given me first place. I was practically dumbstruck!”
         John flew home to Canada after Oban. In fact, he flew home after playing at the World Pipe Band Championships with the 78th Fraser Highlanders, returned for Oban, flew home again, and returned for Inverness. “It would have been much more expensive to stay in Scotland while waiting for the Northern Meeting,” he says.
         But so much transatlantic air travel brought its own set of risks. On the return to Scotland just before the Northern Meeting, an electrical storm delayed his connecting flight to Toronto, so he missed his flight to Glasgow. He was re-routed from Toronto to Manchester, then to Heathrow, then to Glasgow, and he arrived late, missing his ground transportation to Inverness. He had his pipes, but no baggage.
         John rented a small Mercedes van in Glasgow and headed north to Inverness, alone. After several near mishaps resulting from driving a standard with no clutch, he made it to Scotland’s northern capital at 1 AM on Gold Medal day, with only his pipes and the clothes he was wearing. He checked into his hotel but, when he woke in the morning, his luggage still had not arrived. Without his uniform, he would not be able to play. Luckily, he was about fifteenth on in the morning, so he went to a kilt rental shop to see if he could get rigged out.
         “It was the 9th day of the 9th month of 1999,” John remembers, “and it seemed like everyone in Inverness was getting married that day. There were very few kilts left. I have a 36” waist, but I ended up with a 44” kilt that was too short, with shoes that were too big, a little teenie weenie glengarry, and a red tie. All I could think of, as I went out to play, was that I hoped the kilt wouldn’t fall off!”
         John played “My King Has Landed In Moidart”, giving the best performance the judges would hear that day from twenty-eight of the world’s top competitors. One of the judges, Dr. Jack Taylor, described John’s test piece in a report in Fall 1999 issue of The Voice as one “which tests musical skill and technique to the full.”  Taylor goes on to say, “From the start, it was clear that he (John) meant business. He got himself well settled and entered into that so necessary cocoon of concentration. His ground was stately and subtle as he drew out the beautiful dark melody. The phrases lingered, and were linked by perfectly-timed passing notes. The mood changed as he moved into a brisk and bold Dithis (pronounced ‘gee’-ish’ - a type of piobaireachd variation). Then - and here was the enduring strength of the performance - he perfectly maintained the melodic structure in powerful and rippling Variations. His a mach (variation) was supurb and made the hairs bristle on the back of the neck.”
         Andrew Wright, another of the piping judges, in The Piping Times (November, 1999), described “My King Has Landed In Moidart” as a long demanding piece requiring strong bottom hand fingerwork. “A number of those who played it were unable to cope with the technical requirements and the long-lined taorluath and crunluath variations,” he reported. “Major John Cairns from Ontario, Canada, did not fall into this category. His performance if anything gained in strength as it went on and this, coupled with intelligent and expressive phrasing, made him a worthy winner of the Gold Medal.” Once again, all three judges placed him first.
         But it could have been so very different. “When I went out on the stage,” John recalls,” and started my final tuning, I played High A and there was this funny noise, sort of like something you’d hear trying to tune in a foreign radio station or something. It was only on the High A, and I couldn’t figure out what it was. Thankfully, there were no High A’s in my tune, or I would have been sunk. After I finished playing, and had returned to the tuning room to put my pipes away, I opened my Ross bag, and the canister inside had come completely off! The hoses were disconnected, and granules of the ‘kitty litter’ from inside the canister had gotten into my pipe chanter tube. Every time I went to High A, the vibrations sent them flipping around, hitting the reed.” Ken Eller, who was sitting with us at lunch as John told this story, commented, “It was simply meant to be. You were meant to win the Double! Nothing was going to stand in you way that day, not even the kitty litter!”
         John’s Double Gold Medal wins at Oban and Inverness brought him instant acclaim. He joined an exclusive club comprised of such piping greats as Robert Meldrum (who won the double gold in 1886), Willie Lawrie (1910), George Yardley (1911), John MacDonald, Glasgow Police (1926), Bob Nicol (1930), John D. Burgess (1950), Willie MacDonald, Inverness (1955), D.R. MacLennan (1956), Hector MacFadyen (1964) and Andrew Wright (1970). He was featured on the cover of The Piping Times, and in other magazines as well.
         There were other benefits, but there was added pressure too. “I was invited to play at the Glenfiddich at the end of October,” says John. “When it was my turn, and they announced my name, I came out to a standing ovation before I even played a note! I thought, my God, how can I possibly live up to this tremendous expectation that people have of me? It was a very scary thing, I can tell you, a heavy responsibility. I’m very conscious of this still, even as I go around to the games and play. So many people who never heard of me before have seen my picture in the magazines and have read about the double win, and they crowd around to hear me play and to take my picture.
         “The medal wins have opened up a number of performance opportunities for me. I’ve been invited out to a couple of things in L.A., for example. But it is a very humbling experience too. I’ve always looked at the world’s Gold Medalists as being so great - pipers set apart from the rest of us. Now I’m a part of that group. It’s still hard to believe. I don’t really feel that I belong. I mean, now I am eligible to play in the Senior Piobaireachd and the Clasp, and it completely boggles the mind! Unfortunately,  I won’t be going back over this year for the Former Winners due to family commitments and my job situation at home, but I am eligible to go any time, and I hope to be able to do that some day.”
         There are other facets to John’s piping career. When he first became involved in the National Cadet Pipe Band Program, his father was directing it. “I taught for him at first,” John says, “but as time passed my job evolved so that I was more of an administrator than a teacher. I coordinated the program, developed it, and implemented it through the regional offices. I oversaw its operation, and  the incentive programs, that sort of stuff.  We have camps all across the country, with about 1800 kids in the program.  I also have a few students who come to my house, though that can be difficult as my own kids are involved in things and I have to make them and their needs a priority.”
         John also dabbles at composing, with files of ideas, but has had nothing published yet. “I’m my own worst critic, I guess,” he explains. “Unless it is something really, really good, I can’t be bothered to finish it because I am self-conscious about what public opinion might be of anything that I might write.”
         John played with the St. Thomas Police Pipe Band, and attended the Antigonish Highland Games with them in 1994 prior to starting with the 78th Fraser Highlanders about 1996. I asked for his opinion on the Maritime style of piping to which he had been exposed. “It’s just wonderful,” he replies readily. “Such a great feeling for the music! It comes across in their playing. It gives you a sense of what the original intention of the music was. For me, learning the music is one level, but to go to Nova Scotia, and see how deeply the music is entrenched in the very fabric of the society there, a living part of the tradition from generation to generation - that’s what the original intent of the music was. It’s what the music should still be!
         “We toured the Cabot Trail and made numerous stops that Bob (Worrall) had arranged for us. We visited the Gaelic College, which was phenomenal, and the beer tent at the Antigonish Highland Games, of course. I just couldn’t believe the music that was going on there! I don’t remember any of the names of the personalities, but the music was terrific! You are so fortunate, in Nova Scotia, that you live in such an environment, so much music, and so much community support for these things. I think it’s kind of unique. It makes Nova Scotia special.”
         John claims that he is, and always will be, a student of piobaireachd. “There is so much to learn,” he says, “and so much to know. I’ve only scratched the surface. I can teach a certain level of it, but there are so many people who are much more knowledgeable, that I try not to present myself as a piobaireachd expert. I know my place with it, and right now I’m still a student.
         “I try to stay away from the judging of piobaireachd too. There are so many different ways to play the music, each valid, and a judge needs to be able to tell which style is being played in order to determine if the player is being consistent, that sort of thing.  I judge the light music of course, and I’ll do the amateur piobaireachd, but I don’t want to judge the professional events yet because I am still competing. There would be a conflict of interest there. My dad was critical of people presenting themselves as judges who really did not have the background. I don’t want to be one of them. I don’t know enough yet to be a good judge at the professional level.”
         Before I returned home to Nova Scotia, I had the opportunity to hear John play in the instructor’s recital at the end of the course, and was suitably impressed. He went on to win the North American Championship at Maxville in August, and by the end of the season had won the PPBSO’s Open Champion Supreme Award for the third year in a row. He is definitely at the top of his game, or is he?
         “I’m still learning,” John says. “I study with Andrew Wright now, and also with Bill Livingstone. I’ll continue to take lessons as long as I am actively playing.”
         I guess there is always something more to learn, even for those who have reached the very highest echelons of the piping world.