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Thomson's Tunes: a Scottish Retired Doctor Brings Fresh Air to the Bagpipes


As Scotland moves forward from its rejection of independence, Eric Anderson, MD, profiles a physician who's made a name for himself playing a uniquely Scottish instrument -- the bagpipes.

Shakespeare has a character in Twelfth Night who says, “If music be the food of love, play on…” Yet in his Merchant of Venice he also writes that “strange fellows… will evermore peep through their eyes and laugh like parrots at a bagpiper.”

Does that mean Shakespeare had doubts the bagpipes were music? Non-Scots have said Mark Twain should have included the pipes when he said, “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.” Who cares? Shakespeare was an Englishman and not an educated, sophisticated Scot like the retired physician sitting opposite me in his home in Perthshire in Central Scotland. Bruce Thomson boxed and played rugby for Oxford University, played rugby for Scotland and played the bagpipes for his Queen. And, somehow, found time to go through medical school and, in his retirement, continued to compose music for the bagpipes. He has now created and published 450 bagpipe tunes which he says with a grin is “plenty for an instrument that has only nine notes.”

None of this impresses his gorgeous West Highland Terrier, Jack, now sitting regally on his lap. Jack is enjoying being ensconced on an old army Gordon Highlander’s kilt because, as he seems to tell everyone, he, Jack, is a true Westie!

Bruce Thomson, MD was born in 1930 in Assam, India, the son of tea planters. It was the time of the British Raj, a system of governance for India started under Queen Victoria that did not end until 1947. British colonists in those days tended to send their children back to the old country for education.

At the age of 6, Bruce Thomson was sent to Scotland where for 4 years he was educated in a small 50-pupil elementary school in Aberdeen then a larger middle school for another 4 years. There he became interested in the bagpipes.

“My mother,” he says. “Came from India, braving the U-boats in the middle of World War II, to find a public [in the USA we call them private] school that she felt would give me the education I should have. She interviewed and checked out all the headmasters of Scotland’s public schools — leaving them shaking in their shoes – and finally chose Glenalmond.”

At the age of 13 he won the piping competition at that school and became the pipe major of the school pipe band which by title made him a school prefect* [In my day as a local town kid, 25 miles away, this was a school in a remote Scottish glen feared by neighboring schools for its rugby prowess. Although now I see it has gone co-educational — so maybe rugby doesn’t cast the same spell on the boys!]

Thomson stayed at Glenalmond till he was 18. Selective Service called. He joined the Royal Army Corps of Signals because its representative been active in rugby recruitment at the high schools then later transferred to the Gordon Highlanders, the local Aberdeen regiment. At Fort George, the regimental HQ barracks, he was taught by Pipe Major Donald McLeod. McLeod was thought to be “the Piper of the Century.” He encouraged Thomson to continue with his pipe compositions several of which were winning prizes in pipe compositions.

Dr. Thomson composes his tunes on an electronic chanter that saves him all the huffing and puffing he would otherwise be doing, although to Scottish observers’ eyes the chanter doesn’t have the, er, majesty of the pipes.

The bagpipes were brought to Europe by the Roman army and it’s believed they reached Ireland some decades after the Norman invasion of England in 1066. No one challenges that the Irish had the pipes before the Scots. In fact a standard witticism is “The Irish gave the bagpipes to the Scots and the Scots still haven’ seen the joke!”

[Nancy and I were once at the Calgary Stampede when a comedian came on stage playing the bagpipes and pretending to be drunk. He said, ”Forgive me. I’m half Irish, and half Scots and it’s a terrible burden; the half that’s Irish wants to drink all the time and the half that’s Scots doesn’t want to pay for it.”]

An Indian department of physiology found wind instrument players had higher lung function than the control group although the September 7, 2010 issue of CHEST had a review by University of Connecticut pulmonologists reminds us instruments can be contaminated with fungal or mycobacterial species associated with hypersensitivity pneumonitis. Bagpipers, however, are not prone to sharing their pipes.

Army over, Thomson went to Keble College, one of the 30 colleges comprising Oxford University. He graduated with an Honors degree in History and found a rugby home with a well-respected team London Scottish.

“After I graduated I tried several things. I was a failed school teacher then a failed business man then — I suddenly realized I wanted to do medicine. So I did. I was poached by the Royal London Hospital medical school maybe on the basis of my rugby. I think I could have been accepted by any London medical school on that basis.”

His medical school was the first hospital based medical school in England. It has changed names several times: it was founded in 1740 as the London Infirmary then in 1748 called the London Hospital and “when the Queen came to visit in 1980 it added the ‘Royal.’” In 2007 names changed again to show its affiliation with another famous medical school, St. Bartholomew’s (Barts). When the complex put up a new building in 2012 it became the “largest stand alone acute hospital in Europe.”

Medical school over, Thomson returned to the Oxford area and became an assistant to one of 2 principals in a general practice in one of the oldest villages in England, Eynsham. It’s mentioned in the 571 AD Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and was a location chosen because it was land close to the lowest point on the River Thames where it was possible to ford pigs across the river!

A colleague in Horsham, Sussex near London, enticed him south again to become the fourth doctor in a small group of family physicians where each had a specialty interest beyond general practice. Thomson spent more than 30 years there, happy as physicians always are where they are helping their patients and in control of their lives. He taught himself the accordion, too, and found a top class fiddler where the two of them became the core of a local band that played at dances. “It was a totally different change from medical practice,” he says. His wife was musical also, a music teacher at Christ Hospital.

Horsham is a more recent English township — its records go back to 947 AD!

I never imagined bagpipers read music. I always assumed they played by ear.

Thomson retired in his 60s, “But,” he says, “the pipe tunes continued to roll out.” And to accolades. Said Pipe Major Joe Wilson of the Gordon Highlanders, himself a prize winner in major piping competitions, “I know a good tune when I hear it. Doctor Bruce Thomson is well known for his composing ability. I have found great pleasure in playing [his compositions].” And said Andrew Wright, past president of the Piobaireachd Society and a prominent Gold Medal winner, “I find Bruce Thomson’s compositions to be highly melodic, lingering on long after being heard. The music is highly original; [his] tunes come as a breath of fresh air.”

The personal fresh air in widower Bruce Thomson’s life has been his 2 wives, each married to him for many years but each dying from fast developing incurable malignancies.

I can’t read music, myself, but found the sheet music tributes to Dr. Thomson’s two wives very moving.

We are reminded of Erik Erikson’s Reflections on Life and his thoughts on psychosocial development during the Maturity aged 65 to Death stage, viz. “If you can look back on a good life you can die fearless.”

Thomson was bereft. He had created pipe tunes that were uplifting. One was even called Serendipity. Now at different stages in his life he was composing tunes to his first wife, Nikki Thomson, in 1986, then in 2006 to his second, Gillian Thomson. He had felt composing pipe tunes was maybe a calling but, in the absence of his wives, less so. “Four hundred and fifty pipe tunes is a lot,” he affirms. “And I got fed up writing them down.”

Thomson adjusts Jack, his big and somewhat heavy Westie, on his knee — he is waiting to get a knee replacement – and with his memories continues his story.

“It was fun for me ‘to keep two women amused’. Years apart, they made my life complete.

“As for retirement advice, I’d say ‘Get yourself a hobby before you go, before you retire. Find something interesting (that will continue to interest you) and do it!‘”

There are clichés where wives are supposed to be saying, After retirement they get twice the husband and half the money. And another is: I married my husband for life but not for lunch.

“But,” says Bruce Thomson, “Retirement really is better shared. And perhaps the reason to retire is to take the time to enjoy life with a spouse you care about and love.”

And what about bagpipe music if you weren’t brought up to the skirl of its lamenting tunes echoing across the heather-clad glens? You would think you were listening to Wagner, and as Rosssini said, “Wagner had some wonderful moments but awful half hours”

*A school prefect in a British private school was usually a senior in his last year of school with responsibilities and privileges, not unlike those of an RA, resident advisor, in an American college.

Photography by the author.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.

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