By Vivian Collings
Jim Thomson now lives the modest life of a retiree in his home in Eagle Lake, but behind his calm, gentle demeanor is a past of royal ceremonies, parties, and distinction as the personal bagpiper for Queen Elizabeth II’s mother.
Born in Lesmahagow, Scotland, a small town south of Glasgow, he moved to Canada in the late 1960s.
The first time he met Queen Elizabeth II was as a schoolboy.
“It was the day after her coronation, which would’ve been the third of June, 1953.”
He showed his class photo from two years later in 1955 and a photo of of Lesmahagow, which now has a population of 4,300.
“On that day, she travelled right out London, England, straight up the west side of Scotland to Carlisle which was on the border of England and Scotland. The highway, then highway A74, was on the route from Carlisle to Glasgow. My town was 22 miles south of Glasgow.”
It was a thrill for all of the schoolkids to catch a glimpse of the new Queen, and even more excited when she stopped and offered each of them a gift.
“I was lined up on the highway with my other school mates, and she stopped, and she was in a big, shiny car. I believe it was a coupe because she was able to stand and see out the roof. I got a good glimpse of her there, and then she came right up and shook our hands, and gave us a five shilling piece.”
Thomson kept it for almost 70 years until gifting it to a friend as a Christmas present not long ago. He says his friend will keep it for a long time.
The second time he met Queen Elizabeth II was when he received the Queen’s Badge at 15 years old while he was a member of the Boys’ Brigade in Scotland.
“We did all kinds of courses and we got badges for them. One of the things I did was bagpipes among other things. I happened to become one of the very first boys in the Boys’ Brigade who won the Queen’s badge, so this was shortly after she had been coronated.”
The badge is the highest award that could have been given to a member of the Boys’ Brigade.
“I could’ve joined the army at 16, but on the day I was born, I just missed conscription, so I had a choice. I decided to get an education instead.”
He laughed and said he made the wrong choice, because he could have been the pipe major of a British regiment, travelled the world, and retired with a pension.
It was his choice to go to school, though, that brought him to Canada to help design buildings for one of the most monumental events in the country’s history.
“I graduated from the Glasgow school of art and took a teacher’s certificate. Then, I didn’t like Glasgow very much. It was a dull city to be in back then. I heard about the 100th anniversary of the founding of Canada, and because I was in the design end of things, I got the chance to come and work on Expo ‘67. So, I spent a couple of years designing and building stuff in Toronto, and ended up in Montreal at the installation, and stayed on doing exhibition work for a little while, but I got kind of bored with that,” he laughed.
“I worked on the Ontario pavilion, the Bell pavilion, and the polymer pavilion, but it was a fantastic time for architecture, so I enjoyed that.”
After a while, in 1971, I was a good bagpiper at that time, and thought, I should join the 48th Highlanders in Toronto which worked out well for me.”
“I was almost sent up to Quebec during the uprising there. We’ll call it that. But, things settled down and I didn’t need to.”
He was referencing the FLQ crisis.
“Because I began to win prizes in Ontario as a piper, I got the offer to come to the Toronto Scottish Regiment and have it lead up to being the pipe major. I got on great there.”
He showed a photo in a Toronto Scottish Regiment book of Queen Elizabeth reviewing his regiment in 1973.
“She was inspecting the soldiers, and I was lined up with the pipe band. I met her as she came off the airplane and landed in the Toronto airport. She did this inspection, and then the band I was with hopped into a bus, had a police escort that sped us along the 401 at high speeds so that we would arrive at the Scarborough [Civic Centre] that was just newly built.”
The band had to beat the Queen there because she was to officially open the new Civic Centre on May 2, 1973.
Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother was the Colonel-in-Chief of the Toronto Scottish Regiment until she died in 2002. At that time, Prince, now King, Charles took over the title.
“When the Queen Mother came over, she came over a couple of times, and I was pipe major, so I became her personal piper when she was here.”
He has very fond memories of many events that the Queen Mother went to during her trips to Canada.
“She invited me to her 90th birthday party, and so the Canadian government flew me over. It started at Buckingham Palace and moved through Birdcage to Clarence House where she lived.”
He said he got a personal invite from the Queen Mother herself, and there were many very important people there.
“I had a couple of Canadian Generals that were my escorts, so at one point, we were all sitting at tables, and the Queen Mother comes down and shakes hands with everybody, and she was a very nice person. Very easy to get on with. She would always say, ‘How are you? So nice to see you,’” he said.
The rumours about the Queen Mother’s love for alcohol seem to be true, because Thomson said she always had a glass full of gin.
“There was a boy dressed as an old page boy behind her carrying a velvet cushion, and on top of the velvet cushion was a bottle of London gin, so he had to keep her gin glass filled up,” he chuckled.
Thomson is happy to be settled in Eagle Lake after such a colourful life.
He still continues to play his bagpipes for private functions and with the Haliburton Highlander Pipes and Drums each Thursday evening.