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Birnam organist John Walker enriched musical lives in Scotland and Norway

John Walker was organist at Dunkeld Cathedral and St Mary’s Episcopal Church in Birnam

John Walker sitting at organ
John Walker of Birnam, who has died aged aged 89. Image: Supplied.

John Walker was a latecomer to Perthshire. But the retired teacher, who has died, age of 89, made an impact across the area thanks to his prolific contribution to its church and choral music.

John and his wife Shirley settled in Birnam following their return to Scotland in 1994.

By then, he had retired from his job as a full-time church music Kantor in West Norway.

However, he was anxious to continue his musical activities.

And so he took up the post of organist at Dunkeld Cathedral, then latterly at St Mary’s Episcopal Church in Birnam.

These posts would be his springboard into life in the wider musical community.

John Walker as an older man looking at map with pint glass by his side
John Walker of Birnam. Image: Supplied.

He became a frequent accompanist for groups such as Chansons, the Perth Chamber Choir (thanks to long-term contacts with Henry Neil and, later, Howard Duthie), as well as Edna Auld’s Perth Jambouree Choir, the Pitlochry Choral, the Alyth Choral Union and the Dunfermline Abbey Choir.

And he continued his weekly playing at St Mary’s into mid-December last year.

In a nod to his time as principal teacher of music at Dumfries Academy between 1962 and 1987, John also took on a succession of organ pupils of all ages.

In particular, he supported the careers of young singers, such as Kenneth Maciver and Liam Bonthrone.

And many of these former students have paid fulsome tribute to his influence on their emerging careers following news of his death earlier this year.

Music was lifelong passion

Born and raised in Morningside, South Edinburgh, where his father was one of the local
butchers, John attended George Heriot’s and started his church music career as a choirboy in St John’s, Princes Street.

John Walker seated on deck of boat passing land
John Walker loved to travel. Image: Supplied.

He 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.

This led a London University B.Mus and FRCO (Fellow of the Royal College of Organists).

Studies in London were followed by military service, mostly in Oldenburg, in the north of the then West Germany.

There, he managed to continue his organ scholarship, mixed with his other duties, and retained lifelong connections with the area.

Shirley and John Walker seated at restaurant table
Shirley and John Walker. Image: Supplied.

His first job, following a year at Moray House, was at Kirkcudbright Academy where he met his wife, Shirley, before returning to Edinburgh and a teaching post at his old school.

Then, in 1962, the offer of a promoted post in Dumfries, in a newbuild music department, tempted him to the south west.

It was the beginning of a fruitful and rewarding 25-year career at Dumfries Academy.

Norwegian friendships endured on return to Scotland

Outwith school, the church organ remained his great passion.

And the unexpected emergence of job opportunities for organists and choirmasters with the Norwegian Lutheran Church led to a surprise move in 1988  to the rural community of Dale, in the Sogn og Fjordane area of west Norway, several hours north of Bergen.

John Walker seated next to Cairn on mountaintop
John Walker loved to walk, around his Birnam home and further afield. Image: Supplied.

He and Shirley were later engaged 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 from.

Back in Scotland, John also enjoyed an on-off collaboration – Baroque and Blue – with a group of his Dumfries Academy FPs.

They played in the south-west, in Norway and in Perthshire and elsewhere over a period of more than 35 years.

There was even a family-based ceilidh band, a new venture for him at the age of 77.

Birnam was happy home to John Walker

Outwith music, John and Shirley shared a keen interest in botany and gardening, practised to best extent in the gardens at Rosebank, Shawhead (outside Dumfries), and Lillingstonheim in Norway.

Shirley and John Walker standing beside borders with tall pink plants
Shirley and John Walker loved gardening. Image: Supplied.

He was an avid reader, particularly of history, and a keen hillwalker, continuing weekly trips up Birnam Glen and Birnam Hill into his 80s and never losing the desire to travel.

His last trip to his beloved Knoydart was in October 2023.

And while many from outwith the area will remember John as an Edinburgh or a Dumfries man, he and Shirley had lived longer in Birnam than in any of their previous locations.

John died at Kincarrathie House, Perth, on March 13 2024

He 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.