Jimmie Nicholson wears a skirt to work, and nobody seems to mind. In fact he’s following in the steps, dance steps that is, of many of his ancestors who were Highland dancers.
Jimmie, from the Scottish seaport of Dundee, learned to Highland dance when he was four years old and began learning to play the bagpipe when he was about eight. He has been dancing for the past 16 years and now performs semiprofessionally with his younger brother Gary. Their variety show includes singing, Gary playing the bagpipe and Jimmie on the drums, and both brothers dancing.
Jimmie says his interest in Highland bands and dancing was there right from the start. “My mother was a drummer in a pipe band, and I thought she was wonderful. She won many awards, including being named the Winnipeg Band championship drummer.”
Sharing their talents and rich Scottish heritage has brought warm responses, not only in their homeland but also in Canada, where Jimmie and Gary have toured twice.
When he was eight or nine, Jimmie started playing the chanter, a reed pipe with finger holes. “When you are learning,” he says, “you can’t go straight onto the bagpipe. You have to learn to play the chanter first, so you can get all your fingering correct.”
Other skills must also be mastered before finally beginning to play the pipes themselves. The Scottish bagpipe consists of a leather bag that is filled by blowing air through a mouthpiece or tube. The air is pressed from this bag into several tubes. The melody is played on the chanter, which has a double reed as an oboe does. There are three pipes that extend upward, called drones. Each has a single reed like that of a clarinet and produces a single note. When learning to play the pipes, the three drones are added one at a time until you work up to playing with a full set.
Jimmie got his first set of bagpipes when he was 16, and he joined two bands, one in Dundee and another in Armancourt.
“The bagpipe’s an instrument that demands a lot of practice because it’s so difficult and temperamental,” Jimmie says. “Starting right in the beginning, an hour a day is adequate. But if you want to be really good, you’ve got to put in more practice.”
Jimmie has participated in many pipe band competitions and Highland games, which are held not only in Scotland but all over the world. Most Highland games take place in the summer and consist of many different competitions ranging from pipe band contests, Highland dancing, and Gaelic singing to a tug-of-war contest, caber tossing (tossing a young tree trunk), high jumping, and hurdle races.
“During the winter season, the pipe bands practice their competition sets for the summer,” Jimmie says. “Highland dancing competition carries on throughout the year. During the summer months it’s held at the Highland games and during the winter months in halls, theaters—everywhere. Every place big enough to hold a competition, you’ll find dancing.”
Jimmie has stuck with Highland dancing even though it took a back seat to soccer for a while. Now he’s working on qualifying as a dance instructor. He could have qualified four years ago, but changing teachers twice slowed him down. Of course, he has learned a wide variety of styles by having three different teachers.
Entering dance competitions takes a lot of stamina. “It’s a game that’s very demanding,” Jimmie admits. “In the competitions there are so many dances. You usually compete in them all. You’re talking about possibly ten dances. You’ve got to have strength in the legs and be quite fit. You achieve that by dancing.” The standard dances are the reel, fling, and sword dances.
Jimmie still competes with his band, which has won most of the competitions around, but he has given up dance competitions for a while. “My main aim is to become a qualified dancing teacher,” he says.
Four years ago Jimmie discovered a new heritage. Through entertaining, he met a member of the Church. They became friends, and she invited him to go to church with her. He enjoyed the meetings and soon he began talking with the missionaries.
“I found out all about the Church. I was more active than some members,” he says. Finally after two years Jimmie decided he was going to get baptized.
“I had the object one week to pray about it. I did pray, and sincerely. I think that was the big difference. I prayed sincerely because I did want to know if the Church was true. An answer came. I mean it was really strong—very, very strong.
“Before, I was expecting an answer straight away when I was praying. This time I waited. I didn’t have to wait very long. Once I had the feeling, I knew there was no way I could deny it. Just no way at all.
“My parents weren’t too keen on my decision at first. I had been brought up in the Church of Scotland. My mother was slightly hurt, but my father was just concerned I was doing the right thing. I asked them to come to my baptism, and they were there on the front row seats.
“My brother disowned me. He just didn’t want to know me at all. But now he’s great about it. If he hears anyone saying anything bad about the Church or my being a Mormon, he’ll jump to my defense. It’s heartwarming. It’s good to see him stand by me as my parents do.”
Jimmie shares with his family the things that happen at church each weekend. “If I have a calling they seem quite pleased. They know the Church is quite a big part of my life.”
He was attracted to the Church because he had many of the same values it teaches. “I’m a firm believer in doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
When he started studying with the missionaries, he was already living the Word of Wisdom. “As a teenager I drank, but only because all my friends were drinking. I realized that to be one of the boys you didn’t have to drink. They respected me eventually because of it.”
Jimmie is proud of his new-found heritage as a Latter-day Saint and strives to share it with others by his example. He blends his new beliefs with the Highland traditions of his homeland to show others what it means to be a Scottish Latter-day Saint.