Walter T. Wilkie, 58, piper whose audiences included Queen Elizabeth

December 11, 1997|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Whenever Walter T. Wilkie, former Pipe Major with the 2nd Battalion Scots Guards at Buckingham Palace, finished a performance for Queen Elizabeth II, he'd raise a Gaelic toast to the monarch.

"Deoch slainte na va righ," he'd toast the queen after she poured him a dram of scotch. As he left the room, she'd call ceremoniously "Good night, my piper."

After performing at a private party in Leesburg, Va., Friday night, Mr. Wilkie suffered a heart attack and died. The former Pikesville resident was 58.

Standing 5-feet-10 with blue eyes, dark hair and angular features, Mr. Wilkie seemed the archetypal Scotsman when dressed in the Royal Stewart tartan kilt and feather bonnet.

In Washington, he regularly played at the British, New Zealand and Australian embassies, the White House and at Arlington (Va.) National Cemetery and was official piper for the Vietnam War Memorial.

He performed on stage and television and was official piper for the Highlander yacht, owned by the Forbes publishing family.

"Pipe Major Wilkie is to bagpipes as Faberge was to eggs," said Malcolm S. Forbes Jr., chairman of Forbes magazine.

Mr. Wilkie began studying the bagpipes at age 8 in his native Glasgow, Scotland, and graduated from the College of Piping at 17, the youngest graduate of the school. Later, he earned bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering from Stowe College of Engineering in Scotland.

In 1960, he joined the British army and became a professional piper with the Scots Guards. He was one of the few pipers who accompanied the queen to her residences.

A friend, John McCruden of Perry Hall, related a story told to him by Mr. Wilkie.

"He woke the queen up one morning at 3: 30 a.m. while returning to barracks. She later wrote a letter to his superior officer saying that while she liked the Highland sounds, she didn't care to hear them played at 3: 30 in the morning," said Mr. McCruden, Pipe Major of the John F. Nicoll Pipe Band that Mr. Wilkie founded in 1975 and named after his piping teacher in Scotland.

Daily, Mr. Wilkie played for the royal family at breakfast at 9 a.m., at dinner at 7 p.m. and at 8 p.m. while they had drinks.

"When you finish playing, the queen sort of pats her hands together," he said in a 1979 article in The Sun Magazine.

In the article, he described the instrument's sound as "stirring" rather than "haunting."

He also said, "Other instruments involve many notes, half tones and whole tones. The pipes basically have nine notes in only one key. They are a harmonic instrument, and the tone of the pipes has a mysterious whine."

A man of robust energy who often played at 13 funerals or more a week, he had grown weary in recent years of being asked to play the hymn "Amazing Grace" and preferred marches, jigs and reels.

Jim Quigg, a boyhood friend and Northwood resident who is also a band member, said, "I could play the same exact notes as Walter, and I'd get a tear in the eye, but he could make them roll down the cheeks.

"He could pipe up a storm, and it was music made by angels. When Walter played, the angels played," Mr. Quigg said.

After leaving the British army in 1965, Mr. Wilkie immigrated to Hartford, Conn., where he was an engineer at Pratt & Whitney. He moved to Pikesville in 1976 and to Alexandria, Va., in 1985.

Since 1989, he had been communications director for Charles E. Smith & Co., a commercial and residential developer in Washington.

Mr. Wilkie cast and painted lead soldiers and created historic dioramas and collected vintage malt scotch whiskies.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. tomorrow at Everly-Wheatley Funeral Home, 1500 W. Braddock Road in Alexandria.

"Look up to the stars, take a wee dram of scotch and say a wee prayer for the piper," said his son, Walter John "Scott" Wilkie of Woodbridge, Va.

Other survivors include his wife of 37 years, the former Catherine Walker; two sisters, Myra Horton of Coventry, England, and Valerie Taylor of Hampshire, England; and a grandson.

More obituaries on next page.

Pub Date: 12/11/97

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