A tribute to Ian Bairnson

Ian Bairnson, who died on 7 April, was certainly one of the more remarkable people from Shetland, born here on 3 August 1953. He spent his early years in Levenwick, moving to Edinburgh when he was nine. His parents, Emily and Jackie Bairnson, ran a small shop in Levenwick. The Shetland economy had poor times in the 1950s, and Levenwick was no different. His father had muscular dystrophy and died young. Jackie, a kind and gentle man, had certainly fought against his problem. He was in the Merchant Navy in World War Two, and was sunk along with the museum’s first curator Tom Henderson. In a Radio Shetland recording from 1996 Ian said it was his father’s wish that the family should move south after he died. Like many other Shetlanders at that time, they did.

Ian had started playing the guitar in Levenwick. Shetland’s remarkable guitarist Peerie Willie Johnson was living over the hill in Maywick at the time. It was a feasible journey for a young boy on his pushbike. Willie never saw himself as an instructor, but -- he wouldn’t teach you anything, he would just play and if I was just able to sit and listen to him I would pick things up. He certainly did pick things up, keyboards and saxophone as well. He came on well playing in Edinburgh, and moved to London when he was nineteen -- I just went down with the attitude that I was not coming back and one way and another I’d get in … I was not a brat, don’t get me wrong … I was very Shetlander about it, and very quiet.

Ian practising saxophone at his sister Evelyn's house

He didn’t contemplate failure, and he didn’t fail. In late 1974 he was at No. 11 on the charts with Magic, a song by the Scottish band Pilot. On 26 January 1975 another Pilot single January got to No. 1, there for three weeks. Shetlanders could point at Top of the Pops (in black and white) – dere’s Ian Bairnson! He had a period of fame, but Pilot’s personnel moved on by 1978, and Ian moved out of the spotlight.

He had a long commitment to the Alan Parsons’ Project, a group organised around Pink Floyd producer Alan Parsons. They sold millions of records, but mainly outside the UK. For their 1996 album On Air, Ian wrote Brother Up In Heaven for his cousin Erik Mounsey, a United States army helicopter pilot shot down in a 1994 friendly fire incident in Iraq. He also played for a roster of very well-known musicians. There was a Kenny Rogers album in Paris with George Martin, songs for Bucks Fizz, and notably, the guitar on Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights. He didn’t forget home, although a person in his kind of industry could easily have never had much to do with it ever again. At one time he had a website, Levenwick Times. There’s youtube footage of Ian playing with Peerie Willie, and a twelve minute clip of him playing in the Garrison Theatre. Someone there remarks that Ian was a low profile legend.

Ian at Levenwick beach

He seems to have rather liked his low-profile status, though he might have been a bit embarrassed about the word legend. If you spoke to him, he never gave the impression of the sort of status he did hold. He said on Radio Shetland -- I would never want to be splatted all over the newspapers because it's only a matter of time, and I don't think there's an exception to this, it's only a matter of time the more you build yourself up the greater your fall will be in the end. Ian Bairnson contributed a great deal to other people’s art, knew well the difference between success and fame, and how to stay on the right side of both.

Photos copyright Evelyn Sutherland.

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