James Alexander Center was born into an Edinburgh pipemaking family on April 14, 1875. His father John, born in Aberdeenshire in 1831, was a well known Edinburgh photographer and pipemaker by 1869. John and his wife Jane (his first cousin) would have nine children.
James was originally taught by his father, then became a pupil of John MacDougall Gillies and a top competing piper and Highland dancer. He won the Gold Medal and the Clasp at Inverness on the same day in 1904, one of only a handful of pipers to achieve that distinction. He won the Gold Medal at Oban in 1906 and the Strathspey and Reel and March there in 1903 and 1906 respectively.
He followed his father into the pipemaking business, and the family emigrated to Australia in 1907, when Jimmy was 28. At the time, many regarded him as the best piper in Scotland.
His father John died in 1913.
James Center competed regularly in Australia, dominating the prize lists wherever he went, not only in the piping, but also in the Highland dancing. Prize money was good in Australia, and on a good day he could pocket £60, a huge sum at the time.
He was a dapper, well-dressed man, and today, his name is perhaps best remembered not only for the family’s superbly crafted pipes, but for the great Willie Ross jig, “Center’s Bonnet.”
James Center died in Melbourne in 1919, the most prominent piper known to have died of the Spanish flu epidemic that killed 20,000,000 people worldwide.
JM, January 2008
-with notes from ‘Highland Bagpipe Makers’, by Jeannie Campbell, 2001, from Piping World, October 2009, and ‘A History of Piping’, by Captain John A. MacLellan, and the Piping Times, Vol. 58, #9.