12 Jul 1928 – 1 Jun 2000
On 1 June 2000 one of Scottish ringing’s long-standing links with its past was broken when Rognvald Wilson died after a long illness borne with great courage.
Rognvald’s father came from Fair Isle where at one time there were virtually only two surnames, Wilson and Stout. All the Wilsons had left the Isle by the 1950s, and recently there has been considerable immigration of fresh blood, so that the community is not so isolated as it was. His father however had left the island long before Rognvald’s birth, trained as a Solicitor and worked in that profession in Edinburgh. Rognvald himself was born on July 12 1928, and was educated partly at George Watson’s College in Edinburgh, and partly at Annan Academy where he was evacuated during the Second World War.
In 1948 he was conscripted into National Service, but managed to obtain a discharge from that fairly soon, and thereafter went on a cycling tour of England and Ireland. He then went to Edinburgh University to study Law, with the intention of later following his father’s profession.
It was during his time as a student that he developed an interest in ringing, along with a lifelong interest in many of the other more obscure aspects of religious observance, which he treated very much as a subject for prolonged investigation. In fact he always claimed that in religion he was a zetetic – a seeker after truth.
During his student days of ringing he joined the Universities Association, and went on several of their ringing tours along with Ranald Clouston and Ronald Osbaldistone – three Ronnies, all spelt differently. His friendship with Ranald Clouston, who himself joined the Scottish ringing scene as a resident for a time, continued for the rest of his life. Ranald Clouston’s long researches into Scottish bells ensured that the contact between them continued.
After qualifying in Law, Rognvald became a solicitor, and early in the 1950s became a partner of James Young in Tranent. He fairly soon had to take over the business on Mr Young’s death. He continued to run that firm single-handed for the rest of his professional life, typically continuing to watch carefully over Mrs Young to whom he used to refer as his widow. For many years he acted as Town Clerk for Prestonpans, until that post was abolished during the last local government re-organisation but one.
Rognvald started his Scottish ringing career as a probationer at St Mary’s, Edinburgh about 1950. He also rang at St Cuthbert’s however where Mr Heathcote who had been captain of the tower since the installation of the bells was in failing health. When Mr Heathcote had to give up the captaincy, the tower was led for a short time by John Marshall, but he died in 1951. Rognvald then took over and continued to be captain (with a short spell away from the post when I was captain from 1965/66) until the captaincy was taken over by Mary Davey in the early seventies.
One of the great innovations which Mr Heathcote started at St Cuthbert’s during the First World War was the introduction of ladies to ringing there. At that time this was regarded as a revolutionary move, but in practice it proved most satisfactory, and meant that during the absence of so many men on active service, the bells were able to continue being rung. Mr Heathcote’s ladies also proved to be both loyal and competent ringers and were the backbone of the band until well into the fifties, by which time Rognvald was leading them. However by that time it was clear that this band of ladies was aging, and that new blood was needed. At that time Rognvald most successfully followed Mr Heathcote’s tradition as a skilled teacher, and trained a large number of ringers to augment the band, both Edinburgh-born, and outsiders. Among the names of those he taught, I can remember Marion Park, Lois Beevers, Margaret Wilson (no relation) and Martyn Marriott. There were many others.
My own acquaintance with Rognvald started in 1957 when, as a student at Moray House I heard the bells ringing, and, being already a ringer was determined to join the practice. The way in to St Cuthbert’s for practice at that time was by no means obvious, and I ended up by scrambling over the wall like Formalist and Hypocrisy in the Pilgrim’s Progress and so found my way in. Ever since that day Rognvald has been my good friend, and over the years has given me much helpful advice both in matters of law and in other matters.
From 1950 to 1972 Rognvald acted as Secretary and Treasurer of the Scottish Association of Change Ringers. His ever-prudent management of its finances meant that without increasing the subscription from what we would now regard as a tiny level, he nursed it from a state of near bankruptcy to one where it was on a sound footing. These years were very difficult ones for the Association. Many ringers had been lost to it, both due to the war-time ban on ringing, and due to those who lost their lives in the war, amongst whom of course was Steven Wood, the Association’s founder. In 1972 Rognvald was elected President of the SACR, a post which he filled for a number of years with the competence he brought to everything he did.
Rognvald also played an active role in the revival of ringing at Inverness. In 1962 the Scottish Association received a letter from David McLean of Inverness. Although completely without earlier experience of ringing, he had developed an interest in the then eight bells at St Andrew’s Cathedral, and was attempting to teach himself and a band to ring completely from scratch without any assistance whatsoever. He appealed directly for help to the Association, and it was largely thanks to Rognvald’s efforts that the Association was able to respond effectively. In the summer of 1962 a party from Edinburgh organised by Rognvald and with him in charge went north to Inverness on a Friday, arriving late in the evening. That evening and all of Saturday was spent teaching bell handling on tied bells after some repairs to broken stays. On Saturday afternoon a short session of open ringing took place. On Sunday morning, the band of instructors was able to ring the bells for the morning service, before returning to Edinburgh in time to ring for the evening service there. This pattern of assistance was repeated at intervals over the next few years, and gradually a nucleus of Inverness ringers developed, assisted by the arrival in the area of ringers who had learned elsewhere. Since then ringing at Inverness has never stopped, although the development of the band was greatly assisted by others, notably by the work of Commander A.S. Watt in the late 1960s, whose work led to the augmentation of the bells to 10 and their re-hanging in 1970.
In the early 1990s Rognvald retired from his solicitor’s business, but continued to act professionally on an informal basis for a number of clients, particularly elderly ones, with whom he had formed close personal attachments, virtually up to the time of his death.
Failing health in recent years restricted all his activities, but he continued to maintain contact with ringing, as with all the other things he was interested in. Most recently he was well enough to visit the new ring at St Mary’s, Haddington early in 2000 and to try out the new bells.
Rognvald was not a great peal ringer, but he did ring a number of peals, and was well able to cope with all the methods that were within the reach of Scottish bands during his time of active ringing.
Throughout his life Rognvald was a man of strong likes and dislikes. He was also very well able to express his mind, even when his views were unpopular. What was not so obvious was the great trouble he always took in managing the finances of all those whom he advised professionally, particularly if they were vulnerable or not as sharp as he was himself. What always fought against this desire to be helpful in him was his equally strong belief that everyone had a right to their own independence, and that if they wished to pursue what he regarded as a foolish course, he could tell them about it, but would not prevent them from pursuing it.
He had many unusual interests, including a detailed investigation of telephones in the days of the old Strowger electro-mechanical system. His economic turn of mind led him to have great delight in devising methods of hopping step by step across the country by using local dialling codes, so that he could enjoy a long distance telephone call for the price of a local one, even if the quality of the line he obtained this way was so poor that only by shouting could you make yourself heard. He had also puzzled out all the redundancy in the system of Director codes within the Edinburgh area, and was accustomed in those days to dial LAV for lavatory instead of WAV for Waverley, since it worked just as well for that area of Edinburgh.
There are certain people one meets whose attitude to life is just a little different, and who make one look at life with a fresh eye. For myself, and I suspect for many others, Rognvald was one of these. Not only Scottish ringing, but the whole of life for me is poorer now that he is no longer there.