This memory has been submitted to our Lockdown Challenge essay writing competition. The montage artworks have also been submited to our painting/ drawing competition.
By Betty Anne Muckle
Canmore Highland Games are held are held in a park on Labour Day weekend in Canmore, Alberta. The venue is overshadowed by three mountains known as ‘The Three Sisters’. An enthusiastic attendee was the late Margaret Wilson, widow of the highly esteemed Pipe Major John Wilson (b. 1906), Edinburgh and Toronto.
I enjoyed many visits with Margaret after her family moved her from her Toronto home to a seniors’ centre in Banff so she could enjoy more contact with her three grandchildren who were raised there. Margaret loved to show me photos of her and John on their wedding day. Never had I seen such a happy look on a man’s face!
Typically, we would go for soup and then sit on a bench on Banff Avenue, listening to the buskers piping. What do you think of his drones? his chanter? she would ask. Or, ‘This one is dressed quite smartly but he seems to be rushing the endings, don’t you think?’
I said to her once that when I had been attending John’s group classes at the Toronto Armouries with three other young men, that I never felt that he treated me any differently just because I was a girl. ‘Oh no’, she replied, ‘John wouldn’t have; he was all about music, always all about the music.’
Margaret told me that after the war, when John first arrived in Canada, he had been given a job in Hamilton but the work later proved to be too damaging to his injured hand. [John lost parts of fingers in a railway detonator accident when a boy as can be seen in the picture below.]
He had composed the beautiful slow air, Hamilton Bay, while riding the bus from Hamilton to Toronto, to court her.
On another visit she talked guardedly about John’s five-year experience in prisoner of war camps. He had been captured at St Valery, France, in June 1940, and remained in captivity throughout the war, enduring great deprivation and starvation.
She told me he had always been grateful to the Red Cross who not only ensured delivery of parcels from the homeland but also had arranged for a set of pipes to be made available. The set was shared with other pipers in their camp. This, she told me, was a key item in keeping up their spirits in the face of never-ending hardship, adversity and uncertainty.
John loved the mountains. On her bedroom wall, Margaret had a large photo of him at Lake O’Hara, BC, taken not long before he died. We both agreed we were glad he got to such a beautiful place after surviving the ugliness of war.
I also love the mountains. I left the Ontario piping scene and did extensive climbing and mountaineering with the Alpine Club of Canada in the 1970s. Coincidently, John’s son Iain, born the same month as me, was also drawn to the area and became a skilled member of the ski patrol at the local Banff ski resort, Sunshine Village.
I am very grateful to John Wilson for introducing me to piobaireachd. The first one he taught me was The Glen is Mine.
I have done two paintings of The Three Sisters. I have then taken a copy of the piper from the cover of John Wilson’s Book 2 and placed it in the vicinity. Is John Wilson’s spirit piping in his beautiful adopted homeland of the Canadian Rockies?
Is it soaring high in the peaks as he looks down on the sparkling waterfalls, the pristine mountain lakes, the numerous trails still to be explored? I like to think he has come full circle, celebrating his strong, loyal wife, and his three healthy, thriving grandchildren as he plays The Glen Is Mine.