Remembering James MacMillan, 1911-2005

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Jimmy MacMillan and a young Jack Lee pictured in 1981 at a homecoming party to celebrate Jack winning the Inverness Gold Medal.
Jimmy MacMillan and a young Jack Lee pictured in 1981 at a homecoming party to celebrate Jack winning the Inverness Gold Medal.

• From the September 2005 Piping Times.

By Jack Lee

I have often wondered how piping would have turned out in Vancouver if Jimmy McMillan hadn’t taught here. Would Terry and I have stuck with piping? Would the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band (SFU) even exist? Jimmy was the defining and pivotal person in the development of piping in this area and I had the opportunity to know ‘Jimmy’ in a special way. Our friendship lasted 40 years.

Jimmy MacMillan and a young Jack Lee pictured in 1981 at a homecoming party to celebrate Jack winning the Inverness Gold Medal.
Jimmy MacMillan and a young Jack Lee pictured in 1981 at a homecoming party to celebrate Jack winning the Inverness Gold Medal.

When Terry and I were young boys we were in need of a good piping teacher. Jimmy McMillan was already the renowned teacher in British Columbia that the top pipers went to, but young kids were a rarity for him at that time. Our uncle, Jack Ironside, was a friend of Jimmy’s and talked him into taking us on. Jimmy agreed somewhat reluctantly and – said something like ‘I will give them a try but if they are no good they will have to go somewhere else’. As | grew up and got to know him well, I would realise that this was just part of the persona. He liked to keep his students working hard by pretending to be intimidating. We laughed about this many times.

Jimmy tried hard to undo our bad habits from the beginning. From the first lesson I remember thinking ‘this is really, really fun’. Jimmy was truly the master at making learning the pipes a lot of fun. Endless stories, jokes and plenty of different teaching tricks made lessons something to look forward to. I remember’ one approaching lesson and how nervous I was that I hadn’t practiced much the past week. Jimmy would not be happy and would notice right away. I convinced my parents that I was sick one day so I wouldn’t have to go to school. I spent most of the day practicing and cramming for the lesson – such were the motivational effects of Jimmy MacMillan.

Although born in Campbeltown, Scotland, he emigrated to Victoria BC as a boy where he learned his piping. He loved the pipes from the beginning and was a natural at it. As a solo competitor Jimmy was very successful in British Columbia and won all the top prizes out here. He never had the financial resources to venture abroad to piping competitions in the 1950s and transportation was much more challenging then. I remember the first time I actually heard him play. Although I was only 10 years old I couldn’t believe the tone and had never heard anything so sweet. I really wanted to play bagpipes like that. Jimmy was a real stickler for tone and technique. They had to. be perfect – no compromises.

Archie MacNeill.
Archie MacNeill.

Jimmy had the rare honour of being selected for not one, but two, Pipe Major’s courses at Edinburgh Castle with the great Pipe Major William Ross. Jimmy loved those days – they were very exciting to him. He came across Archibald MacNeill during those years and would always refer to ‘The Blind Piper’ as the primary teacher in his life. Jimmy and Archie developed a bond that would last a lifetime. Archie gave his precious pipes to Jimmy later in his life, bypassing his well-known nephew – Seumas MacNeill. Jimmy travelled back to Scotland after the war with his wife (Lena) and son (Malcolm). When he arrived in Glasgow he dropped in to see Seumas MacNeill. Seumas told Jimmy that blind Archie, as he was in palliative care, and did not know anyone who visited but when
Jimmy arrived at the hospital and Archie heard him, he said, “My God, Jimmy, your voice hasn’t changed a bit”. Jimmy was always proud of that.

In many ways, Jimmy had the perfect life. He loved three main things and did them very, very well: Family, Piping, and Fishing. Of course, my involvement with him was usually piping but I have met his family many times and fished with him quite a few times.

Jimmy’s love for the pipes never faded. He loved everything about them: the tone, the musical expression, the technique, the competition scene, but above all – piobaireachd. He never had a lot of time for pipe bands and tried to talk me into quitting SFU and focusing on solo playing several times. His tape library was impressive and included all the great players – many of whom had been in his basement on one or more occasions. As a boy, I certainly heard a lot of Donald MacLeod, Bob Brown and Captain John MacLellan. Later in his life, Jimmy developed a real fondness for the Cameron style of piobaireachd. He admired the playing of Robert Reid and William Barrie a great deal. He thought it was good to understand all there was about different styles as it could only help us as players.

After his wife Lena passed away, Jimmy was lonely and not as healthy as he had been. Our routine for a couple of years was for me to pick up fish suppers and take them to his house on Tuesday nights. Very little actual piping – just a visit and some study of the Canntaireachd (Jimmy was really up on the Nether Lorn Canntaireachd from his many years of teaching at summer schools with Captain John). He moved from his well-known home in Burnaby to a seniors’ home in White Rock four years ago. Since then our weekly routine was to pick him up on Wednesday mornings and take him to Malcolm’s house for breakfast. He loved to make a big bowl of mush for us and then enjoy a few tunes from me after breakfast. His mind for piping remained very sharp until the end. Never would a day go by that he didn’t listen to some piobaireachd tapes (very few of us can say that). If I didn’t play well he would say something like, “I heard a tape this week of you playing that tune 20 years ago and it sounded a lot better back then”. Ouch.

My favourite memory, though, goes back to the late 1970s. It was a time when I was becoming very serious about my playing. I would go over to his house once or twice per week. Jimmy loved to mix and match my six MSRs in every pogsible combination to get me ready for the Former Winners MSR at Inverness. It would take a couple of hours to go through all the MSRs plus two or three piobaireachd with Jimmy’s tape recorder rolling the entire time. I would pick up a case of non-alcoholic beer and we would unwind after the piping for an hour or so. During the hour we would play back and critique the recording of my playing. We had great times.

Jimmy McMillan was a piper who left an amazing legacy. He really cared about his students and would do just about anything to help them. As long as they were serious he was there for them. The amount of time that he set aside for me over the years was incredible. You could say that he was the ‘father’ of the SFU Pipe Band. Without his inspirational teaching style perhaps it would all have been different here. I will always cherish my time and relationship with him. Those of us who knew Jimmy MacMillan will never forget him.