Early Canadian piping

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A detail from an 8.5ft tall canvas oil painting depicting Sir George Simpson on his tour of inspection from Hudson’s Bay to the Pacific Coast. It shows a well-dressed man in a top hat, white collared shirt and black bow tie, accompanied by a piper and other men. The painting was completed in 1908 by Cyrus Cincinatto Cuneo (1879–23 July 1916). Ciro, as he was known, was a British-born artist. The painting hangs in City Hall, Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.

– Notes on a piper in Western Canada in the 1820s.
Compiled by John Gibson, Inverness Co., Nova Scotia.
(From The International Piper, July 1980)

“Out of the blue, one day in 1821, it was announced that the North West Company had amalgamated with the Hudson’s Bay Company. Every effort was made to dress the transaction up as a reasonable compromise but the bitter truth was, as the wintering partners were soon to find out, that the old company had triumphed and the Nor’ Westers had had to surrender in order to avoid bankruptcy.”

(From Colony to Nation by A.R.M, Lower, Longmans, Green & Co., 1946).

The new, expanded Hudson’s Bay Company got a new Governor, a Scot, George Simpson, who in 1828 set out to make “a tour of the various posts from Hudson Bay to the Pacific1. He was accompanied by a Gael, Archibald MacDonald, the Chief Factor who kept a diary of the journey, and as perhaps befitted an Englished Scot in power over what had been a largely Gaelic Scots-dominated trading company, one which called its western territory New Caledonia, Simpson had with him a piper,

Rupert’s Land, or Prince Rupert’s Land, was a territory in British North America comprising the Hudson Bay drainage basin, a territory in which a commercial monopoly was operated by the Hudson’s Bay Company for 200 years from 1670 to 1870.

Gibbon, quoting MacDonald’s diary dealing with the initial stage of the journey from York Factory on the southeast shore of Hudson’s Bay to Norway House, wrote (Pp, 119 and 120):

“As we waft along under easy sail, the men with a clean change and mounting new feathers, the Highland bagpipe in the Governor’s canoe was echoed by the bugle in mind;”

Gibbon continued:

“Crossing the Rocky Mountains by the Peace River Pass, the Governor’s party approached Fort St. James, the principal depot for the country north of the forks of the Fraser River, The account of their entry into the Fort is highly interesting,

“The day as yet being fine, the flag was put up, the piper in full Highland costume, and every arrangement was made to arrive at Fort James in the most imposing manner we could for the sake of the Indians, Accordingly, when within about a thousand yards of the establishment, descending a gentle hill, a gun was fired, the bugle sounded, and soon after the piper commenced the celebrated march of the clans – ‘Si coma leum cogadh na shea’ – (Peace: or war, if you will it otherwise).”

Sir George Simpson, 1792–1860.
Sir George Simpson, 1792–1860.

As to the identity of the piper who went west with George Simpson in 1828, the following quote from ‘Voice of the Pioneer’, a series of transcribed tape-recorded interviews with old-timers by Bill McNeil, (published by MacMillan of Canada, 1978) gives a bit of satisfaction to the curious and brings the past fascinatingly near. From pp.108 and 109, in the reminiscences of an Englishman, son of the Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Co., one Philip Scott Camsell (b. 1883) comes the following:

“He (Simpson) always travelled with a piper, and I knew the piper’s grandson. He lives at Fort Chipewyan. His name was Fraser and he raised a large family, a mixture of Frasers and Cree Indians.”

Fort Chipewyan is at the western end of Lake Athabasca.

The piper’s name was Colin Fraser, the same man whose pipes will be played by a Canadian MacCrimmon at the Tarsands Tattoo this summer [1980]. He travelled the 3,181 miles from York Factory on Hudson’s Bay to the Pacific as piper and assistant servant to Simpson in the Governor’s bark canoe and who kept “notes” which subsequently became, under the editorship of Malcolm McLeod, Peace River, A Canoe Voyage from Hudson Bay to the Pacific by the late Sir George Simpson (Ottawa, 1872). He is mentioned on number of occasions in this journal.

A detail from an 8.5ft tall canvas oil painting depicting Sir George Simpson on his tour of inspection from Hudson’s Bay to the Pacific Coast. It shows a well-dressed man in a top hat, white collared shirt and black bow tie, accompanied by a piper and other men. The painting was completed in 1908 by Cyrus Cincinatto Cuneo (1879–23 July 1916). Ciro, as he was known, was a British-born artist. The painting hangs in City Hall, Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.

In the eye of the Indians, Fraser’s appearance in full Highland dress, whatever that was by 1828, at places such as Fort Dunvegan on the Peace River and at Fort St. James, must have been impressive. McDonald the Factor, from whose notes this comes, writes of him and of his impact in this capacity on the two occasions mentioned above. The native people had just lost the edge they’d had from the increased competition for furs between the two trading companies, the unchartered North West and the chartered Hudson’s Bay Company, with the latter’s absorption and subsumption of the former. Simpson’s tour, the first of a Governor of the new and expanded H.B. Co., had a vice-regal air calculated to awe.

Fraser played strathspeys on at least one occasion:

“Sunday, 13th … About this time today we got Colin Fraser to give us a few of his favourite strathspeys on the bagpipes, that went off very well to the ear of a Highlander, but as yet makes but a poor accordance with either the pole or the paddle.”

(Peace River, page 2.).

On another day McDonald wrote, “The piper gave us a few marches before supper” but didn’t elaborate although he probably meant tunes such as Bha mi air banais am Bail Inbhir-aora, one of the English titles of which mentioned in Malcolm McLeod’s copious note, Campbells are coming, hourray! hourray! in an observation of the piping of Fraser at Norway House.

His playing of Cogadh no Sith at Fort St. James appears to make him the first piper to play ceòl mòr in the west of British North America but he certainly also played the so-called ceòl beag. Where he came from in Scotland, from whom he learned and through what medium, literate or oral, remains to be known. If he were from the Frasers of Strathglass who piped for the Lovat family, he may have been a descendant of David (piper to Lord Lovat during the time of the ’45) or his brother Uilleachan “who was at Culloden. Both had been to the MacCrimmon piping school at Boreraig, Skye” (from a letter on the subject by George Moss, an authority on Strathglass piping).

The Governor’s piper in 1828 seems to have found the west to his liking and to have stayed. Perhaps his musical gift survived for a few more generations, perhaps not; ceòl mòr, if not ceòl beag, tended to be a one-generation phenomenon in Canada.

1Scots in Canada by J. M. Gibbon, London, 1911)