A Tune in a Canoe

January 27, 2013 on 6:55 pm by Michael Grey | In News, Random Thoughts, Solo Piping, Stories | 5 Comments

I’ve been inspired, I’ve a new aspiration: to play bagpipes in a canoe. And the inspiration?

A painting.

Here’s the work of Italian-American artist, Cyrus Cuneo (1879 -1916). This image represents the famous Sir George Simpson, the Dingwall-born (Scotland) governor of what was once known in Canada as Rupert’s Land, an unbelievably massive expanse that surrounded Hudson’s Bay.

George Simpson was the formidable head of the Hudson’s Bay Company, one of the oldest companies in the world and today one of Canada’s biggest department stores (they’re not paying me to say it, but it is a good store). He was apparently an eccentric type, loved the pipes, and so would have them, and a piper, close at hand on his travels – including those in the deep Canadian wilderness [why is it eccentrics are so often the go-to bagpipe lovers of the world?].


Like pipers in some parts of the world – like, say, Cape Breton – who prefer to play sitting down (surely an open invitation to hemorrhoids, by the way), I can’t imagine much fine technique, tuning and rhythm happening while playing pipes in a canoe.

But we’ll see. I hope to report back sometime over the coming warmer months – at least sometime after the spring thaw. Who knows? Maybe the whole canoe experience will prove to be the optimum bagpipe playing place.

Funny how people from the modestly-sized Dingwall can sometimes be the most interesting.



  1. I want to see the photos of your expedition. A sound file would be good, too. What to play? So much to consider. “MacLeod’s Paddling Tune”?

    George Simpson’s piper was one Colin Fraser, whose bagpipe is in the collection of the Province of Alberta. You can see some photos of it at “The Bagpipe Museum” web site. A search for Colin brings up a wealth of family information posted on ancestry message boards. He stayed in Canada, was in command of posts, and later married and had a huge family.

    Imagine the stories he could tell ’round the cracker barrel.

    Comment by iainmacd — January 27, 2013 #

  2. Reference to Dingwall made me smile. A bit off topic, when I went to become a Canadian citizen all those years ago, the interview part went swimmingly, right up until the judge asked the last question: “please name three things which the native peoples used which we use today”. Uuummmm… cluless. No idea. So he says “very well Mr MacLellan, I’ll give you the answer to one…. “the snowshoe”… “ah yes, says me, nodding in agreement”… “Now, can you name another?” and I can feel it now, I don’t think I’ve ever felt as foolish in my life….after another moment or so of excrutiating silence, he shakes his head, admonishing me like a stupid schoolchild and he says “the teppee, Mr MacLellan, we use the teppee today still”… My god, this is getting no better, says I to myself. So inevitably he applies the coup de gras and asks, “now how about the third thing, ….think now, Mr MacLellan”….. and after another pause which seemed an eternity, he almost shouts out “THE CANOE, MR MACLELLAN, THE CANOE! WE STILL USE THE CANOE!” My god. So I always think of that incident, not with fondness,but with cringing embarrassment, when anyone mentions a bloody canoe. So enjoy your tune in it!

    Comment by colinmaclellan — January 27, 2013 #

  3. Interesting, Iain – will see about recording the occasion somehow – like when I fall in the water, or choke on my blowpipe going through rapids.
    Colin – good story. You really can be a bit thick, eh.

    By the right, quick, ROW! (or is it paddle?)


    Comment by Michael Grey — January 28, 2013 #

  4. Heres an interesting stoy
    On my mothers side my great,great,great,great,great grandfather Tom Taylor was sir George Simpson’s right hand man!

    “During this trip his servant, Tom Taylor, became separated on a hunting trip. After searching for half a day, Simpson left Taylor to his fate. Taylor reached the Swan River post after 14 days in the wilderness with no proper equipment.In 1825 he returned to Britain and learned that William Williams had retired, thereby adding the eastern area to his domain. Returning to Montreal, he went to the Red River settlements, Rock Depot for the annual meeting, the posts on James Bay to inspect his new domain, and back to Montreal. In May 1828 he started his second trip to the Pacific along with his dog, mistress and personal piper, going first to York Factory and then using the Peace River route. This 5000-mile trip remains the longest North American canoe journey ever made in one season.” Tom Taylor then married one of George Simpson’s daughters.
    But back to the piper…
    Piper Colin Fraser [1805-1865]Colin Fraser [1805-1865] from Kirkton,Sutherlandshire, was recruited in the Orkney Islands by Simpson’s father. He arrived at York Factory in 1827 and beat out two other candidates to win the £30 a year job as Simpson’s personal piper. According to some old papers of the

    Laird MacGillis of Williamstown and John MacDonald of Garth, who were together in the Red River area, Fraser married Nancy Beaudry, by whom he had a large
    family, from Bethsey born at Fort Carlton in 1833, to Caroline born at Slave

    Lake in 1859. One anonymous and possibly apocryphal story refers to a Cree who heard Colin Fraser play at Norway House and reported to his chief:
    “One white man was dressed like a woman, in a skirt of funny colour. He had whiskers growing from his belt and fancy leggings. He carried a black swanwhich had many legs with ribbons tied to them. The swan’s body he put under hisarm upside down, then he put its head in his mouth and bit it. At the same time he pinched its neck with his fingers and squeezed the body under his arm until it made a terrible noise.

    Comment by Alex Klausnitzer — January 28, 2013 #

  5. That is just great that you know your family history, Alex – and – that it is so interesting! Thanks for passing along; very interesting! M.

    Comment by Michael Grey — January 28, 2013 #

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