Bagpipes in a Canoe: Aspiration Number 27 … Check

September 29, 2013 on 6:30 pm by Michael Grey | In News, Photographs, Pipe Bands, Solo Piping, Stories, Tips | 2 Comments

Back in January I wrote about Sir George Simpson, the Dingwall-born Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. As part of his 18th century trading adventures in the Canadian wilderness he’d travel with an entourage of honking big canoes and always – apparently – with a piper. Sir George’s piper always played in the big canoe – white water rapids notwithstanding – and for years, knowing this small fact, the piping-in-a-canoe thing has intrigued me.

I can imagine the flotilla of canoes, gliding (if they were lucky) into York Factory or Fort Albany, Sir George, arse suitably cushioned on his cedar seat, paddlers – French, Scots, Métis men – heaving through the water, the piper on his knees, backside against the cedar canoe “seat”, drawing on every last ounce of wherewithal to make sweet music in a backdrop of sweat, stink, the paddlers’ multi-lingual curses and the indescribably beautiful sounds of the Canadian wilderness. Surely playing bagpipes in a canoe must be quintessentially Canadian.

Yesterday, Michaelmas Eve, with the help of my family, I lived the dream: I played my pipes in a canoe [Deal: you don’t judge my dreams and I won’t judge yours]. At around 0700 h, with my brother Robert, we readied for the challenge. My sister Jane and husband Rob make their home on the shores of a beautiful lake in north-central Ontario. This proved the perfect launch-pad for 21st century pipes in a canoe.

Like anywhere in the northern hemisphere, days are “fair drawing in” – getting shorter. Still, we set off for the shore of the lake around 0700 h – dawn at hand and in the morning cool, the warm summer water of the lake released amazing wisps of ethereal mist. On this morning, the lake was on our side. It was as if we had hired a perfectly outfitted Hollywood sound stage: glassy waters, swirling puffs of fog machine mist (only without the fog machine) and sturdy canoe – and mostly willing brother-with-paddle [BTW: he hated the Glengarry but was OK with the Balmoral hat – I won’t share his reasons here].

So, as we readied for our shaky water-born tunes, to violate the sacred still that is any lake’s early dawn water (and, I’d guess, that goes, too, for a few slumbering late-season lakeside cottagers) we were on our way.

Steadying ourselves on the dock off the beach, Robert and I dropped the canoe in the water – splash. And you could just almost hear the water over the three seriously-excited dogs, one a guest, like me for the weekend, the other two, resident enthusiastic lovers of the pipes. With dogs barking, flailing about and thwacking each other around the swaying dock, I passed the pipes to Jane and took my place. She easily handed them back, and Robert – Voyageur boy – took his seat – and his paddle. His challenge: one paddle and roughly 450 pounds of weight to propel through the water … oh yes, and the music, the sweet music – he needed to help push that along, too.

Michael Grey / Robert Grey - Piping in a Canoe  - Sep 2013

As I say, the lake was on our side and we managed to break dawn with the help of a good few of the Tunes of Glory.

Piping in a canoe – at least on a calm lake – is not difficult, in fact, it’s fun. I can say that now with authority and conviction. On this effort I had my family, including Ma and Pa (Father with his iPad, using the photo app like crazy).

And all that reminds me: personal experience is the very best for reliably informing anyone’s personal opinion. Einstein said you can’t love or hate something without knowing it …

I’ve played bagpipes in a canoe. I felt it, lived it, loved it.

I recommend it.

So, I will file this blog entry, with no shame, under “tips”.



  1. Way to follow through on the dream! There is some kind of special room reserved for you in the “bagpipe geek” section of heaven, and I hope the scenery is as great. Awesome bagpipe posture, btw. Did you get a recording? I played a set of pipes on the Big Rideau Lake this summer, but on a boat (engine off). Not the same at all, but I get how it must’ve been great. Thanks for posting. Love the photo.

    Comment by iainmacd — September 29, 2013 #

  2. Thanks kindly, Iain. I’m not sure I saw this adventure as a “bagpipe” thing. It was more a “canoe” or Canadian thing. Still, call it what you want, when bagpipes are involved, like drunken actors, they always take over the party. M.

    Comment by Michael Grey — September 30, 2013 #

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