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‘They’ve seen a lot of history’: Century-old military bagpipes return home to Nova Scotia

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Century-old military bagpipes return home to Nova Scotia
WATCH: Brenda Steele says it was after visiting the Army Museum at the Halifax Citadel National Historic Site and seeing an exhibit on the 25th battalion that she was determined to have her grandfather's bagpipes on display. Ashley Field brings us that story – Feb 3, 2021

Brenda Steele has fond memories of her grandfather Michael McDougall, a musical man who grew up in Grand Myra, Cape Breton.

“I remember he had a pencil and he’d make notes on his music. He played his chanter almost every day and it was lovely. It was a very comforting thing as a child,” she tells Global News.

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While the chanter was his instrument of choice, Steele recalls a box containing a set of bagpipes that was off-limits to the grandkids.

First World War piper Michael McDougall playing the bagpipes in this old family photo. Ashley Field/Global News
First World War piper Michael McDougall with his bagpipes in this old family photo. Ashley Field/Global News

“As children, we were not allowed to touch this box,” laughs Steele.

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“Every now and then he’d take these (the bagpipes) out and go out to the barn in the back and blow these up and I’d go, ‘Whoa!'”

At the time, she admits she didn’t know their significance, describing her grandfather as a “quiet” man.

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Flu pandemic added to the grief of First World War

But later she would learn her grandpa was also First World War piper Michael McDougall, a soldier in the 25th Battalion Nova Scotia Rifles.

“There were no pictures of him up about the war,” she says.

“I think it was a very hard time for all the men at that time.”

At 18 years old, MacDougall left Halifax in 1915 and spent four years overseas. Along with his duties as a soldier, he and his bagpipe band played an important role in lifting spirits.

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“Having the pipes there were an excellent thing for the morale and also a little bit of marshal spirit as it were when the time came to go into action,” says retired major Ken Hynes, chief curator of the Army Museum at the Halifax Citadel National Historic Site.

“They’ve seen a lot of history, and if they could talk, they’d tell one heck of a story.”

Bringing the bagpipes home

Steele says it was after visiting the Army Museum and seeing an exhibit on the 25th battalion — which features another set of bagpipes once played by MacDougall’s pipe master John Carson — that she was determined to have her grandfather’s set on display, too.

A photo of the 25th Battalion Nova Scotia Rifles pipe band, along with a photo of Pipe Master John Carson. Ashley Field/Global News

She learned that when her grandfather died in 1969, the bagpipes went to his eldest son, her uncle, in Ontario. He learned to play on them, and after he died, they landed in the hands of Steele’s cousin, who lives in Edmonton.

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“I said, ‘Do you think you could donate those bagpipes to the Army Museum because there’s a beautiful display there?’ And she was hesitant,” says Steele.

“That’s when I got a hold of Ken and asked him if he would try and see if he could get them because it was a big thing to me. So Ken called her and talked to her and a year and a half it took, but here they are.”

Steele says it was a “big thrill” for her to see them after more than 50 years.

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“It was very emotional, it was. It was an emotional experience to see them again,” she says.

“It’s a huge thing for our province and I thought they belonged here in Nova Scotia, where he is from. He fought in the First World War, the whole war, and what better spot for them.”

Brenda Steele welcoming home her grandfather’s bagpipes to Nova Scotia after they spent 50 years out west.
Army Museum chief curator Ken Hynes and Brenda Steele with her grandfather’s bagpipes. Ken Hynes/Facebook

A rare piece of Canadian history

Hynes says he is grateful to the family, as the bagpipes are an important piece of Canadian military history.

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“Not only intrinsically, but certainly from a military history point of view and Nova Scotia’s history,” he tells Global News.

“To have a second set of pipes from that pipe band is really astounding to me.”

The Army Museum chief curator Ken Hynes stands next to First World War piper Michael McDougall’s 106-year-old bagpipes now on display at the museum. Ashley Field/Global News

The bagpipes are 106 years old, made in 1915, and Hynes says there were only three sets of that type made by Peter Henderson & Co. in Glasgow, Scotland.

“They’re African blackwood with ivory and sterling silver trimmings, so they’re very, very rare and valuable,” Hynes says.

“To have people get the opportunity to see these, particularly those who understand history and how rare it is for an artifact like this to survive over a century in outstanding condition, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, really, if you’re a history buff.”

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‘It just feels like it honours him’

The bagpipes are now on display and will be available for public viewing once the Army Museum reopens in May.

“I’m just thrilled. This is where they should be,” says Steele.

“My grandfather was a very understated, quiet man, and for him, it just feels like it honours him.”

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Hynes hopes the bagpipes will teach visitors not only about the war, but also about the people who served.

“They were real people with hopes and dreams and aspirations and tens of thousands of Canadians never got to live out those dreams,” he says.

“So, the human element is always an important aspect of what we do here. And to have an artifact that was used by one of those soldiers — in very dangerous circumstances, over a long period of time — I think is something that maybe will make people think about the human cost of war and how lucky we are to live in a country like Canada today.”

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