Bagpipes in the Annapolis Valley

Ed Coleman
Published on December 25, 2012

By Ed Coleman

It’s difficult to imagine any major event or any celebration, ranging from blossom festivals and cider fests to exhibitions and parades, taking place anywhere in the Annapolis Valley without the music of the bagpipe.  

Whether you love or hate them, the pipes have long been part of the Valley’s diverse culture and celebrations. We tend to think of pipes as synonymous with Cape Breton or with the counties of Antigonish and Pictou. But despite deep Acadian, Planter and Loyalist roots - and hardly renowned for Celtic music - the Valley has a piping tradition all its own, a tradition established over a century ago.

This tradition has its roots in the Canadian Armed Forces, with Camp Aldershot and 14 Wing Greenwood, where a pipe and drum band, consisting of a regular forces Pipe Major and Drum Sergeant and a core of local volunteers, has been maintained since 1979.

The 14 Wing Pipes and Drum’s role in keeping the Valley’s piping tradition alive was well illustrated this November. On Remembrance Day, the 14 Wing Band sent out pipers and drummers to various towns, villages and legions up and down the Valley to help mark the occasion. The 14 Wing Band, currently under the direction of regular forces Pipe Major Andrew Bruce and Drum Sergeant Brad Ryckman, has been a fixture at major Valley celebrations for over 30 years.

As for the Valley’s bagpipe tradition, we have to look back to the 1880s, when Camp Aldershot was established, first near Aylesford and later at its present site. From the beginning, highland militia units, such as the Pictou and Cape Breton Highlanders, trained at the camp, accompanied by their pipe bands.

During the first World War, Aldershot was the training base for the Nova Scotia Highland Brigade. Photographs taken at Aldershot during the war years indicate the Highland Brigade was accompanied on parades by its pipe and drum band.

This “piping presence” was maintained during the second World War, when a militia band was established at Camp Aldershot. In 1952, the Black Watch, along with its pipes and drums, arrived at the camp. For nearly a decade the band performed at various events up and down the Valley, further enriching the art of piping and establishing a core of civilian pipers that would keep pipe music alive and flourishing here.

Eventually, the Black Watch and their pipe band departed Camp Aldershot. Thanks to the regiment, piping was firmly established by this time in the Valley. After the Black Watch left for New Brunswick, several civilian pipes bands were organized, sponsored by various clubs, fire departments and the Royal Canadian Legion. They existed for short periods, then broke up, and were established again, never quite dying out.

Whether intended or not, the Canadian government’s stationing of piping and drumming personnel at major military bases contributed greatly in keeping pipe music to the forefront in the Valley. For the most part, full-time forces pipe bands were broken up across Canada. However, the military couldn’t completely relinquish its centuries-old Scottish element. As a compromise, Pipe Majors and Drum Sergeants were posted to various bases across the country, apparently with the mission of maintaining piping and drumming as part of the active forces.      

The 14 Wing Greenwood Pipe Band is typical of similar units the military established at major bases across Canada. All members of the band are volunteers, except for the regular forces Pipe Major and Drum Sergeant.  These volunteers come for all parts of the Valley and range in age from 15 years old to seniors. Current members of the band hail from Annapolis Royal to Wolfville and some have been active in the band for at least two decades. 

One of the band’s missions is instruction in piping and drumming. “The band welcomes beginners as well as experienced pipers and drummers,” Bruce said. 

As well as putting some 25 pipers and drummers on parade, the band has students coming along learning to pipe and drum. Pipe and drum practice is held every Tuesday year around at the AVM Morfee Centre on School Road in Greenwood.

Farther down the Valley, in Digby County, the Valley’s piping tradition is being maintained as well by the Gales of Fundy Pipes and Drums. Established two years ago under Pipe Major Stuart MacDonald and Drum Major Richard Parry, the band meets in the winter months in Smith’s Cove and in the Digby arena in summer. 

The Gaels of Fundy is the “first pipe band established in southwest Nova Scotia,” says Parry. 

Since starting up, the band has been busy performed at numerous events and celebrations in Digby and Annapolis County. Currently, the band has 15 members, all of which are from Digby and Annapolis County.

Beginners are welcome to join the band, which is still growing, notes MacDonald. The band offers lesson for the pipes and drums at no cost to students young and old.  

Anyone interested in joining the band can learn more about it from their website.