Allan Piper


A Tale of Pioneer Life

By John W. Gilchrist


( A biographical note follows the article.)






He never assumed the cares of land proprietorship, yet Allan was a pioneer,--- “one of the old guard of the woods”.  There was enough primeval forest when he arrived to carry the cool winds over the little clearing, into which the summer sun found its rays and made life almost intolerable, besides scorching the potatoes and rusting the small wheat field that struggled for existence among the charred roots and stumps.  Into one of these revered oases, Allan strayed, one hot July afternoon, with the pipes, a wife and the inevitable small family, but he had already gained social standing and a following.  Unlike most of his contemporaries, his soul was not agitated with painful longings for the land of his birth.  He was never known to speak disrespectfully of a small northerly Scottish island, whose natural products were people, herring and soggy potatoes.  He had found his sphere and a proper appreciation of his talents in a new world.






Allan possessed a wonderful store of old songs and tunes.  This, with his vivacious and optimistic temperament, dark complexion and religion, enabled the good clergyman to deduce that Allan had Spanish blood in his veins, due to some survivor of the Armada, whose wrecks were strewn along the west coast of Scotland.  This reflection on the purity of his blood made Allan very angry.  His clan ancestors would not have allowed the unfortunate Spaniards to live, let alone beget musical talent.  The islanders alone were the pure Celt, he asserted.  The mainland Scotch were mixed with all kinds of renegade Saxon, Irish, or French that had to leave their own countries, to say nothing of northerly pirates.  He alone, among his associates in the bush, belonged to an organized clan that maintained hereditary pipers, of which he was one.


He knew his neighbours had been brought up under disadvantages.  They had learned to dance with the fiddle, as at the first spring of the big toe, he could tell whether the dancer learned from the fiddle or the pipe.  Had this people possessed a clan piper of their own, they would not have been allowed to grow up under this disadvantage.


However this might be, no untoward results followed this incident except a marked cool politeness between the minister and Allan when they occasionally met.








The first settlement of the district consisted mostly of groups of relatives from over the sea, each year adding more.  How Allan strayed from a faraway isle to an Ontario bush settlement where he had no relatives or even acquaintances will never be known now, nor is it necessary that it should.  He was satisfied.  It became known that when he landed on a Lake Ontario dock in the forties of the last century, he at once struck up the pipes.  This brought Gaelic men about him, who told him that there was a settlement of others “back up there”.   His journey was in no way hurried.  His music secured the best food for himself and his family and at every halt-place was an eager gathering where sighs were mingled with laughter and tears with dancing.  At last the corduroy road dwindled to an uncertain blazed patch, and striking up the pipes to scare possible wild animals, people came out of the woods who sheltered him and showed him the way.







An old pioneer raised such objection to the removal of a stone pile that was in the way of modern implements and progressive heirs related the following incident:


“I dare say it is foolish, seemingly, but it is where that stone pile stands that I first heard the pipes in America.  I am a lonesome old man, now, my companions are nearly all gone, the few that are left are like myself, have to keep beside the stove, besides it was Allan Piper and myself who gathered most of the stones in that pile many, many years ago.  I was the youngest, and in the summer when my brothers would go to the lakes and my sisters to work in the towns, I would sometimes feel so lonesome that I would hide and cry and cry.  Where I came from in Scotland I had many playmates, here I have none.  There we had the sea and the boats to look at and the hills to climb, but here it was nothing but trees, trees, and the dreadful flies.  There I had nothing to do but play or sometimes herd on the hills, and here it was gathering sticks and brush or poking burning logs together in the dreadful heat and smoke.  Though they never complained, I knew that father and mother were just as sad when the rest were away.  They would not let me go alone to the few neighbours we had for fear I’d get lost and when Sunday came would go miles to church.  When we went to our neighbours, it was to sit and talk, with lumps in our throats, about our old home.






But after Allan Piper came we met oftener and danced and sang instead of crying and thinking about our old home.  I sometimes used to think that he did us more good than anything else.  Even the minister, good man that he was, would often make us sad.  He could only sing a few airs, and always sang the second paraphrase, which would make us feel more like pilgrims in a strange land than ever.  We were sometimes not any too sure about our daily bread, and we could sing, “Oh God of Bethel”, in earnest.  Yes, I have seen queer meetings on these hills that I can see out of the windows.  Parents, children, friends, relatives, and sweethearts that parted in the old land, met here again.  Small wonder if sometimes they had a good cry all ‘round when they first met.  The newcomers were the worst, tossed for weeks in a ship and badgered by all sorts of direction on how to find their friends.  They were generally in the blues when they came, and to find their friends in sorrow was bad indeed.  But after Allan Piper came we always sent for him and had a jollification instead of moping and crying. 






It’s not that I believe in giving way to these things, but people who can’t dance, sing or tell a story, shouldn’t be the first to go to a new country.  It’s many, many years ago, and I am the only one left who saw him come out of the bush.  It was just before the wheat was ripe.  We had a field and were chopping to one side of it, where the stone pile is.  Father had kept my two brothers home from the Lakes, much against their will, because they had got to be very handy with the axe, and besides, the winter before, they had cleared a big piece for a neighbour to pay for a yoke of oxen, when we had not done much clearing on our own place. 


The axe is tiresome in hot weather and we working by fits and starts.  I was piling the brush and listening to the wind on the leaves.  Like the girl in India, I heard the pipes.  I was sure, for I told my brothers and they stopped their work and listened.  Though they said they could not hear anything, they stood still.  They asked me if I was sure and I told them I was, and it was, “Kenmore, Is Up an’ Awa”.  When Allan came in sight playing royally at the head of a little gathering, they dropped the axes and raced across the wheat field, but father was there before them.  I ran to tell mother, but she was at the door, waiting.






Then there was handshaking and gladness.  At last, Allan struck up a reel, and the weaver took my mother and led off the first reel.  This was a surprise to me, as mother was always quiet and sad when the others were away.  Sometimes, when I would come to the house for a drink, I would find her crying, but I never told anyone.  She took great care of me, and hated to have me out of her sight, but here she was dancing, and she could dance, too, though after that it was not easy getting her started.  Father whispered to me and I ran to the next little settlement, and mother never missed me till I came back, with them at my heels.  We used to tease mother about it after, then the tailor’s little wife grabbed me and bundled me through a reel, and when we sat out of breath in a corner she told me to be sure and be the first to tell the sailors when they came home from the lakes that we had a piper, and they would give knives and silver and teach me the steps; all of which came true and the axes were rusty when we took them up again.






About the author


John William Gilchrist (1865-1942) was born in Puslinch and there, with many an attendant honour, he long resided, excepting brief stints in Guelph and St. Catharines.


Young John Gilchrist was a natural athlete and participated in many sports.  He trained with the 11th Field Battery, rose to the rank of Captain, and during World War I, he was an instructor at St. Catharines.  Mr. Gilchrist was an outstanding marksman, winning the prestigious Paterson trophy in Ottawa in 1897, and representing the Canadian Bisley team in England on several occasions.


Socially, John Gilchrist, with his beloved violin and large repertoire of popular songs, was always in great demand.  During his later years, he assisted Colonel John Bayne Maclean in assembling and displaying the remarkable collection of antiques at the Maclean Museum in Crieff.   Mr. Gilchrist’s excellent model of the Crieff Church may still be viewed at the Wellington County Museum & Archives.


As a writer, he contributed widely to newspapers and other publications such as “Rod & Gun”, “Farmers’ Sun”, and “Weekly Fun”.  Mr. Gilchrist’s work was well received, noted for combining a compassionate sense of humour with a wealth of stories on early days in Puslinch Township.







end of document