James L. McWilliams, 1938-2022
Western Canadian piping lost one of its great contributors with the passing of Jim McWilliams in Surrey, British Columbia, on September 23, 2022.
McWilliams was many things in his life, including a soldier in the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps, a high school history teacher for 30 years, and an amazing leader, organizer and teacher for local pipers and bands in Saskatchewan.
McWilliams’s White Hackle Pipe Band of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, travelled to various parts of the world to compete and perform, including the USA, Scotland and Australia and a couple of generations of young people had the benefit of his enthusiastic teaching and band leadership. McWilliams himself was an avid traveller including playing his pipes on the Great Wall of China among many other exotic locations.
He was one of the key figures in the formation of the Prairie Pipe Band Association in the 1960s, and the founder and long-time principal of the Saskatchewan Summer School of the Arts at Fort San, Saskatchewan, which brought John MacLellan, Donald MacLeod, Jimmy McGregor, Geordie Pryde, Colin MacLellan and many other great instructors over the years. The impact of that school can be directly linked to the success of many major figures in piping and drumming. In recognizing this, the legendary P-M Donald MacLeod, MBE wrote a 2/4 march for McWilliams and wrote on it, “Jim, this is the only way I can show my appreciation for your interest in youth and the Great Highland Bagpipe.”
Throughout his life, Jim McWilliams was known as a composer and an innovator in adapting popular melodies to the bagpipe. His self-published collection, A Piper’s World: 99 Tunes from Around the World, presented his own compositions and arrangements of traditional and non-traditional bagpipe music. His tunes and arrangements have been published in other collections, including Pipe-Major Donald MacLeod’s Collection of Music for the Bagpipe, Book 6.
McWilliams moved to British Columbia in 1993, where he became a member of the Delta Police Pipe Band and later the Vancouver Police Pipe Band, travelling with each to perform at the Edinburgh Tattoo. In 1999, he was especially pleased to make the tattoo trip with his sons, Lachlan and Colin. McWilliams performed often with the Celtic band, “Blackthorn,” and as part of his partner Joan’s Highland dancing shows.
As well as his piping contributions, McWilliams was well-known as a prolific writer, and was co-author of three books on the history of World War I: The Suicide Battalion, Gas! The Battle for Ypres, 1915 and Amiens: Dawn of Victory. He had several historical articles published in Readers’ Digest and he self-published a series of historical novels featuring Rory MacHugh, a bagpipe-playing Saskatchewan orphan of Scottish and French heritage raised by a Blackfoot tribe in the Cypress Hills during the 1700s.
McWilliams maintained a keen interest in piping and bands throughout his life, contributing news and articles to many publications, and attending as many events as he was able. His impact on the development of piping, bands and piping organizations in the Prairie provinces continues, despite his many years away.
Predeceased by his life partner, Joan Murray, Jim McWilliams is survived by sons, Colin and Lachlan, and their families.
– contributed by Iain MacDonald, Regina, Saskatchewan