I lost a good friend recently. As did many in the Canadian and global bagpiping and highland dancing world. He was a wee man but he carried a big pipe. And that pipe took him on a lifetime of adventures, collecting stories and good friends along the way.
Alan James Walters passed away at his home in Surrey, BC last week, after several years of poor health. His faithful companion Whisky has found a new home but the cat will no doubt wonder what happened to that loveable rascal who kept everything so lively when he was around.
Alan was my piping teacher from the time I arrived in Vancouver in 1997 until, well, the very end. Two days before he died, we were chatting on the phone. He did not sound well, and I was worried. But he assured me he was fine and would call me, or any number of a circle of friends, who were ready to step in.
I’ll miss learning from Alan. Looking back on those years, his lessons were relaxed but intense affairs, with a focused teacher, always ready to sit down, chanter in hand, white board behind him, and instruct the learning piper on proper technique, sound, expression and of course, timing. I used to joke that Alan was so adamant about timing his middle name was Metronome. He did record two highland dancing albums (still being played) called “Strictly Time” and “Strictly Time II”.
All lessons came with stories and treats for the dog or cat (various ones over the years). His home was full of big and small pipes in different states of repair, kilts, jackets, hunting and fishing gear and a freezer full of fish caught during his Alaska pipe band days, Campbell River or Port Hardy. There was a constant coming and going of students, a chaos of music stands, sheet music, books and the miscellaneous flotsam of decades as a travelling professional highland bagpiper. His warm practice room smelled of pipe bag seasoning and hemp, and on a cold, damp Vancouver winter day, it was a nice place to spend a few hours, if he was home, of course.
He was always off to various highland dancing competitions, judging at highland games and living the life he described in his well-known phone message “I’m either piping, fishing, curling or golfing. Leave a message and I’ll call and tell you about my adventures.”
Those adventures brought him to Alaska, Campbell River, Manitoba, Prince George, Port Hardy, Pender Island, Lake Diefenbaker, Shawnigan Lake, Coeur d’Arlene and more. These were the places Alan spoke of to me; a newcomer from the east coast. Those who knew Alan in these places can likely recount many a story about his time there and the impact he had. His pipes provided him a living and he shared that life with many people.
I arrived in British Columbia in 1997, so am not privileged to speak about his years with Triumph Street or even his youth as a top-level piper, playing with world champions Muirhead & Sons Pipe Band in Scotland, taking instruction from Bob Hardy and Donald MacLeod. My relationship was as a student and friend. He taught. I learned. We shared drinks and stories. And as everyone knows, he was a lot of fun to be around.
I’ve often thought it’s a shame for a human being with an acquired gift or talent, to take that talent and knowledge with them when they pass. It’s sad to think of the piobaireachd knowledge Alan took with him when he left us. But when I hear his students play, I know that Alan’s knowledge is still being shared. And to honour that gift and the man behind it, we play well; in tune, in time and with a thought back to the man who showed us that piping can indeed be a life’s adventure.