Vancouver, BC – There’s something moving and poignant about the sound of a solo piper playing The Lament on Remembrance Day every year. As aging veterans, families, service men and women, politicians and citizens huddle together, heads bowed, under grey November skies, the piper delivers the sad notes of The Flowers of the Forest; an ancient Scottish folk melody that had its origins in the 17th century. Words later added connected the song to the loss of King James IV of Scotland and more than 10,000 men at the Battle of Flodden Field in northern England in 1513. It is a sad tune. It is often played only on Remembrance Day or during the funeral of a soldier. It is a tune that I was first asked to play by my father for his own funeral. On another cold November day in 2006, I played Flowers of the Forest for him, one last time…from the hilltop cemetery overlooking his home in Antigonish County, Nova Scotia. A World War II veteran, father of seven and proud Nova Scotia Scot.
I have since played the tune in several provinces during Remembrance Day ceremonies. Today many of the colder provinces and northern communities hold indoor ceremonies, in recognition of the failing health of many older veterans and the toll freezing temperatures can have on aging bodies. But there are still communities where outdoor ceremonies prevail. On November 11, 1996, I shouldered my pipes at the cenotaph in Goose Bay, Labrador. The temperature had dipped to -12 Celsius. Somehow all pipes and reeds stayed intact and operational during the tune. The warm whisky afterward in the local Legion eased bone cold fingers.
In the Lower Mainland, Remembrance Day is one of the last outside events for most pipers and pipe bands. The temperature rarely dips below zero, but the damp and cold always make it a difficult day to keep chanter reeds in tune and drones solid. The RCMP E. Division Pipe Band will play at the Cloverdale Legion ceremony in Surrey. SFU, in a nod to their origins, play at the Port Moody Legion ceremony and Vancouver Police PB can of course, be found at the main cenotaph ceremony in Vancouver.
Along with the bugler, the pipes are and continue to be an integral part of Remembrance Day ceremonies for more than a century. Despite the grey skies, the rain, clouds and cold fingers, it’s an honour to play for veterans, and to recognize the sacrifices that so many made yesterday so we can enjoy our freedom today.