From pipes to pen

Forced to put his bagpipes aside, a Cloverdale author, piper, and military historian branches out into the realm of fiction.

James McWilliams holds a copy of Black War-Bonnet

At an age when some folks might be easing comfortably into retirement, Cloverdale’s James McWilliams has set out on a literary adventure.

A military historian, piper, author, composer and former high school teacher, Williams, 75, has crafted a series of historical adventure novels, picking up a creative project begun years ago.

The first two installments of the MacHugh Memoirs – set between 1792 and 1836 and featuring the exploits of Rory MacHugh, a piper and Canadian hero – were released last fall.

And he’s determined to publish the rest of his adventure series, while finding a wider audience for his fiction and non-fiction works as a novelist and author.

“You get to my age and you think, ‘If I don’t do it, nobody will see it,’” he says. “I told my doctor, I have to live to at least 122 to get all this stuff done.”

Health woes have regretfully cut short his involvement in one of his great passions – playing with a number of pipe bands, including the Langley Legion Pipe Band, the Delta Police Pipe Band, and the Vancouver Police Pipe Band, along with guesting with Celtic band Blackthorn.

“The last few months, I’ve had to give all that up. But I sure hate not playing.”

The plucky Moose Jaw, Sask., native broke his hip last year, and he suffers from polymyalgia rheumatica, or PMR.

“You always hurt somewhere,” he shrugs.

Marching, he says, is no longer an option.

So he turned the pages back to writing fiction.

His interest in historical adventures and writing began as a reader.

Back in the 1970s, the father of two sons broke his hip in a cycling accident, resulting in a month-long hospital stay.

He passed the time reading military adventure novels, like C.S. Forester’s The Gun, about the Spanish peninsular war with Napoleon, the Horatio Hornblower series, and others.

“I thought, you know, I can do this.”

So he started writing a book of his own, right there in the hospital, and he kept it up.

In the army, McWilliams had developed an odd sleeping schedule – he could only sleep four hours a night. So, while the rest of his family slumbered, he’d be awake from 2:30 a.m. to 6:30 a.m., allowing him to work a 20-hour day.

“You had time to write,” he says sensibly.

He wrote his stories in longhand, scribbling away at night, making later revisions on a typewriter.

“I was just doing it for fun.”

He eventually wrote seven novels, he says, admitting, “I did very little with them.”

Years later, he notes, Sharpe’s Rifles came out, and suddenly there was a broader popular interest in books about heroic men having grand adventures as soldiers, sailors, and spies.

McWilliams published The Black War-Bonnet and The Fugitives last November. He wore a traditional kilt at the launch at the Cloverdale Legion, and brought his pipes along, of course.

Although retired, something of the high school history teacher shines through in accurate, historical details that pepper his tales of MacHugh, breathing life into a story that begins nearly 200 years ago, on the prairie, where former employees of the North West Company share the rugged plains with indigenous people.

First up in the series, The Black War-Bonnet, is about how MacHugh, a 13-year-old boy, is kidnapped by Blackfoot warriors and eventually becomes a lieutenant in the British Army.

McWilliams is an elegant and engaging writer, with a solid sense of pacing, keeping the action moving along, while seamlessly weaving in vivid, historic details.

The Black War-Bonnet is well-researched, and includes footnotes, hand-drawn maps, and even music manuscripts.

The author’s Scottish heritage and love for the great Highland bagpipe is obvious.

He’s sipping from a tartan-bedecked coffee mug, and the Cloverdale home he shares with his wife Joan – who teaches highland dancing – is filled with kilts and dance costumes.

Framed photographs document the family’s travels with various pipe and drum bands.

His expansive bookshelf, however, is crammed with a range of subjects.

Writing, he says, combines his consuming interests: Celtic music, bagpipes, and military history.

McWilliams, who started playing bagpipes when he was 12 has kept at it most of his life, as a performer, pipe major and instructor.

Sons Lachlan and Colin, now grown, are pipers, too.

He also helped found the Saskatchewan Summer School of the Arts in the Qu’appelle Valley, which operated from 1967 to 1991, offering students instruction in visual arts, drama, music and writing.

As a young man, he spent four years in the Canadian army, before heading to university and becoming a teacher.

“It was terrific,” he says of his time in the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps. “It was the toughest time of my life, but the guys you met – they were great guys.”

Even now, he recalls lessons imparted during his training, leading to new revelations daily.

Being in the army was hard work, he says, but he embraced it.

“There’s something about the challenge and the comradeship of it. There’s always someone to pull you up.”

That sensibility informs his writing.

As an author, he’s big on research, traveling in person to the places where his stories are set.

He also draws on the experiences he gleaned from First World War veterans he interviewed as part of research he conducted in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Working with author Jim Steele, he co-authored three works of non-fiction, histories of the First World War: The Suicide Battalion, Gas! The Battle for Ypres 1915, and Amiens: Dawn of Victory.

What originally began as research for a book on piping and the First World War quickly transformed into a history of Moose Jaw’s 46th Battalion, he explains.

More recently, he wrote A Piper’s World, a collection of music written and arranged for the bagpipe featuring 99 tunes.

Like the MacHugh Memoirs, it’s self-published.

This summer, McWilliams returned to Moose Jaw, where, according to the Times Herald, he donated a special gift to the Saskatchewan Dragoons, formerly known as the 46th Battalion, which developed the nickname the Suicide Battalion due to a 91.5 per cent casualty rate during the First World War.

It’s a trench map that was issued to a member of the corps in 1917.

Next year is 100th anniversary of the 46th Battalion, and he hopes the anniversary will spur interest in his non-fiction works about the First World War.

He’s planned to write a dozen MacHugh novels eventually.

Until then, a shelf of unread adventures – the Flashman series by George MacDonald Fraser, and several of the Sharpe’s Rifles series by Bernard Cornwell (all birthday and Christmas gifts from his sons)  – will remain tantalizingly untouched.

The Sharpe series, in particular, is set in the same time and locales as his MacHugh series, and he doesn’t want to unconsciously plagiarize plot lines.

“They’re waiting until I finish my series. Then I’ve got a whole treat of books waiting.”

To find out more or to order his books, visit or email

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