NORTH SHORE SHAKEDOWN: Bagpipe salute a nightly ritual in North Vancouver's Poets Corner

There is an otherwise quiet neighbourhood in Lynn Valley known locally as Poets Corner.

Up there, you can stroll along William and Shakespeare avenues, or walk down the hill to Milton or Chaucer avenues. Lining the streets are nice family homes backed by giant trees.

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When not getting home schooled, the children living along the gently sloped Tennyson Crescent spend much of their COVID-19 days riding up and down the block on their bikes, getting air on homemade ramps. At one end of the street a hockey net is set up. It’s a pleasant scene, even in a pandemic.

Every night on Tennyson, for the past 40 nights and counting, neighbours come out of their homes and gather – within safe physical distance from each other – in front of the driveway of one particular home.

Just before 7 p.m., a slim, silver-haired man emerges, suited in a kilt, sweater, sporran, and thick knee-high socks. He has a set of bagpipes tucked under his arm. A drummer from down the street walks up with a large bass drum suspended from his shoulders.  At the stroke of 7 p.m., the pair let it wail, as if Poets Corner was the Scottish Highlands.  The utterly distinct, soul-stirring sounds of bagpipes and drum fill the crisp spring air of central Lynn Valley.

The piper is Allan McMordie, a recently retired software consultant and active volunteer search manager with North Shore Rescue. He learned to play the bagpipes when he was a kid in a kilted scout troop in Calgary, and has played in various pipe bands ever since.

“This whole nightly thing started back on March 24th, when everyone started to do the 7 o’clock cheer for healthcare workers,” explained McMordie. “My neighbour Jay MacDonald joined me on the bass drum the next night, and we have been doing it continuously ever since. It started as a cheer for the health-care professionals, and changed into a salute to all of the other front-line workers like grocery store employees.”

I’ve personally known Allan McMordie for about 10 years, having had the honour of taking part in his stories-and-spirits event A Whisky Library. Until 2020, it has been a yearly fundraiser for the Trish McMordie Memorial Fund, benefiting the youth services department of the Lynn Valley Library (this year’s A Whisky Library was cancelled due to COVID-19).

Trish McMordie was Allan’s wife. She tragically passed away in 2013 at age 57 after a battle with brain cancer: glioblastoma, the same dreaded affliction that felled Gord Downie.

Allan and Trish were married for 35 years, raising two children, Janet and David, on Tennyson Crescent. Trish also played the bagpipes with Allan in the J.P. Fell Pipe Band, dubbed “the official pipe band of the North Shore” by the lieutenant governor.

When I politely suggested to Allan that, to some, bagpipes might be an acquired taste, Allan pointed out that he has always practised his pipes in his basement on Tennyson and has yet to receive a complaint.

“My kids remember having our bagpipes as their wakeup alarms some mornings,” recalled Allan. “On the whole, our neighbourhood seems to love the bagpipes. In non-COVID times, we have regularly paraded on Tennyson Crescent for Lynn Valley Day – usually in late June – and Robbie Burns Day in January, and any other good occasion.”

I took my kids up to Poets Corner a few nights ago to take in the ritual. Several neighbours gathered at safe distances with glasses of wine, pots and pans, tambourines and other noise-making devices. When the bagpipes and drum started up, everyone banged along with the beat.

“It’s a tight-knit neighbourhood and Allan is at the heart of it,” one misty-eyed neighbour told me. “This has become our special way of paying tribute, and coming together. Just to see each other’s faces, seeing the kids, it makes a big difference in these strange times of isolation.”

A parent told me their children look forward to it every day. “It’s become a very good reason to get us all out of the house,” she stated. “It’s like a nightly block party. From a distance.”

“Many of the kids on the block are too young to understand what is going on and may feel a little frightened,” McMordie agreed. “I see our little concerts as a way to give them a bit of joy. Hopefully it gives them a small sense of security in that we keep going, living our lives, and having some fun, and that we will all get through this.”

After a couple of songs, McMordie and MacDonald lowered their instruments to cheers. They celebrated with a wee distanced dram.

The kilted pair intends to continue their pipe and drum performance for as long as it takes. “We’ll keep it up as long Dr. Bonnie Henry tells us to stay at home. We’re thinking of having a parade around the block to celebrate our last one.”

By the time this is all over, District of North Vancouver planners may just have to add a new street to Poets Corner: Robbie Burns Boulevard.

Grant Lawrence is a North Shore-raised author, musician, columnist and CBC personality.

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