James McWilliams joined the St. Andrew’s Society Boy’s Pipe Band in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan at age 11, making his first public piping appearance before Princess Elizabeth six months later. Under the tutelage of Pipe Major Bob Shepherd and Jim Carnegie (formerly of the Edinburgh City Police), McWilliams won three Saskachewan Junior Piping Championships.
After High School, McWilliams joined the Canadian Army hoping to be a piper in the Black Watch, at that time a Regular Force regiment, but instead became an officer in the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps after taking OCP (Officer Candidate Plan) and COTC. He eventually settled into a teaching career in Calgary, and served in the reserves as band officer of the 19th Medium Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery before that unit was disbanded in the mid 1960s. The pipers and drummers of the 19th Field went on to form the Clan McBain Pipe Band.
McWilliams, however, came to the Calgary Highlanders to play, resigning his commission to do so and enlisting as a civilian piper at about the time Pipe Major Don Maxwell resigned. McWilliams remembers that “we had an informal vote in which I was elected (Pipe Major) and the request that I be given the job was passed on to the powers that be. In the meantime with the help of a good drum corps and Jimmy Hamilton we built a really good band.”
When the next Stampede Parade rolled around, there was some uncertainty about McWilliam’s status as Pipe Major, and he left the band. Jimmy Hamilton took over, though his status was also confused and he left shortly after as well. Many young pipers and drummers elected to take their services to Clan McBain, a civilian pipe band, and McWilliam joined many of the former 19th Field musicians there.
McWilliams spent part of a summer at the Invermark School of Piping in New York State learning the basics of piobaireachd, earning their highest certificate, and in 1962 was selected as Chief Instructor of the Prairie Command School of Piping and Drumming at Currie Barracks in Calgary. It would be an essential background to workshops and schools he conducted in later years British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, and Montana.
In 1967 McWilliams returned to his hometown of Moose Jaw and remained there for 25 years as a high school teacher, serving as Band Director/Pipe Major of the White Hackle, guiding the band in both Grade Three and Grade Four competition to over a dozen Provincial Championships. Other accomplishments with White Hackle included an International Championship, runner-up for the Eastern Canadian Championship, Third in the North American Championships (all in their only visit to Ontario), and a win at the 1986 Expo Championship in Vancouver, with a Sixth place finish in the European Championships.
McWilliams went on to co co-found the Saskatchewan Summer School of the Arts and The Prairie Pipe Band Association and served in a variety of roles and executive positions from the 1960‘s to the 1990‘s. He also published several pamphlets and articles on piping as well as editing “The Bandsman”, the newsletter of the Prairie Pipe Band Association. McWilliams was also a prolific composer of pipe music and adjudicator of Piping, Ensemble and Bass-Tenor competitions throughout Canada and the northern US.
In 1993 McWilliams left Moose Jaw to begin a new career as a retiree in Cloverdale, B.C., continuing to pipe with The Delta Police Pipe Band, The White Spot Pipe Band, the Langley Legion Pipe Band, and the Vancouver Police Pipe Band in addition to piping for the Tartan Pride Highland Dance Team and playing some tunes with the popular Celtic band Blackthorn.
Jim passed away in Surrey, BC on 23 September 2022. He was a driving force for the betterment of piping in Western Canada. Jim will be missed.