Edna MacMillan

2006 Jun

Edna-MacMillanEdna was born on July lst, 1906 in the 7th Concession of East Hawkesbury Township, Prescott County, to Angus Malcolm MacKinnon and Maude Hope. In the winter of 1917 the family moved to the Brodie Road. She often remarked what a change there was between two communities. It was much more social in Brodie with lots of music, card parties, church activities and lots of visiting between neighbours.

Edna wanted to play her grandpa’s fiddle when she was three years old, but he didn’t think she was serious and might drop the instrument. When she was five, her uncle, Dr. J. T. Hope, brought a brand new piano to the MacKinnon house. Imagine the excitement! It came in a crate on the back of a milk rig. The box was brought into the house and soon the new piano was installed. Edna immediately began to explore and learn to play the instrument. When her grandpa saw how determined she was and that she seemed to have some talent, he let her try his fiddle. Therefore, her experience with the fiddle began when she was five years old! She didn’t take any formal lessons, but there were so many players in the area that would be more than willing to assist her in mastering the fiddle. There was Jimmy Jamieson at the corner, Sadie Brodie and her brother Kenzie almost across the road. Hughie Big Allan MacDonald, at Glen Sandfield, and his children, were an influence on the music she was exposed to. Viola MacRae, an accomplished pianist, was another contemporary.

Everyone develops their own style and execution of playing. Edna was no exception. It’s hard to describe what made her style so unique, but there was a haunting quality about it. She also played the piano with her own stamp on a distinctive style.

She married Clarence MacMillan on October 31st, 1927 and moved west the road to Quigley’s Corners (Lochiel). There she came in contact with a new set of musicians, namely the Ranger family. All of these children played at least one instrument. Edna played in an orchestra that featured Lucien Ranger and herself on fiddle, Bob Ranger on guitar, Alice on bass fiddle and Irene on piano. One would marvel at the wide range of music this group produced. Lots of Scotch music, then the Lambeth Walk, an 18th Century Drawing Room, The Woodpecker Song, Eddie Arnold’s If the World Keeps on Turning, This Must be Love (Because I Feel so Well) etc. This group played together through the war years. They would leave home at 7 pm, play until 1 am, arrive home at 2 am, sleep until 6 am then out to the barn to start chores. This was the routine most Fridays and Saturdays. The vigour and tempo of their playing was always impressive.

Edna-MacMillan2Up until the 1950s, at local dances, there was a floor manager who called for the square dances. He also announced what the next dance would be. Alex (Big Norman) MacLeod from Dalkeith was probably the last gentleman to fill this position. It has been said that “he didn’t give the orchestra much of a breather as the third change of a square dance was followed immediately by his announcing that the next dance would be a fox trot or waltz.”

At the same time. she was church organist, a position she held for many years. She could read music very well. She would take a new tune, play it several times on the piano with the right hand only, and then play it with both hands right through. She would then play it on the fiddle. She loved to play. She would get her son to chord for her almost every evening and if he wasn’t available she would play the piano.

Edna took part in he fiddle competitions sponsored by the Glengarry Historical Society and won in her class several times. She used to attend fiddle practices held by both the Glengarry Strathspey and Reel Society and the Lochiel Strings. She was always available to these groups for advice or to offer new tunes to the groups that she thought were suitable. Both she and Rev. John MacPhail were made honorary members of the Strathspey and Reel Society for the support they showed.

Her love of playing can best be illustrated by an incident that took place in the spring prior to her passing, as remembered by her daughter:

Mom was confined to the hospital in Alexandria at the time the annual Fiddle Workshop sponsored by the Strathspey and Reel Society was being held in the Curling Club. Ruth and I were visiting her in the early part of the afternoon and she said how sorry she was not to be able to attend the workshop. She said she would really like it if some members of the Society could drop by and play a few tunes with her. I didn’t say anything, but went over to the Curling Club and asked Donald Joseph if he could ask if some of the members could drop by the hospital for a little while. I went back to the hospital and very shortly Allan MacPhail and Rev. Bruce Ross appeared at the door with their fiddles. She jumped out of bed and greeted them and then said she knew they were short of time, but if they came down to the common room, there was piano there and she would accompany them on a few tunes. Soon the old familiar airs filled the hospital corridors and a crowd of patients began to gather. After several rousing tunes she thanked Bruce and Allan for giving up their time to come over. It was probably the last time she played but was thrilled by their act of kindness.

After she left the farm and moved to Alexandria, I tried to condition her as to the changes she would experience in her life due to the move. At Quigley’s there was a constant stream of visitors which made her life very busy but very rich. I thought there would probably be fewer visitors in town and that things would be less hectic. How wrong I was! There were even more people dropping in than before! Her years in Alexandria were probably the richest period in her life. She made lots of new friends which along with her previous friends assured that she would always be occupied with one project or another.

Edna MacMillan passed away on September 12th, 1989. Her fiddle rested on her casket.

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