Nearly two weeks after we lost him, I find myself feeling a delayed wistfulness about the recent passing of Wally Ellison.
I’m writing this column three days after I attended Wally’s funeral in West Bay Road. I was planning to go anyway, but at the request of the family, I wound up leading the music for the Mass service at St. Margaret’s Catholic Church.
Strangely, I didn’t feel the sadness that I expected to wash over me that day. There was more joy that morning than I expected, and perhaps that’s the way it was supposed to be, given Wally’s penchant for bringing smiles to so many faces with his skill on Scottish pipes of all sizes, his passion for Cape Breton’s language, culture and communities, and the colour – literal and otherwise – in his photography and writing.
Today, however, as I type out these words and reflect on Wally’s life, the suddenness of his departure and the big hole it leaves behind are causing me to pause.
Part of the reason has to do with something that happened entirely by accident earlier this morning. I was playing a YouTube video of Wally playing the pipes at one of his most frequent venues – the Port Hawkesbury Civic Centre’s Tuesday Night Ceilidhs, a series that also featured Wally prominently in its previous incarnation at the Creamery building on the waterfront.
A few moments later, the YouTube algorithms decided I’d like to hear a classic song from one of my favourite singers, Billy Joel, so it offered me up his 1978 single “The Entertainer.”
Now, Billy and Wally might not seem to have much to do with each other. But “The Entertainer” helped drive home one of the reasons I’ll miss Wally. The song is a caustic condemnation of the music industry, with lines like “if I go cold I won’t get sold, I’ll get put in the back in the discount rack, like another can of beans” and “today I am your champion, I may have won your hearts, but I know the game, you’ll forget my name – I won’t be here in another year, if I don’t stay on the charts.”
See, Wally Ellison was an entertainer. But he wasn’t that kind of entertainer. He loved the Scottish and Gaelic music, language and culture, and took great pride in passing it on to others. But he wasn’t interested in making records or filling stadiums or doing world tours.
His was a more grounded path, the journey of a teacher – which he served, dutifully and professionally, for 30 years at SAERC until his retirement in 1991. Afterwards, he used every means at his disposal to share every bit of knowledge he had, with the topics ranging from silt along the Margaree River, to the origin of favourite Gaelic phrases.
He did this sharing eagerly and enthusiastically, with anyone within earshot, whether he was doing an official on-stage performance, providing commentary to his books of Cape Breton photography, or just chatting with folks he met in-between pipe tunes at the Port Hastings Historical Society Museum or on the Port Hawkesbury waterfront.
During his later years, I had the honour of sharing the op-ed section of The Reporter with Wally, as his long-time column “This Is My Cape Breton” ran here after spending many years in the pages of The Inverness Oran.
Re-reading one of his last columns – published only a month ago, in the July 10 edition of The Reporter – I was amazed to discover that we had another common thread: We loved the water, and specifically, water sports.
“I had the fun of snorkeling at the entrance of a large lagoon near Poirierville a few years ago,” Wally recalled. “I picked up enough whelks, moon snails, razor clams, and blue mussels to make the afternoon very interesting.”
I should not be at all surprised that someone of Wally’s great depth would find such joy in the depths of the waters of Cape Breton and the many distinct creatures that God placed there. Reading his obituary, I also discovered that he enjoyed windsurfing, a sport I’ve never taken up. I feel like I’ve missed a wonderful opportunity to connect with Wally about a perspective of Atlantic Canada that few of us ever get to experience.
We lose a lot when we lose a Wally Ellison. We lose culture, history, perspective, music, science, nature, and a real zest for life. We lose a significant part of our identity as Cape Bretoners, as well.
Unless, of course, we take up the torch he leaves behind and make sure his work – and his play – lives on in the generations to follow.
That was Wally’s way. Hopefully, now, it will be our way.