Lament for a late queen

·3 min read

Queen Elizabeth II’s favourite hymn was “The Lord is My Shepherd,” sung to the Scottish tune Crimond.

Naturally, it played a central role in a memorial service Friday, Sept. 9, at a packed St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, with newly minted British Prime Minister Liz Truss in attendance.

As the last strains of singing died out, a member of the clergy said a few words and the church fell silent.

Andrew Parsons took his place at the back of the church and got ready for his big moment.

And then it came: that legendary wail, the battle cry of ancient Scottish warriors, now an indispensible part of ceremonies marking both joy and sadness.

Parsons is a bagpiper.

He’s also from St. John’s.

“I’ve barely had time to breath this weekend,” Parsons said during a cellphone call Monday, Sept. 12, from London, where he had just hopped off a bus. “It’s all been a little bit mad, and will get madder.”

While the honour for such a significant service might normally have gone to a more senior piper, Parsons was chosen because he’s been the on-call piper at the cathedral for the past five years.

“The simple answer is I was lucky enough to be on their books and reliable,” he said. “I live in London, so I could react immediately.”

The melody he played was “Flowers of the Forest,” arguably the most common funeral lament.

“It’s usually the one you’d hear on Remembrance Sunday or Remembrance Day, Nov. 11,” he said.

While the service was watched live by millions around the world, Parsons said he had a singular focus.

“To be honest, I was concentrating on the music,” he said.

“That, and walking in a straight line and not falling over. That was easy.”

Bagpipes are difficult to play well and frighteningly easy to play badly, he said.

“It seems to be the instrument that everybody loves to play half-learned or unwell. It baffles me and upsets me in equal parts when I hear a busker destroying the instrument.”

Parsons has been playing since he was a teen, when he and his brother were in the St. Andrew’s Boy Scouts and wore kilts. His mother came from Scottish roots, and the family regularly attended the Kirk.

“It was a pretty odd thing growing up in St. John’s and getting teased for wearing a kilt and playing bagpipes,” he said.

“If you’re a teenager, you want to play something cool like a guitar or a saxophone, and not an object of ridicule, but then you get to university and you discover it’s OK to be different.”

After completely degrees in history at Memorial University, he went to the University of London for a PhD and never looked back.

When he’s not piping, he’s a museum curator for a small regimental collection.

Parsons laughs when he realizes his mustachioed visage could easily be mistaken for that of a true Scotsman.

“I felt a bit of a fraud, because I’m neither Anglican nor Scottish,” he said. “As long as I don’t open my mouth, no one will know.”

Next week, as a member of the reserves, he will be involved in a military event — likely in relation to the late monarch, but he can’t confirm or deny since all manoeuvres are kept secret.

And while the public was prepared for the imminent passing of Elizabeth II, he says tributes have been non-stop.

“You can’t get near Buckingham Palace for the crowds leaving heaps and heaps of flowers,” he said. “I was told yesterday it takes staff upwards of four or five hours to clear all of the floral tributes at the end of the day.”

Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram