Bagpiper's ceremonial knife returned, case dropped

Bagpiper's ceremonial knife returned, case dropped
Bagpiper's ceremonial knife returned, case dropped

Jeff McCarthy has his knife back.

On Monday, the Montreal bagpiper walked into Police Station 50 on Ste-Catherine St. E., filled out the paperwork and was handed his sgian-dubh (pronounced skee-an do).

In November 2016, while on break from performing at a McGill convocation ceremony at Place des Arts, McCarthy was stopped by police and handed a $221 ticket for wearing the small, ceremonial Scottish knife in his kilt hose sock as part of his traditional piping attire. The sgian-dubh was confiscated.

A year and a half he waited, in anticipation of his day in court; but a few days before May 18, his lawyer Daniel F. O’Connor informed him that the prosecutor was dropping the charges.

“He advised me I wasn’t required to go to court and that the ticket was going to be withdrawn,” McCarthy said on Thursday. “I said, ‘Okay, I guess that’s a good thing.’

“I was very, very happy, but at the same time a little concerned. My main reason for contesting (the ticket) was to make sure this never happens again. We want this not to happen to anyone, whether they’re going to a parade, the Highland Games or St. Andrew’s Ball — all examples I cited on the day I received the fine, to no avail.”

McCarthy had been gearing up to plead his case, and hopefully set a precedent to protect others from having to go through this ordeal. So the news came as a bit of an anticlimax.

“Once they withdraw (the charge), there’s nothing you can do,” he said. “You can’t contest it in any way. You can’t say, ‘No, we want to go to court.”

Not that he’s complaining. The past year and a half has been stressful, he explained, tainting the passion for piping that has consumed him for the past 29 years as he has performed at weddings, funerals and parades, as well as his regular lunchtime gig at Ogilvy, which came to a close in September when the department store ended its 72-year tradition (McCarthy having worked 24 of those years).

To be able to get back to piping, free of the weight of a court case, is a relief for the veteran musician.

“I’m really happy it’s over,” he said. “It’s hard; in the back of your mind you always have this feeling that people are very supportive and everything, but every now and then one person makes a joke — ‘Oh they let you out of jail for the weekend,’ or ‘You must be on parole.’

“I’m quick to correct them that it was a municipal bylaw that I apparently contravened; it wasn’t the Criminal Code of Canada. When it’s blurted out in public and people are laughing at you, you can’t help but want to correct them. You have to stand up for yourself and set things straight. It’s comedic, but to have to endure 18 months of that…”

A sgian-dubh is a small, ceremonial Scottish knife worn in the kilt hose sock as part of traditional piping attire. Phil Carpenter / Montreal Gazette

To top it all off, he missed his sgian-dubh.

“It was a really, really nice one,” he said. “It had St. Andrew on it, who as everyone knows is the patron saint of the Scots, a guardian of sorts.”

McCarthy felt naked without it, and was overjoyed to receive an intentionally innocuous replacement one day in the mail: a sgian brew, a novelty item with the same handle as a sgian-dubh, but with a bottle opener on the other end.

“The guy who made the (confiscated sgian-dubh) is in Loch Ness (Scotland),” he said. “He felt really bad, so made me a backup and just mailed it to me. It’s a very authentic-looking device, worn in the same way as the sgian-dubh; but when you wear it, you’re not going to run afoul of any bylaws.”

McCarthy’s trusty sgian-dubh was back in its usual spot — under his kilt hose socks, against his shin — Wednesday evening as he performed at the most innocent of events: the grade six graduation ceremony at Hampstead Elementary School.

The police were nowhere in sight.

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