Orangeman, Patriot, and Poet
by Bro. Alex Rough
Alexander Muir was born at Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire, Scotland, in 1830. His family emigrated to Canada when he was five years old and he spent his childhood in Scarborough Township. He attended Queens University at Kingston from which he graduated in 1851.
He married Agnes Thompson of Scarborough and taught school there until 1860 and then moved to Leslieville. In 1864 his wife died and the following year he married Mary Alice Thompson of Holland Landing. He taught school at the Yorkville School, now known as Jesse Ketchum school, and at schools in Newmarket and Beaverton before returning to Toronto in 1885 as principal of Howard Park School, known as Shirley Street School. From there he went to Brock Avenue School and in 1888 when Gladstone Avenue School opened, he became its principal and remained there til his death in 1906.
Margaret MacTaggart in an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail, recalling her recollections as a pupil under Muir, told of his love for music. When they were tired from long study, she wrote, that he would make the pupils stand up and march around the room singing patriotic songs and carrying a small Union Jack.
Muir's patriotism was no mere bluster. He carried to his grave a stiff left arm as the result of a wound he received in the Northwest Canada Rebellion of 1885 and he was with the Queen's Own Rifles of Toronto in fighting and defeating the Irish-American Fenians at Ridgeway, Ontario in 1866. Later, he was one of the few principals who insisted on military training in his school and Mrs
MacTaggart remembered that while the boys carried only wooden guns 'the training was of the finest.'
Muir was a deeply religious man and a lifelong adherent of the Presbyterian Church. He never opened or closed his classes without asking God's blessing. His favourite closing words, either spoken or sung were;
'Forgive me, Lord, for Thy dear Son,
The ills that I this day have done;
That with the world, myself and me
Ere I sleep at peace may be.'
In 1867 Muir composed 'The Maple Leaf Forever', not only writing the words but the music also. Writing songs was a hobby for Muir and when he was a youth he penned his first poem and set it to music. A visiting Scottish minister, Reverend Dr. Norman McLeod, heard him sing it and said "Laddie, ye'll be well kenned before ye dee."
He was also a devoted and active Orangeman. He served as the Master of Ontario L.O.L. No. 142 in the city of Toronto, and his talents were generously given where necessary to assist the Order. The following tribute was published in 'The Sentinel' announcing his death;
"Worshipful Brother Muir was a staunch advocate of loyalty to the British Crown and Protestant principles. He was a familiar figure at patriotic demonstrations and public celebrations, where he took a prominent part in the programme. He was a man of magnificent physique and matchless eloquence. The many occasions at lodge banquets and other public assemblies where he thrilled his audiences with a recital of the encounter at Hart's River in South Africa when our brave Canadian boys were inspired to glorious deeds by 'The Maple Leaf Forever' will never be forgotten by those who had the privilege of being present.'
A sad note is the fact that although his most famous song was a best seller he never received any remuneration in the way of royalties. Muir had to pay a publisher thirty dollars to have the song published and the only return he got was the sum of four dollars, so in fact 'The Maple Leaf Forever' cost him the sum of $26, although the sales were enormous and a large profit was made on the song. Muir never regretted not making money on the song. He was happy that he had made so many unknown friends by his songs and felt that he had thus been rewarded.
When Muir died in 1906 tributes poured in from all over the country from every class of citizen. The account of the funeral in 'The Sentinel' of July 3, 1906, was three full long newspaper columns in length and was only such as given the highest in the land. The Orange Order was well represented at his funeral service by County Master - Fred Dane; Deputy County Master - Joseph Thompson; Edward Floody - Grand Director of Ceremonies of the GOL of Canada; William Lee - Grand Secretary of the GOL of Ontario West; E.T. Essery - Deputy Grand Master of THE GOL of Ontario West; and Cecil Armstrong the Master of L.O.L. No. 142 of which Muir had been a member for forty years.
On June 20, 1958, a plaque was placed by the Orange Association of Canada on the fence that guards the maple tree on Laing Street in Toronto which inspired Muir to pen his famous song. The plaque was unveiled by the Toronto Historical Board and a choir composed of children from nearby Leslie Street public school sang the 'Maple Leaf Forever.' Muir's grave in Mount Pleasant Cemetery is marked with a granite obelisk erected by the Orangemen of Canada. In 1967 the Queen's Own Rifles adopted his song as their regimental march.