Alexander Muir was a songwriter, soldier, and school headmaster. Born in Scotland, he is best remembered for composing one of Canada’s most beloved songs, The Maple Leaf Forever.
Muir was born in the village of Lesmahagow on April 5, 1830. His family made the trip across the Atlantic in 1833 and settled in the Toronto area. He received his early education from his father, who taught in a log-cabin school in Scarborough Township. The family were members of the local Presbyterian church where Alexander joined the choir.
Seeing their children get a good education was important to many Scottish immigrants. At the encouragement of his parents, Alexander went on to study at Queens University in Kingston. He followed in his father’s footsteps after graduation and pursued a career in education. Muir worked in various schools around Toronto before moving to the city in 1880. Eight years after beginning as a teacher, he became the first principal of Toronto’s Gladstone Avenue School. It would be a post that Muir held until his death.
Showing respect and appreciation for Canada was one of Muir’s main goals with his students. His achieved this through promoting the poetry, history and music of his adopted home. Muir also passed on his love of the outdoors and athletics. He encouraged youth to participate in activities like lacrosse, curling and rowing.
Muir was proud of his Scottish heritage and to be a part of the British Empire. He joined the The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada and would see action at the Battle of Ridgeway on June 2, 1866. Being on the losing side of that conflict profoundly impacted him. It was considered to be be one of the main inspirations behind his penning of the Maple Leaf Forever.
Irish-American veterans of the U.S. Civil War soundly defeated Canadian troops near the town of Ridgeway before retreating back over the border near Buffalo, New York. The incursion was one of a series of raids organized by the Fenian Brotherhood. Their goal was to capture British colonies in North America and exchange them for Irish independence. The attacks were a driving force behind Canadian Confederation in 1867 as the colonies bound together in order to fight off other invasions.
The Maple Leaf Forever was written in October 1867 as Muir’s entry in a poetry contest hosted by the Caledonian Society of Montreal. The original lyrics were a tribute to Confederation and highlighted several British military victories in North America. The song also heralded the origins of many immigrants through the inclusion of the floral emblems of Scotland (thistle), Ireland (shamrock) and England (rose). Muir tried to find some music to accompany the words but ending up writing his own. The tune was likely inspired by “My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose” by Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet.
The entry took second place in the contest but would go on to become an unofficial anthem in English Canada. Although it was loved by many, the song’s undercurrent of British colonialism kept it from becoming popular with French-Canadians. Muir rewrote the lyrics several times and added a lily to the floral mentions to appeal to those of French ancestry.
A large maple tree which stood in the front yard of Muir’s Toronto home is often cited as another inspiration. The tree became a local tourist attraction with the creation of Maple Leaf Forever Park in 1933. Several historians have discredited the story noting that its doubtful whether Muir ever actually lived at the address. But the legend lived on in people’s hearts and minds. The tree stood until a windstorm brought it down on July 19, 2013. Objects connected to Canadian culture were made from the wood including the speaker’s podium for Toronto City Council. What remains of the lower trunk can be seen in the background of this instrumental performance of the song by Robbie Herd from Toronto Fire Pipes & Drums.
George Leslie, after whom Toronto’s Leslieville is named, was said to be involved in another origin story. Leslie had been quoted as saying that he suggested Muir write a poem about a maple leaf after one landed on his arm as the two men were walking together. In Leslie’s version, this inspiration came on Queen Street East and not Laing Street where Muir allegedly lived.
Alexander Muir passed away on June 26, 1906 but the song has endured. In 1997, CBC Radio held a contest to come up with more inclusive lyrics. The winning submission came from Vladimir Radian, a Romanian immigrant to Canada. One of the most memorable performances of the revised song came from Anne Murray at the last game ever played in Maple Leaf Gardens.