Alexander Muir (b. April 5, 1830 – d. June 26, 1906) was a songwriter, poet, soldier, and school headmaster. He is best remembered for composing one of Canada’s most beloved songs, The Maple Leaf Forever.
Muir was born in the Scottish town of Lesmahagow and immigrated to Toronto as a child. He grew up in the city and went on to study at Queen’s College in Kingston. Muir served with The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada and fought at the Battle of Ridgeway on June 2, 1866.
The one-sided affair at Ridgeway left a lasting impact on Muir as a member of the losing side. Irish-American veterans of the US Civil War soundly defeated Canadian troops just over the border from Buffalo, New York. It would be the last fight against a foreign invader in what would become Ontario. The Battle of Ridgeway would be one of a series of raids organized by the Fenian Brotherhood to capture British colonies in North America and exchange them for Irish independence. The attacks were a driving force in Canadian Confederation in 1867 so that the colonies could join together and fight off other incursions.
Muir penned The Maple Leaf Forever in October 1867 as his 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 Canada. The song also acknowledged the homelands of many immigrants through the mention 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” which was written 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.
One of the inspirations for the song is believed to have been a large maple tree which stood in front of Muir’s Toronto home. The tree outlived Muir and fell during a windstorm on the night of July 19, 2013. The wood was used to make objects that will preserve its importance to Canadian culture. Included among these is the speaker’s podium for Toronto City Council. What remains of the lower trunk can be seen in the background of this instrumental performance by Robbie Herd from Toronto Fire Pipes & Drums.
Several other renditions of the song followed over the years. 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.