The handwriting is faint but if you hold the old fiddle up to the light in the right way you can read the inscription: “Bought October 16, 1916, in London, England, by John A. Campbell, 185th Battalion. Price 15 pounds.”
Bill Tupper told me about his much-prized fiddle recently and as they used to say in old adventure books, therein lies a tale. Tupper would like to know more about John A. Campbell and he’s interested in tracing the history of the fiddle, learning exactly how old it is, for example. But first, let’s start with how the fiddle first came into Tupper’s possession.
Tupper saw the fiddle at an estate auction and decided to add it his collection of musical instruments. The auctioneer, who had purchased the fiddle as part of a house lot, didn’t know anything about it or its previous owner; about all he could tell Tupper was that the fiddle may have belonged to a Halifax family. Tupper purchased the fiddle and took it home. There he refurbished the old instrument, making a few minor repairs.
For years Tupper played the fiddle at musical gatherings. Then in a weak moment, he sold it. “I regretted it the moment the fiddle left my hands but the money I was offered was too much temptation at the time,” Tupper said in effect. Years later he had the opportunity to trade one of his hand-crafted guitars for the fiddle and it was back in his hands once more.
It isn’t likely that Bill Tupper will part with the fiddle again but as I said, he’s curious about John A. Campbell and the instrument’s history. When Bill told me the story about the fiddle I went to the Internet to see if Campbell was on the federal government website which lists the soldiers who served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the first world war. I discovered that there were over 100 John Campbells serving in the Canadian army in this war; some 30 of these were John A. Campbells.
The John A. Campbell who purchased the fiddle in London undoubtedly is one of these 30 John A’s listed in the website. However, it’s difficult to know for sure. One candidate is John Angus Campbell, from Grand Mira, Cape Breton. Another is John Alex Campbell who was born in Halifax.
The John A. Campbell who left the inscription on the old fiddle may never have returned to Nova Scotia. Military buff Gordon Hansford believes Campbell was killed at Vimy Ridge. The inscription indicates that Campbell joined the 185th battalion, which after being shipped overseas was broken up and the soldiers transferred to other regiments. Hansford said that the 185th was the Cape Breton Highlanders, which was part of the Nova Scotia Highland Brigade.
If the John A. Campbell whose name is on the fiddle was killed at Vimy, how did the instrument get back to Nova Scotia? Bill Tupper may never know. However, the old fiddle is now a cherished part of his musical collection and there it will remain. Gordon Hansford, who is a fiddler, told me that the instrument is “nice sounding and a beautiful thing. It’s not a flashy looking fiddle but by gosh it’s got a lot of music in it.”