Alan Stairs: The piping farmer of Tewkesbury

alan1.jpg
Photo: Shirley Nadeau

Standing in a field accompanied by his trusty dog Watson, with six of his black Angus cattle behind him, Alan Stairs looks like an everyday farmer. 

Alan Stairs is usually seen dressed in his 78th Fraser Highland uniform with his bagpipes slung under one arm while he plays an assortment of marches, slow marches, jigs and Strathspeys. 

A recent visit to their farm in Tewkesbury, where he and his wife Christiane Gagnon have lived for the past 28 years, revealed a totally different side of the man – an Angus cattle breeder. 

Both Stairs and Gagnon at one time worked for the Canadian Coast Guard, where they met and soon after got married. They now have four children and one grandchild.  

Stairs and his wife live on 200 beautiful acres of land on both sides of the Jacques Cartier River which they purchased in 1986. They moved there in 1987 and built a new home there, after moving the old Plante family farmhouse up the hill a bit. 

Stairs started in the cattle-raising business with just two cows, but soon bought two more pure-bred Angus cows from Audrey Jack in Valcartier, and the herd has grown since then. 

alan2.jpg (Photo by Shirley Nadeau from QCT archives) 

This is how most people in Quebec City usually see Alan in his 78th Fraser Highlanders uniform playing a tune for an appreciative audience in a church or on the Plains of Abraham during the Celtic Festival.  

We visited the barn where this year’s calves were spending their last few days with their mothers before being weaned. Born in the spring, the calves had spent the summer in the field with the cows. Stairs said, “In September we bring them into the barn where we separate them from their mothers. They’ll keep us awake for the next four days bawling for their mothers.”   

They currently have 20 breeding cows, but they have had up to 25. Stairs explained, “we’re slowly cutting down, in pre-retirement mode.” He and his wife are looking forward to being able to do other things with family, travelling, and other activities they are interested in. 

Stairs keeps some of the calves for reproduction, some are sold for breeding purposes and some for meat. “We keep a small number of animals that we fatten up and sell as boxed beef, freezer meat,” said Stairs, adding that they keep a certain amount of the meat for themselves. 

The Stairs-Gagnons also maintain a good-sized vegetable garden, make maple syrup from the 300 or so trees on their property, and rent the renovated original 150-year-old farmhouse to tourists. Christianne is also an accomplished artist. Many of her works are hanging on the walls of their home and the guest house.   

Stairs talked about the life of a cattle farmer. “There’s always something to do. It’s not like dairy cattle, where you have to get up at five o’clock in the morning to milk the cows, but we have to be nearby all the time. We can go into town for short periods, but to get away for any length of time, we have to have someone here to look after the animals. Some of our children – John, Mackenzie, Christine and Jane – can do it when they’re free, but [finding someone to care for the cattle for longer periods of time] is the hardest part. That’s why we’re cutting down, to give ourselves more free time.”

Stairs’ grandfather was born in Halifax, and later moved to Montreal where he worked he as an engineer and married Rachel Webb from Quebec City. His father was born in Montreal where he later met his future wife who had come from Scotland on a school trip to Montreal in 1938. His father later worked at the Alcan aluminum company near Arvida in the Saguenay district, where Alan was born. 

Stairs learned to play the bagpipes at the age of 12 while a student at Bishop’s College School in Lennoxville. He only played for two years and didn’t play again until David Stafford called him in 2002 to recruit him for the 78th Fraser Highlanders, Fort St. Andrew’s Garrison. He is now the Pipe Major for the regiment.