The Gaelic revival

In song, dance, and language, Cape Breton is rediscovering its old-country Celtic roots

JOHN DeMONT December 6 1993

The Gaelic revival

In song, dance, and language, Cape Breton is rediscovering its old-country Celtic roots

JOHN DeMONT December 6 1993

The Gaelic revival

In song, dance, and language, Cape Breton is rediscovering its old-country Celtic roots



On the tiny stage, an impassive white-haired man and an exuberant young blond woman bow their fiddles in unison. The setting is a popular Halifax bar, but on this November night the atmosphere seems more like that of a dance at a Cape Breton parish hall. Primly dressed senior citizens exchange the Gaelic greeting “Ciamar a tha thu” (“How are you?”) with blackgarbed, Sinéad O’Connor look-alikes. However incongruous the mix, the crowd is united in its desire to hear the man on stage. At 69, Buddy MacMaster is the living embodiment of Cape Breton traditional fiddling, still tearing off the soaring reels and strathspeys that have captivated crowds from Creignish to California. But if MacMaster represents the pinnacle of a rich musical tradition, his niece Natalie beside him is its future. “I’m just part of this wave, which seems to keep building,” says 21year-old Natalie during a break from the performance. Moments later, she matches her revered uncle note-for-note, a feat that makes the normally undemonstrative MacMaster crack a smile.

Centuries ago, those same notes echoed through the Scottish Highlands. Now they are commonplace in the rolling hills and gentle glens of Cape Breton, where the music of the ancient Celts is undergoing a huge revival. Established musicians like Buddy MacMaster are finding new audiences for their traditional arrangements. More commercial Celtic performers such as Big Pond’s Rita MacNeil and Mabou’s The Rankin Family sell out concerts and top Canadian record charts. In their wake come a group of improbably young artists on the cusp of stardom. Yet something more profound than a musical renaissance is underway on the rugged island at the northeastern end of Nova Scotia. As increasing numbers of young Cape Bretoners rediscover their Scottish roots—studying everything from the Gaelic language to Scottish weaving—they are giving new life to a culture that once verged on extinction. “It is our past and our heritage,” explains Stephanie Beaton, 16, a Mabou high-school student who has been studying Gaelic for two years. “We need to keep it safe.”

Along Route 19, which winds along the west coast of Cape Breton to the Cabot Trail, it seems that the old traditions could not be safer. Inverness County is the centre of the island’s Celtic spirit: the names of the passing villages— Creignish, Glenco, Strathlorne, Dunvegan—recall the thousands of Scots who arrived in the early 1800s after being uprooted during the notorious Highland clearances. And so does the stirring fiddle music that often floats outs from the area’s church halls.

With its lengthy unemployment lines and blighted economy, Cape Breton is hardly a blissful Brigadoon. But the fiddlers and dancers of Inverness County stand as living examples of a style of music and dance that was lost centuries ago in the old country. And when Buddy MacMaster, the dean of Cape Breton fiddling, accepts invitations to perform and teach in Scotland, it is

as much to help his ancestral country rediscover its lost roots as to showcase his talent. “They seem to like it,” says MacMaster, a quiet, compact man who taught himself to play by listening to other local musicians. “I guess there is more of a Gaelic sound to the music here.”

The freedom and relative isolation of Cape Breton allowed the old-country musical heritage to thrive until the mid-20th century. Archie Neil Chisholm, 87, who has lived all his life in Margaree Forks, a slight detour from Route 19, says that some of his earliest memories are of Celtic music.

Itinerant travelling fiddlers often stayed at his family home, and musically inclined neighbors used to drop in for impromptu kitchen sessions.

Like many with Scottish roots, he boasts fiddlers, singers

and dancers among his eight -

brothers and sisters. And despite his affliction with polio, Chisholm himself became such a sought-after fiddler that he once performed on 36 consecutive nights at house parties and ceilidhs, Cape Breton hoedowns. “They paid $1 a night, plus all you could drink,” he recalled. “In those days, I used to wake up with nothing in my pocket and a big head.”

Eventually, the 20th century began to intrude. Chisholm and other traditionalists watched in alarm as mass culture—particularly television and rock ’n’ roll music—began to drown out the sounds of Celtic music. After decades of indifference, the turning point, according to many Cape Bretoners, was a 1973 television documentary called The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler, which focused on the legendary fiddler and composer Dan R. MacDonald. The film acted as a call to arms: join forces to nurture Cape Breton’s unique culture, or risk losing it altogether. Within a year, community elders had banded together to launch the Glendale Festival, which brought together fiddlers from on and off the island. The August festival, which gave many young people their first real exposure to the music, continues to this day as the Cape Breton Fiddlers Festival.

At the same time, Celtic influence on pop music grew enormously in the 1980s, with bands like Ireland’s The Pogues mixing traditional and pop strains into a unique blend. Fiddle music, once considered hopelessly uncool, became almost fashionable. “It is hard to point to a single factor,” said Stan Chapman, a respected fiddle teacher who lives in Antigonish, on the Nova Scotia mainland. “But the music has come back stronger than ever.”

These days, Cape Breton’s community halls, parlors and classrooms are filled with future Dan R. MacDonalds and Buddy MacMasters. Most weeknights at the church hall in Creignish—20 km from the Canso Causeway, which connects the island to the mainland—a group of students aged 9 to 15 run through jigs and reels under Stephanie Wills’s watchful eye. “The amount of interest is unbelievable,” explains the 22-year-old musician, who was just eight when she fell under the instrument’s spell. “All of a sudden everybody seems to want to pick up the fiddle.”

In fact, all things Celtic are increasingly popular. The Celtic studies program at Saint Francis Xavier University, in Antigonish, on the Nova Scotia mainland, has grown steadily, this year experiencing its highest firstyear enrolment ever. In Baddeck, enrolment at St. Anne’s Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts—which offers courses in everything from Celtic weaving to bagpipe music—has climbed to 898 students from 663 last year. Angus Mackenzie, 15, a Mabou native who was a 1992 North American piping champion, declares: “Nobody finds the pipes weird anymore.”

The same could be said of the language of his forebears, which is making a surprising comeback. Just 150 years ago, Cape Breton’s 30,000 Gaelic speakers outnumbered those found in the Hebrides Islands, off the coast of Scotland. But most Cape Breton adults did not inherit “the Gaelic” from their aging parents. “Those people in their 40s to 60s were forbidden to speak the language,” explains Margie Beaton, a Mabou schoolteacher who has taught the ancient language since 1975. “It was looked down upon and condemned as something which would keep you back.”

Now, that stigma is gone. And Beaton, who was born on the Hebredean Island of Eriskay and spoke Gaelic as her first language, notices a resurgence of her mother tongue. When the class she taught at the local high school was cancelled in 1990 due to budgetary restrictions, she still found enough teenage student to continue the Gaelic class after school hours. And language courses are fully booked at St. Anne’s Gaelic College in Baddeck. Another sign of the times: Am Bràighe, a quarterly Mabou newspaper about Gaelic language and tradition, began publishing earlier this year and is just one of a number of enterprises hoping to capitalize on the Celtic craze.

As hopeful as the signs are, no one is taking anything for granted—least of all piper Angus Mackenzie’s parents, Maureen and Robert. The couple met in 1972 when Maureen left her Mabou home to explore her Gaelic heritage on the outer Hebridean island of South Uist, where Robert was born and raised. Now back in Mabou, they and

their four children try to speak only Gaelic at home. “Once you lose the language, everything else in the culture eventually goes with it,” declares Maureen.

But if the language of the Celts is slowly reappearing in contemporary Cape Breton life,

Celtic music is everywhere.

And its brightest stars, still living in the area, are providing something to cheer about in a region used to watching its sons and daughters head down the road in search of prosperity. Big Pond songstress Rita MacNeil appears in some of the world’s biggest concert halls performing a mix of pop and traditional songs. And Mabou’s Rankin Family—Raylene, Heather,

Cookie, John Morris and Jimmy—represent something even more

authentic: genuine stars who have dug deeply into their Celtic culture as they rose to the top.

Raylene Rankin, 33, is one of 12 children in the family and a graduate of Dalhousie Uni-

versity’s law program. “We grew up like most families in Inverness County,” she says. “Our parents had an appreciation for the music and we were never excluded from any get-togethers where music was being played.” Rooted firmly in those musical tradi-

tions, the group, now on tour in Europe and the British Isles, has emerged as one of Canada’s freshest acts: their 1992 album Fare Thee Well Love racked up sales of more than 300,000. And their latest recording, North Country, which includes such Gaelic

songs as Ho Ro Nighean Donn Bhoidheach (Ho Ro My Nut Brown Maiden), went platinum with sales of 100,000 within eight days of its September release.

Successors are already lining up. The most likely candidates: The Barra MacNeils,

four siblings from Sydney Mines, on the eastern, industralized side of Cape Breton. After a series of independently produced recordings, the group recently released Closer to Paradise,, its first album for a major label, PolyGram. Celtic-oriented groups from elsewhere in the Maritimes, such as Rawlins Cross of Halifax and Newfoundland’s The Irish Descendants, are also winning acclaim.

And, of course, there are the young Cape Breton fiddle masters, who are nudging the old Scottish music in new directions. Notable among them is Natalie MacMaster and Ashley Maclsaac, 19, both of whom have performed throughout North America and Europe.

Says Archie Chisholm: “I don’t know if it is something in the water around Route 19, but I’ve never seen as many good fiddle players as there are around today.” Proof, it seems, that Cape Breton’s Celtic culture is in good hands. □