Musical Legacy

(200 years of music on the Ceilidh Trail) by Frank MacDonald

For over 200 years, the Cape Breton ceilidh has been keeping alive fiddle-playing styles that long ago died out in Scotland. The fierce passion for march, air, strathspey, jig and reel was already evident in 1773 when the first boatload of 200 impoverished Highlanders set sail from Ullapool, Scotland, for Nova Scotia. Though poor, the other passengers offered to share their scanty rations with their piper rather than leave him behind when he couldn't pay his passage. To abandon their music was unthinkable.

Cape Breton fiddle music is still closely tied to both pipe music and the Gaelic language. When fiddles were unavailable, Gaelic words were sung to the tunes. It was called "mouth music" and the people could dance to the it as well as any diddled jig. Later, many fiddlers, actually learned the tunes from the mouth music, incorporating the liquid sound of the Gaelic into the cuts and ornaments that distinguish the style. So strong is the language's influence that Gaelic speakers say they can tell by the way a fiddler plays a tune whether he or she learned it from the Gaelic.

In the villages along the Ceilidh Trail, families continue to pass down the music of their Scottish ancestors. Many fiddlers, like Buddy MacMaster, still play in the pure Cape Breton tradition. But others like Ashley MacIsaac, Natalie MacMaster and the Rankin Family have melded the best of the old and the new to create a unique musical style. It's a style that's taking popular music by storm.

While the talent of dozens of musicians flourishes along the Ceilidh Trail, what is happily absent are fiddling contests. Individual styles are so unique that fiddlers can't compete with each other. As a result, opinions as to whom is the best vary widely and can be as explosive as politics. When Archie Neil Chisholm, the 90-year old dean of Cape Breton folklore, was asked whom he favoured, he replied "It would be wiser to swallow a keg of dynamite and chase it down than to answer that question in Cape Breton."

Throughout the summer the Ceilidh Trail offers a wide choice of musical experiences. There are weekly ceilidhs in Inverness and Mabou featuring step-dancing, Gaelic songs, and fiddlers like Rodney MacDonald, Glenn Graham and Jackie Dunn. Several villages also hold annual "Scottish" concerts. The largest of these is the Broad Cove Concert. Always held on the last Sunday of July, it's the biggest showcase of Cape Breton talent on the western shore.

Another wonderful tradition is the family square dance. One of the distinguishing characteristics of Cape Breton music is that it's composed as much for dancers as it is for fiddlers. This is nowhere more evident than in places like West Mabou, Glencoe, and The Barn in Margaree Valley. At the weekly square dances, fiddlers are barely through the first jig before everyone -novice and accomplished dancer - is up on the floor.  No wonder. The magical music of the Ceilidh Trail is impossible to resist.