Fiddle (gif)

The Amazing Music
of Cape Breton,
Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia flag

Fiddlers: The fiddle is at the heart of Cape Breton music, and what an extraordinary crowd of fiddlers this island has produced, enough to fill at least 5 pages.

Gaelic Music of Cape Breton

Cape Breton's own unique tradition of flying feet!

Updated: December 8, 2009

   Cape Breton Island is a magical world filled with traditional music. The astounding number and quality of musicians is matched by the knowledgeable enthusiasm of their audiences. As Alasdair Fraser put it, the locals not only know a vast repertoire themselves, they know the differences in how various musicians have played each of these tunes, going back 30 or more years! This intense, exciting music is attracting fans of celtic music from around the world. After you have listened to some Cape Breton music, everything else seems tame.

Cape Breton music is compelling dance music, and as such it is; and dance the Cape Bretoners do, with their low-to-the-floor, intricate step-dancing, a style that disappeared from Scotland decades ago. If Cape Bretoners between 10 an 75 years old hears that one of the better fiddlers is playing for a dance, without hesitation they gather friends and drive for hours if necessary to one of the intimate parish halls, such as those at Glencoe Mills, West Mabou, Southwest Margaree. For next 4-5 hours, these little halls shake with the percussive steps of entire villages in lengthy sets that test the endurance of even the most fit dancers, and demand of the fiddlers repertoires of hundreds of tunes. After the dance (or on the few dance-less nights), folks may gather in a neighbor's kitchen because the music is loose on the land and will not be contained.

   Music is the glue that holds the Cape Bretoners together as communities, and is central to their identities as Cape Bretoners. To experience this music, particularly live, and especially in Cape Breton, is to enter a exciting, passionate and wonderfully rewarding world. Welcome.

    For more background on Cape Breton and its music, check the Introduction to Cape Breton Music Page. This page is aimed for people who already know a little about this music and want to learn more about specific musicians or groups or seek recommendations on what albums to purchase.

Recommended Sampler CDs

There has been an explosion of "celtic collections" recently, of varying quality. However, consistent with the overall quality of the music on Cape Breton, the following collections are absolutely first rate. This is not some "tourist music", but a sampling of the very best of Cape Breton, and a rich feast it is.

Failte - A Cape Breton Welcome (Celtic Music Interpretive Centre)   Cape Breton is famous for its hospitality, and this is a musical welcome that has you up and dancing, or at least tapping your foot before you know what hit you. And we did tell you that stamina was important...this is 72 minutes of highly energetic music. The CD was produced as a fundraiser for the new Celtic Music Interpretive Centre in Judique, and the local musicians from up and down Route 19 contributed one of the tracks from their own CDs. Lets see, thats 18 world class musicians (+ accompanists). The CD is heavily biased toward fiddle music (14 fiddle tracks, 2 piano, 1 song), 1 bagpipes), and slightly biased toward younger players you might not have heard, but totally deserve to be on this all-star lineup. The cast includes: Buddy MacMaster,  Ian MacDougall, Glenn Graham, Mac Morin,  Robbie & Isaac Fraser,  Natalie MacMaster,   Karen Beaton,   Ryan J. MacNeil,   Troy MacGillivray, Jackie Dunn, Andrea Beaton, Raylene Rankin,  Kinnon Beaton, Rodney MacDonald,  Howie MacDonald,  Mairi Rankin, Shelly Campbell, and Wendy MacIsaac. The only reason this was not an essential purchase for me was that I already bought all the CDs these tracks were taken from! Be forewarned, that after you get a sample of their playing, there is a high chance that you may be buying a whole lot more Cape Breton CDs in the near future. Hey, this is great stuff, and supports a worthy cause. A superb introduction to the music of Cape Breton. (Very highly recommended )

(Cape Breton Connection album cover) The Cape Breton Connection (Stephen MacDonald Productions). This is a collection of 16 instrumental tracks, including four previously unrecorded tracks. The fiddlers represented include many great current ones: Natalie MacMaster, Buddy MacMaster*, Jerry Holland*, Brenda Stubbert, Howie MacDonald*, Jennifer Roland, Glen Graham and Rodney MacDonald, Stephanie Wills, and Wendy MacIsaac. (Previously unrecorded tunes are marked by a *, and Buddy's "Stepdance Medley" is a beauty.) 

Interspersed between the fiddlers is some great piping by Jamie MacInnis and Paul MacNeil, plus the guitar work of Dave MacIsaac and the CD's producer Gordie Sampson*, the fiery banjo work of J.P. Cormier, the amazing piano playing of Tracy Dares, and samples of two groups - the more traditional Barra MacNeils and the more modern Slainte Mhath*. (Available at Down Home Music and mail order from any of the Cape Breton outlets and probably Tayberry Music.) 

(Heart of Cape Breton) The Heart of Cape Breton - Fiddle Music Recorded Live Along the Ceilidh Trail (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings 2002) This is an excellent sampling of traditional music played live in Cape Breton with the finest of local musicians, including Buddy MacMaster, Brenda Stubbert, Jerry Holland, Kinnon and Betty Beaton and Wendy MacIsaac. The CD includes 34 pages of liner notes. (Very highly recommeded)
Celtic Colours Festival CD The Celtic Colours Festival 'An Rathad A Théid Dhachaigh'/'The Road Home' (the 1997 CD) (SMPCD1007)-- This CD from the 1997 Festival is the best introduction to Cape Breton traditional music one can hope to find. It contains 14 tunes from 14 different artists that appeared at the festival including Cape Bretoners Natalie MacMaster, Mary Jane Lamond, Buddy MacMaster, Dave MacIsaac, Paul MacNeil, Jerry Holland, Ashley MacIsaac, the Barra MacNeils, Jackie Dunn, etc.
You can order this on-line from the Compact Disk Depot or try Stephen MacDonald Productions, Box 284, Lunenburg, NS, Canada B0J 2C0 (902) 634-4135, Fax 634-4156 e-mail
(Celtic Colours -- 2d Wave) Celtic Colours International Festival -- The Second Wave (Stephen MacDonald Productions, 1998). The 1998 CD is even better than last years! Six great previously unrecorded tracks (marked by *), and 10 superb tracks from existing albums. These include a great duet from Natalie MacMaster and Sharon Shannon*, the best recording of Buddy MacMaster* with Tracy Dares that I've heard, mouth music from the Barra MacNeils, a brilliant duet from Alasdair Fraser and Tony McManus*, a taste of the musically reborn Scottish piper Fred Morrison, Brenda Stubbert playing a new set of reels, Gordie Sampson with Mary Jane Lamond, Tony McManus solo, etc. If you like Cape Breton music, this is an Essential Purchase!
Traditional Music from Cape Breton Traditional Music from Cape Breton Island, (Nimbus Records, 1993) 80 minutes of fiddle heaven here. Fiddlers Jerry Holland, John Morris Rankin, Brenda Stubbert, Howie and Dougie MacDonald, Carl MacKenzie, Buddy MacMaster, and Natalie MacMaster, accompanied by Tracey Dares, Hilda Chiasson, and Dave MacIsaac, along with Paul McNeil on pipes for good measure, all recorded before a live audience at the University of Cork, Ireland(!) The musicians and audience urge each other on, feet are stomping everywhere, and the energy level is very, very high. On top of it all, there is a superb set of liner notes.
(Bridges of Cape Breton album cover) The Bridges of Cape Breton County(s) -- This CD sampler of Cape Breton fiddle music is fabulous. There are 16 tracks from 16 of Cape Breton's best musicians, all fiddle music except one song from Men of the Deeps. The fiddlers include so many great ones: Buddy MacMaster, Jerry Holland, J.P. Cormier, Brenda Stubbert, and Howie MacDonald. What I particularly like about this album is the inclusion of tracks from superb fiddlers who are less well known (at least outside Cape Breton) and don't often appear on compilations, including: Carl MacKenzie, the amazing young Jennifer Roland with a beautiful slow air, Glen Graham, Morgan MacQuarrie, Stephanie Mills, Dave MacIsaac, Charlie MacCuspic, Winnie Chafe, and Rodney MacDonald. (The only one missing is Natalie MacMaster, but since you already know about her and will have to buy most of her albums anyway, putting the spotlight on other CB fiddlers is ok.) This album is simultaneously an amazing bargain, and one of the most expensive you can buy (if you figure in the cost of all the new CDs you are going to lust after now)! (Available mail order from Celestial Entertainment (902 567-6302), e-mail:
(Scottish Fiddle Rally album cover) Scottish Fiddle Rally Concert Highlights, 1985-1995 This is a wonderful selection of fiddle music (though some folks get turned off by the massed fiddle sound of alternate tracks). Cape Breton is represented by Jerry Holland, Buddy MacMaster and Natalie MacMaster on fiddle accompanied by Hilda Chiasson and Mary Jessie MacDonald on piano. The rest of the album is filled by my two favorite Scottish fiddlers - Alasdair Fraser and Aly Bain along with the Boston Scottish Fiddle Club. (Paddledoo Music, P.O. Box 536, N. Cambridge MA 02140)
(Celtic Colours - Forgotten Roots) Celtic Colours International Festival -- Forgotten Roots (Stephen MacDonald Productions, 1999). This CD reflects the musicians that played in 1999. Highlights as usual come from the locals: Mary Jane Lamond's stunning air "Cha Tig Mór" is breathtakingly beautiful. Also a great fiddle track from Dave MacIsaac and a blast from the young group Slàinte Mhath. Of course, Natalie and Buddy are on the CD with a live track from a Cape Breton dance hall. Also on the album are tracks from Scottish singer Maggie MacInnes, Cherish the Ladies, Alasdair Fraser & Chris Norman, Dougie MacLean, Spanish celtic group Llan de Cubel, Irish accordionist Joe Derrane, Carl MacKenzie, Scottish trad/jazz duo Bachué and Jennifer and Hazel Wrigley from the Shetlands.


Rankin Family album


(Souvenir album cover)

The Rankin Family -- The Rankin Family - (1989) This amazing Cape Breton family of two brothers three sisters frequently joined by Howie Macdonald has won four Junos (Canadian Grammys) and most other Canadian awards. With great voices, gorgeous harmony singing, and wonderful songwriting, their music covers a vast range from traditional Gaelic singing and fiddle playing to country. This, their first album, is the most traditional. A very knowledgeable observer of this music described this album as the quintessential Cape Breton album.  Based on my more limited experience, I agree. (Essential purchase but out of print )

Almost as good in my opinion is The Rankin Family Collection (1996), Fare Thee Well Love (1990), and The North Country.

Prior to breaking up in 1999, the group changed its name to simply The Rankins and have released a last album Uprooted (EMI Music, Canada). The album was produced in Nashville (with such non-traditional elements as accompaniment with string quartets and orchestral string sections) with an intent to break into the country market, and not be labeled a "celtic" album. However, there is still plenty of traditional music on this album, and it is the best material on the album.

Souvenir 1989-1998  (EMI Music Canada 2002). This is a  "best of'" retrospective of 23 of the Rankins tunes and songs. Nothing new here, but a fine introduction to this great group that put Cape Breton music on the map in the 1990s, creating an example and opportunities for other Cape Bretoners such as Natalie MacMaster and Ashley MacIsaac to follow.  The Rankins, with their eclectic blend of country, pop, rock, and straight traditional playing sold over two million records, won numerous Juno awards and won the hearts of millions around the world with the exquisite traditional fiddling and piano playing of John Morris Rankin and Howie MacDonald, the angelic harmonies and step dancing of Cookie, Heather, and Raylene, the song-writing of Jimmy. If you haven't heard the Rankins, get this 2 CD set. One slight warning -  the CD is copy-protected by a program that was very quirky on my PC. (Very highly recommended for those who don't already have a collection of Rankins CDs).

The Barra MacNeils - Another extraordinary family -- usually 5 brothers and Lucy -- arguably the hardest working sister in celtic music (vocals, step dancing, harp, fiddle, bodhran). They have been providing very high quality music for more than two decades now.The Barras have a much more Irish sound than other Cape Breton groups, helped in part by inclusion of accordion and bodhran, instruments infrequently heard in Cape Breton, appropriate enough since this group comes from a part of Cape Breton settled by many Irish immigrants. One of the many things that particularly impress me about the Barras is the beauty of their arrangements. And, of course, there is Lucy's voice, which is a treasure. Traditional tunes with all the drive you could everr hope for, Gaelic mouth music, ballads, and rousing folk songs. You cannot go wrong with either of these CDs. By either; you'll end up buying the other soon enough

- 20th Anniversay Collection - (2007)  This is a "greatest hits' release of a remarkable 27 tracks on 2 CDs of songs and tunes from albums spanning the 20 years of the Barras recording. If you have a favorite Barra's song or tune, it is probably here, and after you listen to it, trust me, you will have a favorite Barras' song(s)! The tracks are almost all studio tracks, so they are very polished, but have a different energy than a live recording.

- In Concert - (2008).  The Barras are a great live band. They have an energy and audience appeal that brings the crowds alive. This album, recorded live during two performances in Truro, Nova Scotia in 2008, captures the joy and energy of a live Barras show. However great their studio music is, there is is something magical about a live Barras performance.

 (Made in Cape Breton)

The Cottars, a quartet of remarkably talented youngsters created an enormous buzz when they first started doing concerts in 2001. In the fall of 2001, durning The Celtic Colours Festival, The Cottars were presented with "The Tic Butler Music Award" for the preservation of Cape Breton culture. Until their breakup in 2006, this group had meteoric success leading to successful international tours including Japan (as well as Berkeley, California!), a U.S. record deal with Rounder, and huge amount of press including a cover photo and story on July 2006 Dirty Linen folk music magazine. They came to my attention with their debut CD - Made in Cape Breton (self-published 2002) At the time the kids ranged in age from 11 to 13; yet, by any standards, they produced superb music. Each is a multi-instrumentalist, singer, and stepdancer. Roseanne MacKenzie, the a diminutive dynamo fiddle prodigy, is unbelievably good on this CD, and keeps getting better. Don't ever miss an opportunity to hear her play. The lead singer Fiona MacGillivray, gifted far beyond her 12 years, delivers both haunting Gaelic songs and up-tempo numbers with equal aplomb. The quartet is rounded off with Ciaran MacGillivray on keyboards and Jimmy MacKenzie on guitar.  In 2002, the band had a CBC-TV Special entitled "Meet The Cottars" that was aired on many PBS stations in the U.S. In 2003, The Cottars won the East Coast Music Award for "Best New Artist".

Skpping ahead four years to  Forerunner (Rounder 2006) - their third album. Roseanne MacKenzie, the awesome fiddler, was yet only 15 years old. when this was recorded. This CD is musically the best CD they have done, and one that is expansive to include songs by Tom Waits, Sinead Lohan, and Ron Hynes. This release on a major US label seemed destined to catapult the group to the same fame in the U.S. that they had in Nova Scotia, but the group broke up (and the "Cottars" that appeared at .the 2006 Sebastopol Celtic Faire lacked both the MacKenizes).Both sets of siblings are pursuing their musical careers in other groups. Back to this CD for a momet, as they have gotten older, their skill has improved, but the standard against which they are to be measuered has also risen dramatically. Rosie's fiddling is the biggest joy on this album. The song arrangements are quite polished and the harmony singing lovely but in the many solos Fiona's voice has retained a certain shrillness that I find a bit hard to listen tor. (Recommended)

(Return of the Wanderer)

Puirt A Baroque -- Return of the Wanderer (1998, Marquis Classics) This is the third brilliant album from this Nova Scotian Baroque/traditional group that continues to shed insight and joy whenever they play. What is surprising to me is that they keep getting better and better! On this album, the trio has expanded with the welcome addition of Stephanie Conn who does 5 excellent songs in Gaelic and Scots. David Greenberg's always strong fiddling is terrific here, and there is fine work by David Sandall on harpsichord and Terry McKenna on guitar, lute and mandolin. The album contains the excellent liner notes we have come to expect from them. Very highly recommended

(Slainte Mhath debut CD)

Slàinte Mhath - Slàinte Mhath (1999) This young group consisting of several of the younger Barran MacNeils is one of the most popular groups in Cape Breton among the young folk for their very high energy playing, but also surprizingly by the older generation out of respect for the quality of the playing. (For the non-Gaelic speaking, their name is pronounced like "Slawn-cha va".  

They have a new CD out VI which shows an increased trend to world music.


Bẹlach is a very exciting young group, particularly if you get to hear them live. (They toured in no. Calif in summer 2003.) Bẹlach were 2003 nominees in the Canadian East Coast Music Awards for Best Traditional Group, Each member is an extraordinary musician and all are excellent step dancers. Their excellent CD, "Bẹlach" just begins to capture the excitement of this group in live performance. The group consists of two of Cape Breton's very finest fiddlers: Wendy MacIsaac (you may know her as Mary Jane Lamond's fiddler), Mairi Rankin (the most natural Cape Breton fiddler I've heard and a dynamo), Mac Morin (in many minds the best pianist in Cape Breton), Patrick Gillis on guitar, Ryan MacNeil, a terrific piper, and Mattie Foulds on percussion. 


Storas cover 

Mary Jane Lamond is an extraordinarily gifted singer whose talent, hard work and lovely voice should make her a star whatever she sings. She chooses to sing Gaelic songs from Cape Breton. It is her genius that allows her to transform these almost forgotten work songs into major radio hits in Canada due to the overwhelming drive, musicality, and great instincts of Mary Jane.  Sṭras (Turetlemusik 2005)  "Sṭras" means "jewel" in Gaelic. And Mary Jane has delivered yet another jewel. Not only is her voice in fine form, but she continues to bring her genius for arrangements to these songs. The album has a lovely mix of differing tempos, solo and group singing, working songs, upbeat contemporary arrangements, and fun mouth music expertly done. The result are songs that draw one in and haunt you, regardless of any language  barrier. As usual, Mary Jane includes extensive liner notes that include the lyrics (in Gaelic) and history of the songs. I loaned this CD to a friend who likes Gaelic singing, and was able to get it back by buying them their own copy.  (Highly recommended)

For more info about Mary Jane's other CDs, see the Gaelic Music page.

(Coal Fire in Winter)

Men of the Deeps - Coal Fire in Winter (Atlantica 1999). A unique Cape Breton institution, all the members of this amazing male chorus are, or were, coal miners. Often, they begin a concert by entering a darkened hall with only their headlamps lit. The quality of the 9 soloists and choral singing on this CD are amazing. The songs are often political, or work songs about mining, although one of my favorites is a whaling song - "Rolling Down to Old Maui". Not Celtic, but an essential part of Cape Breton. (Highly recommended)


Rita MacNeil with The Men of the Deeps - Mining the Soul . Rita, a singer/songwriter from Big Pond, Cape Breton, has won the admiration of many with her deeply felt and well-crafted songs about the real life challenges working folk and immigrantgs face and her excellent singing. Her singing blends extremely well with the Men of the Deeps. This album is not "celtic", but a mix of Rita's own songs and many traditional songs about mining, but Rita is such a central figure in Cape Breton music, and this is such a fine CD, it had to be mentioned. (Highly recommended)

(Lantern Burn cover)

Rita and & Mary Rankin-- Lantern Burn (1994). These two sisters from Mabou Coal Mines have beautiful voices in both their English and Gaelic songs. Audio samples from their album available on their WWW site.

(Sweet Is The Melody)

Aselin Debison Sweet Is The Melody - (SONY  2002) Aselin is another remarkable child prodigy from Glace Bay, Cape Breton. Aselin, at the age of 8, "galvanized a coal miners' protest in Cape Breton singing the local anthem "The Island" with such simplicity that thousands of angry striking miners wept, joined hands and sang along."  "The Island" is included on this CD. Now 13, her diverse repertoire consists of Cape Breton tunes as well as folk material and a smattering of country and pop sounds.  I particularly like her lovely version of Iris Dement's ballad "Sweet Is The Melody". Check out her website!

Other notable singers from Cape Breton that don't quite fit the traditional celtic mode include:

The Mix of Cape Breton Music & Classical Music:

color braided bar (gif)

Cape Breton Style Step Dancing

If you have seen Natalie MacMaster in concert, or went to Alasdair Fraser/Tony MacManus' recent concerts in Berkeley, you have seen Cape Breton dancing -- the highly energetic, percussive dancing that the Cape Bretoners can do for hours on end. For some background on this dancing see section on dance in the introduction to Cape Breton Music page. Instruction for this dancing is just starting up

What am I missing? Send me an e-mail:

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