Fiddle (gif)

The Gaelic Music
of Cape Breton,
Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia flag

Updated: D ecember 4, 2006

   There is a strong tradition of Gaelic speaking, singing and fiddling on Cape Breton Island. Although the language was dying out, there has been a recent revival of interest among many in the island in keeping this alive. The best-known proponent of Gaelic on the island is the remarkable singer Mary Jane Lamond. She has a true gift of being able to sing Gaelic songs in the original acoustic style, or energize them in rock arrangement that can fire up any crowd and its all great music. Here are some albums to get your started exploring this tradition.

Interestingly, many Cape Breton fiddlers credit the particular rhythms of their playing to the rhtythms of the spoken Gaelic language. They argue that younger fiddlers who don't learn Gaelic will never get the sound and rhythm right. Fiddlers who are said to most embody this flavor include Alex Francis MacKay and Dave MacIsaac.



 (Comhla Cruinn)

Feis an Eilein - Cmhla Crunn - Gathered Together  - A Cape Breton Gaelic Celebration (CBC Radio 2002). This CD received an excellent review in The Inverness Oran by Frank Macdonald  which I include in its entirety below:
  "On the recently released recording, Cmhla Cruinn, Betty Lord sings the Gaelic song, Clo Mhic Ille Mhicheil, a Jacobite milling song dating back to the mid-1700s. In fact, it is no milling song at all, but a revolutionary message disguised as a milling song, a song meant to spread word through the Highlands of "a rising, naming all the clans who would join in the milling."
  "Clo Mhic Ille Mhicheil fits comfortably within the collection of Gaelic songs recorded around a milling table in Christmas Island, because it is at these "staged" millings that the Gaelic-speaking culture on Cape Breton Island carries out its own act of resistence. Over the past century, the Gaelic-speaking population of Cape Breton Island has dropped from 85,000 first-language speakers to an estimated 500 people today. The numbers have diminished, but the passion of the remaining voices is undimmed.
  "A social event like a milling frolic plays a role in conveying to a mostly uncomprehending audience a sense of what has been lost over the centuries since clearances and famine drove thousands from the Highlands of Scotland to a sister-like island across the Atlantic. More important than its "performance" appeal, however, is the practical function the milling frolic continues to play in communities like Christmas Island. The milling frolic brings together several of the island's Gaelic speakers for a social event, a gathering where something more than songs are sung. The small community strengthens itself, native speakers giving time, instruction and encouragement to the Gaelic learners.
The goal of the recording was to recreate in its electronic reproduction the immediacy of sitting at the milling table with the men and women at Christmas Island, pounding cloth to the rhythm of their songs... nothing is lost in the listening, the purity and passion projects itself in this collection of 18 Gaelic songs interspersed with the Gaelic lilt of pipes, fiddle and piano

   ...What accompanies the recorded voices is a sense of confidence in what they are doing. Cmhla Cruinn is not a re-enactment of once upon a time; is a vibrant rendering of what is in fact the Gaelic-speaking culture of Cape Breton Island. ...

Accompanying Cmhla Cruinn is a thick booklet of Gaelic history written by Hector MacNeil, along with details of the songs within and biographies of the singers themselves... Within that booklet, MacNeil writes of the diminishing (not the vanishing) Gaelic presence on Cape Breton Island. Not even the hundred-year decline of Gaelic speakers, resulting in a 95% drop in usage among Cape Bretoners smothers MacNeil's optimism as he points out, "Today there are as many as 500 Gaelic speakers in Cape Breton."

... In his introduction to Cmhla Cruinn MacNeil notes that between 1880 and 1900, the Gaelic-speaking population had dropped from 85,000 speakers to 75,000 speakers, and by 1921 to 60,000. "It is generally agreed that that number has declined by 50% every decade since."

   Those figures suggest that in another decade there will be only 250 Gaelic speakers on Cape Breton Island. Unless, of course, the existing tradition bearers succeed in their mission, which is not primarily to entertain tourists but to carry forth the language. If they do succeed, who knows, in ten years there may be a thousand Gaelic speakers on Cape Breton Island.

Whether you speak the language or simply ache with longing to understand when the words and rhythms of a Gaelic song find their way into your heart, Cmhla Cruinn is a recording to treasure for its voices and its vision."
(Essential purchase to understand the Gaelic influence on Cape Breton music.)
Storas cover

(Gaelic Songs of Cape Breton)

 (Bho Thir Nan Craobh)

(Lan Duil) 

Mary Jane Lamond - is an extraordinarily gifted singer whose talent, hard work and lovely voice would 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. Her song, "Sleeping Maggie" which apeared on Ashley MacIsaac's album become well known throughout Canada.

Stras (Turetlemusik 2005)  "Stras" 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)

rain Ghidhlig - Gaelic Songs of Cape Breton (Turtlemusik 2000) Here is a superb album for the traditionalists with an excellent 5 minute Quicktime video of tMary Jane and her friends rehearsing then singing the songs on location at a lovely church in Cape Breton. The CD consists entirely of Gaelic songs (with the liner notes having the lyrics in Gaelic only) sung by Mary Jane and her friends. In her words: "With this project, I had the opportunity to focus on the songs and poetry which first attracted me to this language and culture. This recording attempts to remain true to the simple sharing of song that is the foundation of the Gaelic tradition. Primarily recorded on location at the former United Church in beautiful North River, Cape Breton Island, I was joined by some good friends, fine musicians and some great traditional Gaelic singers. - Mary Jane" Once again Mary Jane shows herself to be a class act, and to have a world-class talent. This is great stuff. Guests include Gordie Sampson, Wendy MacIssac, Paul MacNeil and Tracy Dares-MacNeil. (Very Highly recommended)

Ln Dil (1999 Universal Canada), her third album shows Mary Jane's growing confidence as a brilliant arranger as well as singer. As in her other two albums, all the songs are in Gaelic. The arrangements on this album are a bit less rock-oriented than Suas e!, but not as traditional as her first album, as there is a drum set, bass and a sprinkling of accordions, Indian tabla and even an electric guitar on one track. Mary Jane is ably accompanied by a variety of musicians including Wendy and Ashley MacIsaac, and several Gaelic singers. The arrangements are varied and superb, accenting rather than overpowering the songs, and helping communicate the contemporary relevance of this music. The sound recording and mixing on this CD are wonderful.
Mary Jane's great singing brings the lyrics to life. There is a terrific port--beul track, a traditional milling song recorded a capella with three other singers. The highlight of this album is the lament "Cha Tig Mr Mo Dhachaidh", which is breathtakingly beautiful. The 24 pages of liner notes contain the lyrics in both Gaelic and English, the history of each tune, and photos of important Cape Breton gaelic singers. Altogether this is classiest album I've seen in several years. If there was any doubt before, this album should make it clear that Mary Jane has joined the short but growing list of world class Gaelic singers such as Karen Matheson of Capercaille and Maighread Ni Mhaonaigh of Altan. Nominated for a Juno Award in 1999. (Very highly recommended
Mary Jane appears nearly annually at one or more concerts in northern California.



Gaelic Gold from Cape Breton - (Various)


Rankin Family album


The Rankin Family -- The Rankin Family - (1989) This amazing Cape Breton family of two brothers three sisters plus Howie Macdonald 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. The Rankins were not Gaelic speakers. However, their versions of the one or two Gaelic songs that appear on their albums are often worth wading through the country and pop songs even if the latter are not to your taste.
(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
(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.


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