Fiddling Away in Cape Breton

By Steve Meixell

Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia is almost not an isle at all.

To arrive by car, you traverse a short flat bridge a mere 570 meters of two-lane across the Strait of Canso, itself a narrow thread that connects the whale-abundant Gulf of St. Lawrence to the North Atlantic.

The island is no small place: it comprises nearly twenty percent of Nova Scotia. As you ascend and curve along the renowned Cabot Trail in the spectacular Highlands National Park, majestic views of cliffs and bays connote a piney version of Scotland or Ireland. Mountains rise from the sea and offer outcropped vistas. Approaching coastal hamlets, you glimpse a hint of Wellfleet here or Grand Marais there. Inland by Baddeck, on the shores of Bras D’or, it’s reminiscent of the pristine Finger Lakes. In total, though, Cape Breton is gorgeously one-of-a-kind.

Then something else happens. As evening approaches, when you get out of the car and into the ceilidhs, the music kicks in. (Pronounced KAY-lee, a ceilidh is a casual local jam session, often with dance, deeply part of the fabric here.) Born out of migration, hard work, cultural isolation and the North Atlantic clime, the daily music gets inside you like a warm greeting. It connects to the past, perhaps to your own better place, and makes you smile involuntarily. Nightly in the pubs, parish halls, and barn gatherings, it spills out soothingly. The natives nod and wave to you. Welcome to Cape Breton Island.

After the First Nations (the Mi’kmaq here), after the sails of Cabot, de Champlain, following the first crossing on the Hector which brought Highland emigrants in 1773 (with waves of Scots to follow), after Acadian expulsion and rebirth along the Northumberland Strait and Cape Breton’s westside (“Canada’s Musical Coast”), among the longliners, seiners, and draggers fishing the great Banks for centuries, amid the loggers, the coal and gypsum miners, the hardy farmers, and now the tourists who come to view this magical place, always, one thing remains front and center on Cape Breton: the fiddle music.

Until the early 1980s, it was still called “Scottish fiddling,” or at best, “Cape Breton Scottish music.” But as generations passed (and folks finally regarded themselves as Bretoners instead of ex-Highlanders tied by tartan to the Old Country), the style has become famous on its own. Here, it was always more than Scottish anyway. Though heavy on the Gaelic, it was tinged with French Acadian, Mi’kmaq, some Irish styling, and dare we say, robust Maritimes Canada. (Baking trout in maple sugar eventually has a regional influence on the soul.) Isolated by its island culture, the music grew less derivative and more original in its own roots. Thus it eventually, and rightly, became known worldwide as Cape Breton fiddling. And it has produced a profound talent pool in the process.

One night at the Red Shoe Pub in Mabou (owned and operated by the monarch of Cape Breton fiddle music, the Rankin family), I marveled to a staffer about one of the fiddlers onstage.

“Oh, she’s good,” he said, “but there’s at least two hundred like her, just on this side of the island alone.”

“As good as her? How could that possibly be?”

“It’s bred in the brain and the bow for hundreds of years,” he said, “and certain families pass it on.” He paused to elaborate. “In the 1960s and 70s, pop culture almost washed it away. It was all rock’n’roll and Top 40 around the world. People everywhere thought fiddlers were old folks playing jigs and reels, strathspeys, square dance stuff. Kids wouldn’t go near a violin. But there were keepers of the flame here. My uncle, a priest in Mabou, refused to let fiddle music die. He taught the music and the heritage in the school. Then he bought twelve fiddles with his own money, and gave them to children who stepped up and wanted to learn. Similar things were happening across the Island. In the 1980s, I went off to work the oil fields in Alberta. I came back thirty years later, this place was bursting with talent and ceilidhs again. Music was back everywhere.”

One of the great current younger players, Brent Aucoin, gives credit to the generation before him. “People like Donnie LeBlanc kept it alive. He played every Saturday at The Doryman Pub in Cheticamp. For years, when Cape Breton fiddling was in a lull, he and some of the legends kept it constant and still accessible to the public. The same with Dave and Jim MacDonald at the Normaway Inn. They started having these three-fiddle ceilidhs in The Barn. It just built and built again from there.”

The MacDonalds always had music in the living room for guests at their beautifully rustic Margaree Valley inn. In 1984, they opened a stage in The Barn on the Normaway property. “Ashley MacIsaac, Natalie MacMaster, the Barra MacNeils, they all performed here before they were famous,” Dave explains. “They still come back, only now they fill it to the rafters. Plus the travel magazines and writers discovered us somehow. Now there’s more outside visitors than natives here most nights, from all over. All of a sudden, Nova Scotia Tourism caught on that Cape Breton music is a very special part of this very special place.”

Many hamlets across the large island have weekly ceilidhs in their parish halls, town rec centers, and pubs. The fiddle music permeates. In places like Baddeck, you’ll be out on the pier chatting with two retirees who just sailed in from Hamilton, Ontario and a kilter strolls by playing the bagpipes. (He stops to talk: “Just in, eh? From whereabouts?”) In other towns you’ll hear fiddlers on the green or through an open window as you pass by a home. It’s like New Orleans with jazz, Vienna with opera, the Mississippi delta with juke joints and blues. Cape Breton is the pantheon of fiddling and a certain sound, with the double-draw of being one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Some happenchance helped recently. In the last several years, violins have been showcased more in pop: the Dave Matthews Band, Old Crow Medicine Show, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Arcade Fire, the Chieftains, ELO, Scarlet Rivera with Bob Dylan, the glitzy Riverdance, Celtic Women, etc. And the internet made unique styles of music easy to find. Listeners heard a bit of something, entered a few keystrokes, and found endless sourcing in a few seconds. The world discovered Cape Breton locals like the Barra MacNeils from Sydney Mines and Natalie MacMaster from Inverness County. The rich musical vein was uncovered by a larger audience.

Today Cape Breton talent is being called into the world at an accelerated pace. When I spoke with Rachel Davis appearing with Jason Roach one night at the Red Shoe, she had just returned from performing in Denmark. They’re both also members of the popular group Coig, which tours across Canada and the US circuit now. They remain a loyal hometown favorite at Celtic Colours, an annual 9-day international festival every October on various Cape Breton stages.

Coig exemplifies the evolving Cape Breton sound. Rachel Davis and Chrissy Crowly are stellar on fiddle and viola. Darren McMullen mixes guitar, mandolin, mandola, banjo, bouzouki, whistles, and flute. Jason Roach interweaves classical piano runs among the Gaelic songs. He flirts with Brubeck jazz riffs, then hammers like a rogue wave across the keys with glee. Watching them play (and the same goes when Rachel Davis plays her solo gigs), their progressions, layered attacks, and melodic retreats convey one thought quickly: a new fusion. Yes, they are thoroughly Cape Breton. But they are also taking it to the next destination and further out in the world. This ain’t your grandpa’s fiddle music anymore.

So what exactly is the distinct Cape Breton fiddle sound?

  • There’s the well-known upstroking, born out of strathspey dance, using snaps (a short note followed by a dotted note) resulting in an outsized rhythm. This is also called “the Scottish snap.”
  • Liberal grace notes: fast extra notes laid in above and below the melodic note, creating the hint of a bagpipe sound. Likewise, a twice-applied pressure of the fingers make vibrato effects, just as a doubling move (the fourth finger applied to the next lower string) gives a deeper, thicker resonance to the note.
  • Drones: a string note bowed while a fingered note is played on the next string (e.g. a D string played both ways, or an open E droned while the tune is played on the A string). This creates a pipe-like accent and mood.
  • Cuts: breaking a note into fragments of the same pitch (e.g. a three-note cut of a single G by snapping or shaking the bow).
  • Doubling up: playing octaves apart at the same time to increase power and volume (made popular before amplification was around).
  • Altered bow strokes and signature tempo increases: some “non-classical” positioning (e.g. holding the bow against the upper index, with thumb held under) can create faster more flexible bow pressures. And tempo-increases (usually slow to fast builds) control and energize the presentation. Some claim today’s even faster pacing emerged when step-dancing began to surpass square-dancing in popularity.

There’s nothing dictated in applying all these Gaelic ornamentations. A player’s unique embellishing at his or her discretion can uptick the energy, tone, and interpretation of a song. It will also forge the fiddler’s own style and reputation.

If you visit Cape Breton, it’s easy to check current listings and create your own musical path across the island. The choices are generous. There’s an old story about a newcomer asking directions to an out-of-the-way ceilidh that evening. The Bretoner responds by saying, “Take the next right, drive until you’re lost. Go a little further until you see some parked cars. The fiddle music will be right around there.”

No matter where you find it, over two or three days, you’re apt to hear some current Cape Breton headliners, plus the next upcoming wave, as well as older legends and more local players. All will provide joy and uplift. Because wherever you go on those proverbial piney stages of Cape Breton, as Lucy MacNeil of the famed Barra MacNeils has been known to say at the start of a performance, “Welcome everyone and fasten your seatbelt.”

Here are the iconic venues you may want to put on your tour:

The Red Shoe Pub in Mabou.

The Doreyman Pub & Grill in Cheticamp. The Barn @ The Normaway Inn, Margaree Valley

And some other stops to make it a memorable trip:

Cape Breton Highlands National Park: outdoor treasures abound. Take the Skyline Hike for heavenly views!

The Celtic Music Interpretive Centre in Judique. Father John Angus Rankin Cultural Centre in Glendale

Check for performances @ La Place Des Arts Pere-Anselme-Chiasson in the NDA School at Cheticamp (next to the historic St. Pierre Church), and also @ the Stratspey Performing Arts Centre in Mabou, both comfortable auditoriums with excellent acoustics.

The Gaelic College in St. Ann’s on the Cabot Trail for cultural demonstrations.

Various Island boat tours, whale watches, kayaking sites, ceilidhs, farmers’ markets, antique outlets, seafood restaurants, and hiking trails will keep you smiling and on the go.

Enjoy Cape Breton and all forms of Gaelic, Scottish, and Irish music on Calm Radio’s very popular Celtic Channel. Cheers and safe travels!

© 2018 Steve Meixell, photo by author

Listen 24/7 to unlimited channels on unlimited devices

Enjoy your audio journey anywhere, even without internet. Calm Radio offers unique audio experiences – curated music, Sounds of Nature, relaxing ambience – so you can work, can focus, can relax, can sleep.

  • Windows
  • macOS
  • Android
  • iOS
  • Alexa
  • Sonos
  • Apple TV 4
  • Roku