Professor Dan MacInnes delivered the 1998 John MacFadyen Lecture/Recital. The following is the text of his talk.
By Professor Dan MacInnes
Tonight I have four points to make, and the pipers four tunes to play. We shall try our best to avoid controversy. The four points I shall make all devolve from a consideration of some music we share in common. Here are my points. First, I would like to stress that Gaels here and in Cape Breton are but one people. Second, two musical interpretations have developed out of the same ground – yours, which we shall hear, and ours, which I hope to illuminate by word rather that through musical prowess. The third point I should like to make is that “Cape Breton fiddling has always been on the floor and its dance close to the floor”. Finally, at the conclusion I hope to make a small point about the future, on liberating music from practices that may incarcerate its spirit.
Cape Breton is one of the most remote islands of Gaelic Scotland. As compared with Mingulay and Kilda, Cape Breton is much further removed, and far more populous. Today, the Lochaber dialect of Gaelic is far more likely to be heard in Inverness County, Cape Breton. than among the very few remaining speakers in Lochaber, Scotland. We know the special roles the outer isles play in the mythology of present day Gaelic Scotland. Despite the marginality imposed by the Minch, the incessant out migration and the poor returns on crofting the imagination of Scotland is Highland. Sparked in contemporary times by Gaelic radio and television – Skye, Uist and Lewis are understood as homelands where traditions still live.
Over the past two centuries Cape Breton has also been part of a diaspora which looked back to Scotland as its home, its source of being. We left here with great reluctance. Once departed for America the ‘New World Scots’ were understood to occupy a vast territory stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the North Pole to the Gulf of Mexico. From this side of the water America appears undifferentiated including as it does Banff, Boston, Toronto, Margaree, and Hollywood all in one. How can there be cultural coherence in the vastness that is America?
The initial settlement of Cape Breton is best understood as a ‘transplanting’ of portions of Scotland. Unlike elsewhere, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, South Africa and other parts of Canada, Nova Scotia or “New Scotland” was created en masse. Entire communities left Scotland, mostly the west Highlands and Islands and reassembled in Cape Breton. Some 30 thousand people came to Cape Breton and Eastern Prince Edward Island in the short space of 40 years. In Nova Scotia they were able to cluster together as and Harris people in the north part Victoria County, Uist and Barra people in Cape Breton around the Bras d’or Lakes, Wester Ross and Sutherland people near Pictou, Lochaber people near Mabou, Moidart people around Judique, and Morar people in the Margarees. This is what is important to understand and it is my first point. These people were Gaelic-speaking Highlanders whose culture was already established. When they settled, they totally dominated all other peoples already there, be they the few united empire loyalists, the French Acadians or the native Mi’kmaq.
The fiddlers and pipers who came brought an enormous oral collection of songs, tunes, dances and stories. In place, they used their Gaelic to compose poems and songs lamenting their loss – they missed the fair haired maidens, maidens with nut brown hair and seemingly all types of maidens, they missed hunting the deer, quiet pools and waiting salmon, the mountains, and together they cursed the forest.
Cape Breton was able to wallow in this culture for several generations. Between 1871 and 1951 Cape Breton remained “Scottish” by default. Like the ancient Jews who wandered to the only spot in the Middle East without oil, these Highlanders went to the one spot in Canada that had no economic future. Just about everyone arriving in Canada after 1881 i.e., the majority of Canadians went to the centre or to the west. Therefore, opposition to the dominant ‘Scottish’ culture was minimal and before the advent of mass media were few local alternatives. That is why so many Mi’kmaq play Scottish tunes on the violin, blacks and Chinese people spoke Gaelic. The local community remained the focus of existence and since all communities were either Catholic or Presbyterian, ministers and priests played significant roles in social life.
Now, everything I have said about Cape Breton can also be said for Catholic Antigonish and Presbyterian Pictou counties on the adjacent Nova Scotia mainland. In 1805, piper John MacKay arrived in Pictou aboard the Sir Phillip Sydney. He was among a group of Gairloch passengers determined to find a new home. His great grandfather was the famous Iain Dàll [MacKay], the blind piper of Gairloch and his great, great grandfather was Rory MacKay. According to John Gibson who has just completed the manuscript for a book on Nova Scotia piping, Alexander MacKenzie, editor of The Celtic Magazine, visited this John MacKay in the late 1860s. MacKenzie ascertained that the playing of piobaireachd was dead in Nova Scotia. Furthermore, it appears that the piper’s sons played only light music. There in the woods of new Gairloch the playing of piobaireachd withered and within two generations this branch of the hereditary pipers to the MacKay chief gave up the pipe.
[At this point in his talk, Professor MacInnes introduced Roddy MacLeod who played the first tune of the evening, that great bucolic composition, Corrienessan’s Salute. In the absence of a recording of Roddy’s performance we have a recording of Robert Watt playing the tune at the 2016 Lorient Interceltic Festival]:
What is today called Cape Breton music was usually called Scottish music or in some circles “Scotch” music. Cape Breton covers the music people play in the nearby province of Prince Edward Island, and the mainland counties of Antigonish and Pictou. You will have noticed that in this music the violin and piano are dominant and piping is decidedly secondary.
Now it is possible that I may misunderstand the relationship between the Gael, the preservation of traditional music and the roles played by both the military and the gentry/aristocracy. It appears that the practice of piping but more especially piobaireachd survived in and through the recruitment of Gaels into the military. This replaced the patronage, which disappeared with the clan system. The role of the gentry/aristocracy is more problematic since it appears their efforts are clouded by a specific revisionist period in history. In short, as the Gaelic tribes weakened, elements of their culture increasingly became objects of celebration. This was already underway as early as 1822 with the coming of George IV to Edinburgh but it was more properly a construct of the Victorian period. At court and in the better salons of the nation a rather disingenuous tartanry became ascendant. In short, their cultural leadership is suspect.
Critics claim that the singing at the Mòd, and the footwork in Highland dance betrays the imposition of operatic and ballet standards on a folk tradition. A second question challenges the competition system. Competition fosters and displays this culture but inadvertently imposes an intolerable degree of standardisation around technique. Critics argue that despite the good intentions the system has ended up constructing uniformity at the expense of folk and musical expression.
Had piobaireachd, which came to Nova Scotia as early as 1783 (Donald Rory MacCrimmon) survived – we would have a perfect experimental model for comparing musical tradition in Cape Breton Scotland. But the people came here without an army, without an empire to defend and without an aristocracy or even an upper class to act as patrons and cultural gatekeepers. What is amazing is that piping survived at all.
To understand how arduous the conditions were, take for example the most musical families to come to Cape Breton, the Beatons – descendants of Alexander of Skye. When the Beatons came over from Prince Edward Island the spring of 1812 they lived on the beach under their boat felling the trees to build their house. Spring never came that year, the big ice stayed in place and they had to eat most of their seed potatoes while waiting to plant among the tree stumps they had cleared. This was the good news; it would take almost two generations to get really warm in a climate, which saw harbours freeze over from December to early April. In pioneer conditions, quite aside from consideations of tutors and practice it would take great care to prevent a wet chanter from splintering with the cold where temperatures would drop to -20˚C for weeks at a time.
Judging by its prevalence throughout Cape Breton right up until recent times the universal music, which came to dominate was expensive, easy to reproduce, highly portable and already tested by monotonous work routines – it was mouth music, Gaelic songs and the jigging of tunes. Whatever happened, happened first in the kitchen – often the only warm spot in the house. In fact, with all due respect to Seumas [MacNeill], for many, kitchen playing was as good as it ever got. For others, the apogee of their career was realised at the community dance. In the first 50 years folk culture had to be synonymous with home because there was little of social substance outside the home.
* From the June 1998 Piping Times.