Continuing the lecture that Professor Dan MacInnes delivered at the John MacFadyen Memorial Lecture/Recital in 1998.

In those years, home was rough housing, forested land, and far too much work for a family to do alone. To survive work had to be shared. People organised their lives around their one accessible resource and that was kinship. Since the usual land grant was 200 acres and grants could be as large as 400 acres, houses were spaced well apart from one another. This played an important part in shaping how the music developed. To work together meant spending time away from one’s own house. It also meant cultivating people for future endeavours. It was work and not laziness that made the ceilidh the central sacrament of the Scottish frontier. At the centre of the ceilidh was the music. Coming together to work was both a release from the isolation imposed by the frontier and an expression of what the settlers shared, their genealogy, stories and their music.

As the frontier receded, clergy played a not insignificant role in shaping larger social get togethers. At first, Presbyterian ministers were not partial to dancing and for a time in the late 1870s a few Catholic priests went off ‘dancing’ because it was so closely associated with drinking. However, by the 1890s parish picnics were held throughout Cape Breton to finance community halls and ever since then halls hold dances to finance the Parish, the firemen, the rink and in one parish they put on a dance to raise funds for an unfortunate soul with a drinking problem who reportedly fell asleep after drinking too heavy at a dance – his lit cigarette burnt the house down.

Since Cape Breton, mainland Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island were distinct British colonies right up until 1867 the Crown could intervene in the community. Disbanded soldiers and officers were granted land and other rights exceeding those of the average settler. Because these people often had significant material resources they might have provided a formal alternative to the home trained musicians. Pipers, Neil MacFadyen from Mull and his son Donald were such people and Condullie Rankin, who came out to Prince Edward Island in 1818 was one of these more fortunate settlers. Rankin was the last hereditary piper to the chief of the MacLeans of Coll. The story of how he gave up this sinecure is highly instructive. It is provided by Henry Whyte in a small pamphlet produced in London in 1907. It appears that one day Condullie was practising at the castle. The factor on the Coll estate had already observed that the position of the piper was being gradually reduced and he addressed the young Condullie: “Put that (chanter) away; while the rest are in the company of the gentry you will have the dogs for your companions.”

Condullie joined the army, became an officer, then a leader of an emigration from Coll and finally an established figure on Prince Edward Island. It appears this last in the line of the Rankins, which began with Condullie ended with a Condullie who heeded the factor’s warning. The change in the social order reflected MacLean’s predilection for ‘improvements’. What was foretold of Condullie applied equally to piobaireachd.

Piobaireachd depended on the ‘patronage’ of the Chief. Most tunes arose out of the old order when pipers occupied positions of some gravity in society. As anthems, laments, and chronicles they also arose out of a people’s experience even though they were cast in an elite formulation since it was the people who fought the clan battles and it was the people who wore the chief’s mistakes on their bodies as battle scars. Some of the people’s leaders were out and out scoundrels. They were monsters – conniving, murderous, ruthless – and as history records, these were their better qualities – the majority were not particularly loyal to their own people.

Sorley MacLean in the 1990s. (Photo: Sam Maynard).

It is therefore with some pleasure that I introduce the next piobaireachd, Hector MacLean’s Warning. It appears that the Hector in question was murdered on Coll on account of his own treachery. I know it is harsh to judge people who lived so long ago by today’s standards and we cannot consider the sins of the father but it is reported that Hector’s grandfather had tied his wife to a rock to let the tide drown her and then visited the in-laws to mourn his loss. Fratricide was one of his moral failings and as Professor Haddow himself notes, Hector’s father was clearly depraved. This is only the short list. I take this personally. One of Hector’s relatives named Dr. Laughlin MacLean decided to clear the Isle of Rum in 1826. My great, great grandfather, born on Rum, was Hector son of Laughlin (which naming pattern is so typically MacLean). My grandmother’s MacLean’s people left from Arisaig so most likely I am of those MacLeans. In 1996, I talked this matter over with the late Sorley MacLean who was every bit a MacLean but Mull based as opposed to Coll, and Sorley himself assured me that although this man who sent us away was exceptionally small minded and possibly a bad man he was by no means the measure of his predecessor.

So what was Hector MacLean’s warning? It is a tune you do not hear that often but I have the assurance of the MacFadyen Trust that in the transactions of the Piobaireachd Society these explanatory words will be added. “Origins of the tune: a warning composed by an unknown piper to Hector MacLean of Coll, that some day a descendant of those sent away from Rum will journey across the ocean and will at Stirling Castle denounce Hector MacLean and declare him to be an exceptionally poor role model for Highland youth”.

[At this point in the Professor’s lecture, Roddy MacLeod played Hector MacLean’s Warning. there is no recording of Roddy’s performance on the evening so we have instead a recording from 2008 of Murray Henderson playing the tune]:

In Cape Breton the instrument hat replaced the pipes was the violin. It did not do this overnight. In many ways the violin acted as a substitute for piping. The emulation of the pipes created a technical dynamic which demanded a high level of skill and innovation. Fiddlers and pipers played the same tunes, they added grace notes and what Cape Bretoners call ‘cuts’ (equivalent of birls), and they amplified their instruments through high bass tuning and used bowing techniques to simulate the pipe’s drones. These and a number of other techniques made the violin an extension of the pipes. Some older fiddlers created gaps in the scale to imitate the unbalanced chanters used in days past. Most importantly pipers and fiddlers employed their instruments to play for dances.

To put dancing into context, let us pick up where we left off … the need for ceilidhs, for working together and getting together on the frontier. Barns, schools and houses had to be built, the winter’s wood had to be split, harvests had to be taken in, winds came up and fire destroyed buildings so they had to be re-built. The appeal of a gathering was to all ages and for both sexes. What many people did when they gathered for a frolic, a ceilidh or a kitchen racket was dance. Dancing appears to be something that came with the West Highland people. We do know that dancing masters were among the immigrants and it does appear that reels were among the early dances. Just about everyone in Cape Breton believes that step dancing was something that came from Scotland … we cannot imagine it any other way. This in itself does not prove the point but based on so much oral and family history it would be a huge task to prove anything else.

The evolution of the music in Cape Breton is best explained by dancing. This is what gave the music its drive and this is what changed the timing of the strathspeys as it is played there. It is expected that all Cape Bretoners will have “a step in them” even those who are said to be good “only on one leg”. As late as the 1950s the music was heard everywhere in parts of Cape Breton and in most homes in these places only this music was heard. It was about this time that summer became the dance season. It had existed previously but in some moderation. The temporary return of comparatively well heeled out migrants on holiday, the development of roads and automobiles, and the increase of leisure time conspired to hurl young people in a contagion of dancing until the entire summer was consumed and winter forced people back into their kitchens.

At the dances fiddlers and dancers tested each other, and timing was everything. When the dancers on the floor know what they are doing and the fiddler is spot on with the dancers – you can actually hear all the feet coming down at the same instance and if you listen very closely just before the feet fall one can hear the sound of thousands of beads of perspiration hitting the floor on the offbeat.

Those with a critical ear might wonder how playing for dancing could ever provide the discipline needed to both sharpen a fiddler’s technical skills while maintaining the integrity of the traditional music. The answer to this might be found in the way fiddling first followed piping, then overtook the pipes in popularity but still retained the respected status accorded the musician in society. The very good fiddlers came to inherit the reputations once accorded hereditary pipers. Fiddlers like pipers clustered in families and in certain communities.

* From the July 1998 Piping Times.

• Read Part 3
• Read Part 1.