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Cape Breton - A Scottish Legacy
- by Peter Fairbairn Issue 28 August/September '98

Natalie MacMaster with Fiddle
Someone once said about Cape Breton - "throw a stone in any direction on this island and you will either hit a fiddle player or a stepdancer". An exaggeration maybe, but if the stone did hit someone they would most likely have some Scottish ancestry or connection.

The North Americas were the destinations of hope and promise, if not always free choice, for many emigrant Scots. The second half of the eighteenth century saw an increase in this migration. There was a number of combining factors at work here; an increasing population and limited resources; the failure of the kelp industry (which for many years had been so profitable for the island lairds) but more importantly, the ruinous consequences following the second failed Jacobite Rising of 1745. Changes in land ownership and entitlements, property confiscations, forced evictions and the replacement of cattle by sheep, all led to what became known as The Clearances.

Lochaber, Glengarry, Knoydart, Arisaig, Barra, South Uist, the glens and islands were cleared of people, their animals and homesteads. In their turn sheep, through their increased numbers and intensive grazing, cleared, denuded and changed the aspect and ecology of the countryside. Moving west to the New World was the best or in many cases the only option. There were Scots emigrants in many parts of the Americas and they had much influence in a land that soon began to perceive independence and nationhood as a right. After the American Revolution, territories further north became the main destination particularly, for the gaelic speaking peoples of the highlands and islands, who were shipped out to Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton. With the emigrants came social cultures and traditions, their language, poetry, songs and music.

Even with the passing of time these traditions remained strong and fairly faithful to their origins. Over the years there have been many "new" gaelic songs from Cape Breton. Co-existing with those that have been passed down or relearned. The music has also been nurtured, added to and developed, especially that of the fiddle while stepdancing has continued and thrived long after being extinct and all but forgotten in Scotland. Indeed so interconnected are stepdance and music in Cape Breton that some form of symbiosis has been at the heart of these traditions.

Natalie MacMaster

Natalie MacMaster was born in Inverness County, Cape Breton Island where she was raised in a family involved with traditional music and with a particular liking for the sound of the fiddle.

Her uncle is Buddy MacMaster, a well respected player of the older school of Cape Breton fiddle style, well known as a soloist and for his work with The Cape Breton Symphony. The sound of the fiddle and the rhythm of the step-dances proved to be strong early influences and by the age of five, Natalie had started beating out the steps to the reels, strathspeys and jigs. A few years later Natalie began playing the tunes. Her first fiddle was a three-quarter sized instrument sent from Boston by her grand uncle, Charlie MacMaster. Her father Alex, taught Natalie the first tune which started off her playing career but her first serious tutor was Stan Chapman from Antigonish. Having been well used to the sound of the fiddle from music sessions at home and on records and tapes, Natalie soon grasped the techniques and absorbed the tunes.

Other local musicians influenced her developing style in the areas of playing and performance, decoration and ornamentation. Her uncle Buddy, Jerry Holland, Angus and Cameron Chisholm, Dave MacIsaac, Winston "Scotty" Fitzgerald and many more represented a wealth of experience and knowledge in playing style, repertoire and sources of material.

"4 on the Floor", was her first album, which Natalie recorded when she was sixteen. A couple of years later she released her second album, "Road to the Isles". Joining her on both these recordings were John Morris Rankin, Dave MacIsaac and her aunt, Betty Lou Beaton. These are well recorded collections with straight forward fiddle, guitar and piano settings of tunes old and new but steeped in the traditional style of Cape Breton. Her playing at this time, already contained the drive and immediacy that is still an essential part of her live performance.

That live performance, whether as a soloist or with an accompanist or with her current band, is far from being a laid back or sedate affair. The music being played is essentially dance music. The rhythm, timing and phrasing tied to the beat that would suit the stepdancer. Indeed much of the time Natalie herself steps out the dances while she is playing.

Natalie has recently released her fifth recording, entitled, "My Roots are Showing". The title refers to some of the sources and influences that inspired and gave direction to her playing. Featured, are selections from Scottish composer J. Scott Skinner and several pieces from Cape Breton writers and players such as Dan R. MacDonald, Donald Angus Beaton, Sandy MacIntyre, Cameron Chisholm and Winston Fitzgerald.

Another project that Natalie has been working on is a Cape Breton fiddle style tutor video, which became available in Britain at the end of last year. This is an hour long tape which is aimed at the intermediate level of player and displays on screen, musical notation and close-ups of the finger board. Natalie has been involved with masterclasses, tutorials and workshops in the past and in her video takes time to explain some of the basics, particularly the ornamentations and tempos that define Cape Breton fiddle style.

For those interested in Cape Breton style piano accompaniment, Tracey Dares who accompanied Natalie on her early visits to the UK, has also produced a tutor video "A' Chording to the Tunes". The video begins with a solo performance by Tracey, followed by instruction for piano accompaniment to a jig, a march, a strathspey and a reel. For the intermediate piano student interested in the Cape Breton accompaniment style, this lesson highlights some of the technical elements of this style, and provides the student with a mini-repertoire.

Many of the tunes from the Cape Breton repertoire can be found in various Scottish and Irish collections, "The Cape Breton Musical Heritage Series" is a growing collection of tune books offering a huge selection of traditional and newly composed fiddle tunes played in Cape Breton. Titles include "Jerry Holland's Collection of Fiddle Tunes", "Brenda Stubbert's Collection of Fiddle Tunes", "The Lighthouse Collection", a book and a CD of almost 300 newly composed tunes in the Cape Breton, Irish and Scottish Tradition, and "Winston Fitzgerald - A Collection of Fiddle Tunes" arranged from performances by the legendary Cape Breton Fiddler.

A Fiddle Lesson - Natalie MacMaster - Greentrax TRAXV2002
A' Chording to the Tunes - Tracey Dares - Greentrax TRAXV2003

The Cape Breton Musical Heritage Series, Cranford Publications, Box 42, Englishtown, Nova Scotia, Canada B0C 1H0, E_Mail: The books are available from Paul Cranford by mail order and are distributed in the UK and Ireland.

Links, further information and recordings: