Review by Frank Macdonald

Còmhla Cruinn: Gaelic recording brings listener to the milling frolic

Review of Còmhla Cruinn – Gathered Together, from The Inverness Oran

On the recently released recording, Còmhla 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.

It was to capture the cultural energy of the milling frolic that CBC and Féis an Eilein joined forces to capture a blending of Gaelic voices. CBC’s Wendy Bergfelt, host of the Gaelic theme radio show, Island Echoes, was the producer of Còmhla Cruinn.

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. Ironically, to achieve this sense of immediacy, required a high-tech approach to the recording which led to the contracting of CBC engineer Rod Sneddon and his considerable experience recording the multi-musical aspects of symphony orchestras. The effect for those homes equipped with superior sound systems is one of close-your-eyes and be there in Christmas Island with Rod C. and Paul MacNeil, Jim Watson, Hector MacNeil, Frances MacEachen, Peter MacLean, Jeff MacDonald, Joe Peter MacLean and Janet Cameron, Colin Watson, Beth MacNeil, Allan MacLeod, Barry George, Paul MacNeil and Tracey Dares, Angus MacLeod, Betty Lord, Jamie MacNeil, Maxie MacNeil, Seumas MacNeil, Mary Jane Lamond, Roddie C. MacNeil and Kim Ells and Neil John Gillis, plus an additional gathering of guests in the chorus.

If you have a standard CD player, 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. Still, it is within the range of songs, some milling, some adapted to the table from other Gaelic genres that gives the recording its momentum, the lead voices changing with each cut, but there is no faltering from one voice to the next. What accompanies the recorded voices is a sense of confidence in what they are doing. Còmhla Cruinn is not a re-enactment of once upon a time;…it is a vibrant rendering of what is in fact the Gaelic-speaking culture of Cape Breton Island. Not, perhaps, the language of the coffee shops and tourist attractions, but these speakers and singers have gathered for this recording not to entertain the uncomprehending, but to assert to themselves and each other, and more importantly perhaps, to the one or two or a few who will listen and come forward themselves, the songs still resonating in their hearts, to learn something more, a song perhaps, or the language itself.

Accompanying Còmhla 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, from the youthful commitment of Colin Watson to the posthumous placement among the living voices of a song by revered Gaelic singer Neil John Gillis. 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.” Not as “few” as 500, but as “many” as…

With the quality of its production, the gathering of so many singers, and its accompanying documentation, Còmhla Cruínn has an historical significance in the Gaelic culture of Cape Breton Island. Its energy, its confidence, and its gathering of generations underlines the fact that while most Cape Breton Gaelic families have lost or surrendered their cultural language, clusters of resistence to its absolute demise gather in fire halls and community halls all around us, teaching, sharing, singing. They are called the tradition bearers.

In his introduction to Còmhla 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, Còmhla Cruinn is a recording to treasure for its voices and its vision.