Review by Margaret Bennett

Review of Còmhla Cruinn – Gathered Together (CD), from The West Island Free Press

Henry Whyte’s ‘Fuadach nan Gaidheal’ is familiar enough to most Scottish Gaels, though few seem to sing it. The tune is better known as the pipe march, ‘Lord Lovat’s Lament’ — brisk enough for keeping step, or even raising morale, providing there’s no connection to the original meaning, (The Eviction of the Highlanders). Although Whyte composed it long after the event, the song seems to have been better assimilated into the tradition of Gaels overseas — Nova Scotian folklorist Helen Creighton recorded a version of it in l947, five years before Scotland had a folklore archive.

A new recording of the song by Cape Breton’s Rod C. MacNeill (Ruairidh Mac Iain Sheumais Dhòmhnaill) coveys the essence of it with total sincerity. The voice is up in years, occasionally it quavers, yet it is all the more moving to hear him sing:

Gur a mise tha tùrsach/ A’ caoidh còr na dùthcha,….,

[How sad I am / Lamenting the state of the homeland…]

The lyrics are accompanied by the distant sound of bagpipes, never overtaking, far less drowning them. Such is the skill of the piper (Rod’s son Paul) and the production team of this CD, which opens with ‘Fuadach nan Gaidheal’. Co-produced by the Comunn Féis an Eilein and the CBC, ‘Còmhla Cruinn: Gathered Together—A Cape Breton Gaelic Celebration’ was launched last October at Cape Breton’s Celtic Colours Festival. It features twenty tracks of over twenty singers and instrumentalists, three of which are scheduled to be guests this year’s Ceòlas in South Uist — Rod C. MacNeil (Gaelic song), Paul MacNeil (bagpipes), and Paul’s wife, Tracy Dares, (step-dance). Better known for her live-wire piano accompaniment of Natalie MacMaster’s fiddle, Tracy exemplifies the versatility of Cape Breton’s traditional musicians, singers and dancers. Spend any time in their company and you can’t but sense how naturally they range the breadth of their traditional culture — it’s second nature to most of them to lay aside an instrument, pick up another one, step-dance, sing or simply join a chorus. Ceòlas will also feature two Cape Breton fiddlers, Shelly Campbell and Troy McGillivray, adding to the promising line-up for the week.

This is the tenth year that South Uist hosts a teaching festival fostering the links between exponents of Gaelic traditions from both Scotland and Cape Breton. Hector MacNeil, (different genealogy) whose 32-page booklet accompanies the CD, gives the Cape Breton view that, “There is an innate tendency to hold on to traditions brought to the new world and a heightened identification with an t-Seann Dùthaich (the old country) that seems to defy passage of time.”

Hector — or, as his kinsfolk might call him, Eachann MacEachainn Mhìcheil Dhòmhnaill Oig — was brought by up Gaelic-speaking parents who, like so many of their time, felt pressure to speak English to their children. (I am yet to meet anyone of that generation, either side of the Atlantic, who would agree they got on better without Gaelic, and the more impassioned among them feel they were denied a birthright.) In Nova Scotia, as in the Highlands and Islands, however, Gaelic songs were retained in many such households — English became the language of speech, Gaelic remained the language of song. (My own family might have been relegated to silence were we to rely on my mother’s repertoire of English songs.)

Having learned Gaelic as an adult, Hector MacNeil speaks it fluently and works tirelessly to promote it. Among other roles he fills, he is Gaelic Program Director at the Gaelic College in St. Ann’s, Cape Breton. His liner notes give biographies of the singers, background and transcriptions of songs, and an excellent summary of the history and culture of Cape Breton. There’s also a sober reminder that there were over 75,000 Gaelic-speakers in Cape Breton at the turn of the twentieth century, and today a mere 500.

Hector (who also sings) describes the ‘milling frolic’, the original setting for most of their songs. Perhaps overly-generous in remarking that the luadh in Scotland is “held from time to time to demonstrate the work process and its attendant social activities” he compares the milling frolic in Cape Breton “as a strictly social event.” Scottish Gaels who have seen the Cape Bretonners in action invariably conclude that such vitality and enthusiasm is almost never encountered in Scotland. Perhaps that is not surprising as the luadh actually survived longer in parts of Eastern Canada than in most of Gaelic Scotland. When Alan Lomax recorded waulking songs in Benbecula and South Uist in 1951, the women re-created a special demonstration luadh, as the practice had virtually ceased by the Second World War.

Aside from John Ramsey of Ochtertyre’s 18th century description of a group of singers holding handkerchiefs when they sang for leisure (as opposed to waulking), I know of no custom in Scotland that compares to the Cape Breton milling frolic with participants invariably seated at the milling table, and all hands on the cloth. It not only draws singers together but also as many people that can squeeze into the room or hall. At the same time, it keeps their songs alive and encourages folk to learn them. Furthermore it reflects the fact that men took a major part in the luadh, in Cape Breton whereas in Scotland (apart from a few exceptions) it was the domain of women.

This milling kicks of with Jim Watson singing Ma Bhuannaich Thu Nighean Ghrinn setting a steady pace, afterwards picked up by Hector MacNeil, then Frances MacEachen followed by Peter MacLean. Typical of such a gathering, the singers take a breather. Time for a song — Jeff MacDonald sings in praise of Christmas Island, then, before launching into the milling again, Joe Peter MacLean plays a driving medley on fiddle accompanied by Janet Cameron on piano. Such vigour and spirit makes it easy to understand why Scottish musicians listen to Cape Breton style music and learn from it.

Quite apart from representing a milling frolic, the changes of pace and reflections of light and shade produce a well-crafted play-list for the CD. The participants range across generations, spanning eight decades. I would hope that young Colin Watson’s lively singing of Ged A Sheòl mi Air M’ Aineol might encourage others of his generation. The other singers include Beth MacNeil, Allan MacLeod, Barry George, Angus MacLeod, Betty Lord, Jamie MacNeil, Maxie MacNeil, Seumas MacNeil, Mary Jane Lamond and John C. Gillis. There is a good balance in the songs, between those known both sides of the Atlantic, those composed in Cape Breton and some from Scotland, including one by South Uist’s Donald John MacDonald whose bardachd will also be featured at Ceòlas.

I think Mary Smith (from Lewis) would agree with me that one of the best nights ever spent in Cape Breton was in the hall on Christmas Island where this CD was recorded — Mary and I were invited to join the singers during Celtic Colours Festival last October. “Packed house! Sold out!” we were told. But nobody had to explain why folk would travel hundreds of miles to be there. The true spirit of authenticity is reflected in the singing and the CD is a real treasure-trove. Contact Comunn Féis an Eilein, P.O. Box 317, Christmas Island, Nova Scotia, Canada, B1T 1R7, or email Ceòlas is in South Uist, July 6 — 14.