MT logo Letters - June 2003

Re: Re: Theresa Morrison review

Damn!  I had resolved to try and make a bit of space in my overcrowded life by not doing any writing for a long time.  But I suppose I have to make some sort of answer to Dr Lamb's letter.  I'll try and comment point by point …
Paul Robert's review of Theresa Morrison's Merry Laments and Melodies from Cape Breton Island, whilst extending due praise to the CD itself, presents an inaccurate and obfuscated view of Cape Breton music.  One of the more bewildering aspects of his review is his claim that Cape Breton music is Lowland in origin "Nova Scotia is reputedly the most Gaelic region of maritime Canada (although its dance music is essentially Lowland Scots in origin...".  Here, as elsewhere in his piece, he confuses repertoire with the eminently more important influence of style.
I would have thought it obvious I was referring primarily to genre and repertoire, especially if you read the rest of my sentence ('... although its dance music is essentially Lowland Scots in origin - testimony to the massive cultural changes in the Highlands after the '45 ...').

Anyway, I'm pleased Dr Lamb does seem to recognize the essentially Lowland origin of the type of music played in Cape Breton, but the fact is a great many people (especially in the US) associate Scots music primarily with the Highlands (indeed they associate Scotland primarily with the Highlands, although most Scots have always been Lowlanders); one reason I felt it worthwhile raising the point.

The position as regards playing style is eminently more complex.  The problem is that before the era of sound recording all we can do is attempt informed reconstructions of style, and in the case of the Celtic language areas of the British Isles we actually have very little material to work on.  To put it bluntly we cannot know what west Highland fiddlers of the early 19th century sounded like because there is not enough material to attempt serious reconstruction.  That is one reason why enthusiasts have got away with making extravagant claims re: Cape Breton.

In any case, study of better documented British/Irish/North American/European fiddle styles suggests that the uniqueness and homogeneity of regional/national fiddle style has probably been overstated in the past.

If we try to break down any fiddle style it's useful to divide the components into two categories.  First there is a body of fairly obvious and easily analysed features - particular bowing patterns, types of decoration, tonal approach etc.  If we confine ourselves to this category there is actually nothing in the fiddle styles (note the plural) of 20th century Cape Breton that has ever been exclusive to either Cape Breton or the Highlands, indeed there's nothing that can't be found throughout Britain in the 18th century, and much that was common to Europe at that time.  I'll put that another way: there is very little in any fiddle style anywhere in the western world that is totally unique and the further back we go in the sources the greater the area of commonality seems to be.  (By way of example: for many people the Birl is the essence of both Scots and Cape Breton music.  But the first explicit and detailed description of the Birl of which I know comes in a bagpipe tutor circa 1745 written by an Irishman for an English market).

Let me stress I am not saying everybody used to play the same way!  I am saying we can outline a series of components common to the British Isles and often to Europe and what makes individual/local/regional/generational style is which elements are chosen and the way they are mixed.

If we start to look deeper into style we come across a second category of components - subtleties of tempo, rhythm, accenting and phrasing that are extremely difficult to describe and analyse, virtually impossible to extract from written sources, and which vary tremendously not just from region to region and community to community but from person to person.  If we look at this second category we enter an area so fluid, varied, elusive, and individual that we really cannot listen to a particular modern player and claim to be hearing anything other than that particular modern player.  We may very well be hearing much more than that - but we cannot know it and we cannot prove it.

One thing we can be certain of - every individual mixes and matches the available stylistic components differently, even if people are inevitably most influenced by their immediate community, and there is nothing fixed and immutable about style.  I know of no son whose playing is exactly like his father in any tradition (and plenty whose playing is extremely different) and after 200 years it is doubtful if any community will be exactly replicating the sound of their ancestors.

It is true that the repertoire of just about any Cape Breton fiddler today will contain numerous tunes that were composed by the likes of William Marshall and Scott Skinner.  (However, for Roberts to lump the Gows, who also feature prominently, with these two is inaccurate they were from around Dunkeld.) It is thought that many of these tunes entered into Cape Breton primarily via the manuscripts and tune collections imported from Scotland during the 20th Century.  Of course, they would have been circulated orally by and large, from literature players to the more numerous non-literate players.  Moreover, many of the older tunes of these books were probably in circulation already, as part of the rich oral tradition.
I would have thought that proved my point!  The simple fact that modern Scottish (and Irish and American) collections and manuscripts circulated in the 20th century shows Cape Breton is not a fossilised or isolated tradition.

Incidentally I lump the Gows with Marshall and Skinner in the context of discussing the origins and evolution of the 'Scots Violin' school, not in discussing Lowland versus Highland tune origins.  However, as you have raised the issue, I may as well add that I don't think you can realistically give the Gows a Gaelic identity.  This is to confuse the geographic Highland line with the cultural one.  The former is fixed, the latter has been in retreat since at least the middle ages.  Nor has the Highland line ever been a literal line, rather it should be seen as a border zone of mixed language and culture (like 18th century Strathspey itself).

The Gows came from an area that had once been Gaelic, but in their time it seems to have been culturally Lowland, or at most an area of mixed culture.  They themselves seem to have been men of monoglot Scots speech.  More importantly, their orientation was not towards the Gaelic speaking world but (a) to their own immediate locality, (b) to the Lowlands and in particular the musical mecca of Edinburgh, (c) ultimately to London and the wider English speaking world.

What was not imported, however, was the classically-influenced aesthetic, bowing style, articulation and generally less stable rhythm that, by then, were prominent in Scotland, promulgated by players like Skinner.
You seem to be talking about what I describe as the 'Scots Violin' school.  This goes back to (at least) the early 18th century.  I would be very surprised if this school of playing had not penetrated the Highlands long before the great migration to Cape Breton.  In any case this tradition is undoubtedly both present and influential in modern Cape Breton and Theresa is not the only player with at least one foot firmly planted in it.

If you are referring to a lack of dance sensibility and apeing of the sickly-sweet modern classical tone I would agree these are much more developed in Scotland than in Cape Breton, though I don't think you can accuse Skinner of these faults.  Nor do I consider contemporary 'Scots Violinists' to be the worst offenders here.  The worst offenders are the many folk revivalists who play only in sessions and never for dancing, many of whom ironically make a cult of Cape Breton (though I doubt if most of them ever listen to older Cape Breton fiddling.  One peculiarity of the 'folk scene' is that most of the participants don't seem to actually like authentic traditional music).

In several comments, Mr Roberts states his unwillingness to accept that Cape Breton players preserve an older style of fiddle playing, akin to what would have been found in the Highlands and Islands around the time of the Clearances.
What I object to is the apparently widespread idea in Folk Revivalist circles that Cape Breton fiddling is some sort of fossilised survival, identical in every respect to the music of the early 19th century, unchanged by evolution or external contacts.  This is to deny Cape Breton musicians their basic human creativity.  Even if they had migrated to the moon with the conscious intention of resisting all change, after 200 years the music would still have changed because the performers are real, creative human beings not museum exhibits.  Personally, my fiddling isn't the same as it was even 20 years ago.

Lets get this clear: this is not the same as saying modern Cape Breton fiddling is something totally and absolutely different to that of 200 years ago.  On the contrary, evident archaism and a conservative aesthetic is precisely why we call this and similar music 'traditional'.  I several times refer to archaic elements in Theresa's playing and specifically suggested she may sound very like a Scots Violinist of the Gow/Marshall era.  And I am perfectly aware that many other Cape Breton fiddlers appear to be even more old fashioned than Theresa, but I wasn't reviewing their records.

As to how close Cape Breton fiddle styles actually are to early 19th century Scots/western Highland/Hebridean fiddling - some players are probably very close indeed.  And some are undoubtedly very different.  As a whole Cape Breton fiddling is probably closer than modern Scottish fiddling, but as I said elsewhere in that review 'to be closer to something than is something else isn't necessarily to be very close at all'.

He bases this argument on the above non-evidence, and his assertion that Cape Breton music "in fact, is not so much a case of survival as of constant regeneration through continuing links with Scotland".  It is not clear whether by 'links' he means the aforementioned literature, or people; if it is the latter, then he is mistaken.  There was actually very little emigration to Cape Breton by Scots after the middle of the 19th century.  Tourism between the countries was infrequent until the mid to latter part of the 20th Century.  Before this time, were a fiddler from Scotland to have visited Cape Breton, the two would have likely spoken different languages both musically and linguistically.  In a nutshell, we know what Cape Breton fiddling was like from the earliest recordings done around the early to middle part of the 20th century; before this, and back to the 1850s or so, few Scots came across.
If the circulation of recent Scots and other tune collections (Ryans/Coles was a favourite here as elsewhere in north America) isn't explicit evidence of 'links', I don't know what is.  And yes, these 'links' do 'include people'.

There are several things about Cape Breton that are not widely realized in Scotland and at this stage I think we need to make them crystal clear:

Cape Breton is not some isolated, pre-modern time capsule.  Till very recently the area around Sydney was one of the leading mining and steel manufacturing regions of Canada and coal mining has been important here from the earliest days of European settlement.  Many Cape Breton fiddlers spent at least part of their lives working in these mines and mills, indeed many of them have lived and worked in big cities like Toronto, Detroit and Boston.

Cape Breton is not an enclave of ethnically pure and isolated Scots Highlanders.  The early 19th century West Highland settlers didn't come to an empty wilderness.  Apart from the local M'kmaq Indians there were already long established settlements of English, Irish, Lowland/Highland/Ulster Scots, French, Channel Islanders, Dutch, Americans of various origins.  Moreover the island has always maintained this multi ethnic character.  A 20th century miner or steelworker of Highland ancestry would have been rubbing shoulders with Newfoundlanders, Irish, English, Acadian-French, French, Slavs, Italians, Germans, Greeks, Afro and Anglo Americans, West Indians ... and also the Scots-born, both Highland and Lowland.  It's also worth remembering that like most maritime regions there is a strong tradition of seafaring, with all the cosmopolitanism that entails.

Highland emigration to Cape Breton was not a sudden one-off occurrence. It began around the 1780s.  The main movement lasted some 50 years, from around 1815 to 1870 - well into the age of the steam ship, the telegraph, and fast, regular, transatlantic communication (not to mention the age of James Scott Skinner).  It picked up again in the era 1890-1920, encouraged by the expansion of the mining and steel industries.  Thus in 1921 about 40% of the population in the mining districts was Scottish born, including many from Uist and Barra, reflecting the strong element of classic chain migration and direct links between earlier and later generations of settlers.

The fact is that the connection with Scotland was never fully broken, and to some extent it was deliberately cultivated, in the 20th century at least.  This was probably in part a response to the Cape Breton ethnic mix - a desire to draw firm boundaries between Scots and islanders of other origins.  This has meant that Cape Breton fiddling has inevitably been influenced by developments in Scotland itself and it seems to me more helpful to see it as a special (and certainly comparatively old fashioned) regional subdivision of modern Scottish fiddling, rather than as some isolated time capsule.

It is also worth pointing out that Scottish immigration was not exclusively Highland and that Cape Breton Scots tend to see themselves as just that, with the primary emphasis on Scottish not Highland origins.

Mr Robert's statement that "[t]he bulk of the material is of late 19th/20th century origin which surely scotches (sorry!) [sic] the myth of 'ancient pre-clearance music'" betrays an ignorance about what constitutes tradition.
You seem to be getting more and more confused.  If the bulk of Theresa's tunes are of Victorian and 20th century origin (which she herself makes quite explicit) then she can't be simply replicating ancient pre-clearance music.  This is nothing to do with the issue of what does or doesn't 'constitute tradition'.
He dissociates one aspect of Cape Breton music-repertoire-from a web of cultural evidence that Cape Bretoners held on to many areas of inheritance linking them to the Scottish Gaidhealtachd.  Consider the following other pre-Clearance survivals: ?  The Gaelic language of course, including certain mainland dialects which languished here
?  A profoundly rich oral tradition, with songs and stories of many genres, some dating to the Middle Ages and before
?  Mouth music ('puirt-a-beul'), which helped to preserve traditional settings of instrumental tunes
?  A pre-competition style of bagpiping
?  Scottish step-dance
To pry fiddling away from these important aspects of culture is simply bad ethnology.  Is there any reason to suspect that, while Cape Bretoners preserved these other facets of their culture well, their fiddling is nothing but a doppelganger, or a tradition gone astray?  All evidence points to the contrary.
I really don't understand this.  There is no reason to think that every aspect of a given culture will show identical levels of continuity/innovation.  Indeed this quite clearly isn't the case, anywhere, ever.  At the most simplistic level, when I play 18th century bagpipe music I am being more archaic than when I play swing fiddle or rockabilly guitar, but all are aspects of my modern British/western culture.

I suspect we are entering an area of fundamental world-view incompatibility here!  This could lead to serious digression and tangent chasing but as I don't want to stray too far from the subject of Cape Breton fiddle I'll confine myself to the following general observations.

No human culture has ever been static, homogenous, self-contained, monolithic, totally unique.  To talk of 'preserving a culture well' seems to imply there is one 'correct' version of a culture laid down at some specific time and place and from which any digression is some sort of moral failing.  The truth is that every aspect of every culture is continually changing (and part of this involves interrelationship with other cultures).  'Culture' is a process which people live, not a thing which they own, and everyone of us is continually and creatively involved in its development.

The boundaries between cultures are fluid and shifting.  And wherever we choose to draw the boundaries there are always other valid options.

Both continuity and innovation are present in every aspect of every culture.  It cannot be otherwise.  The issue is the balance between continuity and innovation.  Cape Breton fiddling is clearly closer to 18th century fiddling than is, say, Bluegrass fiddling, but that doesn't mean it is exactly the same as 18th century fiddling, or that it's closer than modern Scots fiddling, or even that its very close at all.

The human mind likes to categorize the world in simple dichotomies or dualistic 'oppositions'.  Within our culture we tend to make such an opposition between 'popular' and 'folk/traditional' music.  One aspect of this is that the former is seen as new, progressive etc and the latter as old, conservative etc.  In itself that isn't unreasonable, the problem is that we tend to reduce these things to simplistic extremes.  In reality any genre of modern popular music is far more deeply rooted and conservative than generally recognized, and any genre of folk/traditional is far more modern and innovative than generally recognized.

But lets get back down to earth (or close to the floor ... ).  As far as I can see the jury is still out on the origins of Cape Breton step-dancing, and I certainly don't claim any great expertise on the subject.  But I personally have as yet seen no evidence that anything really like Cape Breton style step-dancing has ever existed in the Highlands.

References to stepping in the Scottish Highlands before the 1830s/40s seem to be few and usually ambiguous - that is they could easily be referring to the simple steps used in group social dances.  (Absence of evidence of course does not prove absence of thing.  This is a mistake often made in academia, but it is not as bad as using absence of evidence as an excuse to believe anything you like)

Percussive step dancing has certainly existed in parts of the Highlands but (on present evidence) it seems to have been somewhat peripheral, was probably an early 19th century import from the south (introduced by travelling dancing masters), involved much balletic non-percussive footwork (perhaps derived from the indigenous dance tradition?), and seems to have offered little scope for improvisation (i.e. these were mainly formalized set dances).  Certainly the few dances I have seen bear little relation to the heavily percussive, hard-shoe, improvised pub stepping that was until recently common and widespread in both England and Ireland, and it is this latter that to my eyes bears the greatest resemblance to modern Cape Breton stepping.

More to the point, Cape Breton stepping looks very like the stepping found in Newfoundland and other areas of eastern Canada, dancing generally thought to be Irish and English derived.

It is also worth noting that older Highland visitors to Cape Breton in recent times have generally been startled by the step-dancing and several have expressed scepticism as to its Highland roots (the great Barra singer Flora MacNeill for one).  It is also the case that Cape Breton Irish families share the same broad style of stepping and regard it as 'theirs'.  Indeed, there is increasing resentment over what is seen as its appropriation by Scottish folkies.

In the final analysis there seems to be no firm evidence that there has ever existed anywhere in the Highlands an indigenous percussive step-dance tradition immediately comparable to that of Cape Breton.  I think we have to face the fact that the familiar soft-shoe athletic 'Highland dancing' is probably exactly what it says it is, though doubtless more formalized than it used to be, and that the kind of mixed percussive/soft-foot set dances recorded by the Fletts is the closest we can get to any older style of Highland dancing.

I would suggest that Cape Breton step dancing is also exactly what it says it is - Cape Breton step dancing, and the product of a multi-ethnic society.  I would also suggest that its closest relatives are to be found in Newfoundland, mainland Canada, England and Ireland and not in Highland Scotland.

Modern 'Highland Dancing' seems to me to present the same problem as 'Scottish Country Dancing', the Strathspey and Reel Societies, the Military Pipe band tradition etc - these are genuine native traditions but elements of the post-war Folk Revival don't like them and so have to write them off as fake, corrupt, 'gone astray' in Dr Lamb's words.  They then look for 'authentic' alternatives and find some of them in Cape Breton.  This is a perfectly understandable aesthetic/cultural preference but it is nothing to do with issues of authenticity.

While the repertoire of most younger players is fairly progressive, it is important to question the relative value attached to different tunes by their players.  Although aware of no formal research on the matter, I would be surprised if even younger players didn't give more importance to old tunes that have been played over the generations than to, say, a modern composition.  There seems to be a recognition that these old tunes capture something special.  It is both their age, and the important fact that they are great tunes, which is, after all, the key to their long life.  Cape Bretoners play a combination of old, pre-Clearance material, pieces learnt from tune books, and a large helping of recent compositions.  It is these collective elements which imbibe the music with such vitality.
Which simply proves my point: this is not and never has been a static and isolated tradition.
Mr Roberts would do well to check out some other recordings of older Cape Breton players, such as those contained on producer Mark Wilson's multi-volume series ('Traditional Fiddle Music of Cape Breton'), to get a wider picture of the tradition.  Old wire recordings in circulation as dubbed tapes can tell us a lot as well.  If he were to do a bit of research - such as by checking some select field tapes of the School of Scottish Studies - he might be surprised to find that the style of older, Gaelic-speaking, traditional fiddlers recorded in a place like Moidart is remarkably consistent with the recordings that we have of Cape Breton players from the same epoch.  This is important, because we are talking about a separation of at least 100 years.  These tapes show commonalties, particularly in Strathspey playing, which distinguish them from more recent 'West Highland' style players and other largely non-Gaelic styles in Scotland.
Why should I be surprised?  Especially as people from Moidart (amongst other places) continued to come to Cape Breton into the 1920s.  The whole thrust of my argument is that this is a conservative tradition which has often consciously referred back to Scotland - and I should perhaps stress to Scotland as a whole, not just the Gaelic speaking areas.

I don't think you can realistically ring-fence Cape Breton style as something purely Gaelic.  You can also find important similarities between some Cape Breton fiddling and older fiddling in (for example) the north east Lowlands.  In fact I don't think we can really ring-fence any tradition, anywhere, ever.

One problem we face here is that, apart from the Scots Violin school, vernacular fiddling throughout Scotland - indeed throughout Britain - was very badly documented in the 20th century.  This reflects the priorities and values of recording companies, the BBC, academia, and the various Folk Revivalist movements (the latter have always had extremely selective attitudes to traditional music).  This makes it hard to do realistic (i.e. thorough and detailed) comparative analysis.  But even if this wasn't so, we would still face the problems presented by inevitable change and evolution when attempting comparisons across time.

A few final quibbles; first, Mr Roberts brings up pibroch, saying that it is untrue that Cape Bretoners preserved the 'true' form of this type of pipe music.  This is a non-issue; perhaps someone got confused with the term pìobaireachd which simply means 'piping'.  I have never heard anyone informed on the matter advance such an opinion.  The older Gaelic-speaking pipers in Cape Breton did preserve a pre-competition, oral style of playing.  But, curiously, pibroch (often referred to as ceòl mòr 'big music') seems not to have been known by these players.  It appears that the context for its performance and cultivation disappeared with the old Gaelic aristocracy, which these players had left behind.
I suppose it depends who you've been talking to!  I used to hear this about Ceol Mor all the time in the 1980s, though I admit you don't hear it much anymore, perhaps because the contrary evidence is too glaring.

As to whether Cape Breton piping 'preserves' a 'pre-competition' style we are back to all the same issues as with fiddling.  Nothing stands still.  No one is totally isolated.  It may indeed be closer to 18th century piping than the piping prevalent in 20th century Scotland, but, once again - 'to be closer to something than is something else is not necessarily to be very close at all'.

Incidentally both competitions and military patronage were well established features of Highland piping before the peak period of emigration to Cape Breton, even if we discount the effects of later migration.  It's perfectly possible that some of the first Cape Breton pipers were ex-army competition junkies; indeed, it's quite likely.  What's important is that in Cape Breton piping has been primarily associated with dancing and thus would have developed a dance orientated style even if it hadn't begun with one.

It's also worth pointing out that Scots piping has never quite broken the link with dancing either, something that seems to get overlooked in this particular debate.  It's relativity again: in Scotland during the last 200 years playing for dancing hasn't been as important as playing for listening (military/piobaireachd/competitions) but any good piper is expected to be able to play for dancing.  I think the real issue is that the dancing in Scotland has often been of a more formal and restrained character and the pipe style is adapted to this.

Second, Mr Roberts states "the art of formal composition is highly regarded and central to this tradition and any fiddler worthy of respect must compose as well as play".  Yes, composers are highly regarded, but what on earth is 'formal' composition?  And it's simply untrue that fiddlers must write to gain respect in Cape Breton.
I was quite clearly writing about the Scots Violin school here not Cape Breton as such.  Within that tradition composition is incredibly highly valued.  All the great exponents of the tradition have been composers too.  Indeed, I'm not sure I've ever met an amateur Scots Violinist who didn't produce reams of manuscript paper with their own material neatly written thereon within the first ten minutes or so of meeting!  As for 'formal composition' I would have thought it is fairly obvious what I mean especially as I define it earlier on in the Ozark section of the review.

As I see it there are three main ways new fiddle tunes come about:
(a) evolution, as tunes mutate in transmission, a particularly potent factor in largely musically illiterate traditions like the southern USA or southern England
(b) informal composition in which an individual accidentally creates a new tune messing around on the instrument or whistling on the way home from the pub
(c) formal composition in which someone sits down and consciously writes a new tune, within the conventions and rules of the idiom but as deliberately unlike existing melodies as they can, especially (and this is usually the case with the Scots Violinists) when they do it wholly or partly on paper.

Third, Mr Roberts complains about the number of jigs on Theresa's album and mentions that his old pipe-major said something along the lines of "jigs, leave them for the Irishmen".  Should the Irish have left the reels to the Scots?  This is balderdash.  There are plenty old puirt-à-beul-Gaelic mouth music in jig time.  The jig form must have been, literally, already on the lips of the people who left for Cape Breton from Uist, Barra, Skye etc.
What is balderdash is accusing me of 'complaining'.  Sorry I have read and reread what I wrote and I can't see how you could possibly misunderstand it.  I was quite clearly commenting on the fact that Theresa seems to play more jigs than would be normal for a Scottish born musician of her generation, and no more.  I like jigs (which I also explicitly state) and I am well aware that jigs in Scotland predate reels.  Incidentally I also quite explicitly raise the issue that this could be an ARCHAIC TRAIT, not just Theresa's personal preference, though I like to think I'm too canny to come down right off the fence without more evidence.

Perhaps I should also stress I am not responsible for the opinions of Pipe Major Elliott!  His attitude was typical of his generation, in seeing jigs as primarily and essentially Irish, in not playing many of them, and in regarding Irish Catholics with barely disguised contempt.  I see jigs as a British Isles slant on a western European model, play loads of them, and would regard the idea of disliking 3 million people, most of whom I have never met, as both dangerous and ridiculous.

Roberts is obviously an intelligent and informed writer.  But his position on Cape Breton music appears to originate in prejudice and a lack of knowledge rather than open-mindedness and research.
What am I supposed to be prejudiced against here?  Cape Breton music?  Scottish music?  Cape Bretoners?  Canadians?  I admit I do have a certain prejudice against middle-class Folk Revivalists attempting to appropriate element of popular culture for their own ethnicist agendas and romantic primitivist fantasies, especially when these appear to deny large swathes of ordinary people their individual and collective creativity, and would isolate them in living (or should I say dead) museums.
I have yet to read - despite searching for such material - cogent argumentation proposing that Cape Breton music and dance, at least as practised by older tradition bearers, are anything other than directly linked to traditions that once existed in Gaelic Scotland.
My point is that Cape Breton music isn't - cannot - be a simple fossilised replication of the music of 200 years ago.  That is not the same as 'denying links' to that music!!
There is no reason to denigrate any player of the modern West Highland style, Orcadian style, or any other fiddle style on offer as not being 'truly' Scottish; there are fantastic exponents of every Scottish fiddle style and all are part of the country's musical heritage.  But for individuals interested in a uniquely Gaelic approach to fiddle music, the closest we can get, today, is Cape Breton.
I don't accept there is such a thing as a 'uniquely Gaelic' approach to fiddle music (ditto Scots, English, French, Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, Slavic, Christian, Jewish or any other cultural, ethnic, national, or racial label you wish to substitute).  This presupposes a degree of cultural isolation (and homogeneity) that simply doesn't exist anywhere in the western world.  As I said, there is nothing in Cape Breton fiddle style that isn't /hasn't been found elsewhere in Britain, and often in Europe.  And even the specific ways the particular components are mixed and matched in Cape Breton shows strong parallels with fiddling in non-Gaelic areas like the north-east Lowlands.

I suppose the use of a primarily linguistic category (Gaelic) in discussing music could be problematic too, given that an awful lot of people still believe in the existence of a Gaelic 'race', and even more use the term to make a simplistic equation between language and all other aspects of culture.  When I use 'Gaelic' in a context like the present it is either as a synonym for 'Highland Scottish', or more precisely, as an ethnonym for those communities that are, or were till recently, Scots Gaelic speaking.

If we can agree on the above definition of 'Gaelic' then it seems to me that any fiddle style within a community that is or was largely Gaelic speaking is by definition a Gaelic approach.  This, of course, means that modern West Highland fiddling is as authentically a Gaelic approach as anything in Cape Breton, and that the playing of Buddy and Natalie MacMaster is as Gaelic as the playing of Theresa Morrison.  This is not nit picking about words, it is to point out that everything a community or an individual actually plays is by definition their authentic music.  And I should not need to point out that whatever the links and parallels with the music of other communities it remains their music - thus Cape Breton music is ultimately Cape Breton music, not West Highland music.  And Victoria County music is Victoria County music, South Uist music is South Uist music, and so on.

If some modern Scottish musicians and dancers wish to base their styles on Cape Breton rather than native models that is their choice.  That is the way the world works and always has worked.  But let them make the choice on personal aesthetic criteria; there should be no need for dubious theories about time-capsuled purity and greater authenticity.  Traditional music is infested with too many such myths already.

Paul Roberts - 30.5.03
Hebden Bridge


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