Transplanting Tradition in the Land of the Trees

How old Scottish tunes bloomed into Cape Breton traditions
Episode Trailer

Beautiful things can grow out of destruction and waste: gardens can grow from an old pile of manure; kindness and healing can bloom after horrific tragedies; and triumphant jigs and reels can endure and sustain communities.

This month’s Irish Music Stories episode is an exploration of how rampant evictions in Scotland and military ship collisions in Cape Breton helped forge abiding bonds between cities… and through generations.

Singer Mary Jane Lamond and fiddle players Troy MacGillivray, Andrea Beaton, Alasdair Fraser, Katie McNally help me trace the resonance of Gaelic culture in Canada’s “New Scotland,” and in the Boston States. I also delve into the music of the late Lee Cremo from the Eskasoni First Nation community.


Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters: Peter Lee, Gabriele Clemens, Loretta Egan Murphy, John Boyce, Sol Foster, Paul Grajciar, Lisa and Bryon Giddens-White, Jen Strom, Chris Murphy, Pat Wilcox, Suezen Brown, Lance Ramshaw, Mark Haynes, David Vaughan, Brian Benscoter, Gerard Corr, Susan Walsh, Rick Rubin, Randy Krajniak, and Jon Duvick. 

Episode 41 – Transplanting Tradition in the Land of the Trees: How old Scottish tunes bloomed into Cape Breton traditions
This Irish Music Stories episode aired  May 12, 2020

– Transcript edited by Tom Frederick –

Speakers, in order of appearance

>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories 
>> Mary Jane Lamond: Canadian singer who performs traditional Gaelic songs from Cape Breton
>> Nigel Heaton: young announcer for Irish Music Stories
>> Alasdair Fraser: Scotland-born fiddler who founded music camps and performs with Natalie Haas
>> Troy MacGillivray: fiddle and piano player from Nova Scotia
>> Andrea Beaton: fiddle player, piano player, and dancer from a long line of musicians
>> Katie McNally: Cape Breton fiddle player from Boston, Massachusetts
>> Lee Cremo: Mi’kmaw fiddle player who played Cape Breton and original music (1938-1999)


>> Shannon:  I’m Shannon Heaton. And this is Irish Music Stories, the show about traditional music, and the bigger stories behind it…

[ Music: Tune: “Blue Bonnets Over The Border/Khazi,” from Happy Daze

Artist: Battlefield Band ]

…like how beautiful things can grow out of destruction and waste. 

From here to the end needs to be fixed!

A garden can grow from an old pile of manure…  

Kindness and healing can bloom and a nation can ban assault weapons after a horrific mass shooting. Maybe living more lightly on the Earth comes after months of working from home and hunkering down with our families. 

And an abiding bond between two cities can form in the wake of tragedy:

>> Mary Jane: There was a huge explosion in Halifax. Um, and I mean disastrous. And Boston sent up, uh, supplies and medical workers and trainloads of stuff and Nova Scotia never forgot.

>> Shannon: That’s Cape Breton-based singer Mary Jane Lamond, talking about the Halifax Explosion of 1917. Two ships collided, one loaded with explosives. Thousands of people died or were injured and displaced. Including the Mi’kmaq First Nation in Turtle Cove.  

Boston was really quick to offer help. 

[ Music: “Little Bird Lullaby,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories

Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

They came with train loads of stuff. And to this day Nova Scotia donates a Christmas tree to the city of Boston as a token of continued appreciation.

>> Mary Jane: It’s quite beautiful that they continue that relationship.

>> Shannon: Yeah, we just visited the tree!

>> Mary Jane: Did you? 

>> Shannon: We did. Many Bostonians feel connected to Nova Scotia in the best of times. And one way to commemorate that friendship is to traipse around the Boston Common; here’s my family and a few tourists back in December. 

[Bells and voices.]

>> Shannon: So we’re on the Boston Common, standing right in front of the Nova Scotia tree for Boston. What do you think about the tree here?

>> Nigel: It’s cool.

[Voices, greetings]

[Music: “Little Bird Lullaby,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories

Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton

 >> Shannon: Christmas trees grow from mucky, smelly earth… and decay.

And the music on Cape Breton—the little island on the Eastern edge of Nova Scotia? THAT grew from the devastating mess of the Highland Clearances. 

[Music: “The B Minor Cut,” from Cuts

Artist: Andrea Beaton ]


>> Mary Jane: They say that up in known history, that was the largest human migration from one specific area to another. 

>> Shannon: Wow.

>> Mary Jane: Like, just like they just picked up and went in huge kinship groups.

[ Music swells ]


>> Shannon: As rural Scots were evicted from their homes in the eighteenth century they sought refuge in the states and Canada; and large Gaelic speaking communities in Nova Scotia were established. When Scottish fiddle player Alasdair Fraser first visited Cape Breton as a young Scot in 1981, it changed his life. He heard people whistling Scottish strathspeys in the grocery store; which he hadn’t heard back home in Scotland.

>> Alasdair: Because of the crazy accident of history, Cape Breton ended up being a place where lots of people wanted that music. They wanted old fiddle tunes. They wanted to hold onto their Gaelic and the old songs. They wanted it so badly that they worked at it. You know, they really worked at it. And they treasured it. So you get this beautiful plant, this flower that has grown there. It’s really cool.

 We’ve spent a lot of time in Scotland trying to breathe life into our traditions, we’ve had to fight for it. We’re still fighting for it. For the confidence to do that. For the fluency of knowing our own music, knowing our own traditional art forms. Um,it’s become a cause for me. I’ve spent a lot of time on that. And then I went to Cape Breton and I found people who had incredible fluency in the old tunes. They didn’t just know the tunes, they knew the old variations of them. They make up variations. And it’s alive. And you can go to a dance any night of the week, and there they are; fiddlers, digging out these tunes from the old books even. It was so good, it was (something in Gaelic?) in that time and I still love it.

>> Shannon: From the first waves of migration from Scotland Gaelic culture flourished in Cape Breton. Fiddlers and singers played old Scottish tunes. And as they encountered Acadian and Mi’kmaq neighbors, some of the members of those communities also began to sing in Scots /GALLICK/ or /GAY-LICK/, as they they call it in Canada. 

Here’s singer Mary Jane Lamond again.

>> Mary Jane: I was at a folk festival down in the Valley and there was these Mi’kmaq women there, uh, doing traditional singing and drums. Like, they have a hand drum that they played these, the women. So I was leading this workshop session, so we all went around. And then I said, oh, I guess I should sing a song. What should I sing? And one of the old, old Mi’kmaq women said “Sing Faleelo Es Horo Ela.” “ What! That was my father in law’s favorite song!” So she was from Waycobah, which is next door to Whycocomagh, which is a Gaelic speaking community. So her father, he used to sing that song.

[ Music: “Fail il o agus ho ro eile” c/o An Drochaid Eadarainn’s site (

Artist: Mìcheal Eòin Chaluim Sheumais Mhóir (Mickey John H. MacNeil of Jamesville) ]

>> Shannon: Like those old women who knew Gaelic songs, there also have been great fiddlers from Mi’kmaq communities, like Wilfred Prosper and Lee Cremo.

>> Mary Jane: Lee Cremo in particular was from a community called Eskasoni, which was bordered right on an area called Castle Bay, which was all Gaelic speaking.  But he had his own style too, you know, like he had, he brought in something a slightly different as well.

>> Shannon: So Gaelic culture was alive on these Mi’kmaq communities; and it also spread from Cape Breton down to New England. As Cape Bretoners went there for work, they took tunes and steps with them. Down to Boston where the annual Nova Scotia tree is on display every year.

For this episode I will explore some of the residents of Gaelic culture in Cape Breton with the help of singer Mary Jane Lamond, fiddle players Andrea Beaton, Troy MacGillavray, Katie McNally, and Alasdair Fraser; and through archival recordings and interviews of Lee Cremo. 

[Music: “Celtic Grooves,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories

Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

All the while I’ll be setting timers to keep my episode concise. [Beep of timer being set.] And I’ll keep the Nova Scotia Christmas tree in mind, as a symbol for the good stuff that can come from the muck.

[ Music: “Robert Cormack of Aberdeen,” from Musical Ties

Artist: Troy MacGillivray ]

>> Shannon: We humans are creative. We are resilient. And apparently, we are hardwired to seek dominion — over nature, over land, over one another.

When the British government imposed restrictive laws after Scotland’s Battle of Culloden in 1746, it paved the way for a few wealthy outsiders to own most of the Highlands. This led to rampant evictions… and waves of emigration.

These were the Highland Clearances, where thousands of rural, Gaelic-speaking families headed to the United States and Canada.

The Scots who went to the U.S. kind of assimilated. On their front porches, they started singing their traditional songs with African gourd banjo accompaniment. They changed song lyrics to include fewer lords and ladies, more cowboys. They danced in clogs. They created new Appalachian traditions. 

But the Scots who went to Eastern Canada? To the maritime province of “Nova Scotia?” (which is Latin for New Scotland). Well these Scots hung onto their traditions. They continued to play old Highland bagpipe tunes. They kept step dancing. They continued to sing in Scots Gaelic.

Especially in Inverness County, on the island of Cape Breton. That’s where Scottish poet and sea captain Michael MacDonald settled there with friends and family in 1775. 

>> Troy: Like Inverness County. A lot of the older players went up that way. It was kind of the closest center. 

>> Andrea: Yeah.

>> Troy: The bigger town.

>> Andrea: Yeah.

>> Troy: The hospital was there.

>> Andrea: That’s where I was born!

>> Shannon: That’s Troy Magillavery and Andrea Beaton. They both play fiddle and piano. They’re versatile musicians and skilled composers. But they focus on old Cape Breton tunes played in a highly rhythmic style.

It was that rhythmic thing that really grabbed U.S. born fiddle player Katie McNally. 

[ Music: “Holy Strathspeys Pat,” from Off the Floor

Artist: Wendy MacIsaac ]

>> Katie: It’s, it’s almost indescribable, you know. But I think there’s, there’s kind of a certain driving element to it. …  it’s, it’s that sort of rhythmic drive that Cape Breton music has.

>> Shannon: Katie learned Cape Breton fiddle on trips to Nova Scotia. And she’s also learned a lot of her music at home in Boston.

>> Katie: I think there is a certain way in which culturally it feels really in some ways very similar to New England. You know, the maritime states kind of mush into Maine and into New England. And so there’s a familiarity there. It doesn’t feel so, so very different.

One place that I have spent a lot of time at is the Canadian American club in Watertown, Massachusetts, which is a huge hub for Cape Breton and Canadian music and dance and culture. There’s still dances where they’ll bring down Cape Breton fiddle players. That’s a tradition that’s been going on since Cape Bretoners moved to Boston.

>> Shannon: Cape Bretoners call Boston the Boston states. I guess they think of it 

as an enclave of Cape Breton culture. It’s like the stateside capital of Cape Breton music and dance.

[Music: “Down the Burn, Davie Lad,” from The Boston States

Artist: Katie McNally  ]

And it’s also the town that sent quick relief to Nova Scotia in the winter of 1917.

* * * * * *

It was around 9am on December 6th, 1917. A French munitions ship was carrying explosives from New York to Bordeaux and a second ship was on its way TO New York to pick up relief supplies for war-ravaged Europe. The two ships collided in the Halifax harbor.

On impact, the barrels of fuel stored on the deck of the first ship broke open. Engine sparks from the second ship started a fire that led right to the explosives and a massive blast ripped both ships apart.  Nearly 2000 people onshore were killed by debris, fires, collapsed buildings; over 9,000 people were injured. Many more were displaced. It was the largest man-made explosion up til that point. Equal to three kilotons of TNT.

One of the harder hit communities was the Mi’kmaq First Nation who had lived right near the shore in Turtle Cove.

People all over Nova Scotia were just barely hanging on without food and water. And then trains came up from Boston, carrying supplies, medicine, and doctors.

As a token of appreciation, Nova Scotia donated a large Christmas tree to the city of Boston. 54 years later they sent another tree. They’ve done it every year since. Every winter, a tree is chosen from somewhere in the province. After it’s cut, Royal Canadian mounted police, bagpipers, choirs, and arborists send this enormous piney-y gift of goodwill to the Boston States.

Just a few years ago, in 2016, the Nova Scotia Christmas tree came from Ainslie Glen, which is just a few miles from the Waycobah First Nation— that’s a Mi’kmaq [mee-ga-maw] community on the WEST edge of Bras d’Or Lake. (Fiddle player Lee Cremo was from the Eskasoni First Nation community, which is on the EASTERN edge of that same lake.) 

The 2016 tree was the first ever selected from Cape Breton Island.

Traditional Mi’kmaq drummers, and Chief Rod Googoo with over a hundred school kids from Waycobah First Nation Elementary School attended the tree-cutting ceremony. 

[ Music: “Wapikatji’j,” from Traditionally Yours: Mi’kmaq Drums, Young and Old

Artist: Michael R. Denny ]

Mabou-born  piper, Kenneth MacKenzie, was also there to play a few tunes as the tree was loaded onto Dave MacFarland’s fifty foot Western Star flatbed. Now, driver Dave had delivered the Boston tree a few times and this run took him four days because he stopped at a lot more schools and ceremonies and he slowed down for well wishers along the way. 

Mary Jane Lamond didn’t expect to have the reaction that she did when she spotted the truck.

>> Mary Jane: I saw the tree go down the highway there were police cars,in like, escorting this tree down to Boston and, you know, I kinda think, oh well the tree whatever. But then when I saw it it was like I felt kind of excited. It’s like “oh,there’s the tree that’s going to Boston!” It’s so exciting. I was surprised how excited I was.


[ Music: “Donald & Gordon’s” from Pìob is Fidheall

Artists: Kenneth & Angus MacKenzie ]

>> Shannon: When driver Dave arrived with the tree in Boston, a police escort was waiting and took him to the Common. He was greeted by the Boston Parks Commissioner, an official “town crier” from Nova Scotia, Santa Claus, and kids from nearby Park Street Elementary. All to welcome this tree.

This tree is a symbol of friendship and history between Boston and Nova Scotia.

And Cape Breton music is this amazing symbol and connector between Canada and Scotland. 

Here’s fiddle player Alasdair Fraser again.

>> Alasdair: They can take me, a native Scot, deeply into my own tradition, and it’s not just the tunes, it’s that degree of familiarity, fluency; they speak fiddle fluently. And it’s not really a time capsule because it has evolved differently and if you talk to the Cape Bretoners they, they don’t say they’re Scottish they say that they’re Canadian! Ya know? They’re not trying to be Scottish, in fact they’re saying, no we’re Canadian and this is, this is our statement.

[Music: “Seinn O,” from Suas e!

Artist: Mary Jane Lamond ]

>> Shannon: Scottish “GALLICK” culture… Cape Breton “GAYLICK” culture, they have different accents but both styles sit very easily together. Put an Irish musician or dancer in the mix, and there’s still a lot of common ground, even if the versions of tunes are different and even if the dialects and the rhythmic styles are distinct.

[Music: “Out on the Ocean,” from License to Drive ‘Er

Artist: Andrea Beaton ]

>> Andrea: There are a lot of, um, Irish tunes that we play in Cape Breton, but in the Cape breton style. 

>> Shannon: That’s fiddle player Andrea Beaton again. She was born in Inverness County. In the little community called, Mabou. 

>> Andrea: I used to think I didn’t know any Irish music. Until I end up in an Irish session, and would end up playing, um like, ‘’oh, I know that jig’’; I know especially jigs. But they still come out with that Cape Breton bow, ya know. It’s hard to, hard to turn that off. And I don’t want to.

>> Shannon: Yeah. It’s definitely a distinct rhythmic approach to Irish music.

>> Andrea: (laughs)

>> Shannon: I spoke with Andrea and her cousin Troy MacGillavary, who’s also an award-winning fiddle and piano player, when they were playing a duo show in Boston. 

Playing both fiddle and piano, by the way, is pretty common for musicians in Cape Breton. And in Antigonish, the town where Troy is from. Nowadays folks tend to lump that town in with Cape Breton too.

[ Music: “Pound the Floor,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories

Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Troy: I guess more so now than it used to be. Although I think it kind of went, like in waves. Yeah, yeah.

>> Shannon: Can you teach me how to say Antigonish?

>> Troy: Anniginnnnish… sort of run it all together. We’re not anti anything!

>> Shannon: And the Cape Breton scene I gotta say—maybe this is a bit of  a blanket statement—doesn’t seem like a real anti, negative-talking kind of a scene. I mean you guys really rock some great humor.

>> Andrea: (laughs)

>> Shannon: But there doesn’t seem to be a big hard edge to that. Am I wrong?

>> Andrea: Well, there’s, well, ha. I won’t say. I’d say what it is is on the island with the music we are careful, as in we want to preserve. We’re kind of clingy to ourselves. Do you know what I mean, like? Um,not anti anything else but just… the people…

>> Troy: Are protective.

>> Andrea: Yeah, protective that’s exactly the word I’m looking for. So when I was growing up I didn’t actually hear other styles of fiddle. I remember there being an Irish program on the radio. But it was after the Cape Breton one. And when that was over, a CD would go in or it was a tape, at the time, I guess. But it’s not a negative thing, it’s just more of; well, I think it’s more of a fear of losing something thing. So. There is a little bit of that aspect but I think in general especially those of us that are travelling and stuff now are really open to learning other things and playing with other styles and like loving other styles. Do you know? And, Troy you lived in Ireland. So you had…

>> Troy: Well yeah kind of, like I did, for almost a year. I was at UL.  So there is a bit of a  relationship between UL and CBU in Sydney. They have a bit like an exchange program. So there is, ya know, a bit of back and forth between Ireland and Cape Breton. I wasn’t doing the performance but I still, ya know, took classes and went to sessions and heard lots of stuff.

>> Shannon: Yeah, and did any of it get in there?

>> Troy: Oh yeah, for sure.

>> Shannon: Do you let any of it out?

>> Troy: Oh, yeah. 

>> Shannon: But you still want to hold on to your roots.

>> Troy: Yeah, definitely.

>> Shannon: So as you learn new, maybe Irish tunes (you probably did when you were in Limerick at the program there) — how do you let that get in but not sort of dilute your roots?

>> Troy: Well, just sort of play it the way you would play it, like around home. Yeah just sort of slip it in in the middle of stuff everybody else already knows so it doesn’t seem too far off.

>> Shannon: Yeah, and do you just bring your Cape Breton world with you, where you go?

>> Troy: Yeah, I think that’s what people would expect. 

>> Andrea: That style is such a part of our identity. Really.

>> Troy: And family and honor. All this stuff.

>> Troy and Andrea: Yes. A nod to…keep doing it… Yeah, and don’t really sway too much.

>> Shannon: What do you mean by family and honor?


>> Troy: It’s like you’d be disrespecting your family and the honor of your family if you didn’t play the music that they played, ya know. It’s just really a big part of your upbringing.

[ Music: “Meaning of Life,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories

Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Andrea: Like for example, my mom’s side is MacMaster and my dad’s side is Beaton. So there’s tunes that are associated with each and some that they will both play and sometimes I have to choose if it’s a MacMaster day or a Beaton day. If there’s more of my aunts from my mom’s side, I better play the Buddy version, ya know. I’m sure you have, like,if you see your family you are going to play few of what they’re used to and then it makes them happy, you know? So, Pleasing the family.

>> Troy: Yeah, exactly.

>> Shannon: And is it fun for you to do that?

>> Andrea: Oh, yeah. 

>> Troy: Oh, yeah. It’s not hard. It doesn’t take much.

>> Andrea: It’s pretty fun.

>> Shannon: The classic Cape Breton sets start with a March and then goes into a Strathspey and into some reels. The MSR convention. 

Piper Kenneth MacKenzie played MSR sets at the 2016 Christmas Tree Ceremony at Waycobah First Nation. We heard his great piping earlier.

Fiddle player Lee Cremo also played marches, strathspeys and reels; but the first tune he learned was Pop Goes the Weasel. When Lee was  about 7 years old, he stayed home to tend the fire while his family went to church, and he started messing around on his dad’s fiddle.

>> Lee: Everybody went to mass… I got going on Pop the Weasel.

So he practiced Pop Goes the Weasel AND kept the fire going. And when his family got back from church he asked his dad for some pointers on the fiddle. Here’s what his dad told him:

>> Lee: He said this is one thing I have to tell you: it’s your own mountain…. I can’t place your fingers where they’re supposed to go. And now I know what it meant when he told me it’s your mountain. No end to this mountain, I’m still climbing to this day. I can’t find the end of it. You know, like the music is endless. Like, they say outer space. That’s probably what the music is.

[ Music: “Rockabye by Firelight,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories

Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: Lee scaled the infinite mountain of Cape Breton fiddle until his death in 1999. He learned tunes from his dad, and from one of his dad’s students, fellow Mi’kmaq fiddle player Wilfred Prosper, whose great grandma was killed in the 1917 Halifax explosion.

Before long, Lee started composing his own tunes. He also played a bit of Western Swing and when he started his band Eastern Variation, people started calling him the Electric Indian. 

In 1984, Lee went to the Grand Master Fiddling Championship in Nashville. He was the only guy playing in a Cape Breton style; and he was the only contestant dressed in traditional beaded and embroidered clothing. 

He played his own composition, ’Constitution Breakdown’  [with the Irish reel the Sally Gardens.?]

[ Music: Constitution Breakdown,” from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings (Creation’s Journey: Native American Music)

Artist: Lee Cremo ]

He didn’t end up qualifying that day, but the crowd really loved him. I watched the performance in this documentary film called Arm of Gold. It is a film about Lee that Troy MacGillivray hip me to. It was really moving to see the crowd’s reaction.

When I asked Katie McNally in Boston about Lee she told me, “Wow, he’s definitely a legend with a really unique sound. He could play Cape Breton music as well as any of them, but his own tunes sound a little more old-time Canadian.”

Katie grew up in the Boston area, about 34 miles from where the Nova Scotia Christmas tree stands every year.

She started off with Irish fiddle. But then Cape Breton music lit her fire:

[ Music: “Grupai Ceol Memories,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories

Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Katie: When I was 12, I went to the Gaelic Roots Camp at Boston College. That Seamus Connolly used to run. And I went to that camp to take Irish fiddle lessons. And I came out playing Scottish and Cape Breton Music at the end of the week. I kind of like started playing hooky for my Irish classes. Because I heard David Greenburg was there who’s a Great Cape Breton fiddler. And Katrina Macdonald was there from Shetland and I was just like enraptured by their playing. And the way the Cape Bretoners play strathspeys, it’s like; it slays me. It’s so good. 


>> Shannon: You know what slays me? The support for this show. And my timer is going off, reminding me to thank this month’s sponsors. So before I talk more about strathspeys, here’s my son Nigel to acknowledge the folks who made this show possible.

>> Nigel: Ready? Thank you to Peter Lee, Gabriele Clemens, Loretta Egan Murphy, John Boyce, Sol Foster, Paul Grajciar, Lisa and Bryon Giddens-White, Jen Strom, Chris Murphy, Pat Wilcox, Suezen Brown, Lance Ramshaw, Mark Haynes, David Vaughan, Brian Benscoter, Gerry Corr, Susan Walsh, Rick Rubin, Randy Krajniak, and Jon Duvick.

[ Music: Little Bird Lullaby Reprise ]

>> Shannon: Thank you for helping me tell these stories, through an Irish—and Scottish, and Cape BRETON music lens. 

[ Music:  “Taste of Gaelic,” from The Cabin Sessions

Artists/Composer: Mairi Rankin & Eric Wright ]

>> Katie: So much of the Cape Breton music tradition comes from the Scottish music tradition, historically.

>> Shannon: Like the custom of playing STRATHSPEYS. This is a Highland dance tune you hear in Donegal in Ireland… in Scotland… and in Cape Breton.

>> Katie: There are so many common tunes that if you pulled it out in Cape Breton other folks would know it. If you pulled it out in Scotland people would know it. But I think there are big distinctions. In Cape Breton fiddle and piano are like the main instrumentation. Um, in Scotland of course there are fiddles, there are pianos. But there is also, like, a piano accordion tradition in Scotland and they don’t really have accordions in Cape Breton. Um.

>> Shannon: Highland pipes?

>> Katie: Highland pipes are in both places. Yeah, there is a huge pipe tradition in Cape Breton that was brought over with the Scotts. So, also the the step dancing tradition, it’s mostly died out in Scotland. And, Cape Bretoners have brought it back to Scotland, and are teaching it at summer courses in Scotland to kind of revive it. So, um, there are those kinds of historical connections. And just you can hear it in the music. 

>> Shannon: There’s history in these Cape Breton tunes. And there’s community. Gathering to play tunes, dancing socially.

But until very recently the Irish style pub or kitchen session with musicians playing melodies in unison, well this wasn’t really a thing in Cape Breton. Cape Breton fiddle  players tended to take turns playing with piano. Here’s Andrea Beaton again:

[ Music: “Pound the Floor,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories

Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton  ]

>> Andrea: I think the difference with Cape Breton is we, well we do now, we didn’t grow up with sessions of music. So we didn’t have a pub, ya know. We’d have house parties and people would take turns. So it was more like little mini concerts of people,ya know. So the hang was happening all around. You had your turn and then you went off and had your turn to hang. So it was a little different kind of hang. 

>> Shannon: The first time Katie McNally went to Cape Breton was the very first time she’d encountered this type of gathering.

>> Katie: We kind of ended up at this house party. It was like our first night there. And my parents just chatted with this guy and we ended up at a house party. And at that party people actually were, fiddlers were sitting around in a circle and they weren’t playing together. They would, like, take a turn playing one at a time. So they would, like, plug their quarter inch cable to their little pickup and one fiddler would go at a time and then pass the cable to the next one, and pass the cable to the next one. So the session phenomenon to my understanding is relatively new, although there are sessions now in Cape Breton. But it’s even newer to the tradition than it is in Irish music.

>> Shannon: The convention of the Irish and also Scottish music session of playing melodies together, it is newer in Cape Breton. And most of my Cape Breton pals are pretty game to hang in Irish sessions.

>> Katie: I can go into an Irish session and plop myself down. Usually I don’t know so many of the tunes, um, but it feels very natural and really comfortable. And, um, every once in a while they will be like, ‘’Katie, you start some tunes for us and they’ll want to hear  a strathspey or two.’’ Then, ya know, get back to some polkas but I always feel really welcomed and it is a lot of fun. 

I’m always excited to play with Irish musicians to, like, listen to tunes that sound so similar to the ones that I love. Just with, like, a little bit of a different accent. There are a lot of Irish tunes that are played in Cape Breton and maybe they have different names for them sometimes.

>> Shannon: For example?

>> Katie: For example, um, there’s this tune Mourne Mountain, that I love. [She lilts a bit of the Cape Breton version of the tune.] And I think it’s called Tom Ward’s Downfall? Or it’s very similar?

>> Shannon: Oh, Ok. [Lilts a bit of the Irish version.] 

>> Katie: Yeah!

>> Shannon: So when you play your Mourne Mountain and I play my Tom Ward’s Downfall… same tune. Just stylistically we kind of articulate it differently, maybe? 

>> Katie: Yeah, there’s some different notes. You’re a little more swoopy with it. I’m a little more driving with it. I love it. And I also, I love playing with Irish fiddlers and kind of trying to,or like a flute player or whatever and to try to play with your accent. And to see what it does to my bowing. Because that’s freeing in a certain way–to get out of my normal, you know, one note per one bow stroke kind of thing. And seeing what other sounds I can get out of my fiddle by just tuning my ear to the Irish side of things a little bit.

>> Shannon: To the Irish swoop?

[ Music: “Tom Ward’s Downfall/Lucy Campbell,” from Green Grass Blue Grass

Artist: Brock McGuire Band ]

Another great way to tune in to the rhythmic side of Irish, Scottish, or Cape Breton dance tunes is by dancing! All these traditions have social dancing. 

But the connection between fiddling and dancing… and even fiddling while dancing … is particularly strong for Cape Bretoners.

>> Katie: People definitely concertize. Like there are fiddlers who will go around and just play concerts. Um, but it’s never like far from the dance at all. And I think they’re so symbiotic. And you couldn’t have one without the other.

I’m definitely, I’m not a good step dancer, but I’ve become a much better fiddle player just with the little step dancing I’ve done. Because it’s so, it’s so physical. The playing is so rhythmic and so physical. And so knowing how to do the social dances, just even a little bit of the step dancing, I think gives that lift and a drive to your playing that you wouldn’t have otherwise. So many fiddle and piano players are also excellent step dancers. So it’s totally intertwined. Even Natalie McMaster will play for a dance when she comes home. So it’s very, very much part and parcel of each other I think.

>> Shannon: Fiddle player Natalie MacMaster is Andrea’s Beaton’s cousin. She also plays fiddle while dancing. And she performs with her family. And that family and intergenerational thing is really common with all the Celtic traditions.

>> Katie: That’s something that has always drawn me to like playing the fiddle into playing traditional music is that I, at 13, I could be hanging out with 40 year olds or 80 year olds. And now I’m still hanging out with teenagers and like sharing things with teens and people who have been around a lot longer than me. So I think dances,  square dances and Cape Breton can definitely bring that out even more, because you’ll bring your kids or you’ll go with your grandma or you’ll end up dancing with whoever asks you to dance. 

>> Shannon: So you are born and raised in the Boston area. What is that like being someone born in the States?

>> Katie: I really value being from Boston actually, because I feel like I’ve gotten a window into the Cape Breton community that I wouldn’t have growing up anywhere else, at the Canadian American club. And actually, I’ve been up in Cape Breton and people are like, oh, you’re not from here. Like, where are you from? And I say Boston. And they’re like, oh, that’s almost like Cape Breton or oh, bless you. So it’s… people have a lot of cousins down here. There’s a lot of travel back and forth. Everyone has a cousin in Boston. And I never say I’m from Cape Breton, because I’m not. No, I’m from Boston and that is what I am. 

[ Music: “Rinn Mi Corr is Naoi Mile (I Travelled more than Nine Miles),” from Seinn

Artist: Mary Jane Lamond ]

>> Shannon: Mary Jane Lamond traveled more than nine miles moving around Canada as a kid. She lived in Ontario, Montreal, wherever her dad’s work took them. But visiting her grandparents in Cape Breton was a constant. And since her university days in Antigonish, she has called Cape Breton home. 

[Music: “Triumph Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories

Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton 

As a Gaelic speaker and singer, I asked Mary Jane how connected she felt to Scotland. I wondered if she might have an even keener connection to Cape Breton’s musical motherland because of the language.

>> Mary Jane:  Funny enough, the first time I went to Scotland, I was in the outer Hebrides and I had gone there thinking I was gonna feel this great connection, like a physical and spiritual connection with the place. And I didn’t. I didn’t because it was, I missed the trees. They’re treeless islands basically. So I got back to the Sleat Peninsula in Skye and I actually went and stood beside a tree. I was so happy to see a tree. Because, you know, in Gaelic poetry they call the place where I live, the land of the trees. As opposed to the land of the mountains. 

[ Music: “The Barren Rocks of Aden / Mairi’s Wedding” from Live at Celtic Colors

(Joan Harriss Cruise Pavilion in Sydney: Big Ceilidh at the Big Fiddle at, October  2018)

Artist: Cape Breton University Pipe Band ]

>> Shannon: If Scotland’s topography didn’t sit just right for Mary Jane, the Gaelic singing was a perfect fit. At a college event back in Canada she found her musical home.

>> Mary Jane: We all went to this traditional singing event called a Milling Frolic. And I had an epiphany there and I just thought, oh, that’s what Gaelic singing should sound like. I mean, it was really raw and you know, like when I heard, like, just this community singing I was astounded. Astounded by many things. Like it was, so, um, not extremely pretty, but very moving. And the melodies are incredible. And I think what really hit me most about, um, what really motivated me to learn the language and get into this was that I wanted to be at that table with those people. Because I grew up singing. My mother said I sang before I spoke. And,we, it’s a very singing house that I came from. So we sang during the dishes. My mother played the piano and sang every night after supper, so the idea that people would get in their cars and drive to a hall to gather together for hours to sing songs, just to sing songs. I thought, oh, these are my peeps.  [laughter]

And that was what, that’s what drew me in was the community of it.

[ Music:  “A Mhorag ‘s Na Horo Gheallaidh,” from Lan Duil

Artist: Mary Jane Lamond]

>> Shannon: Can you describe to me how these songs feel to sing?

>> Mary Jane: I’m going to use an expression they use to talk about, uh, step dancing actually it’s like something that’s really grounded. They call it close to the floor. Because our dance tradition, like the closer you stay to the floor and the more intricate the steps, but you’re not moving very far off the floor—that’s a real compliment. So I would call Cape Breton Gaelic singing close to the floor. It’s quite rhythmic. So the traditional singers, you know, the foot’s going all the time, tap, tap, tap,tap. So it’s similar to the… I think that that’s the tradition they brought with them.

>> Shannon: Mary Jane told me about this recording was collected by ethnomusicologist Sydney Cowell. It’s in the Library of Congress. The singer was a woman born in Cape Breton in 1848. She moved to California when she was 24. She sang this song for the recording when she was 80 (so she’d been away from Cape Breton for almost 60 years). 

>> Mary Jane: Here she was, was born in 1848. She’s singing songs that were made in Cape Breton that she heard in her girlhood. So 1848, so we can assume, like, that the earliest settlement in the area she came from was 1805. So what would that be, a couple of generations? Remember she had no influences out in California except the people around her. Um, so I don’t think the tradition changed in Cape Breton. I think it’s what they brought with them and I’m going to stand by that because I have that one piece of evidence. I think that’s a pretty good argument.


[ Music: “A flaisgaich oig a S’cheanalteadh (My cheerful young man),” recorded by Sidney Robertson Cowell, 1939 c/o Library of Congress

Artist: Mary MacPhee ]

>> Shannon: These old unaccompanied singers, like Mary Mcfee there, whom I heard on the Library of Congress site. That’s who Mary Jane was listening to and learning from. And when she first started singing in Scotland, radio interviewers said even though she was young she sang like an old person.

>> Mary Jane: I just said, oh, do I? I said I guess that’s ‘cause I learned from old people. Like that’s who I’m learning these songs from. They’re all old. I have those voices in the back of my head of the people I learned the songs from so you’re kind of channeling the songs like they don’t feel like they’re yours, or… yeah, I don’t know. And of course it’s a beautiful musical culture, uh, like just the sound of it, just the whole scale and the feeling of it. I think there’s a rhythm in not just in our culture but, you know, you hear it in the Irish songs which, you know, can be quite different than Scottish Gaelic tradition. I think it’s because there’s, uh, in these traditions that there’s a, a kind of a groundedness and that there’s something swelling up out of the earth and out of the rhythms of people, the lives of people they’re all different in all these cultures but you know there would have been something informed in, you know, in your kinship system but also in your environment.

>> Shannon: So the non musical elements behind these songs: you feel them when you’re singing as well? 

>> Mary Jane: I think so, yeah. 

[ Music: “An Nochd Is Trom Tha Mo Cheum (Tonight My Step Is Heavy),” from Làn dùil

Artist: Mary Jane Lamond ]

>> Katie:  I think language is such an important carrier of tradition and knowledge. I think a lot of knowledge is lost when language is lost, cultural knowledge. So people are very tied to that and very proud of it. And it’s so much a part of the music and dance.

>> Shannon: That’s Katie McNally again. My conversations with her and with Mary Jane inspired another podcast episode about Gaelic languages, coming later this year. Katie and Mary Jane both represented Cape Breton music at the January 2020 Boston Celtic Music Festival, which took place just a few weeks after Boston had taken down the annual Nova Scotia Christmas tree.

>> Katie: I love the Boston Celtic Music Festival.

>> Shannon: The whole idea of that festival was to bring Irish, Scottish and Cape Breton Musicians from the Boston area together in one weekend because we don’t always intersect.

>> Katie: We don’t always. And I think in the United States sometimes there’s actually more of a need to hold on to our own tradition and to not conflate it with other traditions. Um, then there is say in Ireland, or in Scotland or in Cape Breton.

My friend Ward Macdonald from Prince Edward Island has this like, really funny expression and he says something like, “fiddle tunes aren’t pickles. They’re not meant to be preserved.” 

[ Music: “Farewell,” from Coffee and the Mojo Hat

Artists/Composer: Neil Pearlman and Nicole Rabata ]

And I think, I think that’s such a beautiful thought. And the collaboration that can happen when you kind of let down your walls or like, I play Irish music or I play Cape Breton Music and you have a dialogue I think are really, really nice. And that’s one thing I love about BCM fest is that I’ve often been paired with an Irish fiddle player in the finale concert. Or had to collaborate in some way that maybe wouldn’t have happened because we do sometimes stick to our own communities a little bit. 

BCM fest I think is, I think, incredibly unique in the United States, um, because that’s its mission. There are other festivals in Europe, um, or in…you know, Celtic colors festival in Cape Breton or Celtic connections in Scotland that are bringing in, you know, Irish and Scottish and Cape Breton Musicians. Um, I don’t know of any other festival in the U.S. that has that kind of mission to it. So I think that is pretty special.

[ Music: “Silver and Stuff,” from Ports of Call

Artists/Composer: Alasdair Fraser & Natalie Haas ]

>> Shannon: Well, it was neat to do that in Boston after Gaelic Roots had ended and really to encourage, um, actually in some cases, require collaboration between genres. And see what could happen there.


>> Katie: I also, one thing that’s great about BCM fest is actually that it focuses on Boston’s communities of traditional music. It’s great to have a spotlight shine on that.

>> Shannon: When Alasdair Fraser started digging deep into his own Scottish music, there was no BCMFest (2003). Or Celtic Connections (1994) in Scotland. Or Celtic Colours Festival (1997) in Nova Scotia. Support and interest in traditional Scottish music were in short supply. 


>> Alasdair: I mean,I remember going to the National Library in Scotland, Edinburgh, this bastion of information, and I asked to see the William Marshall (?) collections, and the Niel Gow collections. And this older librarian she looked at me—she’s the reference librarian in the National Library in Edinburgh—and she says, “what was that list again?” I said, “Neil Gow Collections Repository 1, 2, and 3 .‘’I was so excited! I was like 20 years old, and I’d found where they are. And she said, “are you sure you want those?” I go, “well, yeah!” I was so excited. And she said, “well, I have to get the ladder!” And I said, “can I help you with the ladder?” And she was so grumpy about getting that ladder and going up to these books way on the top shelf to get them down for me.

And then I go to Cape Breton, and I find the same books, original copies, littered around on tops of pianos, in people’s houses. Because many of the Cape Bretoners were stationed in Scotland. They were foresters, you know they were living in Scotland during the war. They were taking down trees for military use, and all the rest of it. But they were also scooping up all the old fiddle collections! So loads of the old collections are in Cape Breton. And when I used to talk to Buddy MacMaster, he would, he’d be sitting there, ya know, with books and books. He would do it as kind of, almost like a drill, a ritual. He would just play through the old books. Just beautiful!

[ Music: “The Second Star Hornpipe Set (Howie MacDonald piano),” from The Judique Flyer

Artist: ‘Buddy MacMaster ]

>> Shannon: Keeping these old tunes in circulation or playing and singing them in new ways. Both preservation and innovation usually go hand in hand. And it all takes work, and dedication, and interest. It takes people learning the music to keep it going. 

And to get new learners ignited about traditional music, it takes a beacon: something that shines a light on it in the first place.

Maybe it’s finding an old book of fiddle tunes, like Alasdair did in the Edinburgh National Library.

Maybe it’s picking up your dad’s fiddle while your family’s at church, like Lee Cremo did. Maybe THAT lights your way to a life of music.

Maybe it’s an annual festival or a concert series that features musicians like Troy Magillavray and Andrea Beaton:

>> Andrea: Keep playing it. Pass it down to your kids or your students. Not just the melodies and not just the grace notes. But, like, the stories and the little reasons, the isms behind it, ya know? Like, um, because there’s, kind of, there’s little reasons for things that you do when you’re playing, like whether it’s something that was a Gaelic word and it’s phrased that way; or if it was a pipe influence. Or…

>> Troy: Keep playing it and put it out there like that. Just keep at it.

>> Andrea: Yup.

[ Music: “Blue Bonnets Over the Boarder,” from Close To the Floor

Artist: Ashley MacIsaac ]

>> Shannon: It takes people to keep at, it takes a beacon… like the 4 feet tall LED star shining on the Boston Common… on a tree driven from Cape Breton. A tree that, at some point, Lee Cremo, Mary Jane Lamond, Katie McNally, TroyMacGillivray, Andrea Beaton or Alasdair Fraser may have driven past, on their way to a night of tunes, singing and dancing.

[ TIMER goes off ]

And with that my time’s up. My Cape Breton podcast is done—for now. Thanks a lot for listening. THANK you to my incredible guests… to Matt Heaton for the production music… to Nigel Heaton for acknowledging our sponsors… to the Beaton Institute at Cape Breton University for the archival interview between Sandy Mumberket and Lee Cremo…to the Library of Congress… the Smithsonian Institute… and the cultural councils around the U.S. for investing in traditional music and culture and for making it accessible to all of us, online and off… and thank you to Club Passim for hosting and building the Boston Celtic Music Festival and for nurturing folk and traditional music year round… thanks so much to all of you listening… and thank you again to this month’s supporters, it’s because of you, and because of these timers, that I am able to create these episodes and share them with all of you.  

Donate or find information about all the music in this episode at Irish Music . 


[ TIMER goes off ]

>> Mary Jane: I’m so into alarms now. I have alarms and I just discovered I can label my alarms! So this morning I had one that, like, the first one says ‘wake up’. And the second one says ‘okay, get up’. At 9:30 one went on it said “Shannon will be here in 15 minutes” 

>> Shannon: That’s really great!

>> Mary Jane: It’s so funny.

>> Shannon: Yeah.

Bonus Content

Related videos

Companion Chapters

Related essays

Cast of Characters

Episode guests in order of appearance

Mary Jane Lamond


Canadian singer who performs traditional Gaelic songs from Cape Breton

Scotland-born fiddle player and teacher who founded fiddle camps and performs with cellist Natalie Haas

Troy MacGillivray


Fiddle and piano player from Nova Scotia, who has performed onstage since age six

Andrea Beaton


Inverness, Cape Breton-born fiddle player, piano player, and dancer from a long line of musicians

Boston-born fiddle player who grew up playing Scottish and Cape Breton fiddle music

Lee (Harvey) Cremo


Mi’kmaw fiddle player (1938-1999) who played Cape Breton and original music

The Heaton List