Dirt in the fiddle:
Gaelic community explores Féisean potential
By Frank Macdonald*
(INVERNESS, 12/13/03) -- Is there a place in Cape Breton for
Féisean, community-based festivals that offer instruction in Gaelic language,
song, dance, music, storytelling and drama?
Certainly the concept in not new to the islandís Gaelic community
which has been developing Féisean for years in Mabou, Glendale and elsewhere,
and nowhere more successfully than at Christmas Island, now thirteen years into
the Celtic arts experience, and it was at Christmas Island on Saturday, December
6, 2003 that a conference was held to discuss the potential for an organized
approach to Féisean, exploring their cultural and economic impact, their
benefits and impediments. It was a day of discussion, consultation, speakers
and small group discussions, facilitated by Bernadette Campbell.
Graphic examples and distinctions were described by Father
Angus Morris when he addressed the conference regrading the performance of music.
His talk centered around Cape Breton fiddling as he had learned to play it as
a child, and the way that younger fiddlers perform that same music today.
Morrisís first encounter with music was the Gaelic jigging
of tunes by his mother. "Then when people would come to the house and play
the fiddle, it would be the exact same tunes I heard my mother signing,"
the Mabou parish priest explained.
Emphasizing the role of the community in which he lived in
the development of the music he and others learned to play, Morris spoke about
the pleasure of listening to fiddlers like Donald Angus Beaton "who totally
amazed me, the sound that came out,"Dan Joe Campbell, Angus Allan Gillis,
Angus Chisholm and others. Their bowing techniques, he explained, were developed
to project the sound, something that is no longer necessary for fiddlers because
of PA systems. "All of these fiddlers played with the dirt of it in their
"Now fiddlers are cleaning it up. Some young fiddlers
toady could play circles around those others, but the sound isnít there."
The reason, Fr. Morris suggests, is that the Gaelic is being lost from the fiddle
tunes. He doesnít argue that a fiddler needs to speak Gaelic, himself having
none, "but thereís Gaelic in my English," he adds. That Gaelic influence
comes from living in an atmosphere that informs the fiddler through a sort of
cultural osmosis. To get the Ďdirtí or the Gaelic in oneís fiddle, a fiddler
must first learn by ear, then jig those tunes to himself or herself over and
over until they belong to him.
"Make the tune your own. There are more fiddlers than
ever now but can you tell me who they are?," he asked, suggesting that younger
fiddlers donít have the same distinct signatures that made the sound of older
fiddlers individually unique. "Look at fifteen fiddlers on stage and one
bow in going up and one bow in going down and one is stopped, trying to figure
out where the rest are. This is because the Gaelic foundation is missing, and
without it so goes the Gaelic music," Morris said, adding that if a fiddler
doesnít have the Gaelic rhythm, "they have to go for speed." He also
observed that many fiddlers, after playing for fifteen years or so, begin to
assess themselves in the context of their peers and find they sound just like
everyone else, and begin then to develop an individuality.
Morris also pointed out that in the past, the community demanded
music,.then asked "Who are we playing to. People come because of the Gaelic
in the music. Do we think the audience is different? Why not give them the real
Frances MacEachen, Cultural Officer with the Department of
Tourism and Culture and one of the conferenceís organizers, pointed out to Fr.
Morris that, "The environment was just there when you were growing up. They
never had to create an environment."
The conference on Féisean was to address that particular
need in the Gaelic culture of Cape Breton, the creation of an environment where
young people and other interested community members can immerse themselves in
the Gaelic language and arts for a day or a week, come in contact with the tradition
bearers of language, music, crafts, food, and begin to understand their culture
within the context of its traditions.
Glendale Gaelic speaker, Jeff MacDonald, addressed the meeting
about his good fortune to have grown up among some of the most respected speakers
and singers on the island, and at age 18 became a Gaelic learner. Today, considerably
more than a learner, he is one of the few poets writing in the Gaelic, his songs
having been sung at concerts and recorded. Having outline the linage of his Gaelic
influences, the family and friends, he reported with pride that he had been present
at the birth of his son and was able to welcome him in Gaelic, and because of
those first words the boy heard, MacDonald said, "He knows who he comes
In arguing for the development of Féisean, MacDonald
told the conference that the more people are educated, exposed to the Gaelic
culture, the more the influence it will have on their own structures. "The
Féis can reaffirm our culture. These are the words to remember; affirmation,
reaffirmation, validity and unanimity."
The thrust of the conference was to determine whether or not
the will exists among the participating communities to take part in Féisean,
and to examine what it involves, its benefits, obstacles and commitments.
To find some of these answers, those in attendance joined in
a conference call with Arthur Cormack of Scotland who has played a significant
role in the successful development of Féisean in that country, where more
than 4000 young people take part in the more than 30 Féisean held each
year. The movement has been so successful in Scotland that it has been identified
in one European study as the most successful cultural activity in Europe.
In their phone consultation with Cormack, those attending the
Christmas Island conference asked about the challenges, benefits, fostering of
community involvement and how to make the connection between the Gaelic culture
and the cultural forms which spring from them, such as the music.
Cormack explained that the Féisean is Scotland have
had a strong youth emphasis, and are usually held when school in not in session.
This frees up interested youth to attend, and it also frees up the school which
is usually the best available venue in small communities.
One impediment frequently encountered in Scotland is the lack
of school interest, Cormack explained. Often information about a Féis
is sent to the school but the schools donít distribute the information and the
young people and the community donít learn about it.
One enviable advantage the Scottish Féisean have over
efforts in Nova Scotia is that the organization in Scotland is funded to the
tune of £600,000 a year, with additional assistance from the Highland Council
and other government agencies. "It allows us to do what we are doing,"
Cormack points out.
Other issues around the movement are familiar to most community-based
organizations such as volunteer burnout and lack of cohesiveness within the community,
but the benefits are measurable.
In the 1980s, Cormack said, there was nothing in the schools
regarding Gaelic music or skills in the language, "but the Féisean
started because nothing was being done to educate kids in the language and culture.
There is no doubt about the benefits (of Gaelic in schools now), but there is
also a whole scale of cultural skills they donít get in school."
Both in Scotland and in Nova Scotia there was acknowledgment
that if Gaelic is being taught in the schools but no atmosphere exists outside
the school where they can apply what they are learning, the odds on success are
minimized. Féisean offer one atmosphere where the cultural language and
skills can be strengthened and reinforced. The previously mentioned European
study also showed that students taking part in Féisean find themselves
more self-confident, their circle of friends increases, they learn new skills.
In Scotland, as in Nova Scotia, the concern was to introduce
the young participants to the influences closest to the tradition, those who,
as Fr. Morris had described, as having the dirt in their fiddles. This involves
archiving old tunes, and finding traditional material closely associated with
the community where the Féis is taking place.
There was agreement in Christmas Island that if the conference
decides that a province-wide organization is needed for the promotion of Féisean,
it should not determine how each community is to carry out its own Féis.
Community interest and resources should determine that, but support should be
Throughout the Christmas Island conference, participants pointed
out that the Féisean movement is not intended to replace other community
or individual efforts, nor to pass judgement. Fr. Morrisís talk on Cape Breton
fiddling, for example, was comprised of observations, not judgements, on Ďthen
and nowí. Other participants pointed out that the Gaelic community, in promoting
the development of Féisean, is trying to secure, within the many influences
to which Cape Breton is now subjected economically, socially and culturally,
the language and traditions that have for centuries defined a large portion of
the islandís population, and work to prevent those traditions from being lost
for all time.
The information and input gathered at the Christmas Island
conference will be assessed and distributed to those participants as the Féisean
movement determines if there is a role it can play through this concept to "keep
the dirt in the fiddle", so to speak.
*Frank MacDonald is editor of the Inverness Oran