Cape Breton Breton and Scottish Fiddle: Same Roots, Different Styles

by adminKFS on · 3 comments

What is the difference between Cape Breton and Scottish Fiddling? (This post is inspired by a reader’s question)

While the roots of Cape Breton music mainly lie in Scottish Fiddling, the styles have evolved quite differently. The most noticeable difference between these styles is in the rhythm; especially in dotted rhythm tunes like strathspeys and marches.  In Cape Breton, the dotted 8th notes and 16th notes are fairly relaxed. If you were to listen to older pipers in Cape Breton play strathspeys, the rhythm would almost sound like even 8th notes that have a swing. In Scottish fiddling, the length of the dotted 8th is much more exaggerated and the 16th is shortened to make a much more pointed rhythm.

Why the difference in style?
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Cape Breton and North Eastern Nova Scotia was settled by tens of thousands of Highland Scots (the reasons are beyond the scope of this post).  Highland culture (Gaelic language and singing, piping, step dancing and fiddling) was transplanted pretty much intact from the mother country.  The Highland Scots were the dominant ethnic group on the island and the music flourished with little outside influence. Circumstances in Scotland charted a different course for the evolution of its fiddle music.
About the time when Highlanders began immigrating to Cape Breton, Scotland had been experiencing a ‘Golden Age’ of fiddling. Composers like William Marshall and Neil Gow enjoyed support from powerful patrons like the Duke of Gordon and the Duke of Athole. However, by 1820, the Golden Age was in decline.  Numerous factors contributed to this. Religious fundamentalism was raging through protestant parts of the Highlands and those patrons who supported Scottish music were being drawn to new dance forms from the European continent like waltzes, polkas, and quadrilles.  The center of fiddling shifted from the Highlands into the northeastern Lowlands, taking it out of a Gaelic speaking and cultural environment.  Here, the music became susceptible to the ‘improvements’ of classical standards.  James Scott Skinner was probably the most influential in this respect implementing as much classical technique as he could to ‘clean up’ Scottish fiddling. In addition, the introduction of the piano accordion into Scotland in the late 1800s displaced the fiddle as the main instrument for dancing.
Scottish music in Cape Breton was largely spared from these influences.  The Highland traditions of Gaelic language and song, step dancing, piping and fiddling evolved organically and continued to influence each other until relatively recently. Even though the Gaelic language and piping have declined to near extinction in Cape Breton during the last century, the fiddling has still largely held on to those influences and still functions as step dance music.
This is of course an extremely brief account of the evolution of both fiddle styles. If you are interested, here are some in depth resources for both Cape Breton and Scottish Fiddling:
  • Glenn Graham; The Cape Breton fiddle, Making and Maintaining Tradition. CBU Press, 2006
  • Michael Kennedy; Gaelic Nova Scotia: An Economic, Cultural and Social Impact Study, 2002. (pdf)
  • Sheldon MacInnes;  A Journey In Celtic Music, Cape Breton Style, UCCB Press, 1997.
  • Mary Ann Alburger; Scottish Fiddlers and Their Music, Hardie Press, 2009.
  • David Johnson; Scottish Fiddle Music of the 18th Century, Mercat Press, 2005
  • J.S. Skinner; A Guide to Bowing: Strathspeys, Reels, Pastoral, Melodies, Hornpipes, etc. Hardie Press 1984.
  • John Gibson; Traditional Gaelic Bagpiping 1745-1945, McGill Queens University Press, 1999.
  • —————-Old and New World Highland Bagpiping, McGill Queens, 2002
  • Burt Feintuch; In the Blood Conversations on Culture, Utah State University Press, 2010.