The Irish Influence in Cape Breton Fiddling
It is true that the roots of Cape Breton music can be found in Scottish music. However, the Cape Breton fiddle tradition did not evolve into what it is today without help from other music traditions, most notably, the Irish.
While the dominant ethnic group in Cape Breton was Scottish, a significant amount of Irish immigrated from both Ireland and Newfoundland and settled on the Island. Of course, these immigrants included musicians and musical exchanges most certainly occurred. Among the their Scottish Collections of tunes, it was also common for fiddlers to own well known Irish collections such as the Ryan’s Mammoth and the Kerr’s. Because fiddlers need a large repertoire of jigs to play for dances, and the Scottish tradition offers few, a large part of the jig repertoire is Irish. Although the Cape Breton repertoire is made up of a significant amount of Irish tunes, Cape Breton fiddlers for the most part, have not adopted the Irish style of playing.
The ‘Northside’ area of Cape Breton, where I am from, is an exception to this. The Northside includes the communities of Sydney Mines, North Sydney, Bras d’Or, Point Aconi, Florence and Georges River. Because of the coal mines, the steel plant and ship yards, this area was ethnically diverse with a large number of the immigrants being the Newfoundland Irish. Fiddlers from this area were known to have adopted Irish style characteristics but yet still be fluent in the Cape Breton Scottish tradition. They played a rich repertoire of both Irish and Scottish tunes. One of the most well known fiddlers from the area was Johnny Wilmot. Johnny was influenced by both local irish players which included his grand uncle, Henry Fortune and Irish recordings by Michael Coleman and James Morrison.
The Northside Irish tradition continues today with musicians like Brenda Stubbert. Brenda’s father, Robert, was also a well known Irish style player who was influenced by Johnny Wilmot among other Irish style players from the area. While Brenda has a large Irish repertoire, she plays mainly in the Cape Breton style. Robert Stubbert’s influence is also seen in the music of the Barra MacNeils, a band from my home town of Sydney Mines. Robert made frequent visits to their home and their repertoire reflects that. The Barras also use Irish instrumentation in their band, such as the Irish flute, uillean pipes and the Bodhran, creating a unique sound within Cape Breton music.
The Northside is where you will find one of few ‘sessions’ on the Island. This is similar to what you would see at any Irish session, and is probably a legacy of the Irish influence in this area. Every Thursday evening, at Rollies Wharf in North Sydney musicians from all over the island gather to play tunes. The repertoire is a mix of Scottish and Irish and anything that anyone wants to share.
For more information on this topic, check out The Irish in Cape Breton by A.A. MacKenzie, Breton Books, 1999