Ethnography of Fiddle/Cape Breton Fiddle

Cape Breton fiddling is a regional violin style which falls within the Celtic music idiom. Cape Breton Island's fiddle music was brought to North America by Scotland|Scottish immigrants during the Highland Clearances. These Scottish immigrants were primarily from Scottish Gaelic language|Gaelic-speaking regions in the Scottish Highlands and the Outer Hebrides. Although fiddling has changed considerably since this time in Scotland, it is widely held that the tradition of Scottish fiddling music has been better preserved in Cape Breton.

Dance styles associated with the music are Cape Breton step dancing, Cape Breton square dancing (Iona, Nova Scotia|Iona style and Inverness County, Nova Scotia|Inverness style), and highland dancing.

In 2005, as a tribute to the area's traditional music, the construction of a tourism center and the world's largest fiddle and bow was completed on the Sydney, Nova Scotia|Sydney waterfront.

Playing styleEdit

Cape Breton playing is highly accented, characterized by driven up-bowing. The tunes of other music origins (Irish, Canadian, French-Canadian, etc.) sound quite different when performed by Cape Breton players. The strong downbeat pulse is driven by the fiddler's heel into the floor. The pattern tends to be heel-and-toe on reels, the heel on Strathspey (dance)|strathspeys.

Timing is a notable trait of Cape Breton music because good timing brings dancing alive.[citation needed]

Cape Breton fiddle music is strongly influenced by the intonations of the Scottish Gaelic| Scots-Gaelic language, especially Puirt a Beul|Puirt a Beul (mouth music) and strathspeys. The ornaments are adapted from those used on the Great Highland Bagpipe|Great Highland bagpipe. The ornamentation (cuts aka. Turn_%28music%29|trebles, Drone (music)|drones and double stops|doubling) brings out the strong feeling of Cape Breton fiddle.

A century ago the violin and pump organ were the common instruments; the latter has been supplanted by piano.


The types of tunes commonly associated with Cape Breton fiddling are jigs, reel (dance)|reels, march (music)|marches, strathspey (dance)|strathspeys, clogs (hornpipes), and air (music)|slow airs. Many of the tunes associated with Cape Breton fiddle music are also commonly performed on other instruments, especially bagpipes, piano and guitar. It is not unheard of for the music to be performed on harmonica, tin whistle, mandolin or banjo.

Modern Cape Breton players draw on a large body of music, from the Scottish and Irish traditions, and from modern compositions. Several older books of tune collections have been particularly popular sources:

  • Fraser, Simon (1874), Simon Fraser Collection
  • MacDonald, Keith Norman (1887), The Skye Collection
  • MacQuarrie, Gordan F. (1940), The Cape Breton Collection
  • Francis O'Neill|O'Neill, Francis (1903), O'Neill's Music Of Ireland
  • Robertson, James Stewart (1884), The Athole Collection
  • Skinner, James Scott, The Scottish Violinist
  • Skinner, James Scott, The Harp and Claymore

A number of recent publications also document a substantial amount of the modern Cape Breton repertoire:

  • Beaton, Kinnon (2000), The Beaton Collection (compositions of Kinnon, Donald Angus, and Andrea Beaton)
  • Cameron, John Donald (2000), The Heather Hill Collection (compositions of Dan R. MacDonald)
  • Cameron, John Donald (1994), The Trip To Windsor Collection (compositions of Dan R. MacDonald, volume 2)
  • Cranford, Paul (2007), The Cape Breton Fiddlers Collection
  • Cranford, Paul (1997), Winston Fitzgerald: A Collection of Fiddle Tunes
  • Dunlay, Kate, and David Greenberg (1996), The Dungreen Collection - Traditional Celtic Violin Music of Cape Breton
  • Holland, Jerry (1988, several revised editions), Jerry Holland's Collection of Fiddle Tunes
  • Holland, Jerry (2000), Jerry Holland: The Second Collection
  • MacEachern, Dan Hugh (1975), MacEachern's Collection
  • Ruckert, George (2009), John Campbell: A Cape Breton Legacy
  • Stubbert, Brenda (1994), Brenda Stubbert's Collection of Fiddle Tunes
  • Stubbert, Brenda (2007), Brenda Stubbert: The Second Collection

Composers and performersEdit

Scottish composers popular in Cape Breton include: Niel Gow, Nathaniel Gow, William Marshall (Scottish composer)|William Marshall, and James Scott Skinner. Well known Cape Breton composers include: Donald Angus Beaton, Kinnon Beaton, Angus Chisholm, Jerry Holland (fiddler)|Jerry Holland, Dan R. MacDonald, John MacDougall (musician)|John MacDougall, Dan Hughie MacEachern and Brenda Stubbert.

Cape Breton fiddle music has received international recognitionTemplate:Who through the careers of Ashley MacIsaac, Natalie MacMaster and The Rankin Family. Other performers of the traditional Cape Breton style include Andrea Beaton, Winnie Chafe, Winston (Scotty) Fitzgerald, Kimberley Fraser, Carl MacKenzie, Howie MacDonald, Buddy MacMaster, Mairi Rankin.

Video resourcesEdit

"Fiddle and Feet" Boston-Nova Scotian Doug Lamey grandson of Bill Lamey Note the step dancers free hand style!

See alsoEdit

  • [1] Gaelic poem recited by John Shaw with slow air played by Natalie McMaster


Further readingEdit

  • MacGillivray, Allister (1981), The Cape Breton Fiddler, College of Cape Breton Press. ISBN 0-920336-12-4.

External linksEdit

de:Traditionelle Musik auf Cape Breton