Not just fiddling around

Not just fiddling around

Studying and archiving the music of Cape Breton Island protects its unique heritage and serves as a cultural preservation model
November 1, 2007
Music can be many things—an inspiration, an expression, a catharsis, a primal connection between people. For Richard MacKinnon of Cape Breton University (CBU), music is all of these things, but it’s also a signpost of the island's unique culture and a way of charting the changing character of Cape Breton Island.

So much of the island’s present-day culture has roots in music, and yet little has been done to study and preserve that heritage. With the influx of new cultural influences from around the world, traditions of the past have become threatened and could easily be lost.

MacKinnon—a born-and-bred Cape Bretoner—is taking action to help preserve Cape Breton’s traditional music as part of his work as the Canada Research Chair in Intangible Cultural Heritage at CBU. "Intangible cultural heritage is a more modern description for what, in the past, we called folklore," he explains of his wordy title.

The musical folklore that forms the basis of MacKinnon's research began more than two centuries ago. Between 1775 and 1850, more than 25,000 Gaelic-speaking Scots struck out from their homeland to cast their lot in "New Scotland" (aka Nova Scotia). They settled throughout Cape Breton and the highlands area of Eastern Nova Scotia, bringing their language and many of their distinctive oral and musical traditions with them. The legacy for Cape Breton is the development of a distinctive fiddle and piano style that spawned an equally distinctive step dance and square dance tradition.

The exploration of Cape Breton’s musical past helps explain how the current culture of the area has developed, and why certain music styles have come to the forefront. For example, by looking at the distinctive nuances of the Cape Breton piano style, MacKinnon notes how the piano has become a solo instrument for many island musicians such as Mary Jessie MacDonald, Connie Morrison MacGillivray, Gordon MacLean, and Doug MacPhee.

He explains: "By the turn of the 20th century, the Victorian parlour instrument—the piano—grew to be the instrument of choice to accompany the Cape Breton Celtic fiddle. But some pianists have moved beyond accompaniment to become solo performers, playing fiddle tunes on the piano and developing special techniques to imitate the fiddle sound on the piano."

The quest to better understand the then-and-now of Cape Breton's musical core was given a huge boost in 2006 with the establishment of the Centre for Cape Breton Studies. The centre consists of a lab in which audio and video recordings can be digitized for preservation and dissemination, and a top-notch music performance analysis room. The multi-functional space will record music as well as theatre and dance performances for research and archival purposes; enable the playback of audiovisual recordings in a sound-proofed acoustic space; and provide a rehearsal and performance space for the local community as well as for visitors.


One need only journey around Cape Breton Island to realize how interwoven music is to life there. The same could be said about places all over Canada. Richard MacKinnon's research and preservation of the island’s music could serve as a model for heritage efforts across Canada and abroad.

And Cape Breton, with its many cultural groups, acts as the perfect setting for MacKinnon to develop methods of protecting cultural heritage and educating people about it. "Some of the work I am doing on international intangible cultural heritage policies has implications for policy development in Canada”, says MacKinnon. For example, he recently returned from Scotland where he spoke about UNESCO's Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage and discussed implications for the preservation of Gaelic culture. “There's an international dialogue occurring on what constitutes heritage and how you incorporate intangible aspects of culture into heritage policies."

MacKinnon also emphasizes the importance of the Centre for Cape Breton studies as a place for researching folklore—both as a link to the past and a vital part of the present and future. Dr. Graham Reynolds, Chair of the Department of History at CBU, agrees. "The new facility will create a complete history of Cape Breton music that will help preserve a valuable aspect of our culture. This will also provide a wonderful tool for research and help stimulate an even wider interest in our island's music."

The efforts of MacKinnon and others affiliated with the CBU’s Centre for Cape Breton Studies have not gone unnoticed. This past May, the British Broadcasting Corporation filmed a six-part series of Scottish music around the world, and spent two days documenting the work of MacKinnon and his students. Closer to home, MacKinnon's work has been commended by the Rotary Club of Sydney, which raised $25,000 to help establish the centre as its 100th Anniversary Project celebrating Rotary International. At the centre's October 2006 inauguration, Rotary Club President Dr. Lynn Ellis said, "Connecting with the community through music and the works of the Centre for Cape Breton Studies is something that will last a lifetime."


Richard MacKinnon partners with researchers from the Beaton Institute located at Cape Breton University, which houses the Canadian Celtic Music Collection, as well as correspondence and other papers of Maritime music heavyweights, such as the late John Allan Cameron. Other collaborators include the Celtic Music Interpretation Centre In Judique, Gaelic music specialist Dr. Heather Sparling, English professor Dr. Bill Davey, who directs a project devoted to the language of Cape Breton and Celtic Colours International Festival.

Learn More

Visit the Beaton Institute.

Learn about Gaelic culture and music in Cape Breton.