Traditional music on Cape Breton

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With Cape Breton’s indigenous inhabitants now only a small minority, traditional music has been massively influenced by Western European immigrants, especially their most numerous and longest established group, the Highland Scots.

Origin and instruments

Besides songs sung in English or, especially in the Inverness district (west coast), also in Gaelic (e.g. Mary Jane Lamond), instrumental, Scottish-Celtic dance music dominates. Many main instruments of Western European (harps, drums, accordion) or North American (banjo, mandolin, harmonica, double bass) traditional music are hardly found on Cape Breton. Also bands with different instruments exist almost only among younger musicians (Beolach, Cottars, Slainte Mhath, Barra MacNeills). Cape Breton’s traditional instrumentation is limited to Scottish bagpipes, whose importance has declined since the 19th century and which have only become more popular again in recent decades, and above all to the fiddle. Accompaniment used to be provided by the harmonium or a second fiddle played in unison; since the end of the 19th century, however, it has almost always been the piano and/or occasionally the guitar.

Type and style of music

With the exception of the “Pastorals”, the instrumental music of Cape Breton is pure dance music and is therefore played with a strong emphasis on rhythm. In addition to traditional Scottish and Irish compositions, a lot of music was and is composed in the Scottish style on Cape Breton itself. Over the centuries, the Gaelic highland fiddle music on Cape Breton, which had been lost in Scotland and was already richly ornamented in the style of bagpipe and vocal music, assimilated stylistic elements from other population groups, e.g. the staccatos of French Acadians, the bordun strings of American fiddlers or the vibratos common in southern Europe. This is how the “Cape-Breton fiddle style” came into being, one of the most technically advanced and complicated fiddle styles in the world. For several decades the Cape Breton Fiddlers Society, with several hundred members, has been taking care of the dissemination and passing on to younger talents. Through their support, it is also possible for guests to get information at the Celtic Music Interpretive Center (Judique) or to take courses in traditional fiddling.

Traditional dance

The demand for traditional music is unbroken on Cape Breton. Often there are concerts (“Ceilidh”) and/or a square dance. These square dances differ from their US counterparts not only in the musical structure – the sets each consist of two jigs (6/8) and a long reel (4/4) – but above all in the type of dances. Step dance figures are always interspersed, and the occasional strathspey set – a particularly accentuated form of reel – even features solo step dancing. Cape Breton tap dancing is similar to Irish, but the arms are allowed to swing more freely and the feet are hardly lifted off the floor (“Close to the floor”). This is thought to be the original tap dance style of the Gaelic Highlands until the middle of the 18th century.

Formative musicians (selection)

  • Winston “Scotty” Fitzgerald (40s to 70s – most of today’s Cape-Breton fiddlers refer to his style)
  • Buddy MacMaster (60s to present – received the Canadian Order of Merit for his musical life’s work)
  • Jerry Holland (d. July 2009, was the most prolific Cape Breton composer with over 1,000 compositions)
  • Brenda Stubbert (a symbolic figure of female Cape Breton fiddlers, composed several hundred tunes)
  • Glenn Graham (representative of the young generation, wrote the first dissertation on traditional Cape Breton music)
  • Beaton family (for several generations best known representatives of the “Mabou-Coal-Mine” style, are among the most sought-after live musicians on the island)
  • Lee Cremo (60s to 80s, indigenous influence)
  • J. P. Cormier (French Canadian, multi-instrumentalist)
  • More modern arrangements: Natalie MacMaster (commercially most successful fiddler, received a “Grammy” and the Canadian Order of Merit, among others), Ashley MacIsaac (first to combine traditional Cape Breton music with hard rock, hip-hop and punk)
  • Doug MacPhee (accompanist of numerous older and current CD productions, representative of the “classical” style)
  • Mac Morin (main representative of the “young” style, sought-after studio musician, among others on the albums of G. Graham or Beolach)
  • Joel Chiasson (French Canadian, extremely rhythmic style, accompanist of Natalie MacMaster)
  • Tracy Dares (most sought-after female pianist, featured as accompanist on many fiddle CDs)
  • Ashley MacIsaac (see above)
  • Jason Roach (experimental representative of the Cape-Breton piano)
  • Barry Shears (reconstructed the traditional bagpipe style through extensive field research)
  • John MacPhee (main representative of the young generation, leader of the Cape-Breton Pipeband, to be heard on many CDs of other artists)
  • Ryan J. MacNeil (Barra MacNeils, Beolach and formerly Slainte Mhath, commercially the most successful bagpiper on the island)
  • Bruce Guthro (singer of the Scottish folk-rock band Runrig & solo guitarist)


  • Graham, Glenn: The Cape Breton Fiddle – making and maintaining the tradition. Cape Breton University Press 2006.
  • Gibson, John G.: Traditional Gaelic bagpiping, 1745-1945. Montreal 1998, ISBN 0773515410