Fiddles & Prose
at Strathspey Place, Mabou,
Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia
(5 August 2001)

Pieces of Cape Breton literature, music and art are increasingly recognized and rewarded while adding novel color and flavour to the mosaic of the world's cultural activities. And yet, appreciation on one's home ground is sweetest, but sometimes hard to come by. Not so on August 5, a warm Sunday evening on the western side of Cape Breton in Inverness County's newest showplace, Strathspey Place.

Here Cape Breton's Beatrice MacNeil brought the format of her successful "reading ceilidhs" to what some consider the musical mecca of Nova Scotia, Inverness County. Fiddles & Prose, a real grassroots performance, combines acts of Cape Breton writers reading their material with entertainment by down-home musicians, singers and dancers. I was intrigued, and especially curious about the reception hometown writers would receive. It turned out the performance was better than I expected. Likewise, the audience was larger than anyone anticipated -- a very appreciative one at that.

Half an hour before the performance began I arrived to explore a visual arts display in the complex. The Inverness County Artists' Showcase, "Hands Dancing," held silks and wood, acrylics and digital, offering soulful expressions on a variety of subjects, from dragons to wagon wheels. Once inside the theatre, where every seat is a good one, a nearly full house sat to listen and be entertained. Beatrice MacNeil, who is a writer herself, opened the evening by inviting everyone to "pretend you're in the kitchen and Alistair (MacLeod) ... is baking oatcakes." If this was your first visit inside this performance hall that would be a stretch as the facility is beyond the norm as rural venues go. However, we got her jist: these performers tonight are the kind of people you could bring into your kitchen, so just sit back and enjoy them and their works.

The music began with Marion and Kenneth MacLeod on piano and fiddle, the children of Alistair gracefully and proficiently making us feel at home. Their brother Alexander, in elegant voice, was next and brought out a story written in Saskatchewan about an apartment under the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor (another gathering place of Celts) with references to childhood in Cape Breton, brotherhood and whales.

The music continued with a fine set of tunes from the Honorable Minister of Nova Scotia's Tourism and Culture Department, otherwise known as Rodney MacDonald, fiddle player. Following acts that night were Dawn and Margie Beaton, and again the fiddles sang; Mary Janet MacDonald added her stepdancing talents; and Rita Rankin, songstress, pleased us with her soothing voice in lyrics of Gaelic and English. Throughout the night music continued to be pleasurable and light, the right touch I thought, to complement the intensity of the writers' pieces.

The most special parts of the evening, for me, were the writers' presentations. Fr. Dan Doucet read a very tongue-in-cheek tale of young Acadian students visited by a school inspector who led the class in Anglais chansons including "The Maple Leaf Forever," a very subtle allusion, I felt, to the times when British authority ordered early Acadians to take the oath of loyalty to the British crown.

Joyce Rankin of Judique, the only poet of the evening, presented powerful images of the emigrant women from Scotland who pioneered in Cape Breton. "Jessie, You Could Have Been a Bard" tells of a woman who was sister to a noted Cape Breton bard and who had no time to write, compose or play fiddle. While cooking, cleaning, farming and tending to family life, Joyce expresses how Jessie found ways to share the beauty of her surroundings, and to keep the seed of artistry planted and tended in others. This was my favorite of the night, because the topic is relatively unturned ground in Cape Breton but a common and vital part of our families' histories.

Frank MacDonald of Inverness had a rollicking good read describing a young lad's exciting, embarrassing and terrifying fishing experience when "the smelts came in." His humorous pieces are always good for a hearty chuckle and this was no different. Beatrice read one of her short stories and as usual she puts you right there in the story, this time featuring fiddles and feet.

The highlight of the evening was Alistair MacLeod's reading from his award-winning novel, No Great Mischief. It was an evocative and gripping selection that drew the listeners into his spell. Everyone's pride of place was touched that night, and a reception for mingling and congratulations (with oatcakes and tea) followed.

I have only one critical comment to make. The concert began at 7:30 pm and after intermission the second half was only underway at 9 pm. For me this was an unexpectedly long show. Perhaps there could be two nights of Fiddles & Prose in Inverness County next year?

[ by Virginia MacIsaac ]
Rambles: 25 August 2001