23rd July 2018
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Home from home at Cape Breton festival

IT IS said that Nova Scotia is, in many ways, even more Scottish than Scotland.

The wave of Scottish blood that first migrated (largely unwillingly) to the province, in the main throughout the 19th century, still runs strong and deep, in an area where almost everyone’s family name still begins with Mac, and where the townships carry familiar names such as Inverness, Aberdeen and Dingwall.

But look to its culture and again you will find ample evidence of this rich vein of Scottishness. Wall to wall musicians, almost all of whom could be termed “stupefyingly” talented, in a region where the fiddle reigns supreme. Sound familiar to you? Yes, wherever you happen to go in Nova Scotia the feeling of almost being at home is never too far away – no matter the different accents or the actual distance in terms of miles. This feeling is especially true of Cape Breton Island, a supremely beautiful part of the world, where if music (not to mention scenery) is your thing, you will feel you’ve literally dropped into your own personal paradise.

Oh and let’s not try to define the friendliness, politeness and kindness of its people – but let’s simply apply the word “unrivalled”. It’s here that the annual Celtic Colours International Festival takes place, a nine-day vibrant social whirlwind of traditional music, song and dance – late nights, early mornings and everything else in between. And it’s here that Shetland musicians supreme Bryan Gear and Violet Tulloch found themselves earlier this month, lining up alongside such illustrious names as Carlos Nunez, Rita MacNeill, J P Cormier, Jerry Holland, Tim O’Brien and Buddy McMaster to name but a few.

Celtic Colours has huge amounts of talent, international and otherwise, oozing from every pore of its cultural body, but Bryan and Violet certainly made their mark at it – and then some. They played four gigs over four days, covering the length and breadth of the island, from Dingwall and Glace Bay in the north to Iona further south and St Ann’s in the west.

It was four gigs of spell-binding music with Bryan, perhaps poignantly, retreading the footsteps of his great mentor, Willie Hunter, who maintained a strong fondness for Cape Breton and named a number of tunes in honour of visits there, or alternatively visits by Cape Breton musicians to Shetland.

The odds were perhaps good from the start with the directors of the festival, Joella Fowlds and Max MacDonald, personally inviting Bryan and Violet to participate in the event, initially after seeing them perform in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall as part of the Shetland Night at last year’s Celtic Connections festival.

However, you still have to deliver. But when the strains of Willie Hunter’s classic tune Leaving Lerwick Harbour drifted through the wonderful surroundings of the Highland Village Church in Iona, under-pinned by the remarkable musical precision for which Bryan is noted, genuinely reducing several audience members to tears, that perhaps was the defining moment of their visit and the one which will guarantee that it won’t be the last. Had anyone in the audience known Willie and his music it must have been an earth-shattering moment – the spirit lives on.

It’s often said that Shetland musicians can compete with anyone, anywhere in the world, and few if any of us would challenge that. But competing, let alone triumphing, in a rich musical haven such as Cape Breton, with its dynasties of legendary fiddle players is certainly an achievement to behold – so stand up and take a well deserved bow Bryan and Violet.

Bryan is set to release his debut album sometime before Christmas. It’s been a long while coming, but on the strength of these performances it is very likely to have been well worth the wait. It equally won’t be surprising at all if more than a few copies find their way into Canadian homes in the not too distant future either.

Davie Gardner