Fucadairean Coimheach Rioghail
(Fierce Royal Milling Singers)
at Sacred Heart Church,
Johnstown, Cape Breton
(9 October 2005)

Jeff MacDonald (Goiridh Domhnallach) was the host for the evening and opened the show by welcoming everyone in both Gaelic and English, then singing a lovely unaccompanied Gaelic song. The Iona Gaelic Singers then took the stage and the audience got to watch living history. This group is helping to keep the milling frolic tradition alive. This involves beating and stretching cloth on a table. It is hard, tedious work made easier by singing waulking (work) songs. The rhythm of the songs matched the beating of the cloth on the table.

The wooden table top the singers used to demonstrate the milling was a piece used in Scotland over 200 years ago that made its way to Cape Breton with Scottish immigrants. The songs the Iona Gaelic Singers performed had been passed on from generation to generation.

Lightfoot, Lamond, MacDonald and MacNeil sat at the table as well and became part of the group. One group member would take the lead for a song singing each verse, while the whole group sang the chorus. Everyone had hold of a piece of the cloth and beat it against the table top with a distinct rhythm. Occasional whoops and yelps were heard from around the table to give each other encouragement. The audience assisted with keeping the beat by tapping their feet on the wooden floor of the church. The combination of voices, beating of the cloth, and the foot tapping of the crowd gave me an incredible feeling in my chest that I can't adequately describe.

Ian MacDougall came on stage next and performed a few sets of fiddle tunes accompanied by Tracy Dares on keyboards. Except for a lovely slow piece that was sad and full of longing, his playing was spirited and fun. The crowd joyfully stomped their feet as the bow dust flew off his fiddle.

Rona Lightfoot, a well known and respected Gaelic singer and Highland piper from South Uist, performed next. Her voice was lovely and her songs full of feeling. She was also a very good and humorous storyteller -- she has some of the most expressive eyes I've ever seen. Lightfoot demonstrated how closely related the playing of the Highland pipes and the Gaelic language are by first singing a song then playing that same song on the pipes. I could almost hear the Gaelic in the pipes. She then did a set of strathspeys and reels on the pipes. She received a very hardy round of applause when she left the stage. In response she said, "Now, it wasn't that good" with a big smile on her face.

Cape Breton's own Mary Jane Lamond was next. She had a very relaxed stage presence and was at ease singing and telling jokes and stories. She sang a beautiful unrequited love song and then Dares made her way back on stage to accompany Lamond on a lively set of puirt-a-beul (mouth music). The last song of the set was "Sleepy Maggie," a song made popular by Lamond and fellow Cape Breton resident, Ashley MacIssac.

One of the Iona Gaelic Singers, Peter McLain, came back on stage to sing a waulking song with Lamond. He taught her this Cape Breton song, which she recorded on her most recent CD Storas. They held hands and did the motions of beating the cloth while singing. It was a very moving event to behold as history was again being witnessed -- young and old were joining together to help ensure this song will be available for future generations.

When MacDonald introduced the husband and wife team of Paul K. MacNeil on Highland pipes and Tracey Dares on keyboards, he couldn't help but make a little joke. MacNeil and Dares' fourth child had recently been born and since they speak Gaelic in their home, MacDonald said "they were single-handedly keeping Gaelic in Cape Breton alive." They played a number of tunes together during which I loved the upbeat sound of their playing. Their transitions between tunes were excellent. MacNeil was great at telling the stories behind some of his self-penned pipe tunes.

Three of the Iona Gaelic Singers came back on stage with MacNeil and Dares to sing "Saint Columbus' Hymn." One of the men was MacNeil's father, one his uncle and the third a neighbor and family friend. While the men sang, MacNeil kept a steady drone on his pipes while Dares accompanied them on keyboards. The sound of their voices and instruments filled the church and left many eyes moist as the last note drifted away.

Lightfoot then came back on stage with MacDonald and they lit things up a bit with a song about a drunken man that wondered if he was seeing the sun or the moon after spending a long time in a pub. Lamond then joined them to sing a milling song. Then they sang "Fhear a Bata," a well-known Gaelic song from the Isle of Lewis in Scotland. A large majority of the audience was familiar with this song and sang along.

The finale had more of the milling by the Iona Gaelic singers with MacDonald, Lightfoot and Lamond again sitting at the table. Then, Dares, MacNeil and MacDougall finished the evening off with a set of rousing, fun tunes that really got the audience whooping.

This was a very intimate night of music with no headline performer. The audience was like guests of the performers and was now privy to what might go on in their homes. It was a privilege to attend this concert.

by Erika S. Rabideau
28 January 2006