Songs & Anecdotes of Gaelic Scotland
with Margaret Bennett
at Nova Scotia Highland Village,
Iona, Cape Breton
(11 October 2005)

The best songs tell stories. The best stories have deep roots and long memories. Margaret Bennett, a well-known Scottish singer and folklorist, and a mistress of the storytelling arts, shared stories and songs with strong cultural resonance during "Songs & Anecdotes of Gaelic Scotland," an afternoon workshop at the Nova Scotia Highland Village in Iona.

After a holiday weekend marked by rain and wet feet, the sun on Tuesday made sporadic, bashful appearances as my wife and I drove to Iona -- she to study the art of spinning, while I sat in on Bennett's presentation.

Speaking with a soft, distinct voice and a lilting Scottish accent, Bennett spun stories with an easy manner, painting pictures in the air and engrossing the audience in timeless tales of their shared Gaelic heritage. Her gleaming eyes reflected the constant smile on her face, all under rich, silvery hair.

Bennett, one of the world's foremost authorities on Scottish folklore, is both a celebrated Gaelic singer and prize-winning author. She holds a master's degree in folklore and earned a doctorate in ethnology. She also grew up in a ceilidh house atmosphere on the Scottish isles of Skye and Lewis, where playing music, singing, dancing and storytelling were accepted ways of life.

After first relating the stories -- often also recalling the way in which she herself first heard them -- Bennett then sang the songs unaccompanied, in a pure, sweet Gaelic. She sometimes provided partial translations or taught the audience a line of the chorus, and on those occasions the room filled with sound of rough, enthusiastic voices. The result was beautiful, spellbinding.

"I try to avoid giving too much background information, because you can knock the stuffing out of a song by being too academic," Bennett conceded. Still, that didn't stop her from correcting some misconceptions along the way.

Topics were varied and interesting, ranging from night visiting, a custom in which young couples could spend the night bundled together in bed -- with a presumption of proper parental precautions -- to a mysterious cave of gold and a tale of true lovers who, unable to find each other on a dark and stormy night, found their fates on separate and unhappy lines.

"There are lots of songs with grand legends," Bennett said, and she surely proved her point on an overcast afternoon in Iona, surrounded by history and overlooking Cape Breton's beautiful inland sea, Bras d'Or.

by Tom Knapp
26 November 2005

[ visit Margaret Bennett's website ]