Flora MacNeil & Maggie MacInnes
at Christmas Island Ceilidh,
Celtic Colours International Festival,
Christmas Island Fire Hall,
Cape Breton, Nova Scotia
(10 October 2000)

Flora MacNeil spread her arms wide and said, "You are my people." The hundreds of men, women and children encompassed by that broad embrace couldn't have agreed more.

MacNeil is a time-honored Gaelic singer from Barra, in Scotland. She and her singer/harper daughter Maggie MacInnes were in Christmas Island (a town, not an island as the name might suggest) to participate in the week-long Celtic Colours International Festival in Cape Breton.

Although the majority of the evening was spent in song, MacNeil and her daughter both took some time to recall their last trips to Cape Breton. For MacNeil, it was 24 years ago that she paid a visit to the home of her distant cousins, whose ancestors emigrated from Barra. The warmth and generosity of the Cape Bretoners, MacNeil said, hasn't changed in the past 2 1/2 decades.

For MacInnes it was just last year, when she performed in the 1999 Celtic Colours festival. It was then, she recalled, that she fell ("completely sober" at the time, she assured her audience) and broke her arm, rendering her harp useless for her remaining performances. She was glad to be back to rectify that lack, she said.

The Christmas Island Ceilidh, held in a crammed hall delightfully decorated with newly gathered fall foliage, began with Gaelic singer Roddy Campbell, also a Barra native. Later, local fiddler Joe Peter MacLean and pianist Marianne Jewell provided some Cape Breton flavor.

But the real treat came when the mother and daughter team from Barra took the stage to present ancient songs from Scotland. Their set included laments, romances both happy and sad, and songs for waulking (a group activity for softening tweed, usually accompanied by singing). The audience often joined them on the choruses, Gaelic falling from their lips as easily as from the mouths of the Scots on-stage.

The Gaelic language may once have been thought dead, but for these Scottish women -- and, quite obviously, their Christmas Island audience -- it is a rich and living tradition worth sharing and celebrating in song. People sat in rapt attention, many with their eyes closed as the sounds of their ancestral homeland washed over them.

MacNeil's voice was old but strong and full of emotion -- for instance, when telling how her uncle's eyes would fill with tears while singing a Jacobite song about a life lost at Culloden. Her own eyes remained dry but looked bright nonetheless by song's end.

MacInnes also sang old songs in Gaelic, her sweet, melodic voice projecting in a mellower vein than her mother's. She also played the clarsach, or Scottish harp, its strings ringing through the hall with unfailing clarity. (For MacInnes, even tuning was a musical experience.) Her subtle use of the harp accented, but never overpowered, the words which are obviously her and her mother's truest love.

Both women sang solo pieces, and both also joined for gorgeous duets. The crowd favorites were the waulking songs, often performed a cappella in rhythmic call-and-response forms. They stood apart, facing the audience with hands clasped at waist level, arms swinging as if shifting heavy cloth while they sang. A standing ovation at the end of their set drew them back for another encore duet of waulking songs.

Following a brief intermission, MacNeil and MacInnes joined a group of Christmas Island natives for some waulking songs in practice. Seated at long tables, they beat the wet cloth against the surface while singing joyously in what the locals call a "milling frolic." Various members of the community took turns leading the calls, to which the rest answered. People still in the audience sang along, adding to the rhythm of the cloth by beating their hands on their knees.

It was a very special night in Christmas Island, where the joy of simple working songs were kept alive by people from both sides of the ocean, in a performance which drew audience members back to their beloved roots.

[ by Tom Knapp ]