Cape Breton in Music: Mary Jane Lamond and Wendy MacIsaac


Cape Breton is at the far north of the province of Nova Scotia, in the Maritmes of Atlantic Canada. Across that Atlantic Ocean the e closest landfall is Scotland, and it is to Cape Breton that many from Scotland came across the years and across the centuries. With them they carried their memories, their language, their traditions, and their music.

Memories, language, traditions: those intertwine in the music made in Cape Breton today, music that holds those things as well as ways they’ve met up with the landscapes of the island and the lives lived out on it, past and present.

“My grandparents were Gaelic speakers, so I heard the language and was very interested in it,” says musician Mary Jane Lamond. “I think I was first drawn to the literary tradition, which is a very oral tradition here on Cape Breton” One day, while attending a milling frolic, which is a community gathering where songs are sung and stories told. Lamond realized what she wanted was to be one of those sharing songs. “I think I really found my voice when I started singing in Gaelic,” she says.

As she was beginning her career, Lamond crossed paths with Wendy MacIsaac, who plays fiddle, mandolin, piano, and step dances.. “It’s not a very big music community on Cape Breton, she says. “I think Mary Jane had done some work with my cousin Ashley and he introduced us.” MacIsaac has her own Gaelic speaking grandparents. She also learned the rhythms of step dance from her dance teaching mother as a child, and not long after, took up the fiddle. Soon she was spending her evenings playing for dances across Cape Breton.

Lamond and MacIsaac have been friends for nearly twenty years now, and often worked on projects together and appeared on stage with each other. Until the album Seinn, though, they’d never recorded a project which focused on the music they make as a duo. “We were both overdue for an album,” says MacIsaac, “so we decided it was time.”

The music opens with the Yellow Coat, a set of lively tunes led by MacIsaac’s fiddle which includes music from the tradition along with a piece by Donegal fiddler Tommy Peoples and one from fellow Cape Bretoner Kinnon Beaton. You can almost see the dancers stepping by. Lamond offers a gentle country love song called Air A Ghillie Tha Mo Run/It Is the Lad That I Love and follows it with a song which tells the story of a young man being conscripted into the army, said to have its origins in the Isle of Skye in Scotland. MacIsaac adds a tune of her own called Keeping Up With Calum. “While we were working on this album my one year old son Calum was busy rearranging my house — which is what inspired me to write this tune!” MacIsaac says.

The twelve tracks on the album all unfold that way, with a natural grace and respect for tradition and a lively sense of place connecting them. There are songs of love, songs of work, of travel, of change, of l place and people and time. It’s a really good idea to play the music on Seinn out as the artists have set it forth in the album. Two tracks I’d especially commend to you though are the song Taladh na Beinne Guirme/The Blue Mountain’s Lullaby, a story of changes in Gaelic culture in the Blue Mountain area of Cape Breton, and the Boise Monsters set, which MacIsaac named from a conversation with her son Angus..

Perhaps you’ve been to Cape Breton. If so Seinn will certainly call back memories and perhaps open up new ways of seeing things. If you’ve yet to visit this part of Atlantic Canada, the music of Mary Jane Lamond and Wendy MacIsaac will make a fine introduction.

Photographs of Mary Jane Lamond (with Corrina Hewat, who guests on the album, on the harp) and Wendy MacIsaac were made at the Celtic Connections Festival with permission of the artists, the festival, and the venue. They are by Kerry Dexter and are copyrighted. Thank you for respecting this.

You may also enjoy reading about the standing stones at Calanais in Scotland and an evening on the Falls Road in Belfast.

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