A mid-Island Celtic music ensemble is recounting a difficult chapter in Scottish history through music, poetry and song.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, tenants of the Scottish highlands were forcibly evicted by landlords seeking more profitable uses for their land in a period that became known as the Highland Clearances. Some members of that diaspora ended up in Atlantic Canada.
On Jan. 25, Celtic Chaos – Irish flautist and penny whistler Gordon Lafleur, poet John Beaton, fiddler and cellist Joyce Beaton, guitar and bassist Joe Spinelli and accordionist Dave Barta – present their new production, For the Highlanders, at Unitarian Hall.
Joyce Beaton said the project was inspired by a recent visit to Cape Breton Island, N.S. where the bandmates were surprised to find so many Gaelic speakers, as well as an instrumental composition by a friend of hers called The Voyage of the Hector, which evokes the journey of the ship that brought a large number of dispossessed highlanders to Pictou, N.S. in 1773.
“I listened to that music and thought, ‘Well, this is kind of cool, but I feel, from a performer’s point of view, we could take it further by adding a narrative, by adding songs and by going beyond just the arriving in Pictou,’” Joyce said.
For the Highlanders therefore features excerpts from The Voyage of the Hector, as well as a selection of Celtic songs that suit the narrative written by John Beaton. While his story is all factually based, he said it’s not a “historical rendering.”
“I’ve seen some treatments of this and I’ve always thought that they get bogged down in too much historical detail and so we wanted to keep it moving…” John said. “So we didn’t put in too much historical detail, just enough to get the main points across. But it’s not a treatise or anything like that.”
John said he has a “deep connection” to the crofters, or tenant farmers, who were affected by the clearances. His father was brought up on a croft and as John grew up he would spend the summers there. The first half of his narrative covers the highlanders’ journey on the Hector and arrival in Canada, while the latter half looks at how the Scottish diaspora spread Celtic culture around the world.
Joyce said the story is “a bit of an emotional roller-coaster,” but both halves of the show end on hopeful notes.
“The first one being the hope when they arrive in the New World and the second one being the hope for mankind as we all move forward and treat each other in a more caring way,” she said.
WHAT’S ON … Celtic Chaos presents For the Highlanders at Unitarian Hall, 595 Townsite Rd., on Saturday, Jan. 25 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $25. Haggis will be available.