Drive ‘er MacIver!

Congratulations to the Cape Breton Fiddlers’ Association as they celebrate 50 years of great music!

I’m no fiddler, but have been listening to and enjoying the music since I was a child. My grandfather, Michael Campbell, and his better-known brother John Francis (both from Iona, don’t you know) were fiddlers.

Grandpa was reluctant to play, but every once in a while would take the fiddle down from where it hung on the wall in the dining room and play a tune for us. If my late aunt, Anna Mae, were around, she would offer us 10 cents to step dance, something we were always willing to do (anything, well, almost anything for a dime) and away we, my youngest brother, Barry and I, would go! She sat cuddled up on the black couch, a mainstay in many homes in those days, next to the kitchen stove, laughing her head off at our noisy but feeble attempts at step dancing.

We were given our money and a late evening lunch by Grandma, who always asked if we took sugar in our tea, to which we replied with a resounding “Yes,” although our mother never allowed it at home.

Whenever John France, as we called him, arrived from Iona for a visit, he was more than willing to play a tune, often after giving one of the men in the house a haircut, barbering being another of his talents. He had sons who step danced to beat the band and once when one of them—Stanley—visited our house and put on a record of Scottish music, I dared to hit the floor. By then, I had actually mastered a few steps and it seemed to please him no end to see one of his younger cousins “giving it a go,” as they say. I still recall him saying “Mama would be so proud of you.”

That was about it for my step-dancing career, but my love for the music endured. I remember asking my grandfather to teach me to play a tune on the fiddle. He took the fiddle down, passed it to me and told me to go upstairs, hum a tune and try to play it. Thank you Grandpa! (I did take piano for a year at Holy Angels and, I must say, I could play “Chopsticks” and “Heart and Soul” with the best of them.)


We grew up with music and although my father loved piano and played recordings by Fats Waller and Charlie Kunz and other jazz pianists, (my own favorite piano player was Floyd Cramer),we listened to many Cape Breton fiddlers, including Winston “Scotty” Fitzgerald and Bill Lamey, and, of course, Scottish music was a feature on local radio. The first 78 record I bought with my babysitting money was by well-known local fiddler, Joe MacLean.

When I was finally earning money as secretary at Sacred Heart Parish, I became the proud owner of a portable green record player, purchased from George Abbass’ store on Charlotte Street in Sydney, after the late John MacPhee, general manager of the Sydney Credit Union, decided I was good for a $100 loan.

I think the first LP I bought was The Five MacDonalds (fiddlers all) and there came a time when I could hum, “tune” or whistle the entire record thanks, in part, to the fact that my easy-going boss allowed me to play it when things were quiet around the glebe house. (I was in the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre in Judique last summer and they were playing the album which I recognized immediately.) Wilfred Gillis’ Arisaig Airs was another that I played often, and although I was a fan of all types of music— including Billy Vaughn, Herb Alpert, Perry Como, Bing Crosby and who knows how many others—I always had a taste for the traditional.

Cape Breton, of course, has produced more than its fair share of fiddlers over the years, many of whose names I was able to recall with the help of that well-known musician himself, Donnie Campbell (a cousin of my own who inherited the music gene, as did his son, Stephen and daughter, Anne Louise).

In fact, our great grandfather played both the pipes and the fiddle and one great uncle was a master of the pipes. The music gene was evident in my cousin Cecilia Campbell Cooke, an accomplished piper, and I have recently discovered Mitchell Ferguson, grandson of another cousin, who has won piping awards in Halifax and Toronto.

But fiddlers, both those who recorded their music and those who didn’t, were the ones who would have the audience yelling for more when they entertained at concerts or played at dances around the island. “Drive ‘er MacIver” was an oft repeated command from the audience. And while the music gene might not have manifested in all the Campbell descendants, it does account for the love of music so many of us have exhibited over the years. (One, who shall remain nameless, once dared to proclaim, while driving with his father with Scottish music on the radio, “That’s just the same thing over and over,” to which his father, without missing a beat, responded “Born in the USA/I was born in the USA.”)

End of conversation!


I hope the following names bring back memories for you as they most definitely did for me: Angus Chisholm, Mickey Gillis, Dan Joe MacInnis, Dan R. MacDonald, John Willie Campbell, Carl MacKenzie, Winston “Scotty” Fitzgerald, Paddy LeBlanc, John Wilmont, Lee Cremo, Sandy MacInnis and Angus Chisholm. More recently, Ashley MacIsaac and The Barra MacNeils have captured the attention and admiration of a whole new generation of Scottish music lovers.

Nor should we forget the clergy, many of whom played, including Frs. Francis Cameron, Joe Gillis, Colonel MacLeod, Eugene Morris and Sandy MacNeil. And what about the women? What about them indeed? Little Mary MacDonald, Tina Campbell, Winnie Chafe, Brenda Stubbert, Theresa MacLellan and Natalie MacMaster, to name a few.

Where there was a fiddler, there was an accompanist: George MacInnis, son of Dan Joe; Pat Chafe, who accompanied her mother Winnie; Marie MacLellan, who did the same for her sister Theresa; Shauna Doolan, who played for her grandfather Joe MacMullin; as well as Lila Hashem, Loretta Beaudry MacLean, Hilda Chiasson, Beady Wallace, Mary Jessie MacDonald, Mae Belle Chisholm Doyle MacQueen, Susan MacEachern and perhaps in a class of his own, the late Doug MacPhee. I remember hearing “The Angus Jig” and having Dougie play it for me a couple of times. I told him I had always wanted to learn to chord and his response was “All you have to do is come to New Waterford,” which I obviously (and sadly), never did.

There were other accompanists who played the guitar (as I imagine Donnie Campbell himself did), adding their musical talents to the mix, but it seems the piano was the accompaniment of choice for most fiddlers and the pianists I have heard made a tremendous contribution to the music.

All these fiddlers I have mentioned and the many I have surely missed (for which I apologize) have entertained us well these last 50 years (and more), keeping Scottish music alive and kicking in Cape Breton (and beyond).

I will end with a story I remember hearing quite a few years ago, about a local fiddler who drove his car into a brook and, upon getting safely to shore, sat down and wrote “Chevy in the Brook.”

Here’s to our fiddlers, who find inspiration where many might not!



Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.