Video Clips


Solo harp and voice performances from Alys Howe



Alys Howe’s Celtic band, Leum!




Cover-band Ginger and Pimms, at Cafe Barcelona





“Tribute to Cape Breton” concert for

The World Harp Congress 2011

Alys Howe and Seumas Gagne, Celtic harp and Gaelic song


Calliope House / Jenny Dang the Weaver / The Ale is Dear:

The first tune is a jig (6/8 time). It is a contemporary tune, written by Dave Richardson of “The Boys of the Lough”, for his friend George Balderose, a master bagpiper and folk musician who owns a Victorian mansion in Pittsburgh. The house was dubbed ‘Calliope House’ when it became the home of a non-profit folk arts organization using the same name.

The reel (4/4 time) “Jenny Dang the Weaver” is credited to Rev. Alexander Garden (1688-1778) of Aberdeenshire in Scotland. The earliest printed source is reported to be in Rutherford’s 200 Country Dances c. 1756.  The title of the song has been translated variously to mean “Jenny gave the weaver a beating” (physically), and also that “Jenny refused advances made by the weaver” (giving him an emotional beating)!

“The Ale is Dear” is a traditional Scottish bagpipe reel, which appears to have first been published as a pipe tune in Gunn’s collection of 1848.  However, there seems to be an earlier incarnation of it as a fiddle tune, which is called “Lady Margaret Stewart”, and was published in Gow’s second collection of 1788.


Gur Tu Mo Chruinneag Bhoidheach / Captain Campbell’s: (this clip is not available)

“Gur tu” is a well-known “waulking song” in Scotland and Cape Breton, and relates the many things a lover has done to keep his lovely wee lass happy; unfortunately during the song the narrator discovers the lass has agreed to marry someone else!

The practice of “waulking” involves a group of people “fulling” “milling”, or “shrinking” tweed – rhythmically beating soaking wet, newly woven cloth against a table or similar surface, in order to shape it. Waulking songs (“Òrain Luaidh” in Scottish Gaelic) were traditionally created and sung in Scotland by women, to accompany and keep time to pounding the wet cloth downwards, then rhythmically passing it to their neighbour on the left. A waulking lasts for many hours, and literally hundreds of work songs from this repertoire have survived.  The event often began with slower-paced songs, with the tempos increasing as the cloth became softer, and ending with very rapid “clapping songs”. Typically one person would extemporise the verses, and everyone would join in the chorus.  The subject matter of waulking song verses is often gossip about neighbours, boyfriends, or current events; but the songs also provide fascinating insight into the daily lives of the women who wrote them. The choruses to many waulking songs consist of vocables (nonsense words), which were chosen mainly for their rhythmic and alliterative qualities.

In Nova Scotia, and in particular on Cape Breton Island, waulking is known as milling. Although in Scotland only women waulked cloth, in Nova Scotia both men and women took part in milling frolics. (The practice continues there today as a cultural celebration).   Generally waulking songs are from a female perspective, since they were mostly written by women for women’s work.  This song is one of the exceptions, possibly indicating that it was composed (or partly so) in Cape Breton.

“Captain Campbell’s strathspey” has been published in “The Athole Collection” (James Stewart-Robertson, 1884).  In Donegal Ireland, where there is traditionally more cross-over between Irish and Scottish music, there is a very similar and well-known “highland” (the Irish version of the “strathspey” rhythm).

The strathspey rhythm is unique to Scotland and Cape Breton, and is recognizable by the “snaps” of dotted eighth followed by sixteenth (or the reverse, sixteenth note followed by dotted eighth). Like jazz and blues, printed sources don’t necessarily convey that these rhythms are supposed to have a “swung” feel, but experienced performers know they are meant to interpret it that way.  Experts say that in Scotland, typically the snap is more pronounced, while in Cape Breton there is a constant, more even “drive” given to the strathspey.


Clumsy Lover / Kelso Briggs / The Briggs of Perth:

Clumsy Lover is a bagpipe tune, written in 4/4 but with the dotted swing of the hornpipe (a little smoother than the swing of the strathspey).  Scottish composer Neil Dickie (later a resident of Alberta, Canada) published it as a six-part theme and variations.

It is difficult to find information about the two following reels, which are also both pipe tunes: Kelso Briggs, which Alys learned in Cape Breton, and The Briggs of Perth which Alys learned from the playing of Scottish harpists Sileas and Corrina Hewat.

The great highland bagpipe has only nine notes – which is amazing considering the incredible amount of varied, difficult, and extremely complicated repertoire that has been created for this challenging instrument (even more difficult to master than the harp!) The modern great highland bagpipe has a bag, a chanter, a blowpipe, two tenor drones, and one bass drone. The scale on the chanter is Mixolydian mode (with a flattened 7th or leading tone), and a range of 9 notes, Low G, Low A, B, C♯, D, E, F♯, High G, and High A – though historically the notes would actually “sound” in the key of B♭. The two tenor drones are an octave below the keynote (Low A) of the chanter, and the bass drone is two octaves below.  One of the most fascinating things about the great highland bagpipe tradition is “canntaireachd”.  Believed to predate the 1500s, Canntaireachd is a musical language of sung syllables, by which tunes were transmitted from one piper to another in the oral tradition.  Some experts say that vowels were used to represent notes, and consonants for embellishments, and by this means, very complicated and explicit information could be included in the sharing of music.


Maighdeanan na h-Airidh:

Alys learned this song from Kenna Campbell, while studying in Scotland.  The title translates as “The Maidens of the Sheilings”, and describes the girls who went away from their homes to look after the grazing cattle.  As such it is a song of “cianalas” or homesickness, and metaphorically represents the plight of all ex-patriats who left Scotland.

It was collected from the Isle of Barra by Marjory Kennedy-Fraser, who published it in her collection “Songs of the Hebrides” (1909).  Kennedy-Fraser believed that many Gaelic songs were in danger of extinction, and sought to preserve them by publishing them as arrangements for soprano, with piano or harp accompaniment.  Her arrangements have attracted criticism from Gaelic-speaking communities and ethnomusicologists, for significantly altering the source material she supposedly sought to preserve.  Alys believes that the Kennedy-Fraser arrangements (like many collections made in both Ireland and Scotland of the 18th and 19th centuries), must be understood and enjoyed within their own context – as “cover versions” from a certain time period.  As such, her treatment of the repertoire has an historical interest and value in itself, though not perhaps as “source material”. The arrangement performed today is Alys’s own “cover version” – another loving tribute to the original.


Fraser’s / Steevo’s / Cha dean mi’n obair:

The first of these three jigs, “Fraser’s”, was written by Cape Breton fiddler Dan Hughie MacEachern (1913-1996).  It is a special favourite of Alys – who loves those minor tunes!  Interestingly, this tune can also be played in Dorian mode (a scale similar to the natural minor scale, but with a raised 6th).  Dan Hughie apparently played it both ways, and sometimes moved back and forth between the two during a single performance.

The second tune is a contemporary jig, composed in Cape Breton by talented fiddler Wendy MacIsaac of the band “Beolach”.  Written about her husband Steve, it is a special favourite of Seumas’.

The last of these three tunes is known by many different names in Cape Breton, Scotland, and Ireland.  The Gaelic translation of the title shown here means “I won’t do the work”.  Another very well-known name for this melody is “Wha’ll be King but Charlie?”, which references “Bonny Prince Charlie” Stuart and the 1745 Jacobite uprising in Scotland.


Milking Song / Puirt-a-Beul (and fiddle tunes):

Scottish (and Cape Breton) Gaelic culture was highly musical, with songs created to accompany every form of work – such as rowing, reaping, spinning, churning, and milking.  Each of these genres has its own typical rhythm and tempo, suitable for the task at hand (rowing songs, for example, have a slow, deliberate beat suitable for pulling heavy oars; clapping songs were sung with a very quick beat, at the end of a waulking / milling frolic). The first song in this set, “Gaol a Chridhe” is a milking song, and would have been sung to soothe the cow and encourage her to give milk.  The lyrics are endearments and praise of this particular “love of all cattle, darling of all cattle” who has been kept inside from the cold storm.

The song and poetry of the Gaels was extremely sophisticated and intricate.  In “orain mhor” (literally “big songs”, or “great songs”), the music gives the pitches, but experienced Gaelic singers know that the language must give you the rhythm (ie the rhythm must change from verse to verse, in order to reflect the natural linguistic stresses).  Puirt-a-beul (literally “mouth tunes” or “mouth music”), on the other hand, is just the opposite.  Rhythm is paramount in puirt-a-beul, as it is basically sung dance music.  It is therefore common for singers to gasp for breath at the end (or in the middle!) of phrases – and sometimes, you just have to spray it! Often the lyrics in puirt-a-beul are playfully nonsensical, but they are usually skillfully chosen for their alliterative and rhythmic qualities. Rumour has it that puirt-a-beul originated when the English were attempting to subjugate Scotland, and passed laws to ban all musical instruments, in an effort suppress aspects of the culture which would encourage defiance.  Supposedly, the Gaels then resorted to singing their dance tunes, in order to preserve them and keep their culture alive. This would explain why so many fiddle tunes can be paired with Gaelic songs that are nearly identical – such as the two we will perform today.

The port-a-beul (port is the singular of puirt) “Calum Crubach” is about “Lame Malcolm of the glen” and insists that he keep the sheep “over there”.  It doesn’t say a whole lot more than that!  This song is also known as an instrumental strathspey, “Miss Drummond of Perth”.

The port-a-beul “Cuir sa Chiste mhor mi” translates to “Put me in the Big Chest”, and has a double life as one of the first tunes taught to many beginner fiddlers in Cape Breton!


The Castle Bay Scrap / Stuart’s Rant:

The first of these tunes, the “The Castle Bay Scrap” reel, was composed by Cape Breton piano player extraordinaire, Tracey Dares – after a somewhat explosive house party in the early ‘90s.  “Stuart’s Rant” can be traced back to 1757, where it appeared in “A Collection of Scots Reels and Country Dances” by Robert Bremner of Edinburgh.  Rants are also in 4/4 time and sound very similar to reels; some say rants are the Scottish equivalent to Irish polkas – but a rant is danced differently from either of these tune genres.  Alys learned this tune set from the incomparable Scottish harp duo, “Sileas” (Patsy Seddon and Mary Macmaster).


Tha mo Bheannachd aig na Gillean:

This is a beautiful waulking song, that Alys learned in Cape Breton from noted singer and native Gaelic speaker, Catriona Parsons.  Born in Lewis (Scotland), Catriona has been living and teaching Gaelic in Nova Scotia for many years.

From a woman’s perspective (as is usual), this waulking song describes her annoyance that all the boys have gone off in their boats, leaving her stuck at the bothy watching cows, with only other women for company.


Hector MacDonald / Gruagach Og an Fhuilt Bhàin:

“Hector MacDonald” (often called “Hector the Hero”) is a very well-known lament, composed in 1903 by Scottish composer and fiddler, James Scott Skinner – “the strathspey king”. It was written as a tribute to Major-General Hector MacDonald, a friend of Skinner’s and a distinguished Scottish general, who committed suicide after his military career was compromised among rumours about his sexual orientation.  Originally written with two sharps, but clearly centered around an A major tonality, the composer’s manuscript indicates that fiddlers and pipers should play each G “as near to a G# as possible”.  Perhaps this explains why the tune is so often performed in either D or G, as well as in A major (as seems to have been intended by the composer).  This beautiful air is currently as popular in Cape Breton as it is everywhere else; Alys learned it from cellist Christine Hanson.

The Gaelic song “Gruagach Og an Fhuilt Bhàin”, commonly known in English as “The Fair Maid of Barra” was composed for Morag MacAulay (Mór Bhàn Nic Amhlaigh) of Castlebay, Barra.  It was written by Donald Allan MacDonald (Dòmhnall Ailean Dhòmhnaill na Banfhighich) of South Uist, after both attended a dance in Lochboisdale.  Mòrag never married, and swore until her dying day in 1998 that she did not recall meeting Donald that night.


Lime Hill / Jack Daniel’s / Angus Campbell:

The first of these tunes, a strathspey, was composed in 1968 by Dan R. MacDonald.  It was composed in memory of a day hauling lumber with his friend and neighbour Buddy Rankin, and has been recorded by The Cape Breton Fiddle Orchestra and later by Buddy’s descendants, the Rankin Family.

The following tunes are both reels.  “Jack Daniel’s” was composed by John Morris Rankin, who died tragically in a car crash in 2000 and of whom Prime Minister Chretien said, “Cape Breton has lost one of her finest sons, and Canada has lost one of her finest musicians”.  Alys learned this tune from Carol Ann MacDougall in Cape Breton.

“Angus Campbell” is another tune composed by James Scott Skinner.  Skinner often wrote tunes having both a strathspey and a reel variant (in this case, “Laird of Drumblair” would be the matching strathspey).  Alys learned this tune from fiddler Anne Lederman.


Òran Do Cheap Breatainn:

Written by Dan Alex MacDonald, this is a love-song to Cape Breton. It is so commonly sung at the close of any ceilidh or gathering there, that it has become the unofficial anthem of Cape Breton. A longer twelve-verse version of the song is published in Gaelic Songs of Nova Scotia, by Helen Creighton and Calum MacLeod (1964).  Some of the lyrics say that “Cape Breton is the land of my love…The most beautiful place under the sun…I cannot describe to you, half of the land’s beauty…Blessings be with you, and good night”.


Cape Breton is an island located off the East Coast of Canada, in the province of Nova Scotia.  This area of Canada received a particularly strong cultural contribution from Scotland, because of the many Highlanders who immigrated there after the Clearances in the 1800s.  Today, Cape Breton is internationally renowned for the tremendous energy and sheer joy communicated in the performances of its outstanding fiddlers, piano players, and step-dancers.  Any “snapshot” of Canada’s rich cultural diversity would be incomplete without a nod to Eastern Canadian music.  Accordingly this concert, presented for WHC Vancouver 2011, will have a special focus on the Scottish musical heritage of Cape Breton.

Intent of The “Cape Breton” Harp Concert: In this concert, we will be performing some tunes and songs that were composed in Cape Breton, and some that were written in Scotland but that are commonly heard in Cape Breton too.  Since historically the harp has not played a prominent role in Cape Breton musical culture (not yet anyway!), this is a “tribute concert” rather than a literal example of what Cape Breton music sounds like.  I like to think of this as a “what if” concert!  What if a regional style of harp playing had developed in Cape Breton, as happened with the fiddle, the piano, and step dancing?  What might “Cape Breton-style harp” sound like today?  With that in mind, in this concert we are attempting “a harp imitation of Cape Breton style”.  If we found differences between the Scottish version of a tune verses the way the tune is usually played in Cape Breton, we have attempted to follow the Cape Breton approach, to the best of our current understanding and ability.  Any errors in “tradition bearing” are our own, and are unintentional – we admire and respect this culture tremendously.  I am very excited to witness the many exciting ways that the harp is developing in Nova Scotia, as it is all over the world!  Ultimately, this concert has been a labour of love for me – an opportunity to share the research and learning that I’ve been doing, with other harpists who may not have received any exposure to Cape Breton music before.  Now that you know how fabulous it is, you can begin your own creative explorations!

What is the Cape Breton musical aesthetic? Some people believe that if you want to hear what Scottish fiddle music sounded like prior to the 18th and 19th centuries, you should go to Cape Breton – where it remained isolated from classical influences and other developments that became prevalent in Scottish music. Others note that the style of piano accompaniment heard in Cape Breton is influenced by jazz, boogie-woogie, and ragtime: rollicking, syncopated chords, over a busy, chromatic walking bass-line.  The step dancing is just as energetic as the fiddle tunes and the piano playing – this is definitely a social music, intended for dancing.  Down-to-earth people, attitudes, locations, and outfits are the order of the day; the context is often “kitchen ceilidhs” or bars; baseball caps and flip-flops are standard attire for performers.  “Moonshine” has been known to be involved.  So sit back, get comfortable, imagine you’ve just had lobster supper – and if you particularly enjoy something you hear, don’t hold back – let out a loud “sssssss!” of Cape Breton appreciation!

Cape Breton music resources: If going to Cape Breton to learn first-hand isn’t possible, there are now many online resources available and collections published. Recently, “A Cape Breton Bouquet: melodies from Cape Breton arranged for the Lever Harp” has been published specifically for harp by Brenda Bowen Cox.

Alys would like to thank: Jenny Tingley, Carol Ann MacDougall, Susan McLean, Andrea Beaton, Mairi Rankin, Kimberley Fraser, and everyone at The Gaelic College.




Selections from Recital Concert

Performing Arts Centre at University of Limerick

Wednesday December 3, 2003

Harp: Alys Howe Fiddle: Bridget O’Connell
Cello: Alison O’Connell
Choreography and Dance: Nicholas Yenson


Liz Carroll’s/The Flying Wheelchair

The first jig, composed by American fiddle-player Liz Carroll, is untitled. The Flying Wheelchair by Charlie Lennon is one of my favourite tunes right now. I love how it captures the contrast between the words “wheelchair”, with its connotations of confinement, and “flying” with all the freedom that implies. I learned these tunes from Fionnuala Rooney, who has been working with me on my use of ornamentation, variation, inversions of the bassline progression, and the Irish style of left hand damping, which is quite different from anything I have done before. Fionnuala believes, as I do, that dance music on solo harp is more effective taken at “laid-back” tempos. The harp can be surprisingly well-suited to bringing out the groove of a tune, through syncopated left-hand rhythms and phrasing or dynamic emphasis in the right hand.


The Maghera Mountains

This tune, by Martin Hayes, travelled to me via Laoise Kelly who had it from Steve Cooney. Although I play this reel at a slower tempo, I loved the idea of incoporating Nick’s dancing into the piece as a rhythmic element. Laoise Kelly encouraged me to work on my harmonics for this tune, as they create a very strong sense of atmosphere on the harp, which is suitably evocative of “a misty mountain peak” in her words.


Mick O’Connor’s Slow Reel
Niel Gow’s Lament for the Death of His Second Wife / The Lambs on the Green Hills

Mick O’Connor’s Slow Reel was recorded by Lunasa on their album “Redwood”. I learned it from Fionnuala Rooney. This tune sounds wonderful in low registers and I felt that a deep legato from stringed instruments would also compliment the piece.

Niel Gow (1727 – 1807) was a popular Scottish fiddler and composer who is widely regarded as “the father of the strathspey”. His sons compiled and completed the manuscript now called the Gow Collection, in 1824. Niel Gow’s Lament for the Death of His Second Wife has been recorded by many different people, from Alasdair Fraser to Phamie Gow to The Barra MacNeills in Cape Breton. I learned it from Cape Breton fiddler and pianist Kimberley Fraser, and my bassline reflects the “activity” of Cape Breton accompaniment style. It is an extremely popular melody with many variants, the most notable being the ballad sung in Ireland, The Lambs on the Green Hills which has been recorded by Nan Tom Teaimin and Aine Meenaghan. The same ballad has been recorded by Catherine Ann MacPhee in Scottish Gaelic as Tha na h-Uain air na Tulaich (Lambs on the Hills). Rather than singing the ballad and accompanying it on the harp, in this arrangement I wanted to play the Gow air instrumentally and compliment it with two verses selected from the Irish song. I chose the first and last verses of The Lambs on the Green Hills only, as these are most consistant with what Niel Gow might have said, had his tune had words. (The verses in the middle of the Irish ballad tell a sequential story and I did not feel it would be appropriate to interrupt the flow of these). The lyrics used are from Folksongs and Ballads Popular in Ireland Vol. I , collected, arranged and edited by John Loesberg for Ossian Publications. They are quite consistant with Nan Tom Teamin’s, who learned the song in Connemara. The Scots song I Once Loved a Lass has very similar words, as published in Padraic Colum’s Broadsheet Ballads.

(this track is not available)


Jimmy’s / Brendan Ring’s / Paddy’s Leather Breeches / Jimmy’s Return

For this set I was interested in creating a very contemporary sound, and chose to focus on variations in the accompaniment rather than in the melody. Laoise Kelly recorded this “slap-melody” version of the reel Jimmy’s Return on the self-titled “The Bumblebees” album. Brendan Ring’s Jig was recorded on her solo album “Just Harp”, at a more usual jig tempo. The tempo and “swing” feel has been modified in my arrangement to create a more laid-back transition from the first tune, and the Irish style of damping is liberally employed! The jig Paddy’s Leather Breeches has been recorded by the Scottish harp and vocal duo Sileas, which is where I learned it, although most of my left hand ideas for this tune were developed with Sharlene Wallace. In this arrangement my left hand plays a pattern borrowed from an African kora player, and even takes over the melody for one of the B sections, freeing up the right hand to play a tremolo above. Finally, in order to “return” to the first reel, I switch from 6/8 into 4/4 in the middle of Paddy’s Leather Breeches , syncopating the tune and using an Alberti Bass pattern and later a Paraguayan-harp-style left hand. The set closes with Jimmy’s Return , played quite straight but with a variation on the left hand slap-bass technique often used by jazz or Latin-American harpists.


Alys Howe gratefully acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for the Arts