Article MT171

Joe Peter MacLean

Back of Boisdale

with Janet Cameron, Paul Wukitsch and Gordon MacLean.  (Rounder record 7060)

Autobiographical statement:

I was born out in the country in a little place called MacAdam’s Lake, way up at the end of a skinny little road that ran between Boisdale and East Bay.  I grew up in the middle of the woods out there and I pretty well just stayed around that area when I was young: didn’t go anywhere, just listening to the local people and doing a little bit of farming and such.  We lived on a tiny farm, tho’ we didn’t really do much, maybe just planted a bit of potatoes or something like that and dug them up in the fall.  My dad didn’t like farming too much and he was mainly a carpenter at that time.  He’d go away for weeks, to Sydney and stay with his brother who was also a carpenter and they’d work on finishing up churches and work like that.  So that just left me and my mother home with my uncle, who had crippled himself in the woods.  And so we kept a few animals, mostly cows, when I was growing up.  They had kept chickens and sheep before that, but they quit raising those when the next door people got some cars.  We started traveling into town to get provisions and so I guess it became unnecessary to keep chickens or sheep anymore.  Pretty soon the cows went too and so we eventually stopped making and cutting hay.

But the people out there kept their language, the Gaelic, anyway.  I always spoke Gaelic with the family when I was growing up, although I also learned English at the same time.  Back in that country some of them still used to tell some of the Sgeulachdan: the stories from Scotland about the fairy-people.  This one guy he used to tell the tales from Scotland and he’d keep going for hours and hours.  They told me that if they were listening to a story and they noticed that it was starting to get daylight outside, they covered over the windows to make sure it stayed dark until the story was finished.  I barely remember a Campbell who was the last guy that ever told one of those Sgeulachdan in our house, but I was too busy, running around I guess, to pay much attention to it.  There’d be history and made up stories all mixed up together in them: it’d have been hard to figure it out which was which.  I remember something about people being taken in by the fairies and kept there for years and then they’d come back or there were other ones where folks disappeared and never did come back.  And there’d be stories about kings and stuff like that and all kinds of different ones about the fairies and their magic.  Some guy would be sent on a journey by a king to get something or conquer this or that: if he’d make it back, he’d get the princess and so on.

And there was this other old guy named who was a piper who had gotten a lot of stories from his father about the piping, anyway, back in Scotland.  This old guy was about eighty years old and I was about eight or nine years old when he used to come visit us, for hours at a time and he’d tell some kind of a story about the MacCrimmons: where they came from and something about how their daughters were better than the boys to play.  But I wasn’t listening to him good enough at that age to remember it very well.  Oh, and he’d also tell stories about pipers that would play certain tunes as a kind of code, to warn off the boats that were coming in.  I kind of thought that he was only fooling, but later I started reading about stuff like that in the books and I realized it was true.  And all those stories made me want to go over there myself.  Everyone said he had been a good piper, but he was pretty old then and so I never heard him.

My people came over from South Uist in a boat in 1821 and landed in the Sydney area and that’s how they came to Cape Breton anyway.  I guess they got grants of land and formed a colony out around MacAdam’s Lake.  My father’s name was Charlie MacLean and my mother was Kathleen - she was originally a Campbell.  My father was born in 1894.  He was fifty-eight or fifty-nine when I was born (June the 4th, 1945).  My mother didn’t play any instruments but she knew lots of Gaelic songs, although she wouldn’t sing them.  And her sister, Jessie, could also sing but she didn’t sing much either.  Come to think of it, it was mainly just my uncle that sang: Danny Peter Campbell.  He was a Gaelic singer who lived about a mile from where we lived - it was called the Campbell’s Lake area.

My father had learned to play the fiddle pretty well on his own.  There was a guy called John MacIntyre that lived next door to us that had played the fiddle and my dad learned some tunes from him.  John MacIntyre used to play together with his brother Dan and I’m told that they were the best around at that time, but Dan MacIntyre had died in the ‘30s or maybe even the ‘20s.  Then there had been another neighbor, Dan MacIsaac, who played the fiddle and another guy down Gillis Lake way named Dougal Campbell was a fiddle player, too.  I guess my father probably learned some tunes off of both those guys, but I never heard them.  But I suppose mostly everybody around there played the fiddle a little bit or knew a few tunes.  My dad had some Gaelic words to some of the tunes, but only just very few: just a few lines or maybe just the name, really.  But it was never more than a couple of lines though, especially in the older ones that he knew.  In some of the newer Gaelic compositions, you’ll get a whole bunch of verses to them, but that’s not the way it was with the older ones that are probably a couple hundred years old: they were always very short.  My dad played a number of tunes I’ve not heard much elsewhere.  He used to refer to them as an old draighneach, meaning something that is always in the way, but too good to throw away.

I started to play the fiddle when I was eighteen.  I had a guitar around that time and I first started banging on it and then I started with the fiddle.  I eventually got a mandolin and a banjo, too.  I was just trying to learn anything I could, just to be able to play with my father a bit.  And I used to play a few country and western songs: Wildwood Flower and stuff like that.  I used to play along with the Carter Family on the radio after we got electricity in 1960.  There was an old guy from Antigonish that used to play some of the Carter Family records them on the station up there.  They were nice: I liked their playing and singing.  And we used to listen to CHER radio that used to have a bunch of Gaelic stuff when they had the Gaelic society place in Sydney there, but that’s all gone now.  My father and I used to listen to the fiddle shows all the time, like the program that was called Scottish Strings out of Antigonish.  I especially liked Winston 'Scotty' Fitzgerald, Joe MacLean, Angus Chisholm, of course, and Donald Angus Beaton.  I knew Joe MacLean and would sometimes see Donald Angus when we’d practice for the Glendale Festival in Sydney in the 1970s.  But I never met any of the others.

Out where I grew up, at MacAdam’s Lake, there was really nobody around playing besides my father and old John McIntyre.  And we’d seldom see him, just once in a while when we’d go to a party or the Curry’s next door would have a wedding.  And those would be quite the weddings for they’d last about six or seven days and they’d get fiddlers and pipers from here and there to play.  For all that week we’d mostly walk back home in the evening and then come back the next day and start all over again.  Some people would just pass out for the rest of the day and start over in the evening again.  There was a well known piper from our area who had lived in Ontario for many years named Alec Curry and, if he was around, he’d be at the weddings.  And they used to get another piper named MacIsaac or something like that from New Waterford.  The pipers would just play tunes to listen to or for the step-dancers, but not for a whole square set: they had the fiddles for that.  So they’d always have old John MacIntyre playing the fiddle there and my father and I’d be playing there with him.  They also had this other guy from down the road that played the Hawaiian guitar with the fiddle tunes: he’d tune it to G and play it on his lap.  But there were no pianos within miles of where I lived: the nearest one was in the church hall, I guess.  So it was mostly just the fiddles and sometimes a guitar; played the guitar across your knees or upright, either way.

There were a few people around that could step her off alright, you know.  One guy, Danny Dougal Campbell, was a real good step dancer and his nieces who lived near us were good, too.  I always remember Danny Dougal Campbell doing some neat steps to the old jigs my dad played.  Back then my father would only play one jig for the complete figure of a set, although nowadays they play lots of different tunes.  This same gentleman always liked to do what he called a “double jig”: I think the composition of the jig particularly appealed to his love of neat stepping. 

There was a guy a bit up farther from us who made moonshine and a bunch of people from North Sydney used to come up to get it from him later on.  When they’d arrive, they’d find out all about who was living around there and who played what and whatever, so they eventually came to our place.  And that’s how I first heard the Irish style music when Joe Confiant and Alex Basker would come up there in this old red pickup from North Sydney.

I moved into Boisdale in 1980, more than twenty years ago, and I began to play at the dances there.  They had a whole band there: we played whatever was on the go then.  And it was all be mixed up: we’d be playing tunes for a square set and then they’d playing rock and roll and then, a minute later, they’d be playing country and western songs.  Now I’d most play the fiddle for the square sets and sometimes a bit on the country western.  But when they went into rock n’ roll, I’d be sitting down a pretty long time.

I had met Janet and Fr Francis Cameron out in French Vale before that, in 1965 or so, because they used to come up to visit my uncle and aunt who lived over at French Vale, Johnny and Jessie Steele.  They had been living way out in the country - it made the place where we lived look highly populated in comparison - but they got kind of old and decided to move into French Vale (actually, they were not really that old: I guess they just got tired of hearing those owls out there all the time).  So we used to go out to their place and have a few parties and that’s where I met the Camerons.  Father Frances used to come and he’d be playing the fiddle, but they didn’t have a piano out there, so Janet couldn’t play, of course.  I particularly remember one Good Friday that was my aunt and uncle’s twenty-fifth anniversary, when they still lived out the back road end.  All the people from Boisdale came there, the Camerons and so forth, along with the people up our way, the MacIntyres and Roddie Nicholson who was a good Gaelic singer.  And there was another guy up the back road, Peter MacNeil, who was a pretty good Gaelic singer as well.  My uncle moved into Boisdale about the time that I did and we had some Gaelic parties then, too.  So there used to be quite a bit of Gaelic singing around here but there’s not much of that now - the last party we had was in 1985 or something like that.  There’s almost nobody around here that sings Gaelic songs anymore: just Jamie MacNeil, who moved home to Boisdale from Ontario himself a few years ago: he’s pretty good at that.  Lots of the kids around MacAdam’s Lake spoke Gaelic when we were growing up but most of them quit speaking it anyway, when they left home to find work (mostly to Ontario - where else?).  But I kind of stayed around there, growing up with my mother and father, and so I remember it better, I guess.  I really like to listen to Gaelic songs, but nowadays I can mostly just hear those old voices on tape, that’s all.

I don’t remember when they started the Gaelic Society in Sydney: it has to have been around a long time.  I think I first went there with my aunt from Boisdale and later my mother and father used to go there every once in a while.  They’d always invite you to play some tunes there and later Janet, Paul and I formed a little group that we called The Boisdale Trio and we played for the dances there for some years.

Now you’ve asked for funny stories that have happened to me while fiddling, but not much along that line has ever happened to me.  I just played the fiddle and it was just boring: I didn’t seem to get into too much trouble or other scrapes.  But I’ve kept it up, because the music’s very interesting and enjoyable and it’s fun to be with other people.

Joe Peter MacLean

About this record:

I first met Joe Peter through Gordon MacLean in the context of recording several selections for the Traditional Fiddle Music of Cape Breton anthologies that Morgan MacQuarrie and I are currently assembling for Rounder (Joe Peter will appear on vol. 3 (7039), in company with Gordon MacLean, Paul Wukitsch and Janet and Fr Francis Cameron).  I was intrigued not only by Joe Peter’s fine traditional performance manner (which differs somewhat from the more frequently recorded Inverness County styles from the other side of the island), but also by the unusual groups of tunes that he learned from his father, Charlie.  These provide an interesting glimpse, I believe, of a traditional fiddler’s repertory before the island-wide readjustments and standardization that occurred in the post-World War II period (for a good account, see John G Gibson, Traditional Gaelic Bagpiping, chapter 17 - it is interesting that several of the traditional pipers that Gibson cites are mentioned by Joe Peter in his reminiscences).

For several of these tunes Joe Peter remembered Gaelic titles which I have listed first with a translation, followed by the book name supplied by Paul Cranford.  For many of the others we could only supply generic identifications (My Father’s March, Dad’s Jig, Dad’s Second Jig, Charlie MacLean’s Strathspey).  According to Janet Cameron’s report, the other tunes heard here that Joe Peter associated with his father are: all of selection 1; most of the jigs in 3; most of 5 (including the title Laughlin’s Trousers); Neil Gow’s in 7; Casan Caola Feadanach in 9 (the title comes from Frances MacEachern); Beul Iosait in 10; Cairistiona Chaimbeul, Gamh Do Chir, A Chaora Dubh and Miss Wedderburn in 11; Mrs Forbes and Traditional Reel in 12; Cead Deireannach Nam Beann in 14; all of 15; The Honeymoon Reel in 17.  As such, some of these melodies are shaped to different melodic contours than one commonly hears in Cape Breton today.  This is especially true of Charlie MacLean’s jigs, which, as Joe Peter comments, were commonly played singly in his dad’s time (the current fashion for two very extended jig groups in a quadrille represents a fairly recent development in Cape Breton, and has evolved as the dancers began to form in large circles rather than organized squares).  As a student of American mountain music, I was also intrigued by Beul Iosait (The Bob of Fettercairn) and Charlie MacLean’s Strathspey, for I have run across considerably altered versions of each in Kentucky (as Humphreys Jig (Rounder CD 0376) and Can You Dance a Tobacco Hill? (Rounder CD 0378)).  Tunes of this type are rarely encountered in Cape Breton nowadays and seem to derive from an older piping tradition (Doug MacPhee has characterized Joe Peter’s older repertory to me as “piper’s tunes”).  It is only through collating little clues such as this that we entertain any hope of reconstructing an accurate picture of what violin music in North America sounded like in the nineteenth century.

To be sure, Joe Peter continues to expand his repertory with newer pieces, such as the fine compositions heard on this CD by Dan R MacDonald, Jerry Holland, Paul Cranford and others.  Joe Peter also observes that his dad would have been unfamiliar with Mrs Crawford, Lady Madelina Sinclair and (most surprisingly) The Gray Old Lady of Raasay, although these are all tunes of considerable vintage.  Janet Cameron is a retired school teacher who taught in a number of locales before she returned to Boisdale.  Janet is a well regarded accompanist on the island (as a young girl Joe MacLean whisked her off to Halifax to help record his hard to find 'white album').  She is also as friendly a person as one could possibly meet and has helped immensely on this record as well as our other projects (the 'Fr Francis Cameron' of the tune is her brother and can be heard accompanied by Janet on the Rounder CD mentioned below).  Paul Wukitsch moved to Cape Breton from Schenectady, New York in the 1970s and now works as a social worker.  He, Joe Peter and Janet commonly play together as The Boisdale Trio.  Gordon MacLean (no known kinship to Joe Peter) lives somewhat farther afield (in Sugar Camp, near Port Hawksbury) but will often play with Joe Peter at the ceilidhs around Iona (Gordon is originally from MacKay’s Point).  When we first met Joe Peter at Gordon’s house, we noticed that the latter still maintains the fine old parlor organ from his family’s lighthouse in his living room and so we assayed a few impromptu selections with a fiddle/organ pairing.  This is not a sound that one hears much any more, but it would have been the norm in little Cape Breton halls and farmhouses before pianos gradually became popular in the 1930s (insofar as fiddles were accompanied by anything other than feet back then).

Fuller biographies of our four artists will be found in Traditional Fiddle Music of Cape Breton, volume three (Rounder CD 7039, forthcoming).  Paul Cranford has performed yeoman’s work in uncovering titles for the selections, most of which Joe Peter (like most Cape Breton fiddlers) did not know or remember.  Paul maintains the best source for Cape Breton music on the internet: visit his shop at

Mark Wilson

Track list:


Introduction Alex Francis MacKay Jerry Holland


Article MT171

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