it was a
pleasure to come back from such a week to find more than 100 e-mails
from a lively Sinclair group...
As some of you
in the past have expressed an interest in Celtic music, and fiddling, I
feel compelled to tell you the story of John Morris Rankin, who was
taken by the sea early last Sunday morning when he swerved his 4X4 to
avoid a dolmen of salt on a snow-covered, twisting highway...he, and
three young passengers who survived, plunged off one of the more
beautiful 90-foot cliffs and into Whale Cove...along the windswept
northwestern coast of Cape Breton Isle...
John Morris was
native of Mabou Cape Breton...he was well-known throughout his 40 years
as a master fiddler and one of the more beautiful pianists the island
has ever produced...He was a blessed soul - more-than-nice to everyone
he met - and with a sharp Cape Breton sense of humour...in his
community, throughout the region, across this country and over the seas
he is mourned as a key man in the resurgence of Scottish
He was the
musical arranger for The Rankin Family Band...he and four siblings -
Raylene, Heather, Cookie, and Jimmy took centuries of Scottish Music
that had been preserved intact in the communities of an isolated
island...they mastered the language, they harmonized with the intuition
only life-long family practice can bring, they learned to step dance as
they learned to walk...there are twelve offspring of Buddy and Kathlene
Rankin and they are the essence of all that makes Cape Breton whatever
They have, I
think, Sinclair blood...They are closely related somehow to Jim St.
Clair - one of the wise men of Cape Breton...he runs the Iona Gaelic
Village and writes for the venerated Inverness Oran...I have heard it
said that he is Prince Henry's most direct descendant in the
province...we talk about it and he officially and strongly feels that
it's bunk...but then again, he's spent too much time talking with the
department of culture...
When the Rankin
Family decided to give up their day jobs in September of 1989 to try the
band thing for two years there was no organized music industry on the
east coast of Canada...lots of musicians - but they were all
playing Top 40 covers on perpetual tiny-tavern-tours of the
individuals they were Cape Breton legends already, The Rankins had to
make a record on their own resources...this first record contains some
of the enduring classics of celtic music...they started to book shows on
their own and they, their Mom, and their enfianced, drove casettes
around the province bullying them into stores...
momentum on grassroots word of mouth...they became a foundation stone in
the building of the east coast music industry, hooking up with the East
Coast Music Awards and becoming the standard bearer...They recorded Fare
thee Well, Love which went on to sell 500,000 copies and released it
independantly...they did their first organized tours of Nova Scotia,
Newfoundland and Manitoba...the records sold like
at first...it was from the east so who cares? And worse - it's fiddle
music they openly said...So the band looked to Scotland...John Smith, a
producer at BBC Scotland's Gaelic television called... He flew them over
for ten days and hooked them up with Phil Cunningham to produce some
radio and tv shows...I set up a showcase at The Glasgow University
Debating Hall...we hung out with Capercaillie, who would drive up after
their concerts with Runrig to hang out in the Studio with the
Rankins...We hung out with Scottish nationists and musicians in the pubs
long past the point where we could stand erect...I drove through Glencoe
while Heather sang a sad tale of that place for me...
The day after
the showcase the quote-of-the-day on the front page of the Glasgow
Herald came from the review of the show:
"Sadly, they don't make families like this in Scotland
Others had come before, and many would follow but that
trip triggered a flood (that began the next month with a BBC Hogemany
Live headline performance for 4 million viewers) and has not
subsided...Ashley MacIsaac, The Barra MacNeils, Slainte Mhath, Rawlins
Cross, Natalie MacMaster, Buddy MacMaster, Jerry Holland, Mary
Jane Lamond, dancers, storytellers, milners, linguists, archivists, and
writers all regularly make the trek...Sydney, Cape Breton resident Bruce
Guthro is now the lead singer for Runrig...
I personally find it interesting that
Scotland's outlawed culture was preserved and returned intact at just
the right time...At the recent Stone of Scone ceremony one wag was heard
to say that this wasn't the real stone...Cape Breton Stepdancer Willie
Fraser is the real stone...this for his role in returning step dancing
For the first time in too long Scotland has
her own Parliament...and a legal culture...
For the Rankin Family it was the music that
drove it all...all of the majesty of the mountains of Cape Breton,
the mists, the winds and the cry of the oceans...Raylene has ruined me
for other female vocalists - she has the richest, most pure voice I have
ever heard...Heather gets the best songs and Cookie sings the
singles...Jimmy writes and sings with the grit of the mines and the roll
of the seas in his songs...the voices are individually and collectively
stunning...and the community has more than it's share of outstanding
voices in the Parrish choir...
The music was underscored by centuries of
Scottish Culture and John Morris Rankin...he was the musical arranger
and band leader...also the arbitrator in sometimes difficult situations
between siblings...he is most responsible for the end sound and it's
creation, not just on record - but night after night from the days they
played the cow palaces and were the best band anyone had ever heard -
night after night after night...
regions of Canada began their own navel gazing in the early parts of the
past decade as a result of Quebec's identity crisis, it was the east
coast who next discovered that we also were distinct culturally... the
Rankin Family were the soundtrack of that
They sold more than 2 million records in 10
years before letting it all go last autumn...John Morris still lived in
Judique, just down the coast from Mabou...he had left the stadiums and
concert halls behind to play the dance halls once again...and to spend
time with his beautiful wife and soul-mate Sally, and their two children
- Michael and Molly...He was driving Micheal to a hockey game in
Cheticamp that morning...Michael and his teammates were able to escape
relatively physically unscathed...
After years of gloating about the weather in
Nova Scotia it has been snowing for a week...Mabou, a town of around 100
at the end of Mabou Harbour, is one of the most beautiful places in a
beautiful province...huddled in a narrow valley between the mountains
which line the coast, the area endured a week of almost non-stop snow
with high winds making movement almost impossible...an eclipse is little
solace...dark omens abound...
The Catholic Parrish of St Mary's has a long
musical history...one of the more interesting anecdotes concerns a
certain Father Kenneth MacDonald who, in the mid-19th century ordered
all of the fiddles of the parrish burned as "the instrument of the
devil"...(working with Ashley MacIsaac has given me some insight
into the well-intentioned father's motives)...but it is more than
evident that, with a good measure of thanks to John Morris Rankin,
MacDonald failed utterly...
He had been cited as early as 1973 in a television
documentary program - The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler, as a leader of
the new generation of fiddlers who were struggling to keep the dying
Gaelic culture alive...that program acted as a clarion call that led to
not only the preservation of Scottish Culture but to it's
flourishing...and as for Mabou's fiddlers - the current member of the
Nova Scotia Legislature for Mabou is a local 27-ish fiddler - Rodney
The funeral was attended by more than 1000
souls; and more than 75 Cape Breton fiddlers, including many of the best
fiddlers in the world, answered the call to play...Howie MacDonald,
Buddy MacMaster, Sheumas MacNeil, Ashley and fiddlers from 8 to 88
brought the only smiles to any faces on a dark dark day...John Morris
touched so many people in so many ways...
And so, I call your attention to John Morris
Rankin, and Sinclair, please call the names of Sally and Michael and
Molly wherever you may, I don't think we can begin to understand what he
has done for us all...
nova scotia/cape breton
ps. I forward some photos which
JSQ has stuffed under:
...and with apologies...I always
carry a camera but rarely use it...I'm always too busy...so I have
nothing of Mabou - but that is because I never felt my type of drive-by
photgraphy could do it justice...
The first was taken in Glencoe,
Scotland on the drive abovementioned drive...
The second is of the Glasgow U.
debating hall (on the left) where the Showcase was held
The third is from and of a
friend's place about 8 miles north of Mabou which would be to the right
with the ocean...imagine it this week under three feet of
The fourth is a Glenora Falls
Valley drive-by one winter's day in a forgotten year...
The fifth is of Ashley
MacIsaac and Natalie MacMaster from a ECMA '95 rehearsal...
and the sixth is of John Morris from the cover of their 1997
and for you ravenous Sinclairs who read all the way to the end of
this - there is lastly a picture which I took of Rosslyn Castle 14