Bound for Scotland

Newfoundland musicians invited to perform for homecoming year celebrations

Danette Dooley
Published on March 28, 2009
A practice session at the Cormier Household in the Codroy Valley for the Scotland Tour, including (from left) Gordon Cormier, Sears MacArthur, Karen Farrell, Margaret and Leo Cormier and Calvin Cormier. - Submitted photo

Three generations of the MacArthur family from the Codroy Valley have been invited to perform in Scotland as part of the country's 2009 homecoming year celebrations.

The "Homecoming Newfoundlanders' Tour" is the first of its kind, says Loretta (Cormier) Johnson of the musical group, the Cormiers.

Three generations of the MacArthur family from the Codroy Valley have been invited to perform in Scotland as part of the country's 2009 homecoming year celebrations.

The "Homecoming Newfoundlanders' Tour" is the first of its kind, says Loretta (Cormier) Johnson of the musical group, the Cormiers.

"There have been tours of Newfoundland singers and musicians in the past, but this tour is unique in the sense that it is because of our Gaelic background and connection to Scotland, that they are so interested in having us," Johnson says.

The family's Scottish roots come from Johnson's grandfather Allan MacArthur.

A piper, accordion player, Gaelic singer and storyteller, MacArthur lived in the Codroy Valley all his life. He died in 1971 at age 87.

"I remember when I was a little girl, my grandfather would have his kilt on and on Sunday afternoons he'd walk up and down the road playing the pipes. They would resonate throughout the valley," Johnson recalls.

Johnson and her relatives will be performing music, song and dance dating from the 1790s to their present day recordings. Although her grandfather had never been to Scotland, Johnson says, he "lived and died as one of the finest Gaelic tradition-bearers either side of the Atlantic."

"His recordings can still be found in the archives of Memorial University where Dr. (Margaret) Bennett was a student and professor."

Bennett is a folklorist whose research in Newfoundland spans four generations covering the period 1968 to 2007. Her work forms part of the Memorial University archives, as well as the University of Edinburgh's School of Scottish Studies.

In addition to square dancing and stepdancing, the Newfoundlanders will also be playing numerous instruments including fiddle, bagpipes, guitar, mandolin, banjo and button accordion.

One of the highlights of the trip will be a Gaelic milling, Johnson says.

"My sister and cousins have been practising their square dancing for the last three months. And the rest of us are all learning a little bit of Gaelic from the songs my grandfather used to sing," she says.

Johnson describes a milling as a musical tradition where people gather around a table and pass around pieces of wet cloth.

"The idea was to get the cloth shrunk to make clothes. The singing was just to pass the time while you're passing the cloth around the table. The more the cloth was passed around, the more it would shrink," Johnson says.

The Cormiers (Johnson and her brother Gordon Cormier, Johnson's daughter Mallory and Gordon's son Randall) represent the second and third generation of the MacArthur family.

"Our grandfather was a huge influence musically on my brother and I, as is evident by our recordings," Johnson says.

Two-time ECMA nominee Don Brownrigg and recording artist Vanessa MacArthur are also among the family's third generation.

Leonard MacArthur, Helena (MacArthur) O'Quinn, and Calvin Cormier are also among the family's second generation, while 75-year-old Sears MacArthur and 83-year-old Martin MacArthur come from the first generation of MacArthur ancestors - the latter being Allan MacArthur's sons.

An accomplished piper and accordion player, Sears lives in the Codroy Valley.

Martin, who now lives in Alberta, is a stepdancer and Gaelic singer.

During a recent telephone interview, Martin recalled how, as a young man working in the Cape Breton lumber mills in the 1960s he shared his love of music with others.

"We'd drop into a bar and meet up with some Scottish people living in Cape Breton. We'd get a jug of beer for 25 cents. The other fellows would say it's a pitcher. But we'd call it a jug because we were from the rock," Martin says.

The invitation to participate in Scotland's homecoming year came from Bennett and her company Grace Notes Scotland.

Born and raised on Scotland's Isle of Skye, Bennett immigrated to Newfoundland with her family in the 1960s. She spent several summers with Allan and his wife Mary MacArthur in the Codroy Valley during the late 1960s and early 1970s and wrote a book about Allan.

"The Last Stronghold: Scottish Gaelic Traditions of Newfoundland" was published by Breakwater Books.

Because of Bennett's book, Johnson says, her grandfather's name is a household name in Scotland, even though he'd never set foot on Scottish soil.

"Dr. Bennett has been traveling the world since the release of this book in the early 1990s, lecturing on the Scottish Gaels in Newfoundland, specifically my grandfather."

Bennett was successful in seeking funding through the Scottish government to include Allan MacArthur's descendants as part of the homecoming year celebrations.

"Of the 250 submissions to the Scottish Homecoming Committee to be included in the official events, Dr. Bennett's was one of only 20 accepted," Johnson says.

As part of the celebrations, Bennett will produce a compilation CD that will include cuts from several Newfoundland CDs as well as some of Allan MacArthur's original recorded music.

"The homecoming committee is also including the tour in its events program which will also be found on the internet," Johnson says, noting such marketing will give the Newfoundlanders worldwide coverage.

In addition to the MacArthur descendants who will perform in Scotland from April 27 to May 6, there are also several extended family members travelling on their own expense for what, Johnson says, will be "a cultural experience of a lifetime."

Concerts will take place in the highlands of Scotland including Isle of Skye, Isle of Mull, Moidart, and Canna (where the MacArthurs last lived).

Performances have also been planned for Perthshire and Edinburgh with the country's minister of culture in attendance.

The Newfoundland tour has already caught the attention of BBC television. "They're going to travel to Newfoundland, film us as we leave, our arrival in Scotland and then follow our tour from beginning to end," Cormier says.

BBC will use its footage to produce a one-hour documentary on the Newfoundlanders, Johnson says.

"Our grandfather would be so proud today. We're showing the people in Scotland our history, our culture and that there are still some Scottish/Gaelic traditions left in Newfoundland. And what a chance to promote our beautiful province."

In support of this tour, the Homecoming Scottish Newfoundlanders will perform at Hotel Port-Aux-Basques tonight, St. Kevin's Centre, Codroy Valley Sunday, Corner Brook Arts and Culture Centre Monday and at the Stephenville Arts and Culture Centre Tuesday.