A Land as Green as the Sea is an adaptation of an old Scottish emigrant's song, with its dream of a new world. It aptly describes the rolling parkland and prairie that Tom Radford's grandmother, Gertrude Hogg, must have seen from the train window when she came West in 1905, the same year Alberta became a province. When Gertrude arrived in Edmonton, she brought along one prized possession: her piano. Through thick and thin, music had traveled with the family over its century-long migration from Scotland.
In A Land As Green As The Sea, Tom Radford followed that music back to Scotland. He wanted to find out why it meant so much. He discovered that the Scots had been renowned fighting men: the Black Watch and the Scottish Greys had their pipers lead them into battle. Music also lead the Scots into exile - as the emigrants boarded ships they cried and sang, bidding farewell to a homeland that they knew they would never see again.
Celtic music crops up in ancient sagas, medieval texts and even in the works of Dante and Shakespeare - all attesting to the importance of music, both vocal and instrumental, in Celtic culture and folklore(1).
The principal instruments identified with Celtic music are the harp, the bagpipe and the fiddle. The harp is common to all Celtic areas. Harpers, many of them blind, flourished in Ireland, Wales and Scotland until the 18th century, when political, religious and social changes threatened the extinction of the Celtic language and culture. The harp was used both for accompaniment and as a solo instrument. It was the original instrument that led Highlanders to battle until it ceded that role to the bagpipe after the Battle of Harlaw in 1411. Harpers disdained the adaptations of their music to the pipes at that time, and later to the fiddle, which they regarded as an inferior instrument(2).
The bagpipe has a long history in Celtic society. The war-pipes and small pipes of Scotland, the Uilleanann pipes of Ireland, all had their own music and all are still very much part of the culture in their respective areas. The fiddle tradition is a more recent development. Although well known in Scotland prior to 1680, it was enhanced and enriched by the great upsurge of dancing in the 19th century. Scores of folk tunes were adapted as dance music and were transcribed into writing, not orally as with other forms of folk culture. Ireland, too, has a strong fiddle tradition. In both countries, as in Canada, the fiddle has experienced phenomenal popularity during the past two decades(3).
In Canada, the preservation and development of authentic Celtic music has occurred wherever Celtic languages have been retained. Highland Scots, in particular, for generations continued to sing the songs of their forebears, to which they added their own compositions reflecting their fortunes in the New World(4).
That would have been the kind of Celtic music Tom Radford's grandparents taught him as a boy - songs passed down from generation to generation, and changed to fit life's experiences and stories along the way. To this day, Radford keeps running into versions of Celtic music in the strangest places. In the ranching community of southern Alberta, for example, Radford was introduced to the Celtic roots of cowboy music. Several years ago, a friend of his gave him a copy o f a song called "Farewell to Coigach," which is believed to be the only surviving cowboy song written in North America in Gaelic.
Scottish immigration continued from the early eighteenth century well into the twentieth century. These later immigrants, like Radford's grandmother - the drovers from the old country - brought their Gaelic music with them to the frontier. Times were tough and they decided to head West to be cowboys. They just hitchhiked or walked into town, got on the train to Glasgow and then took the ship. They ended up in the American West in places like Billings, Montana.
These transplanted Highlanders would sing their Celtic music at night to keep the cattle calm, or to quell their own homesickness. Once a month or so they'd come into town to play a ceilidh. They were tough, tough people and determined. They had a goal. They came to a new land to set up a new way of life and their music carried them along like a float.
Music, as Radford realized, was really the heart of all things Scottish. Even though the Scottish language and Scottish traditions didn't always endure in North America, Celtic music - with its bagpipes and Highland dancing - has been the select symbol of the culture that has been preserved. By the time Radford's mother was born in 1908 the family considered itself simply Canadian, no longer a "Scottish-Canadian" family. But still, there was the music. Gertrude Hogg was a magnificent pianist and had played with the Toronto Symphony. Arriving in the West with her instrument in tow, there was never, from then on, a party of any kind that didn't end up around the piano.
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