Strathglass Farewell on stage at deCoste Sunday

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Singers, dancers, fiddlers and pipers will bring to life a perilous but historic ocean voyage to Pictou when Strathglass Farewell is staged at the deCoste Centre Sunday night.

Ann Holton and John Spyder Macdonald play a Fraser couple, evicted by Clan Chisholm from the land they farmed for generations, in Strathglass Farewell at the deCoste Centre Sunday night. A follow-up to last year's Ships of 1801, the show features singers, dancers, pipers, fiddlers and an orchestra performing original music with a sprinkling of traditional Gaelic tunes. Rosalie MacEachern photo

By Rosalie MacEachern

For The News


On board a ship similar to that featured in last year’s Ships of 1801, are the angry, the grieving and the betrayed as well as a few pragmatists and optimists, ready to shake the Scottish soil from their boots and start anew.  

Producer Duncan MacDonald said the show, with its cast of 21 stage performers, plus orchestra and crew, is all original music seasoned with a few traditional Gaelic pieces. The narrator, played by Terry MacIntyre, takes the part of Donald Gobha Chisholm who committed to poetry some of his own experiences leaving Scotland in the early 1800s and settling in Antigonish County.

“Clan Chisholm cleared its people from the Strathglass region over a 10-year period to make way for more lucrative sheep farming. The show opens as the decision to clear the people is being made. Young Mary Chisholm tries to persuade her uncle, the chief, to relent but in the end she and the tenants must say goodbye,” said MacDonald.

The realization that their lives in Scotland are ending is captured in The Wind Whispered Farewell sung by Lisa Colton and a song from which the show takes its title performed by Katie Jamieson. All the emotions of the highlanders are portrayed in story, song and dance, including a riveting musical duel between piper Frank Beaton and fiddler Brian MacDonald. Anger and betrayal are s given voice in songs such as English Gold and Let Your Sheep Defend Thee sung by John Spyder Macdonald and Peter Rawding while ECMA award winner Kim Wempe’s fury is directed to Elizabeth MacDonnell, the chief’s ambitious wife, in How Does She Sleep. A touch of humour is added when 10-year-old Grayson Hudson mocks the clan chief in Lord of Mutton, a saucy song taught to him by his father, against his mother’s wishes.

Ann Holton, one of several female singers who embody the grief of the leaving, asks the sea wind to touch the people she will never touch again in a song written by her father Bruce Holton and commits to memory the birds, flowers and forests along the banks of the River Doon which she will never see again in a song by the show’s director, Rob Wolf.  

A letter warning the highlanders against coming to the New World surfaces during the voyage and pits a Chisholm against his Fraser neighbour, although their children have been courting.  

“The letter warns that the highlanders will never survive the winters. There is sympathy for each man’s position but a deep division is created and these people cannot afford to be divided. It is the young people who guide them, through their singing, to a sort of resolution.”

Sheumais MacLeod, who has performed at New Glasgow music festival and the deCoste’s Sounds of Summer series, and Alex Benson, also of Antigonish, are the optimistic courting couple.

For all its angst and uncertainty, the show has moments of levity such as when Spyder Macdonald sings a tribute to the intricacies of highland whisky, the men who mastered the art of production and the final product. The song is written by Macdonald’s brother Alastair and acknowledges an old belief that there were more stills in Chisholm country than anywhere else in Scotland.

Strathglass Farewell concludes with two poignant pieces, Highlands Forevermore sung by Peter Rawding and Strong We Stand, performed by many of the cast. These songs revere the past but also muster the passengers’ courage for life in northeastern Nova Scotia.  

MacDonald said the show has already exceeded his own expectations.

“I began with a story I wanted to tell, a story I wanted to preserve, but the talent of the performers has made it much more. I hope people will come for the story but also to experience the incredible talent we have in our communities.” 

Geographic location: Scotland, Antigonish County, River Doon New Glasgow Northeastern Nova Scotia

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