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ARTIST - The Castalia 

ISLA RATCLIFF - The Castalia 
Private Label ISLAR01CD  

A young Edinburgh fiddler makes her way to Cape Breton to study firsthand the exciting branch of Scottish music that has developed there and to meet up with the branch of her family that emigrated to New Brunswick, around 250 miles away, in the 1870s. The photos in the booklet show very happy occasions and the CD is full of really lovely music.

Isla has already established a high reputation for herself with her appearance at prestigious events and now there is this collection of tunes, learned in or inspired by her four months there. The result is this album; quite the best debut album that has come this way in a long time.

The ambiance of her playing shows that she has mastered a range of approaches to the music. In his book, Ken Perlman bemoans the absorption of Cape Breton fiddling into a “Pan-Maritime Provinces” style, but Isla’s playing here echoes much of past masters like Jerry Holland and Buddy MacMaster. It is the slower pieces that linger in the ear after repeated playing, particularly a stately and measured Strathspey, Killiecrankie, but there is much to admire in every track and her own compositions sit well with the older tunes.

Her choice of cellist, Ellen Gira, a fellow graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, as her main accompanist was inspired, and the sensitive arrangements show a great empathy between the pair. We even get some transatlantic step dancing with the percussive feet of Annabelle Bugay recorded in Maryland as a backing to the fiddle and cello recorded in Pencaitland.

Vic Smith


This review appeared in Issue 143 of The Living Tradition magazine