The original Scottish settlers in Glengarry had long relied on the violin or fiddle to provide their music for ceilidhs, concerts, weddings and any other Celtic events. Many brought their fiddles and music with them, but over time Scottish violin music showed signs of disappearing from Glengarry County.
On November 13, 1977, Allan MacPhail invited some Scottish fiddling enthusiasts to his home to discuss a long time dream of his. They decided to form a group dedicated to reviving and enhancing Celtic violin music in Glengarry. Thus, the Glengarry Strathspey and Reel Society was born. The group discovered that its members had formed the only Strathspey and Reel Society outside of Scotland. The GS&RS quickly gained popularity, and was invited to play on two CHOV television programs in Pembroke in 1978. Many public performances followed: the Glengarry Art Centre shows, Ottawa Cablevision, The Kirkhill Kirking of the Tartan, and the Glengarry Highland Games, to name a few.
The group was an immediate success and played throughout our area, in the states, and in Cape Breton where their Cameron of Erracht tartan jackets are still remembered and the fiddlers’ talents respected. In 1979 the GS&RS was included in a special commemorative recording of Cape Breton fiddling, and in later years, a second recording. High praise indeed!
Over twenty people have been members of the GS&RS. Charter members are: Cliff Britton, Malcolm Dewar, Catherine Olive DeFreitas (piano), Lorne Lawson, Alana MacPhail Morris (piano), Duncan (Farmer) McDonald, Hugh Allan MacMillan, Allan MacPhail, Donald Joseph MacPhee, Lucien Ranger and Rev. Bruce Ross. Other members have included Gary Cooper, Brian MacLean, Finlay McDonell, Bernard McDonell, Duncan (Dougie) MacDonald, Darryl MacLeod, Donaldson MacLeod, Ian MacLeod, David MacPhee, Donald Pettigrew, and Coral Young.
In addition to their playing, member Donald Joseph MacPhee was called on to “fill in for a few weeks” to teach Celtic fiddle at night at Glengarry District High School (G.D.H.S). When the school board ceased sponsoring the fiddle lessons the GS&RS stepped in and they have been providing the instruction ever since. For over 25 years, fiddle lovers gather twice a week at GDHS in Alexandria to learn to play the instrument. While most are seniors, there are some younger ones who also take on the challenge. It is thanks to the GS&RS that this option is available to them.
The group also sponsors a fiddle workshop each year which attracts fiddlers from Ottawa and the States as well as our local fiddlers. Teachers include local fiddlers such as Ian MacLeod as well as musicians from all over. In the past they had Ron Gonella from Scotland, Ed Pearlman from Boston and many from Cape Breton. For the past several years the GS&RS have presented bursaries to graduates at G.D.H.S. who have shown an active interest in playing the fiddle, particularly in the Celtic style. In addition, they have helped out young fiddlers who went down to Cape Breton to study their Celtic style.
Their first record, The Violins of the Glengarry Strathspey & Reel Society sold out quickly as did their second, a cassette tape entitled A Glengarry Gathering. To celebrate their 30th anniversary, they released a CD entitled Tapadh Leat. The intent of the CD was not only the celebration of their anniversary and a thank you to their supporters, but also to celebrate the continuance of fiddle music as played in the traditional Glengarry style. As with previous recordings, it was well received and is selling very quickly.