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Ryan & Brennish Thomson

Updated Feb 2, 2024

Some Celtic Goings On, as of October 7, 2001

The Celtic Traveler, by Ryan Thomson

Some interesting news has come across my desk. Scottish Clan MacTavish/Thom(p)son will be the honored clan at the Jacksonville, Florida, Highland Games February 22 - 23, 2002. This clan has been very active in coming out of a long dormancy and re-establishing themselves as an important part of Scottish history. Some recent scholarly research has turned up strong evidence that the clan is not merely a subset of the Campbell Clan, as stated in many history books, but a separate clan in its own right. 


This is a sore point among members of both clans since MacTavish clan members fought along with the other highland clans against the British forces at the decisive battle of Culloden in 1746, while the Campbells fought on the British side. Historians and other interested parties are presently in hot debate on the issue of the Mactavish clan status.


 The Barley House Irish session in Concord, New Hampshire, is alive and going strong, after Tim Herring and I started it up with a formal written proposal to the owners a couple of years ago. Tim has since moved out of town to follow a new job, and I've only been able to attend it intermittently in the last year, but my visit on October 2 turned up a lively session with lots of songs, jigs, reels, and friendly conversation over pints. The open session happens every Tuesday night from about 7:30 - 10:30 pm, on Main Street, across the street from the New Hampshire Statehouse.


Speaking of sessions, since I've been back from my summer travels, I've been playing fiddle, flute, and other instruments as a hired musician at Mike Murphy's pub, "Biddy Muligans's" in Dover, New Hampshire, every Thursday night from 7:30 to around 11 pm. Mike is a singing pub owner, and makes his way over to the session several times during the night, between his business duties, in order to strum his guitar and to lead the session band. Various other musicians drop by the pub and sit in with the band from time to time. The focus is traditional, but musicians are welcomed to occasionally venture out into uncharted territory.


The Sunday Comhaltas sessions in Watertown, Massachusetts, are a great way to immerse ones self in fine Irish music and dance. They occur every 1st and 4th Sunday at the Canadian American club on Arlington Street in Watertown. The slow traditional session for instrumentalists runs from 2:30 - 4, and from 4 to 8 pm is set dancing to onstage live music. I attend often, and enjoy playing for the dances. The event is organized by fiddler Larry Reynolds, who's tireless energy in promoting Irish music and culture is legendary around New England. 


Earlier in the summer, I had the pleasure of watching the North American champion step dancer do a short performance to live music during a break in the set dancing. I mention "live music" because for various reasons, much of contemporary step dancing is done to recordings. This seems a bit of a shame since there are so many great musicians out there.


My visit on October 7 found a circle of 15 musicians at the slow session playing standards like: Out on the Ocean; Boys of Blue Hill; Dennis Murphy's Slide, and the Sally Gardens reel. The hall really came alive when the dancing started at 4, and the energy between the band and the dancers became electric as the night wore on. I'm looking forward to the next time!


I enjoyed spending time with fiddler Catriona Macdonald in Colorado this summer at the Rocky Mountain Fiddle Camp. She's a rising star of the Shetland music scene. The Shetland Islands are Northeast of Scotland and share a heritage including Pics, Vikings, Danes, and Scots. The music is lively and leans toward a Scottish sound, with other Celtic and Scandinavian elements thrown in. Catriona learned fiddle at a young age from Shetland master fiddler Tom Anderson, who has since passed away. 


I was lucky enough to have heard Tom Anderson first hand at sessions and in concert when he visited America and played festivals in the thriving traditional fiddle scene in San Diego in the early 1970's. Like many other Celtic fiddlers at the time, I bought the "Silver Bow" shetland fiddle LP album, and sat down to try and learn every tune on it. The Shetland tradition is certainly alive and well in the fiery playing of Catriona in her latest album - "Bold," which I bought in Colorado, and enjoyed on the long drive back to New Hampshire. (Compass Records)

This article by Ryan J Thomson 2001

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