Home Feature Ann and John Law on Bringing Celtic Music to BC’s Sunshine Coast

Ann and John Law on Bringing Celtic Music to BC’s Sunshine Coast

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After Ann and John Law left their native Scotland for Canada, they eventually arrived in B.C. in 1977. They took up residence in Roberts Creek on the Sunshine Coast, just across the water and a short ferry ride from Vancouver. To this idyllic seaside location they brought a love of Scottish traditional music and an energy and commitment to get involved in creative musical adventures. This is the story of how they helped establish the well-renowned young musicians group Coast String Fiddlers and the Sunshine Coast School of Celtic Music – a very popular annual music camp.

Like many couples who have been together a long time, they start and finish each other’s thoughts and sentences, so I haven’t attempted here to indicate exactly who said what. Consider this a record of our three-way conversation, although it is Ann who took the lead on many of their projects and so told the lion’s share of the story. It’s now 30 years since Coast String Fiddlers formed, and I am happy to report they are still going, although the Laws handed things over to other folks around eight years ago. Once we got settled into our Zoom call, the first thing I wanted to know was how they got things started.

“There was a Suzuki instructor, Michelle Bruce, who lived on the coast, and she organized a little group called Coast Strings, where kids with different abilities and different instruments could get together on one night a week and play. That was in 1993. It was at her house, and kids would come, and we’d have a little band night. I would go along and play the bodhran, and our son, James, who was four then, played the spoons. There were a few fiddlers that were a bit older, and they started learning fiddle tunes. Michelle taught them some old-time fiddle and some of the traditional Canadian tunes but then she moved to Quesnel.”

By then, the Coast String Fiddlers had been meeting and playing music together for about six years, and everyone wanted to keep it going. The motivation came from the kids showing lots of enthusiasm and from their parents, who had also become involved in organizing and playing. A youth and parents musical group had evolved from those beginnings, and the Laws and the other parents felt they wanted to branch out a bit further.

An exchange to Iqaluit

“We decided that it was time to showcase these kids, so we did loads of community events. Then in 2000, we took them to Iqaluit in Nunavut for an exchange with a group up there that we had sent fiddles to. We arrived at that big yellow airport in Iqaluit and walked off of the plane into the airport reception, and there is a group of kids playing their fiddles to welcome us! And without asking, our kids pull their fiddles out and they played along with those children. And that one actually brought tears to my eyes, and I got a big lump in my throat. Even though some of them only spoke Inuktitut, they could all play music together.”

The Coast String Fiddlers performed at the Toonik Tyme Festival there, which is an annual celebration of Inuit traditions and of the return to spring. The kids had a great time, dogsledding, learning about life in the north and playing music together. The kids from Iqaluit, with some help from Coast String Fiddlers, soon came down to the Sunshine Coast.

“Most of them had never swum in the ocean before, so they swam, they got to climb trees and see that it was actually chickens that laid eggs – that it wasn’t just powdered eggs. And it was a great experience! We had fundraised enough money to take our group up there, and also enough money to give their group money to help them come back to the coast. So that was a huge highlight in our time with the Coast String Fiddlers.”

By now the whole group had got a taste for performing and traveling so in 2005, they went to Scotland, to the Aberdeen International Youth Festival.

“The kids were playing somewhere, and the director of Ballet Prague from the Czech Republic heard them play, and he choreographed a piece for our kids to play and the ballet to dance to. One of the tunes we used was called “the Buchanan Birch,” written by Iain Fraser, who was really our first Scottish fiddle teacher. Then we met a group of dancers there who were from Belgium. They came to the Sunshine Coast, and we hosted them. So then we went to Belgium in 2007 and played all over there. So we had great experiences with different groups of kids from all over the place through the years.”

In 2001, Ann and John had started the Sunshine Coast School of Celtic Music, a very popular annual music camp, which became the biggest in Western Canada – featuring around 20 instructors teaching fiddle, cello, accordion, guitar, voice and dancing and including the highly popular Youth Trad Band class. Countless teenage musicians got their start in the Youth Trad Band, and many of them went on to have careers in music.

The beginnings of the music camp

“Children who maybe just played a trumpet or didn’t play fiddle could still join in. So we’d have a big, big traditional band, and we would do concerts on the coast. They would start at the beginning of the week, learn tunes, and put a concert together by the Friday. It was just such a great experience. In that group were lots of young fiddlers from throughout B.C., and over the years we had folks from Scotland, the States and Moscow and China as well. All over the place really!”

It was renowned Scottish fiddler and teacher and music camp stalwart Iain Fraser who prompted the move to start the camp.

“Iain suggested that we went to Colorado to go to the Rocky Mountain Music Camp, and while we were there he said, ‘Why don’t you bring the music from all over America and Ireland and Scotland to the kids on the coast?’ And so we started the music camp. And we ran that until 2015.”

Every participant, including children and adults, was in a class with players at a similar level of ability, and each class had a main teacher in the morning. In the afternoon, another teacher would come to the class so that all the teachers moved through all the classes.

“That meant everybody got exposure to all the different teachers and all the different styles. Classes included fiddle, piano, cello, harp, bagpipes, flute, accordion, guitar and composition. And then, in one part of the day, we did workshops, where a group of teachers would combine to teach some aspects of whatever style of music they played. So there was a big education component. In the evening, we would have Ceilidhs and dances and fun activities. It finished on the Friday night with a big gala concert where the teachers put on a fantastic show. They would join together, and it was so eclectic – so many great memories! Mary Campbell’s a great Scottish singer and fiddler. Her singing would bring the audience to tears. Great, great times.”

It’s so heartening to witness the enthusiasm of the Laws as they reminisce about the good times. They have achieved so much and touched so many lives in a deeply positive way, I am compelled to wonder out loud how on earth they did it.

So many accomplished teachers

“Just determination from us and from the parents as well, because you know, things don’t happen without parents backing you up in these kinds of situations. And the volunteers. When we ran camps, or we ran concerts or whatever, we had the best volunteers. From everybody that ran that camp, the only people that got paid were the instructors. Everybody else was a volunteer, and they came out every year and put in the time and helped do everything. It was all about that community feeling. I think that’s important for any kind of community group. We would vote on what we wanted to do, and the kids always wanted to go to Scotland. So we tried to find a way to get them there. And we did that through the Aberdeen International Youth Festival. We raised the funds, and that was somewhere to expose them to music from all over the world.”

We move on to talk about the teachers who came to teach on the Sunshine Coast and the students who went on to greater things and often came back to teach.

“With every teacher, and I mean this from the bottom of my heart, every teacher that we hired added something special. Every single one of them. Different styles, different personalities, just life experiences. It was just so special. Like, you know, you would contact a teacher and maybe go, well I’m a little worried about them. Then they’d come in, and you go, oh my goodness, they are so nice! The teachers that came here developed friendships, and then they ended up playing together after the camp. Something we’re very proud of is that it went further than just a week on the Sunshine Coast.”

We brainstormed a list of all the people who were involved at one time or another, and the list of musicians that the Laws came up with on the spot in our conversation makes for impressive reading – and there’s lots more we didn’t mention!

“Lots of Canadian teachers. Teachers like Andy Hillhouse, you know, people that have been around a lot, and like Adrian Dolan; Christine Hansen the great cello player; Iain Fraser the Scottish fiddler and teacher who was so important; old-time fiddler Gordon Stobbe, and Erynn Marshall who does bluegrass; great local fiddlers like Daniel Lapp, Shona Le Mottee and Roxanna Sabir; Sharlene Wallace, who teaches the harp ; fiddlers who started with us or came to teach like Chelsea Sleep, Jocelyn Pettit, Serena Eades, Ivonne Hernandez, Trent Freeman, Mairi Rankin, Kira Raymond. We had Natalie Haas teaching cello and Nuala Kennedy from Ireland doing flute. Oh and Erin MacDonald, who became a great viola orchestral player. Troy MacGillivray, Andrea Beaton, Mary Ryan, Oliver Schroer, Graham MacGillivray and Gabriel Dubreuil from Early Spirit. So many!”

So many entertaining stories!

As our talk begins to wind down, a few stories surface from the vast treasure trove of anecdotes the Laws have about Coast String Fiddlers and the Sunshine Coast School of Celtic Music. There’s a few more that we thought it best not to share in public!

“The Gumboot Restaurant in Roberts Creek used to call it Christmas in July, it was so busy. So we’d go there after camp, after the dances and whatever, and then there would be sessions there, and that’s where friendships are really, really built – sitting in the session playing. One time Iain Fraser, he’d been playing the session down at the Gumboot, and in the morning he goes into his fiddle class, and when he opens his case there’s no fiddle in there. His very, very expensive special fiddle is gone! So we said to Joyce Beaton – another great proponent of fiddle music from over in Qualicum – could you go check in the Gumboot? And she went and looked and looked and eventually found the great fiddle – in the kid’s toy box! They must have thought it was a toy, and so they just put it in the toy box!”

“Alan Henderson from Blazing Fiddles in Scotland decided that they could do a Strip the Willow dance in the kitchen in our house, which is not huge. So everything got moved, and we did Strip the Willow, but when you got to the end of the line, you had to run out the patio door and come back into the house through the back door to join back in the dance line!”

Time to take a step back

Finally we talk about how and why the Laws pulled back from their organizing role and handed things over to other community members.

“Unfortunately, it was just getting really difficult to bring people from other countries and doing stuff like work permits. We had to do labour market opinions for the government because we weren’t classed as a festival. So for us, it was considered that we were hiring a teacher. So it just got very complicated. We decided we just wanted then to leave it on a high note. So in 2015, we just had a blast, had a great, great camp, and then that was the end of it for us.”

Looking back through their history, one thing that is certain is that the hard work and passion of Ann and John Law have made a significant and lasting impression on the Celtic and folk roots music scene in Canada and many other parts of the world.

“After some of those young people left, we got emails or letters saying it was the best time of their life. So that means a lot – that the experience they had is the best time of their lives. I mean, we just loved it, loved it, and we still love going to Coast String Fiddlers concerts and doing stuff. Usually I’ll still help them do Robbie Burns nights and stuff like that. People really had fun, you know? They loved the camaraderie and letting your hair down a little bit and enjoying yourself. So I don’t know… it’s still kind of sad that we are not doing it any more. But I have no regrets, and we are so glad that we actually did it for that many years. Hopefully, maybe some young people one day – if the government ever gets it together to make it easier for these kinds of cultural exchanges from other people coming from other countries – one day someone else could start it again. We’re lucky. Lucky to live here and lucky to live in a community that’s so supportive of the arts.”

There can’t be very many people who have given more selflessly and created so much goodwill and facilitated so much fine music than those extra special Scottish exports to Canada, Ann and John Law. You don’t have to take my word for it though. There are countless musicians across Canada and around the world who, at the drop of a hat, would say exactly the same thing!

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