Rollo Bay Festival | Bowing Down Home
The Rollo Bay Scottish Fiddle Festival has been Prince Edward Island’s premier fiddle festival – and perhaps its largest annual musical event – since its founding in the late 1970s. It is held outdoors the third weekend in July on the site of a former potato field in the district of Rollo Bay, which is near the town of Souris (pronounced: SOO-ree) in the northeastern part of the Island. Throughout the event's two-day span, dozens of local fiddlers take their turn playing for an audience of several thousand. Other attractions include singing acts, step-dancing demonstrations, and mass-fiddling by members of the Prince Edward Island Fiddlers' Society.
Although the festival would become a major tourist attraction by the turn of the 21st Century, the audience of 1991-2 was made up almost entirely local people. Rain or shine, spectators sat outdoors on long wooden benches, or listened to the proceedings from inside rows of neatly parked vehicles. During the rain-plagued 1992 festival, these parked observers initiated the custom of honking horns in approval of particularly successful performances.
After the conclusion of the official program, diehards congregate in a small corrugated metal out-building known as the tuning shed. There, fiddler after fiddler plays himself (or herself) to exhaustion, and onlookers got up to step-dance as the spirit moves them. Meanwhile on the nearby dance stage, fiddlers and accompanists play long "groups" of tunes (medleys) while Islanders of all ages step-dance or make their way through the figures of a square set.
The Rollo Bay Scottish Fiddle Festival was the brainchild of Joe Pete Chaisson, and since its inception has been run by members of the Chaisson Family of Bear River, with much of the responsibility for the event shouldered by Joe Pete’s eldest son “Young Peter” Chaisson. In establishing the festival the Chaissons had three aims: to restore visibility and viability to local fiddling, to further a close connection between Island fiddling and Cape Breton fiddling, and to finance through Festival proceeds a weekly fiddle instruction program at the Rollo Bay School.
From the beginning, the Rollo Bay Scottish Fiddle Festival has heavily emphasized Cape Breton fiddling style and repertoire. To emphasize this connection, headliners at Rollo Bay have almost always been prominent Cape Breton fiddlers, and each year several additional fiddlers from Cape Breton are also invited to play at the event. In 1991 and ’92, the respective festival headliners were Natalie MacMaster and Ashley MacIsaac – two young Cape Bretoners who would ultimately have a huge influence on the musical development of the Island’s younger players.