CORONAVIRUS ON TOUR – by Mairi Campbell

On the 3rd March 2020 I was due to start a two-month tour of Canada and New Zealand.  My husband, Dave and our daughter Ada were also part of the tour. Dave was coming to perform at the Toronto storytelling festival, and Ada joining me for the Vancouver and New Zealand legs of the trip.  We’d been planning this for at least a year. A lot of personal time and finances went into the organising, no agent, no magic wand to make it happen. Creating a tour takes a long time and it’s hard graft putting it together, but finally the time had come.  Performing in March on the East coast of Canada was taking a risk and a bad turn of weather could stop us in our tracks, but as it happened it wasn’t the weather that put the stoppers on.  The night before leaving I had a wobbly, afraid of forgetting some piece of essential luggage along the way. With two suitcases, one ski bag with bits of the stage set for ‘Pulse’ my one-woman show, a viola, hand luggage and the menopause, it was bound to happen.  Anyway, here we were. I took a deep breath and off I went, flying into the night.

The tour luggage

My first stop was Halifax in Nova Scotia. Ron and Elinor from Dartmouth picked me up. They are a kind couple who organised the Dartmouth performances of ‘Pulse’ and had put a lot of effort into putting out the word.  I love preparing a show. It takes a full day usually and on this occasion we needed all the time we had:  placing the lights, figuring out the new space and the technicals. The audience loved it and we all loved the experience and hoped we could do it again another time.  I also taught a fiddle class at Kendra McGillivray’s house and a Scots song workshop for the Halifax Traditional and Early Music Ensemble on Sunday 8th.

That evening, back at Ron and Elinors, Dave called from Edinburgh to say that he’d not be coming. It was too risky. Things were starting to get cancelled and he though the Toronto Storytelling Festival would be too. He was right.  At that point I was planning to keep moving if I could and the next step was landing on Cape Breton, where my base was to be the home of instrument maker, Otis Tomas and his partner, Deanie.

The next morning I rented a car and drove the four hours North.  The weather was cold but clear and the causeway was frozen.  I pulled up the rough, icy track to Otis and Deanie’s and stopped short for a moment, shocked by what I saw.  Snow was piled so high over the house I couldn’t see the doors or windows. I thought they must have left and I’d come to the wrong place. I got out of the car, wandered about getting my bearings, did find their door and sure enough they were there, hunkered down in the long Winter freeze. The snow had been there since November and they were used to it and in good spirits.  No panic, everything was fine.

We put the kettle on and shared our news and all the madness that was going on in the outside world.  Nothing but pandemic on the radio and telly with ‘Internationalists’ being encouraged to go home. It still hadn’t quite sunk in but a call from my dad in Vancouver made it clearer. He was telling me that Ada and I would not be able to stay with him when we came.  OK, I think this tour’s over.

There was one more thing to do before going home. I mentioned that I’d brought some of the stage set of my show in a ski bag. These were three long hazel sticks, cut on the island of Lismore, which formed the frame for a stone pendulum, the quern stone recovered from the ruins of my great-grandmother’s croft on the island. Put the Lismore sticks and the Cape Breton stone together.

Back in October 2019 when I was over in Cape Breton for Celtic Colours I wanted to source a stone from Kluscap mountain to use for the shows on this Spring return trip (my own stone would have been way too heavy to take on the trip). A friend of Otis’s, Gordon, had offered to put a hook in the Kluscap stone and I’d bring the hazel sticks to hang it from.  It looked amazing, like a rod pointing to the ground.  This simple but beautiful construction holds many meanings for me:  a reminder of gravitational pull, to earth; ancient living environments; balance, out of balance, awakenings, stirring up, landing, rhythm, swing, pulse.

Kluscap stone pendulum

The next day we cleaned the house, washed floors, dusted and cleared and placed the pendulum in the corner of the room. After dinner Otis and Deanie asked me what ‘Pulse’ was.  They couldn’t imagine what I was doing… it sounded different from a concert.

So, I played the whole show in the living room that night to Otis and Deanie, just the three of us and the new pendulum in their log cabin. I didn’t use any fancy lights or audio files, but found all the characters and stories and it worked just fine much to our mutual delight.

For the rest of the week, with everything else cancelled, I stayed with Otis and Deanie. Otis was making his musical instruments in the workshop, and Deanie and I snow-shoe walked, cooked and took occasional trips out, driving round the Cabot Trail, going shopping in Baddeck and resting.  The outside world felt a long way away.

Mairi with Deanie and Otis

Within a day or so the pandemic news was intensifying. I would have to leave soon otherwise I’d be stuck there and Otis and Deanie would be stuck with me! Too much of a good thing. I managed to get a flight out of Halifax on Tuesday 17th March and there the ‘tour’ ended.

It’s hard to imagine this lockdown ending but end it will I hope.  International touring is a way many musicians make a living but maybe it’s time to rethink and create work opportunities closer to home.  This time is definitely providing an opportunity to think outside the box, although we seem to have very so effortlessly boxed ourselves in. I’m not sure what that says about breaking out and thinking outside the box.  Are we allowed to do that any more?