For more than thirty years, the community of Big Pong has welcomed family, friends and visitors to participate in a week-long celebration, during the third week of July, that includes pub-style dances, family reunions, strawberry festivals, museum exhibits, guided bird tours, and the now famous Big Pond Scottish Concert. This summer festival can trace its roots back to 1964 as a one day, open-air evening concert.
In the summer of 1963, two local men, Jackie “the widow” MacNeil and Dan Joe MacInnis, had been over to see a Scottish concert in the neighbouring community of Broad Cove. After much discussion, they wondered if it would be possible to hold such an event in their community. Consulting with their neighbours showed that there was a great deal of support for the idea and it was decided that the Big Pond Scottish Concert would be staged the following summer.
The concert took place in the open field behind MacDonald Consolidated School in Big Pond. Everyone pitched in to help make the concert possible. A make-shift stage was built and lighting was set up through the efforts of Martin Murdock and Duncan “Martin” MacNeil. Father Joe Campbell was the Master of Ceremonies and kept everyone laughing with his outlandish jokes and sense of humour while he introduced the many fiddlers, pipers, step-dancers, singers, and piano players who would perform that evening. Some of the many who participated were Buddy MacMaster, Dan Hughie MacEachern, Donald Angus Beaton, and Marie and Theresa MacLellan.
The concert did not, however, go off without some problems. Halfway through the evening, the power went out and despite the best efforts of those in attendance, it could not be restored. But that didn’t stop the concert. Father Campbell and others managed to keep everyone’s spirits high by telling jokes and stories about life in Big Pond and surrounding areas. This ad-lib went over every bit as well as the music had and most thought it added to the over-all atmosphere of the evening. St. Peter’s Power Company did finally arrive and the music was under way again.
Afterward it was back to Dan Joe and Christie “Johnny Mick” MacInnis’ house in St. Andrew’s Channel, located on the road from Sydney just before you enter Big Pond. This house had often been host to a ceilidh and this night was no exception. It seemed that everyone en route to the concert had stopped in for “a little tea and bonnach” and after the concert Dan Joe had invited everyone back for more “tea” and more music.
So the first concert went over well and by the end of the evening everyone was asking when the next would be. This was a surprise to Jackie MacNeil but it was quickly decided that another concert would be held at the same time the very next year. And the annual Big Pond Scottish Concert was born.
The Big Pond Concert has been host to hundreds of musically talented people and groups ever since. It’s well known as a platform for previously unknown talent. Such well-known performers as the Rankin Family, Buddy MacMaster, Sons of Skye and Rite MacNeil can trace their history back through the Big Pond Concert, where they were given a chance to try out new and original material. And the talent has come from all over the world to play this venue. Groups like Capercallie and Ossian have traveled all the way from Scotland to grace the concert stage at Big Pong. There have also been groups from Ireland, the United States, and Ukraine who have joined this community during Festival Week. All who have come have enjoyed themselves and many have even asked to be invited back.
The 2nd Annual Big Pond Scottish Concert, and every one since, was held at a new location, known as MacIntyre’s Field, located up in Big Pond Center. The MacIntyre family has resided in Big Pond since forever, it seems, and were more than willing to lend out their field to the Concert Committee for as long as they needed it until a more suitable site was found. After more than thirty-years at the location, a more suitable site has not been found and it is doubtful that there is such a spot. A permanent stage has been set up in the field for more than fifteen years and while it may someday collapse under the weight of performers assembled upon it, it seems unlikely that it will ever be moved!
The music at Big Pond draws crowds from afar who plan entire summer vacations around the event. But while the music is among the best you’ll hear all summer, with concerts featuring the likes of Rawlins Cross, Terry Kelly, Dave MacIsaac, Jerry Holland, and Rita MacNeil staged on days leading up to the big concert Sunday, much of this festival’s appeal lies in the sense of community that pervades the week. For years (until 1991), the women of the community would provide food services for visitors at the concert, baking bread, buns, and biscuits, buying pop and chips, preparing hot dogs, hamburgers, fish chowder (using fresh fish from the lake), and the famous (or infamous) beef on a bun. The tea and coffee urns, too, had to be constantly refilled. Tea made in Big Pond, you see, was famous long before Rita ever put her picture on it. Since the last couple of years, however, the demand for food service and the great numbers of people attending the concert have made it impossible to keep up with, so the responsibility of food management has been given over to the Kinsmen of Sydney. And for the first time in twenty-seven years, the women of the community can relax a little more on concert day. Of course, committee members still prepare food for backstage and Benny “Martin” MacNeil is always on hand with a cold drink for any sun-drenched performer.
Nowadays the festival is a week of assorted events for everyone in the community with family dances, dart and card tournaments, evenings of pastoral airs, and fiddle, dance, and piano workshops. A baseball tournament, a horse-show tournament, parachutes, and beer tents have also made brief appearances in the past, but it has become obvious that the only thing people are interested in on concert day is the music.
One of the most popular traditions associated with this event has been the promotion and sale of local paraphernalia. For many of the recent years, Sherise MacKeigan has spearheaded a drive for the sale of various Big Pong souvenirs such as hats, t-shirts, pins, buttons, sweatshirts and the like. This is also an outlet for the sale of local music and books.
No one could have predicted that the concert would turn out to be such a success. A large part of this is due to the efforts of the entire Big Pond community. And then there’s the weather. The concert has never been cancelled, though lightning did one time strike and blow out a speaker (no one was hurt). One time, it was raining all over Cape Breton Island, but not one drop fell at MacIntyre’s field. While it has rained sometimes, the concert lives on in someone’s van or back at someone’s house or in between down-pours, That’s the spirit of the music at Big Pond’s annual Scottish Concert.
WGO # 13 – June/July 1996