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A tuneful Celtic Christmas

The Barra MacNeils bring their lively sounds to Victoria on annual tour


What: Barra MacNeils Christmas Tour

Where: Alix Goolden Hall, Victoria Conservatory of Music

When: Tomorrow, 7 p.m.

Tickets: $36 including service charge (tel. 250 386-6121 or contact

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Stewart MacNeil's music career was launched almost 40 years ago with the gift of a wee harmonica.

MacNeil, 44, is a member of the Barra MacNeils, the popular Celtic band from Sydney Mines, N.S. Tomorrow, the sextet plays its annual Christmas concert in Victoria. Two other Vancouver Island dates in Campbell River and Courtenay are already sold out.

MacNeil -- who sings, step-dances and plays accordion, tin whistle, flute, bouzouki and guitar -- says when he was a lad, Christmases were always about music and family.

"When we were growing up Christmas was simpler. There was a lot of spontaneous music in our house, and also up at our grandmothers," he said from his home in Sydney Mines.

All the children were encouraged to either step-dance, sing or play music for the delight of doting relatives.

"I got a harmonica when I was five years old at Christmas," MacNeil said. "I could play a song on it by dinner-time. So that was my start, I guess. ... When I think of those fun times, it really influenced us doing this full time."

MacNeil still remembers the song he learned on harmonica -- a traditional Scottish tune called These Are My Mountains. It's entirely appropriate, given the family's Scots roots. "Barra" is the name of the Scottish island that is the ancestral home of the MacNeil family.

Stewart wasn't the only MacNeil to embark on a music career. The Barra MacNeils are made up of five siblings: Stewart, Kyle, Lucy, Sheumas, Boyd and Ryan. The only non-MacNeil is Jamie Gattie, who plays bass and "is kind of like an adopted brother now."

The Victoria concert will showcase generous helpings from the Barra MacNeils' The Christmas Album and The Christmas Album II. Expect such favourites as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Christmas in Killarney and On the Very First Christmas -- the latter a song written by MacNeil's uncle, Hector Mackenzie.

The Barra MacNeils --winners of five East Coast Music Awards -- started performing together in their teens. The band became a more serious venture in 1986, performing at Expo 86 and releasing their first self-titled album.

One might wonder whether these siblings would ever quarrel, given the longevity of their band and the pressures of touring. Stewart says this is far from the case.

"If anything, we probably get along better now. People learn. You have a choice -- you can get along or you don't," he said.

In 2007 the Barra MacNeils released a two-CD milestone recording The 20th Anniversary Collection. The group is now about to release a new live disc culled from two concerts recorded at the 200-seat Marigold Cultural Centre in Truro, N.S.

MacNeil says hot-off-the-press copies will likely be sold at the Victoria concert. "Boy, we're really happy with it," he said. "It should be a fan favourite."

The Barra MacNeils have performed regularly in this city over the years. What MacNeil remembers most most about Victoria is the multitude of used book stores.

"I remember gettin' a $1 copy of Leon Uris's Trinity," he laughed.