Barra MacNeils bring East Coast Christmas to Prince Albert

The Barra MacNeils will perform at the E.A. Rawlinson Centre on Sunday, Nov. 26. -- Photo by Todd Quackenbush.

Stewart MacNeil isn’t sure why his family has lasted so long in the music industry, but he’s glad they did.

Stewart is one of five MacNeil siblings who make up The Barra MacNeils, the multi-award winning Celtic musical group from Cape Breton. After more than three decades creating, performing, and recording music, he’s still uncertain about what keeps them going, but said they’re lucky to be doing it.

“Maybe this is our family time. I’m not sure,” Stewart says with a chuckle during a phone interview from B.C. “We do have a lot of fun with it.”

The MacNeil siblings began performing together in the 1980s, releasing their first independent album in 1986. Since then they’ve won numerous awards, and toured across North America and Europe.

On Sunday, they’ll be in Prince Albert for the Saskatchewan leg of the East Coast Christmas concert tour. It’s one of more than 30 cities they’ll perform in before their final show on Dec. 22.

“It’s just become a tradition for ourselves,” Stewart said. “A lot of the folks who come, they do appreciate if the show is close to their hometown.

“I’m not really sure why it ended up being 20-some years doing it (East Coast Christmas), but we’ve certainly enjoyed it. There’s a great catalogue of material that we have to choose from. I think that’s a big part of it.”

After decades in music, the family’s roots in Cape Breton still inspire a lot of their work. Stewart said they all had positive Christmas experiences as kids, and that’s given them an appreciation for the season as adults.

“There was always a lot of live music growing up when Christmas was around, especially during the holidays with visitors,” he explained. “It was always a time of year where we did play a lot of music, and it just became something that (grew) year after year.”

Stewart said the Christmas show has always received positive feedback from fans, who say it gets them into the Christmas season. The group will perform songs from their three Christmas albums. The list includes traditional carols and holiday favourites, as well as a few more obscure Celtic tunes.

“It goes from some very solemn moments, to moments that are very raucous, and I suppose that’s what Christmas has been for many years now,” Stewart said.

“I think if (fans) see the show and we stir some emotions of their own holidays growing up, that means something to us if we can connect in that way, (and) that people just take that time out and appreciate the season,” he added. “It is a dark time of year for living in the northern part of the world…, so we try to bring a little light to town. A lot of people say it does get them in the mood for the season, and that’s what it’s all about.”

An East Coast Christmas begins at 7:30 p.m. at the E.A. Rawlinson Centre on Sunday, Nov. 26. Tickets are available at

As of Friday evening there was no notice that the show would be cancelled due to the CUPE 882 strike.