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Raylene Rankin, a member of the internationally acclaimed group the Rankin Family who went on to a successful musical career independent of her siblings, died on Sept. 30 after an 11-year battle with cancer. (Sandor Fizli for The Globe and Mail)
Raylene Rankin, a member of the internationally acclaimed group the Rankin Family who went on to a successful musical career independent of her siblings, died on Sept. 30 after an 11-year battle with cancer. (Sandor Fizli for The Globe and Mail)

OBITUARY

Humour, empathy came naturally to Rankin Family star Add to ...

Though the Rankins eventually moved to a house on Route 19, they initially lived on Highland Street, known as the back street locally. Legendary fiddler Dan R. MacDonald lived beside them. John Allan Cameron lived there, too, and gave the Rankins their first piano.

It was all these influences – the music, their parents’ work ethic, the interaction among the children – that Raylene Rankin grew up absorbing, St. Clair said.

From an early age, he said, Rankin demonstrated a sense of gratitude and other qualities he believes best captured in the song Gillis Mountain, which Raylene wrote and is on the Fare Thee Well Love album.

“It brings together her gifts of observation and the ability to feel deeply about things,” St. Clair said.

It was at dances, kitchen parties and the school where they learned Gaelic that the Rankins would have heard the Gaelic songs they took off the island, according to their aunt Effie Rankin, who emigrated to Cape Breton from the Hebrides to teach Gaelic and married their uncle Daniel. The Rankins are not native Gaelic speakers and turned to Effie for help with their pronunciation on the songs they wanted to record.

“She was a hard worker,” Effie Rankin said of her niece. the day after the Mabou service. “No task was too menial. I remember seeing her in work gloves cleaning out the garbage.”

Learning Gaelic was no different, says her aunt, it was just other matter to put effort into and improve at doing.

Humour was something, according to her aunt, that Rankin didn’t have to work hard at acquiring. It came naturally and Rankin had a “hearty laugh.”

“When you heard that laugh, you couldn’t help but join in,” said Effie Rankin.

“She loved jokes and quick responses,” said St. Clair.

Despite a host of musicians attending the funeral service Friday afternoon, there was no star-studded ceilidh at the Shoe that night. Friday marked the opening of Cape Breton’s Celtic Colours International Festival, a week-long celebration of all that is Celtic, that takes place across the island, which draws performers and spectators from around the world.

At the opening concert in Port Hawkesbury a moment of silence was observed in Rankin’s memory. Natalie MacMaster, the acclaimed Cape Breton fiddler, spoke of how the Rankins paved a path for other musicians and how Raylene was a mentor to her.

Most of the mourners had left the Shoe by 7 p.m. and tourists far outnumbered residents as Anita MacDonald, 21, a fiddler from the other side of the island, played. Locals took turns step dancing and square dancing, leaving tourists struggling to keep up.

Though MacDonald never met Raylene Rankin, she found playing the Shoe Friday night “very emotional.” It’s not the Rankins’ success she admires most.

“It’s just they were so grounded,” said MacDonald. “What was great about them was that they could bring the kitchen to the world, but then bring it back to the kitchen.”

Humility is a characteristic often attributed to Rankin by those in Mabou who knew her. Bonny MacIsaac went to high school with Rankin and remembers a pony-tailed girl involved in many activities, who bounded everywhere with energy and “was just brilliant.”

At the time, MacIsaac said, she was unaware of their individual and collective talents as performers. They didn’t parade it.

Even after success and fame had come to descended upon Rankin and her siblings, MacIsaac would see her in the grocery store in Mabou expecting to be treated like any other member of the community. Rankin and other family members of her the band and family have summer homes around Mabou. And the family home is still kept, opened every summer by Rankin’s sister Genevieve, who has become the family matriarch, according to their aunt.

Raylene Rankin once told a CBC radio documentary crew that it was Genevieve who convinced her to settle down when she was living out west and working odd jobs after graduating from St. Francis Xavier University. Raylene moved to Halifax and enrolled in law school at Dalhousie University. She was admitted to the Nova Scotia bar in 1988.

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