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Willie Fraser at the age of 85, dancing at the Broad Cove Scottish Concert in Cape Breton.

Photo by David Gillis.

A respected step dancer and Gaelic singer on Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island, Willie Fraser is credited for helping to keep traditional Scottish culture alive there.

Mr. Fraser, who died in Inverness, N.S., on March 22, just 17 days after his 100th birthday, liked to tell the story of how he learned to dance in a dream. At the age of 5, he was visited in his sleep by a stranger who taught him a few steps. In the morning, he went straight to his father to tell him what had happened. His father picked up his fiddle and played a tune while young Willie danced. Over the next five years, the stranger returned several more times in his dreams. While the boy never learned the identity of his dream teacher, the lessons left him with a style of dancing, described as "close to the floor," that garnered him attention not only in Cape Breton, but in the Scottish highlands, where his dance steps originated.

"They say you can hear Gaelic [language] in the fiddle," said Rodney MacDonald, chief executive officer of Cape Breton's Gaelic College and former Nova Scotia premier. "I can see Gaelic in his dancing."

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Dressed in either a tartan suit or vest and with his shoes shined to perfection, Mr. Fraser would take to the stage to dance. He stood straight and tall, his arms relaxed by his side. The emphasis was on the movement of his feet and legs from the knees down. "Lift your feet high and you can miss a lot of notes," he once told a local reporter.

"His steps very naturally fit with the music," Mr. MacDonald said. "He made it look simple."

He was known for his ability to interpret music. Mary Janet MacDonald, a Cape Breton step dancer, remembers listening to an old acoustic audio recording of Mr. Fraser dancing. With no music to accompany him, Ms. MacDonald could still make out the song he was dancing to. "It was phenomenal and I could absolutely hear the strathspey tune King George the Fourth in the steps," she said. "He had such amazing footwork."

In his heyday, Winston (Scotty) Fitzgerald, a renowned Cape Breton fiddler, was known to stop playing if Mr. Fraser entered the hall, letting the other dancers know, "Willie's in the hall. Willie's going to dance."

Mr. Fraser garnered such admiration, he even had a song named after him. His friend, Cape Breton fiddler Donald Angus Beaton, composed a tune, known as a great one for step dancing, called Willie Fraser's Strathspey. It been recorded several times by various fiddlers.

Born March 5, 1915, in the small community of St. Rose, the heart of Cape Breton's traditional Scottish culture, Mr. Fraser was the youngest of 10 children raised in a Gaelic-speaking home. His father, Simon, was a fisherman, a miner and a fiddler who taught his son a few dance steps. Mr. Fraser also learned from watching the older dancers at square dances and parties around Cape Breton.

In 1947, he met a young woman named Kathleen MacNeil after buying a house not far from Broad Cove, where she grew up. The couple married that year and raised 12 children on a small farm. Together 63 years, until her death in 2010, they shared a love of Gaelic music and hockey. Every Saturday night they'd watch Hockey Night in Canada. He was a Montreal Canadiens fan, while she rooted for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

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In demand throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Mr. Fraser often returned home from a shift in the coal mine to find a priest waiting to ask if he could dance at a picnic. After one event, Father John Angus Rankin, a revered local priest, blessed his feet and told him: "You'll never have sore feet. I mean it." Mr. Fraser believed the blessing worked.

A devout man, he wasn't without a sense of humour. He told the Inverness Oran newspaper that the numerous blessings his feet received from parish priests "… were hard cheques to cash."

Dancing throughout Cape Breton, while supporting a family of 12 children – first as a coal miner, then as a fisherman and later at Stora Enso pulp mill – was challenging, but he still found time to mentor young dancers. He taught well into his 80s.

More than 20 years ago, Mr. MacDonald, himself a respected fiddler and step dancer, arrived at Mr. Fraser's home ready to learn the Scotch Four traditional dance. Mr. Fraser immediately took the shoes Mr. MacDonald was carrying and flipped them over. Mr. Fraser was pleased to see they didn't have clickers attached to the toe and heel. As a traditional dancer, he didn't wear clickers on his shoes.

"He was very passionate about Gaelic language and culture," Mr. MacDonald said.

In 1991, Mr. Fraser made his first trip to Scotland, with renowned Cape Breton fiddler Buddy MacMaster, to teach. He returned twice more to teach workshops at a Gaelic music summer school.

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A spry man, Mr. Fraser danced as long as he could. At the age of 85, he took to the stage at his favourite event, the Broad Cove Scottish Concert, the largest outdoor Scottish show in Cape Breton.

At his 100th birthday celebration on March 7 at the Inverary Manor in Inverness, about 200 family and friends gathered to honour a milestone he always said he would reach. From his wheelchair, Mr. Fraser tapped his toes to the Gaelic music and dance being performed and teased about how nice it was that all his girlfriends had come to visit.

Mr. Fraser was recognized for his contributions to Scottish culture, including in 2005 by the lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia and the Celtic Colours International Festival in 2007. He was also featured in several videos and documentaries, most recently by the BBC.

"He was full of faith and full of family and full of fun," his daughter Clare MacQuarrie said.

Mr. Fraser leaves his 12 children, Roddie, Maureen, Billy, Clare, A.R., Wayne, Gary, Eugene, Doug, Eric, Kathleen and Gerald; 25 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife, Kathleen, and siblings.

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