As we drove away from the Nova Scotia visitors centre on Highway 19, we knew that one of the imperatives we had set ourselves for our visit to Cape Breton Island had a real chance of being achieved. The route proposed by the visitor centre staff was signposted as The Ceilidh Trail. This must lead to music.
Nearly every hamlet and village we passed had a Scottish name. The county we were in was called Inverness. A few places had English or French names reflecting the variety of origins of the settlers coming to Canada back in the 18th and 19th centuries. Each community had a church and a graveyard. The churches were divided almost equally between Catholic and Protestant. The graveyards were open spaces with no walls or obvious boundaries. The houses, outbuildings and the churches were all in a very good state of repair and decoration. The communities obviously took pride in themselves.
After less than half an hour we arrived at Judique, a French sounding name but the home of a traditional Scottish music cultural centre. It was lunchtime and we had read that the centre had an eating place with live music. As we entered the building it was great to hear a fiddle playing. This was what we were looking for.
The reception desk was manned by a student and we got talking to her. She had studied Scottish Gaelic at school and at university to degree level. We were impressed. She had visited Scotland and was very disappointed that she didn’t find anyone in Glasgow who spoke Gaelic around the city. Travelling north to Skye she did manage to find people to converse with but it wasn’t everyone she met. It’s interesting how a remote land that Scots colonised has kept the language tradition alive whilst the home country has largely let it die away.
She told us that there was a small museum at the back of the building which explained the history of music and musical instruments in Cape Breton. We bought tickets. The fiddle is the big instrument here. They make their own and learn to play at a very young age. In one room there were a few fiddles hanging on the wall. A local specialist, on DVD, was encouraging visitors to pick up a fiddle and to learn a simple tune. Nothing daunted we both gave it a try but we won’t be playing to audiences for a while yet.
Then it was time for lunch. We ordered two seafood chowders and drinks – Garrison Tall Ships Amber Ale from Halifax – and sat at tables along with about a dozen other people. The music was excellent. A young fiddler in his early twenties was playing his heart out and another guy was accompanying him on an electric keyboard. The music had a strong resemblance to Scottish fiddling but slightly less formal and with a real lilt. Towards the end, a girl came out onto the floor in front of the players and danced in her bare feet. She was very talented. Then as quickly as she had appeared on the floor she was away. The duo then did one more number and the lunchtime performance was over. How lucky we had been to arrive at the right time.
Well fed, watered and entertained, we set off further along the coast. Roadside signs advertised the Glenora Distillery, the Scotch whisky distillery of Nova Scotia. We could feel another stop coming on. As we approached Glenora, the building had all the appearance of a Highland distillery in Scotland except that the chimney of the still was noticeably smaller. Notices announced tours of the distillery, visits to the shop and live music in the café bar. We headed straight for the latter. Inside there were two young men, one playing the fiddle and the other an upright piano. The fiddler was obviously multi-talented as he had a row of squeeze boxes arranged on the floor in front of him. The music was good although the pianist rather dominated in the second half of each piece as he was carried away with keyboard flights of fancy. All this for the price of two coffees and some money in the hat, was excellent value.
Heading onwards we passed through the local capital city, Inverness, a totally different place from its namesake in Scotland. This Inverness is quite compact, there is no big river running through the city centre and, with all respect to Inverness (Scotland), it is all very spruce. Then the road took us very close to the sea and our eyes were drawn to a sandy beach and a grassy headland. Time to park and explore. The path from the roadside led straight down to the beach. We climbed up to the headland and looked out to sea. I say sea, but actually it is the Gulf of St Lawrence although to all intents and purposes it is a sea. You certainly can’t see across to the other side, that’s hundreds of miles away, it’s tidal and linked to the Atlantic Ocean primarily through the strait between Cape Breton Island and Newfoundland.
(I’m writing this on the plane back from New York to London and being a travel geek the airline route map is playing on the screen in front of me. Although it’s too dark to see outside, the map shows that we are, as I write these words, passing over Cape Breton Island. If only it was daylight.)
It was now only a short distance to our hotel for the next two nights, the Duck Cove Inn at Margaree Harbour. It is in a beautiful location on the shores of a sea loch and our room had a balcony where we could sit and soak up the scenery. The proprietor, Gordon Lawrence, is a very nice man and very helpful, but throughout our stay he looked completely shattered. He was very hands-on. He provided a superb breakfast buffet several days a week – it lasted all morning and seemed to have absolutely everything on the table you could ever want. Naturally, it was packed out.
The main reason for staying in this area was to do some whale watching but it was not to be. June, July and August are the best months but a combination of windy and wet weather either moved the whales too far out to sea or the conditions weren’t suitable for the boats to go out. We had to content ourselves with visiting a few coastal towns including Chéticamp, an Arcadian town where French is still spoken.
We had more luck with lobsters which were definitely in season and on the menu in every eating place. We ate in a modest-looking little place near the sea, attended by a friendly teenage boy who was obviously being trained up by a maternal older waitress. The lobster came in the shell which had been expertly cracked so that you could reach the flesh of the claws and the tail without any need for other implements. This was lobster that had just come from the sea and kept alive in a tank, with the claws firmly taped together, until ordered by a customer. It was very, very fresh. The whole meal including salad, French fries, delicious coleslaw and a locally brewed beer came to about £15 including taxes and service. At one point, the boy approached me and politely pointed out that there was more meat to be quarried out from the lobster and promptly did it for me. We returned for breakfast the next day and were welcomed like family by the boy and his trainer.
Back to our tour of Cape Breton Island. We were now on the Cabot Trail. More of that in my next post.