Nova Scotia’s Scottish Roots: A Ceilidh to Nova Scotia
A trip to Nova Scotia involves a good deal of driving. When you get to The Cabot Trail, the driving pays off. Nova Scotia, the most populous of Canada’s Maritime Provinces, resembles an italic lowercase i on a map.
With the Bay of Fundy on its west coast, the waters of the Atlantic Ocean on the Eastern Shore, the i shape of Nova Scotia gets its dot from Cape Breton Island.
“Ceilidh” (pronounced KAY-lee) is the Gaelic word for “visit,” and the name “Nova Scotia” translated from Latin means “New Scotland.” These two pieces of trivia offer a significant amount of insight for those who reach all the way to Cape Breton Island.
Nowhere is the designations “New Scotland” more fitting than Cape Breton. Under a century ago, Gaelic was the primary language for 60,000 of the island’s inhabitants.
(This number, though, has halved with the passing of each decade since 1920.)
More than just a Visit
The kitchen stove on stage is a nod to the kitchen origin of the ceilidh. While ceilidh technically translates to “visit,” it is actually much more complex than that; A ceilidh culture existed in Scotland and Nova Scotia in the pre-radio pre-dance club days when people joined together to share stories, play music, step dance and enjoy one another’s company. The simplest of these gatherings (most often held in the family’s kitchen or a friend’s) required little more than a fiddle and some company.
An older gentleman explained to me that, in his father’s time, everyone attended these kitchen ceilidhs; those who stayed home were odd and probably not to be fully trusted. Visiting the other members of the small communities was simply natural behavior. It was a forum for the oral tradition and storytellers in addition to the music.
In some circles, participation was required from every person in the room. Be it a story, a dance, a tune, or something else, everyone contributed.
When the economy opened up opportunities beyond small local communities, and—especially—after the radio became a new gathering point, the ceilidh culture petered out.
Despite being an integral and ubiquitous part of a previous era, the modern equivalent rarely takes place outside of two contexts: musicians’ jam sessions, and; dedicated venues.
My First Step
My first glimpse into the modern ceilidh took place at the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre, in Judique.
It was a Sunday, and the place was packed. With only a piano and a fiddle, the performers filled the room with a sound as dense as the energy from the audience.
When I arrived, the dancers (the boldest members of the audience) were staking a claim in front of the stage showing off some standard jigs. Seated spectators split their attention between the musicians (who were playing on a stage decorated with a old style gas stove) and step dancing which was taking place on the fore.
This situation made the waitress’s job more complicated, but she was clearly accustomed to navigating between tightly packed chairs and timing her movement in sync with the gauntlet of dancing patrons.
Rankin Fame and Killer Meatloaf
Up the road in Mabou (said, “m’BOO”), The Red Shoe offers fiddle and piano music in a ceilidh atmosphere. And the meatloaf, a standout specialty of theirs, is phenomenal.
Fiddle and Piano music attracts flocks of tourists to The Red Shoe in Mabou. Its current owners, the Rankin Sisters, bring the type of credibility which is hard to compete with. (For those who haven’t been acquainted with the family musical group, The Rankin Family has been the pride of Cape Breton after taking their blend of Celtic and traditional-folk influenced pop music to widespread success in Canada.)
Again, I made the mistake of showing up after the music had started. Most patrons show up early, bunker down, and stay until the music quits. Luckily, a spot at the bar opened up and I got a chance to talk to a Mabou native who was back for the summer.
He told me, through a distinctly Celtic brogue, that Sundays and Friday nights are packed with tourists for fiddle and piano ceilidhs; Saturdays, with the variety of music (mainly contemporary and country western blends), draws a bit of a different crowd; Thursdays (wing night) bring the locals—that is, starting in July once lobster season is over and the locals can find the time to visit.
The Red Shoe characterizes much of rural Nova Scotia’s attractions: the pub’s owners grew up in the town (the Rankins are Mabou natives); it has a deep history (the building starting life as a general store); the pub holds a direct link to the past (owing its name to a song composed by Dan R. MacDonald, a famous Cape Bretoner and fiddle player) and defines itself within its local culture’s social traditions (the ceilidhs here are as lively as any I saw).
The Cabot Trail Offers Some Supreme Driving
Indeed, it is the only place to enjoy a beer for miles in each direction, so one would assume that The Red Shoe would be the local haunt, but unfortunately that isn’t the case. Unless you happen by on a Thursday night, the only locals you’ll find are the staff (who work at a torrid pace to keep up with the droves of tourists).
When I asked my Mabou-born confidant about young kids—what they do to keep busy in a sleepy town like his aside from cater on tourists driving through—he said: “Not much. There’s hockey, of course.”
Hitting the Trail
It would be nonsensical to visit Cape Breton without taking a spin around the Cabot Trail—the famed circuit around the perimeter of the Highlands National Park.
This is a drive; the type of drive—like Colorado’s Trail Ridge Road, or California’s Route 1 Pacific Coast Highway—where the destination is wholly besides the point.
For my loop around the Cabot Trail, the mid-June weather wasn’t cooperative. I only caught glimpses of the terrain between breaks in the opaque misty blanket of drizzly cloud cover. What I did manage to see only piqued ire, because the tantalizing hints of stunning vistas gave me an idea as to what my poorly timed trip would have looked like in fair weather.
As far as moose encounters go, the two scenarios you generally want to avoid are (a) meeting a big-antlered bull moose during the fall “rut,” as the annual competition over mating rights predisposes males towards aggressive behavior, and; (b) running into a cow, calf in tow, during the spring or early summer, when maternal instincts predisposes females towards aggressive behavior while safeguarding their offspring.
The trail which I, she, and her calf were all standing upon is known as “Skyline,” and it is perhaps the most famous and highly trafficked nature path on the Cabot Trail. (I refrain from calling it a “hike”—though others do—because it is primarily flat and entirely paved.) Well, on a foray into the hiking paths which spider off from the paved Cabot Trail, I ran into a moose.
Standing quietly—very, very, very quietly—and snapping a few hopefully-unobtrusive pictures, I was entirely aware that I was breaking the second golden rule. Fortunately she didn’t take offense.
The Gaelic College of Nova Scotia’s mission statement explains their intention “to promote, preserve and perpetuate through studies in all related areas: The Culture, Music, Language, Arts, Crafts, Customs and Traditions of immigrants from the Highlands of Scotland.”
The teaching and preservation of the Gaelic language is central to this mission, as Hector McNeil, the college’s Gaelic Director, explained.
Just as central, is the teaching motto “How.”
Students travel to the campus (located in the town of St. Ann’s) not to learn about bagpipes, kilts and step dancing, but learn how:
Kilt making is a hard-earned trade. Ann Cantwell is a kilt maker on premises at the Gaelic College. Course offerings include: how to speak Gaelic; how to play the Bagpipe, Cape Breton Fiddle, Pipe & Band Drumming music, Piano, Harp and Small Pipes; how to weave traditional patterns on hand looms with naturally dyed material; how to step dance, and, of course; how to speak Gaelic.
Behind the Folds
Just up the stairs from an office in an administrative building on campus, in a bright workshop, Ann Cantwell and her apprentice, Christine Cann, work, surrounded by tartan fabric, making kilts.
“A man in a kilt is a man and a half,” Ann explained to me chuckling as she offered to let me try on one of the kilts. Upon her first bid I declined, and we went on talking about the details of the trade.
Though the college doesn’t really offer courses in Kilt making (mainly because it takes six years of tutelage to master the trade), visitors are welcome to take a peek behind the scenes in their workshop.
The apprenticeship is so long because, in addition to the actual skill required in hand stitching, lining up, and manufacturing kilts in general, the subtleties of tartans magnify the complexity of each task along the way. Some patterns are perfect mirror images of themselves, others are more irregular. Each tartan has a specific concordant; some tartans are registered to counties, some to clans or families. All tartans must be officially registered and, if it’s not, it’s just considered a plaid.
In short, kilt making isn’t just about ironing pleats, folding, and stitching.
Ann explained that she knows all of the tartans by sight. And Christine is on her way there. A huge complex set of knowledge underpins kilt making.
Witnessing the process—seeing artisans’ hands transform nine (!) flat, rectangular meters of material into a bespoken, gracefully swinging, finished product—won me over. They finally convinced me to try on a kilt.
The Blomidon Inn, run by Mike Laceby, and his brother Shawn is the Chef. Do NOT miss dinner in the old converted library. Only having four
The Library in The Blomidon Inn has first rate dining and the building itself is a marvelous Victorian building. I had the Caribou and it blew me away. Every dish I had was fantastic, the atmosphere is top notch. Their wine list is solid and service in the intimate setting is personal and well handled.
The Inn itself is on beautiful property with great gardens tended to by Mike and Shawn’s mother. While in Wolfville, make sure to take a trip up to Domaine de Gran Pre. This winery makes a point of being Nova Scotia’s premier wine makers.
With the vineyard, fermenting facilities, and tasting room/gift shop as a stops along the tour of Domaine, this smartly landscaped winery with cobblestoned pathways a no-brainer to visit. They are setting the standard for what caliber wine Nova Scotia is capable of producing, and, because of Domaine de Gran Pre, that standard is rising.
Tidal Bore Rafting
Most of the activities Nova Scotia offers are geared towards a relaxing vacation, and most of the travelers I saw were pushing—or past—retirement age. That makes Tidal Bore Rafting a bit of an oddball activity.
Twice a day, the incoming waters from Bay of Fundy clash with the idly flowing Shubenacadie at the river’s mouth. Within minutes, the sandbars disappear under the huge volumes of new water and the whole river begins rising upon its banks. The incoming tide pushes against the slow flowing current, and waves (up to ten feet high) surge in pockets of silty brown turbulence.
That is me up front. Tidal Bore rafting is a unique–if a tad out of place–offering from Nova Scotia. Sitting where I am, waves will come fully over your head. It is an absolute riot.
I had to throw out my shirt, as I didn’t have access to laundry machines and there is zero chance of leaving the river anything short of entirely soaked.
Editors note: CAT ferry no longer operates between Bar Harbor and Nova Scotia, however a ferry service still operates daily between
Portland ME and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada. Link
I highly recommend staying over in Bar Harbor before departing for Nova Scotia. This gives you time to wake up at a decent hour for the ferry’s 8:00 AM departure, and Bar Harbor is a truly charming town.
I also highly recommend the Blue Nose Inn.
My room at the Blue Nose Inn had a spectacular view of Frenchman Bay. If I had it to do over, this would definitely be on the list. Also, it is less than a mile to the port where The CAT departs.
Steve Flahive is a freelance travel writer and photographer and a former intern for GoNOMAD when he attended the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
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