A Scottish Piper’s Birl Around Cape Breton Island 

On Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island, the landscape takes your breath away

- and so does the dance!

by Nancy Lyon

Great Bras d'or Lake

Great Bras d'or Lake

Must you really bring a Scottish piper in a Clan MacNab tartan kilt all the way from Scotland to answer the question "How Scottish is Nova Scotia?" Aye. Just how much of the Highlands and Gaels could you find on the haunting island in the St. Lawrence Gulf they call Cape Breton? Aye, and what adventurous capers and merriment would the research task require?

Buddy MacMaster playing at a Ceili in Glencoe Mills Hall, 2003

Buddy MacMaster playing at a Ceili in Glencoe Mills Hall, 2003

Scottish piper Gordon Mooney wasn't wearing his Clan MacNab kilt, his sporran, white kneesocks and black dress shoes when he landed at the Halifax International Airport. But the frisky Scot certainly was now, as the legendary Cape Breton fiddler Buddy MacMaster from Judique lashed out the strathspeys and reels at Glencoe Mills parish hall.  At this ceilidh where young and old, beginners and experts, locals and visitors, in bluejeans and beguiling summer dresses, proper dance shoes, work boots, tennis shoes and sandals, swung and swirled and flirted about, his Cape Breton tee-shirt tucked into a kilt wasn't out of place at all.

CEILIDH: that's Cape Breton's Gaelic password to a rousing good time. It's pronounced "kay-lee" and it means a variety of gatherings featuring Celtic music and dance. Of all the places on Cape Breton's "Ceilidh Trail" we might have ended up on this balmy August evening, Mooney and I couldn't believe our luck. 

He'd gotten off the plane with a sheaf of website print-outs announcing festivals, Highland games, dances,concerts, singing sessions in Gaelic --in parish halls, pubs, Masonic halls, schools, firehalls, on wharfs, boardwalks, and onboard schooners all over the island every night of the week. But which ceilidh to choose? Shall we look up The Celtic Music Interpretive Center? O head to The Feis Bhaile at Englishtown? Or the Red Shoe Pub in Mabou?

That afternoon, we'd stopped at South Gut St. Ann's to visit Cape Breton's mother lode of Celtic inspiration, Colaisde na Gaidhlig the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts, the only place in North America where everything from bagpiping to Gaelic speaking to tartan weaving is taught. In the Great Hall of the Clans, amidst the gaudy rainbow of plaids, we got a tip-off: "Go to Glencoe" the guide urged, and sent us off with a crudely drawn map. So we'd found our way to Whycocomagh, then by starlight we bumped along a lonely dirt road for 15 km until we saw a sign streaming with light.

Ciad Mile Failte - A HUNDRED THOUSAND WELCOMES was the greeting over the door of the Glencoe Mills Hall. It was a beacon to all the other cars that had rattled along other dirt roads from Brook Village, Mabou, Black River, Judique, Port Hood, to this community hall in the middle of nowhere -- to dance, dance, dance!!! Because wherever Buddy MacMaster was playing, was somewhere!


Buddy's music had that Scottish snap, that Cape Breton lift as wild as rocket fuel. You'd zoom to the moon and back while swinging your partner and lose track of night or day, body or soul. This robust lilting music had sustained Cape Breton's people through times sweet and sour. Brought here from Scotland centuries ago, it had picked up some Irish lilt and American swing along the way, as the sassy syncopated piano back-up of Buddy's daughter Mary Elizabeth's showed off.

I hadn't shuffled my feet around Cape Breton since 1977, when I'd danced my shoes to pieces in Grand River and played some Irish tunes with Mi'kmaq fiddler Lee Cremo (now gone to the Great Ceili in the Sky). After all these years, I was heartened to see the locals still swinging and clogging on a Saturday night, in that wild improvised battering that Cape Breton step dancing is famous for. The floor shook with our happy dancing feet until 1 a.m.

Oh my poor legs. Our posh accomodations at the Lord Nelson and the Prince George in Halifax, the Braeside Inn in Pictou and the seaside Point-of-View Suites at Louisbourg had been glorious. But feeling too feeble to push a gas pedal, I was happy to have my yellow 1970 VW camper Dame Gitane - a handy bed on wheels -- parked in the grassy field beside the old hall.

Glen Coe, Cape Breton and Glen Coe, Scotland

The next morning my learned Scottish consultant and I awoke to bright sun and birdsong...and not a soul around. I wandered over to the old clapboard church seeking "facilities" and an electrical outlet for my tea kettle. The door to the pretty chapel was open, but as for plumbing or electricity, I was amused to find none. I was inspecting the privy out back when Gordon called from the cemetary.

"Nancy, look at these headstones, it's incredible!

I inspected the names carved in the old granite....Sarah MacDonald d.1917 ....Peter Campbell, d.1906... John Archie MacDonald d. 1998... Isabel Campbell d. 1912. But my knowledge of Scottish history being very paltry at this time, I did not see what Gordon found so astonishing.

"A whole cemetary of MacDonalds and Campbells buried side by side. And in Glencoe!" The Glencoe Massacre of 1692, lass. One of the most shameful atrocities in Scottish history. The McIan's of Clan MacDonald of Glencoe murdered in their beds by the guests they'd entertained for a fortnight-- the scheming Campbells. In the attack—lead by noneother than Robert Campbell of Glen Lyon—yes, Lyon—they even tortured and slaughtered women and bairns and an 80-year old man."

"Are you saying the guests murdered their hosts ???"

"Yes I am!!! They defied all traditions of Highland Hospitality, breaking an ancient fundament. The massacre was a political blunder of sorts," Gordon continued. "As you know, Highlanders were Gaelic speaking and Catholic; Lowlanders were English and Protestant. In an attempt to pacify the 'savage' Clansmen, King William of Orange forced Highland clan chieftains to swear an oath of fealty to him as their King. Under threat of death, they all complied by the proscribed deadline, except for McIan of Clan MacDonald, whose oath—because he was late through no fault of his own—was rejected. This gave King William a perfect excuse to exterminate the troublesome MacDonalds, and whack a final blow to the clan system, " Gordon said. "But it backfired. The heinous abuse of Highland hospitality—hosts butchered by their guests in the dark of a winter's morning—outraged Highlanders from every single clan; be they friend or foe of the MacDonalds. The barbarous killing of over 40 MacDonalds shocked the public and provoked the very violence King William of Orange strove to prevent. 

“That brought on the first of many Jacobite Rebellions,” Gordon continued. It was quickly put down, but it set the Highlands on a disastrous course which ended with Bonnie Prince Charlie’s defeat at the Battle of Culloden on April 16, 1746 and the slaughter of 1,000 Highlanders. That defeat tumbled the clan system and began the long slow bleed...mass emigration from Scotland.

"So now maybe you can understand that's why I find it so strange to see Campbells and MacDonalds buried side by side in a village named for that doomed glen in Scotland... That dark Scottish Highland Glencoe, brooding with treachery and betrayal, is so unlike this Glencoe, in this bright, rolling, pastoral countryside. The Campbells and MacDonalds were bitter enemies in Scotland but their descendants who immigrated to Cape Breton managed to live in some kind of peace. Perhaps it was the Scottish music they brought with them...."

"Yes! Dancing in Glencoe Hall," I said. "But look — this MacDonald headstone is carved with an electric chainsaw. And this Campbell headstone is carved with a grand house. The MacDonalds worked as lumberjacks felling trees—for the Campbells to build their mansions!"

"‘Aye well it's ‘Aye Been!’’ Gordon sighed.

Gaelic Place Names

Scottish family names and Gaelic place names dot the map of Nova Scotia like ants at a picnic. In this misty maritime land revered by the indigenous Mi'kmaq, colonized by the French, fought over by the English, invaded by the Americans—Mc's and Mac's began to plaid the highlands of Cape Breton after the ship Hector carrying 179 Highlanders sailed from Loch Broom and landed in Pictou in 1773.

Pictou is fierce proud of its Scottish origins. If you land on here on certain days in summer, you'll enter a time-warp of people dressed in clan tartans, gathered around the Hector Heritage Quay where the majestic reproduction of the two-masted brig Hector is docked. Gordon and I stopped in Pictou before crossing the Cansoe Causeway to start our Cape Breton adventure.

After snapping silly photos of our heads stuck into the wooden mock-ups of brawny Highlander lads and lassies around the town, we headed down to the Hector Exhibit Centre to learn about Nova Scotia's first Scottish immigrants. We were struck by the story of John Mackay, a poor Sutherlandshire man who didn't have the £3 pounds, three shillings fare to sail to Nova Scotia, but was granted passage on the Hectoronly because he played the bagpipes. His dance music lifted the spirits of the wretched passengers, and his sad keening pibrochs accompanied their burials at sea.

Two centuries ago Gordon well might well have been one of these land-hungry Gaels who left his crofter's hut in the wind-swept Highlands to escape persecution, famine, and cruel land ‘Clearances’ which replaced crofters with more productive "tenants"—sheep! Lured by the beauty and promise of Nova Scotia, he would have crowded aboard the Hector, withstood the grueling, storm-tossed 11-week voyage, and then braved the hardships that awaited -arriving with no provisions, and no means of clearing the land.

If it hadn't been for the tartans and kilts, outlawed by the English as symbols of revolt, and the bagpipes, banned as weapons of war, the native Mi'kmaqs might not have adopted these first settlers.  As it turned out, the Mi'kmaqs were fascinated by the wild screaming instrument, and taught the Scots how to Indian wrestle, paddle canoes and exploit the abundance of fish and seafood, wild berries and roots, wild game, deer and rabbits in this new land.

To see the type of miserable dwellings the Gaels left behind, visit the Highland Village Museum in Iona. This outdoor interpretative museum chronicles two centuries of Scottish settlement on Cape Breton Island. See what the dark, windowless, smoke-stained Hebridean Black House actually looked like. This dismal sod roof dwelling sheltered generations of Island Gaels before their emigration to New Scotland.

Alexander Graham Bell and his Tetrahedron Kites

Gordon and I learned more about Cape Breton folkways from the stack of musty hand-typed Cape Bretons Magazine we bought at roadside vegetable stand. We loved the eerie ghost stories and tales of Cape Breton's shipwrecks, pirates, buried treasure, and rum-running days....the interviews with oldtimers divulging techniques for making rope from wood and recipes for chokecherry jelly, spruce beer, and Scottish Ceann Groppi from cod's heads and livers. We learned about the life cycle of the eel, and Cape Breton wildflowers: Pearly Everlasting (the "Poverty Weed"), the Highbush Cranberry (the "Snowball tree"), hop clover, blue vetch, harebells and tansy. And we learned about Alexander Graham Bell's crazy experiments with Winged-Cell Tetrahedron Kites.

The Scot who invented the telephone when he was only 29 fell in love with Cape Breton. He claimed that its simple beauty surpassed the Canadian and American Rockies, the Andes, the Alps and the Highlands of Scotland. On the shores of Bras d'Or Lake, he built the beautiful estate Beinn Bhreagh where he would spend the last 37 years of his life - and experiment with kites!

"An incredible number of unusual shapes began to fills the skies above Beinn Bhreagh, held aloft on lines of Bamboo poles, or raised by being pulled along by a running horse," stated the Cape Breton's Magazine article. "When the kites got really large they were launched from the Bras d'Or, pulled along by a steamer. Bell created the Frost King of 1300 cells, which in 1905 lifted a man a few feet off the ground, and the Cygnet I, made of 3393 cells, which flew with a man within it on December 3, 1907."

There are other Nova Scotias to explore--including those of the Acadians and the native Mi'kmaqs. But Gordon and I had our antennae tuned to the Celtic frequency and everywhere we went, he was catching the resonance between the Old and New Scotlands. 

The Great Bras d'or Lake area around the Red Islands reminded him of Islay. The stonework in the buildings in Pictou reminded him of Glascow. Of Baddeck he said, "This looks like the area around Pitlochry. But roads this bad wouldn't be allowed in Scotland!" he laughed.

It's true that some Nova Scotia roads wouldn't look bad in Mexico. They reeled and sashayed around the bends. They looked like they'd been clog-danced on by the Devil. They jigged and hornpiped up and down until my Volkswagen VW van I called Dame Gitane came to enjoy the syncopated ride and the battering.

Music Along the Legendary Cabot Trail

Nova Scotians say that God created Cape Breton on the First Day, and on the Second Day, he threw rocks at it. But that's hardly fair. Cape Breton's rocks are poetry in stone, lyrically arranged and shaped into mist-sprayed cliffs that leap up from a silvery shore. 

The scenic Cabot Trail winds around the northern shore and hairpins through the Cape Breton Highlands National Park through a highland tapestry of woodland, tundra and bog, laced with curtains of waterfalls. 

Years before, I had driven all of its majestic miles with Irish music friends and Brian Heron, founder of An Claidheamh Soluis, New York City’s original Irish Arts Center. We got lost, really lost, and spent a very supernaturally spooky night camping at the end of the world at Meat Cove. Beware of the charm of the 286-km (179-mile) long scenic Cabot Trail. It’s special because it's so remote. But never set off on the Cabot Trail without a full tank of gas. It can be miles and miles between house numbers. This Gordon and I discovered as Dame Gitane sputtered into the driveway of #44429 Cabot Trail with barely a cup of petrol to spare.

Every serious traditional musician who comes to Cape Breton makes a pilgrimage to the abode of the Paul Stewart Cranford. His little house by the sea is a beacon to musicians from near and far-- especially those craving a dose of new tunes. Paul publishes collections of Scottish and Cape Breton music, and he is one of the last of a dying breed -- a Canadian lighthouse keeper.

Paul landed on Cape Breton in 1975. It was his first and last stop on a round-the-world tour from Toronto. He was offered a job as a lighthouse keeper on St. Paul Island in the Cabot Strait, the perfect banishment for a fiddler eager to binge on tunes. It lead him to launch Cranford Publications, which has preserved much of Cape Breton's catchy music and spread it around the world.

As soon as we got to the house, fiddler and violin maker David Papazian lashed out the cups of tea. Before the teapot was drained, Gordon had perused the shelves of tune collections and gathered an armload to take back to Scotland...including the Alexander Walker Collection, Brenda Stubbert's Collection of Fiddle Tunes, and The Lighthouse Collection of Newly Composed Fiddle Tunes. Then a figure as lanky as a lighthouse burst through the door: Cranford, with a beaming smile as bright as a fresnel, was home from his month-long duty on Machias Seal Island in the Bay of Fundy.

Out with the instruments! Gordon his Border pipes, Northumbrian and small pipes; David his fiddle,concertina and Irish Uilleann pipes; Paul his fiddle, and myself at the tin whistles, accordion and wirestrung Celtic harp. Later we drove to the next musical house along the Cabot Trail, that of fiddle maker and player Otis Tomas, originally from Rhode Island. There we met other American ex-pat fiddlers from New England, and played till our fingers ached and the first streaks of dawn appeared over the ocean.

From one end of Cape Breton to another, I loved watching Gordon discover so much of the old Scotland that he loved in the New Scotland. He was poignantly reminded of the many feet that had left Scotland to settle the new lands, but was heartened at how enduring was the Scots heritage in Canada. He was charmed by the soft Maritime accents and the islanders' fun-loving nature. His head was filled with Cape Breton versions of old Scottish tunes like " like Mrs Macleod and The Reel of Stumpie. His soul piqued by the rugged landscapes of foaming sea and capes, wave-washed cobbles, and exquisite white sand beaches crowded with only little piles of periwinkles. Invigorated by the salt air, shuffling barefoot in the waves, and walking through fields of wild blueberries and butterflies, his feet cried out for more dancing. And he swore that it wouldn't be long before they would tap their way back to Nova Scotia.