Dispatch from the Field: Cape Breton and a Gaelic Kaylee

Breton pano

Cape Breton Island is at once beautiful and culturally significant, as it is home to a massive amount of Acadian and Gaelic culture and history. The French Acadians were evicted from the southeastern part of the Island when the British beat the pants off the French during the Seven Year’s War. Acadians subsequently came back to the northwestern part of the Island where the high lands (now known as the Cape Breton Highlands) gave them some protection and cultural insulation. It worked! There were as many Acadian flags (the French tri-color with a gold star on it) in that area as acadian flagthere were Canadian flags. Many Acadians also moved to other parts of Canada as well as Louisiana. Avid reader and Cajun music lover “shortforcanyon” will appreciate (and no doubt already knows), that after the Acadians got to Louisiana the persistent southern accent converted “Acadian” to “Cajun.” Same great traditions and same great music.

In addition, centuries ago Gaelic immigrants from Scotland came by the tens of thousands and made Nova Scotia, especially Cape Breton, their home. The Gaels, with their Celtic language and rich culture, have helped shape Nova Scotia’s identity.  More on that in a bit.

For now let’s focus on the Cabot Trail which circumnavigates the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Cabot Trail signWe did the 200 mile Trail (meaning road but Trail sounds oh so much more adventurous and that is what they call it) in a day, with a stop for lunch at the Keltic Lodge, enjoying the breathtaking view from the restaurant. We took some short hikes along the way, and I took a short nap, and we got back to the motorhome in time for dinner. Doing the Cabot Trail in two days, and spending more time along the way, might be the better option. But geez, not in a motorhome. Parts of the road are windy, steep, and tight. Hence we took the Jeep, and I was too cheap to stop half way through and rent a room somewhere.

breton coast line

Along the Trail, there are a bunch of hiking opportunities, and we took the one called “The Bog.” Clearly, it does not sound as inviting or as sexy as “Skyline Trail” or “Middle Head Trail,” but it was supposed to have a good chance of us meeting a Moose. What we would do in that event, it was not clear. The issue was moot, however; no Moose, just bog. But as bogs go, not a bad one.


As beautiful as the Highlands were, the highlight of our Cape Breton experience was attending a Ceilidh (pronounced “Kay-Lee”) at The Gaelic College. Let’s just call it a gaelic collegeKaylee and focus on the event rather than the spelling or pronunciation. A Kaylee is an old Gaelic tradition roughly meaning gathering, as in let’s get together in the kitchen and play music, eat, dance, and tell stories and lies. Carol was hoping “drink some Scotch” would be a part of it, but two of the performers, Dawn and Margie, instead served all of us tea and cookies. Yes, the performers served tea and cookies to everyone there, like we were in their kitchen. And that was the point.

Since The Gaelic College is all about preserving the Gaelic culture, KayLeelanguage, and traditions, they hold many public Kaylees, and we attended a doozy. Margie and Dawn started off the show, playing the fiddle and
keyboard, and were ultimately joined by three more performers. They all traded off playing the fiddle, the keyboard, the guitar, and dancing. There was even a Gaelic song, sung in Gaelic that nobody understood, but we all sort of got. Another tune was from a Gaelic song literally translated “She put her knee in him.” Sadly, the title and the song were not explained. The music pulled me in like a magnet on iron. It was all I could do to keep from jumping up on the stage and dancing with them. Well, that and lack of talent.

One of the performers was Rod MacDonald, who played the fiddle and danced, sometimes at the same time. The Gaelic tradition is all about dancing to the music, even if you are playing the music. It was a wonder to see. It turns out that Rod is not only the CEO of the College, but also the former Prime Minister of Nova Scotia. (Just teasing, Canadians, he is the former Premier.) We talked to Rod after the concert. He was pretty sweaty from all the performing, so I guess that’s why Carol is hugging me not him. He with rodtold us that prior to becoming Premier he was at various times the minister of tourism and culture, and immigration, and this, and that. Essentially, when he became Premier he knew pretty much everything about what was going on in the government. We asked him if he would consider moving to the States and running for higher office, but he politely demurred and instead invited us to return to Cape Breton another time. We actually might.

When we were at the Keltic Lodge (and I know they can’t seem to get the spelling straight – is it laurenKeltic or Celtic? Apparently no one knows), we met Lauren, who now lives and works in the Cape Breton Highlands. I asked her where she was from and she said “Sydney [Nova Scotia] but I’m not going back!” Why? “Because there’s nothing to do! The coal mines and steel mills have closed, and it’s kind of depressing.” So, of course, the next day we went to Sydney. She was right. There was one thing though that I did want to see in Sydney – the Odditorium. What better place to go for a blog that enjoys the weird and the quirky. It apparently specializes in old rocks and minerals and other relics of the past. However, the Odditorium enjoys odd hours too. It turned out that they are open – briefly – on Monday and Friday, and otherwise by appointment only, and we were not there during the open hours. And it was very, very hard to find, unless you happened to already be heading to the medical marijuana dispensary next door. Hmm, that’s odd. Coincidence? Lauren, I’ll never doubt you again.

Our last night, tropical moisture from hurricane Maria mixed with a cold front from western Canada, resulting in the most intense series of Cape Breton thunderstorms in decades. Torrential rain. Lighting. Thunder. It started around 4 in the morning and lasted for three hours. The experience of thunder and lightning is a bit more intimate when your campsite is at the top of a plateau, you are all by yourselves in your motorhome, there are no other tall objects nearby, and your head is on a pillow separated from the metal superstructure of the RV by about three inches and a thin wall. Every time there was a flash of lightning I counted the seconds before the boom. Five seconds means it is about a mile away, and luckily the strikes never got closer than that. Storms like that make for little sleep, but great sunsets.


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