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Special Travel Issue | Canada

Kilt-Deep in Song in Nova Scotia

Along the Cabot Trail, Culinary and Musical Traditions Reflect the Region's Gaelic Roots. And There's Even a Nod to the Earlier French Settlers.

March 21, 2004|MARGO PFEIFF | Margo Pfeiff, a freelance writer in Montreal, is a regular contributor to The Times' Travel section.

A couple of lobstermen had the locals on their feet at the Thistledown Pub last June. It wasn't the day's catch they were brandishing but guitars. Everyone sang along as they sipped frosty mugs of Alexander Keith's ale. Suddenly a teenage girl with flaming red hair burst into their midst. As Tracy Cavanaugh strummed his guitar at a feverish pace, the girl's legs became a blur of Highland plaid socks.

Bartender Jason Fownes slid another Gaelic coffee laced with Drambuie and Scotch toward me. "Tracy was almost killed a while back when a rope wrapped around his arm and darn near pulled him overboard," Fownes shouted above the music. "Managed to get it off just in the nick of time."

After sunset most days, Cavanaugh and fellow guitarist Larry MacAskill trade their lobster traps for musical instruments. By day they fish the waters off Cape Breton; at night they sing about them.

It was my first evening in Cape Breton, and already I was kilt-deep in the songs, dances and salty romance with the sea that characterize this easternmost corner of Nova Scotia. Like many overseas settlements long marooned from the mother country, Nova Scotia -- Latin for "New Scotland" -- is often more Scottish than Scotland. That's especially true of Cape Breton, where the lilting tones of the Gaelic language are commonly heard and tartans are seen by the acre. The Nova Scotia outpost of Canada's favorite doughnut chain, Tim Hortons, even serves oatcakes.

From 1773 to 1852, the Scottish immigrated in great numbers to Cape Breton, and it's no wonder that they stayed in this wind-swept part of the country: Its craggy coastline resembles the Hebrides, and its long-fingered lakes and inlets look like Scottish lochs. It must have felt sweetly like home. Coal and fish were abundant, as were mist and fog. Cape Breton is still the largest Scottish Gaelic-speaking community outside Britain.

I live in Quebec, another wedge of Europe cast adrift in North America, where traditions long ago abandoned in France live on. Curious what Scottish idiosyncrasies survived in Nova Scotia, I planned a weeklong road trip around Cape Breton, an island connected to the mainland by a causeway. I flew into the town of Sydney and headed for the Cabot Trail, a scenic route that I would roughly follow -- but for a few detours -- around the western lobe of the island, which has been voted by readers of Conde Nast Traveler magazine as one of the world's most scenic isles.

The route, named after 15th century explorer John Cabot, was completed in the 1930s and is now more famous than any of the places it runs through. I was after the scenery, of course, but also the famously friendly folk of Cape Breton and their furiously fast fiddle music, which has become internationally renowned the past two decades. And then there is the road itself -- one of those curving, swooping, fun-to-drive byways that is a favorite for bicyclists, motorcyclists and road-trip fiends.

You can drive the jagged 185-mile circuit in as little as six hours, but I planned to putter and follow the advice of a Cape Breton friend. "Go to a village and find the wharf. Ask questions," Parker Donham had told me. "They won't approach you, but they'll love to talk. The experience will yield rich dividends." The barman at the Thistledown Pub in Baddeck was more pragmatic: "Watch out for moose," he said. "They'll make your car into a convertible pretty quick."

It didn't take long for my road trip to gain a local soundtrack. On my first morning I headed west from the airport to St. Anns, where I had planned to sit in on a language course at the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts. At the heart of a recent cultural revival in Cape Breton, the college offers courses as diverse as step and Highland dancing, Celtic harp and weaving, as well as a museum where you can delve into your clan connections.

I never made it to the classroom. In the parking lot, the distant moan of bagpipes lured me around to the back of the college, where 12 pipers, three drummers and a 20-year-old drum sergeant, Gregor MacLean, were practicing for an upcoming marching band competition. I almost melted at the soulful cry of the bagpipes. They are the musical equivalent of a wolf howling at a full moon, and they flooded me with the loneliness of the Scottish Highlands. I lay in the grass watching as these earnest youngsters -- "Bonnie, laddie. Ready!" -- paced and puffed on their tartan bags of wind. When I finally dragged myself off the campus, a sign urged: "Will ye no come back again."

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