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Gaelic Culture Flourishes on Cape Breton


© St. Petersburg Times

CAPE BRETON, Nova Scotia -- An early morning mist muffles the little ferry's clanking chains and humming engine. By 10 o'clock, chilly winds have blown it all away. Dark clouds roll in to release a brief but drenching shower. Just as quickly, bright sun warms the rolling green hills and turns the rock-strewn shore to diamonds.

The warmth promises to last the rest of the day; but, then, everything could easily change again. Rain, mist and sun. Moving clouds, blowing showers, brilliant blue sky and rainbows. It is on days like this that Cape Breton is most reminiscent of Scotland's Highlands and Hebrides.

Standing on the shore, I cannot help but wonder how the thousands of Scots who crossed the sea must have felt about settling on this far-flung island at the tip of Nova Scotia. Many had been forced from home by the notorious "clearances" -- the dreadful period from about 1785-1850 when landlords forced tens of thousands of clansmen from their lands to make way for large-scale sheep-herding.

As they gazed back across the Atlantic, did the newcomers long for their "black houses" and family left behind? Or did they rejoice at new freedom from landlords, poverty and religious constraints?

Cape Breton maps are dotted with familiar Scottish place names: Inverness, Glencoe, Skye, Portree, Dunvegan. Along with scenes of the magnificent Cabot Trail, lighthouses and pipers, tourist brochures feature Highland dancers and kilted sportsmen tossing the caber. I went to Cape Breton half expecting to find a little Scotland. Instead, I discovered a place whose Scottish traditions and strengths are deeply rooted but a place with a strong character all its own.

"Gaelic' rather than "Scottish' is the word Cape Bretoners use most when referring to their Highland and Hebridean legacies. "Gaelic' also refers to the lilting language and colorful culture that ardent groups of Scottish descendents passionately struggle to keep alive.

I found this Gaelic connection both accessible and illusive.

Centers designed to acquaint visitors with Scottish ties make it easy to trace the outlines of history. Public performances of Gaelic-rooted Cape Breton music and dance are well publicized. But down winding roads there are also gathering places where Gaelic arts still live and where the language may now and then be heard.

I began my search at the Highland Village at Iona. On a hill overlooking the Barra Strait on Bras d'Or Lake, this living museum recreates not a village in Scotland but a Highland settlement of Nova Scotians, the "new" Scots. There is a Hebridean black house, reconstructed as a reminder of the simple thatched rock shelters the settlers had left behind. Shaggy Highland cattle graze outside the rustic barn.

But it is the log house, frame homes, store and school that show how well the settlers adapted to building with materials from unfamiliar deep forests. Highland Roots, the village's genealogical searching system, traces and preserves family histories. A research library and a book shop contribute to the visitor's understanding of Scots on Cape Breton. The highlight of every season is the Highland Village Day, a rousing festival held the first Saturday in August, featuring the cream of Cape Breton performers.

The most thrilling of the preserved Gaelic arts are the fiddling and step-dancing based on traditional tunes and forms handed down from generation to generation. Exuberant and complex, the fiddle tunes have taken on nuances from their French and Irish neighbors and been enlivened by modern technology, guitars, keyboards and amplification without losing their Scottish soul. The dances involve fast-moving, tapping feet and relaxed, almost immobile upper torsos.

Interestingly, some of the fiddle tunes and dance steps have survived more purely in Cape Breton than in Scotland. Local teachers even have been invited to instruct Scottish learners.

In the late 1930s, a Scottish minister who had brought a band of believers to Cape Breton foresaw the need of preserving Gaelic language and culture. A man of charisma, A. W. R. Mackenzie established a site that would be both tourist attraction and cultural center. Today his legacy, the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts, continues to fulfill the dream. Here students of all ages come from around the world to learn piping, step-dancing, weaving, fiddling and Celtic arts.

I spent almost two summer weeks at this busy place, waking early each morning to an "alarm-clock' piper marching down dormitory halls.

Through the day, children and adults worked diligently on their chosen skills. At noon there were outdoor ceilidhs, stylized versions of the spontaneous music and story-telling gatherings that were once held in kitchens and parlors. One evening a group of elderly men came from nearby towns for a "milling frolic," singing and teaching songs originally invented to lighten the arduous chore of beating newly woven cloth to raise the nap.

The Gaelic College is perhaps the most "Scottish" of Cape Breton's heritage centers. A Great Hall presents exhibits of Highland history, a piper greets busloads of visitors, and guides explain clans and tartans.

Yet even here the line between Cape Breton and the old country fades. While teachers and students for the busy summer program come from as far away as New Zealand, native Cape Bretoners also take part both as teachers and learners of traditional skills.

"We are unique in the world," director Sam MacPhee told me. "We are here to preserve, perpetuate and promote the Scottish culture, language and music and arts of Scottish settlers who came here. This is our only mandate."

Jim St. Clair, genealogist, historian, author and expert on local architecture, has his finger on the pulses of the varied sentiments about retaining the ancient ways. He was the first to catch me up in the magic of story-telling. Every point he made was illustrated with a tale that I knew I could not recount on paper but that should only be heard from the mouth of the gifted.

"This Gaelic thing is very complicated," he explained. "There will always be people who are passionate about it, who believe that you can't have a culture without the language."

But he thinks that one can still participate in the culture without necessarily speaking the language.

For a visitor to share in the old culture is difficult, he advised, "but those who will take the time can do it."

And he began his instructions:

"Get off the highway. Stop and walk and talk. Go in the little stores. The best welcomes will be in places that look the least prepared. "Go to church suppers. Sit on the wharf and talk to fishermen. Go to the beach. Listen to the music. Read the books."

I set about to do as many of those things as my time allowed.

I listened to the thrilling fiddle music, and I talked about the changing weather with shopkeepers. I followed back roads past rolling farmland and visited cemeteries that townsfolk told me I should not miss. I marveled at step-dancing feet far into a country night, and I found Gaelic talk on the radio.

I listened to ideas about how to keep young people from going away by creating jobs, and I learned where to find Gaelic contacts on the Internet. I walked around the Gaelic town of Mabou with a local student who works as a guide with Roads Less Traveled, a modest service that offers tours of the area while providing much-needed work.

I discovered Cape Breton, like Scotland, to be beautiful, surrounded by sometimes glorious, sometimes dangerous sea.

But while this is not a transplanted Scotland, everywhere I went I encountered a characteristic that was truly Scottish: hospitality. Whether in private homes or tourist destinations, I was offered this, the greatest of all the gifts. IF YOU GO For information on the remarkable variety of accommodations and things to see and do on Cape Breton, contact the Tourism Distribution Centre, P.O. Box 1448, Sydney, N.S., Canada B1P 6R7; call (800) 565-9464. For information on the highlights of Inverness County, contact the Department of Recreation/Tourism, P.O. Box 179, Port Hood, N.S., Canada B0E 2W0; call (800) 567-2400 or 902-787-2274. For a villager's look at things, consider getting a subscription to Am Braighe. This is a newspaper from Inverness County, an area settled by many Scots. Here are detailed calendars of music, dance and story-telling events, bits of history, language lessons and opinion pieces. For a subscription and a list of publications, including cassette and printed travel guides and Gaelic language instruction, contact Sandy Publishing Group Limited, P.O. Box 179, Mabou, N.S., Canada B0E 1X0; call (902) 945-2666; fax (902) 945-2723. Candace Leslie is a freelance writer living in Bryan, Texas

Originally published February 23,1997

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