Neither Georges nor I have ever been to Scotland, but the parts of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick we visited last week are precisely what I imagine it to be.
Sharp, jagged rocks protruding from deep blue water. Gorgeous, dramatic coastlines, lined by dark cliffs, lapped by frothy whitecaps. Bright sun, cold winds.
And the people: Friendly, robust, inquisitive.
We planned this jaunt beyond our self-imposed 100-mile-wide band around the perimeter of the United States a couple of months ago. We wanted to visit friend Doug’s “Inn on the Intervale” on Cape Breton before he and his seven brothers sell it.
What’s 300 miles out of the way when your only schedule is that which you impose on yourself?
We started with a night in a lovely campground in New Brunswick near the Bay of Fundy. Then we trekked across Nova Scotia to Cape Breton, where we stayed several nights in our Casita parked at the picturesque Inn, nestled in the forest along the proverbial babbling brook in the heart of Celtic music and step-dancing country.
It was a wonderful interlude. Doug’s family is well known in these parts. Nearly every person we met is a MacEachern or knows a MacEachern, there is a street named MacEachern, and one or another member of the MacEachern clan is featured in nearly every regional museum we visited.
We spent the week learning about the Celtic culture, hiking and biking along the region’s gorgeous coastline and countryside, and being blown away by the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site.
(The latter was of particular interest; as a child I insisted I was related to the intrepid inventor, my only evidence of a familial connection being my mother’s maiden name of Bell. Never mind that our Bells came to America from Germany a century before “Alec” crossed the Atlantic from Scotland….)
The Celtic culture
Much of this area of Nova Scotia was settled in the late 18th and early 19th centuries by Scots forced from their native lands by economic hardship and an English royalty intolerant of their religious and linguistic traditions. The first thing you notice as you enter Celtic country is that the word is pronounced with a hard “c” – as in “Keltic.”
The second thing you notice is the word “Ceilidh.” It’s everywhere – on highway signs, restaurant billboards and posters in the visitors centers. I had no idea how to pronounce it and every time I typed it into Google the auto-correct jumbled it as badly as my tongue did.
We quickly learned that it’s pronounced KAY-lee and is Gaelic for a social event featuring Scottish or Irish folk music, with emphasis on fabulous fiddling. A ceilidh might also include singing, traditional dancing and storytelling. They’re everywhere in this region at this time of year.
When you stop for lunch at the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre in Judique (pronounced JOO-Dick) the three dozen patrons are treated to a couple hours of furious fiddling by Joe MacMaster or Mairi Rankin, with a piano or guitar accompanist. If you’re lucky, you might see a little step-dancing talent to boot. Both Joe and Mairi come from famous fiddling families.
Young Joe – a sophomore at St. Francis Xavior University in Antigonish – clearly has his grandfather’s genes. Hugh Alan “Buddy” MacMaster, who passed away a few years ago just shy of his 90th birthday, performed and recorded internationally. Known as the “King of Jigs,” he was widely regarded as an expert on the tradition and lore of Cape Breton fiddle music.
Here’s short video of Mairi at the Interpretive Centre’s ceilidh the afternoon we were there.
I wasn’t quick enough on the draw to get a video of the young step-dancer that day, but here’s a semi-still shot of her in action.
The museum behind the restaurant is well worth the nominal admission. It explains the region’s music traditions, including the history of step-dancing, fiddling, bagpipes, harmonica, the harp, etc. There are even videos you can play that will teach you step-dance techniques, violin vibrato or Gaelic vocabulary.
I had fun at the step-dancing video but it will be awhile before I’m ready for prime time. I felt a little ridiculous stumbling through the steps and kept looking over my shoulder to see if anybody was looking/laughing at my awkward efforts. Fortunately, for this brief interlude, I was the only one in the small museum – or at least I think I was the only one. (This could be real YouTube blackmail material!)
Gotta love this sign at the Centre. I had a similar one, sans the Celtic influence, on my office door at The Dallas Morning News for years.
Ceilidhs are very much a way of life. Later in the week, we enjoyed another over dinner with Doug’s brother Greg of Dayton, Ohio and his cousin, Gwen of Cape Breton at the Red Shoe Pub in Mabou, just up the highway about 20 minutes from the Inn.
This one featured young Joe and several other rising stars, from 9 p.m. until midnight. Impressive dance shoes on display.
And of course there’s the internationally acclaimed Celtic Colours international music festival each October. It’s nearly a pilgrimage for members of Doug’s family and the thousands of ceilidh lovers who attend each year.
In New Brunswick, you see a lot of bilingual signs in English and French. On Cape Breton, it’s just as common to see bilingual signs in English and Gaelic. The language, native to Scotland and Ireland and centuries old, was at risk of dying out a generation ago. But it seems to be making a comeback as interest in ancient cultures is on an upswing, according to the locals, and more young people are studying it at university.
Hiking and biking along the coast and countryside
I’m in love with the Celtic Shores Coastal Trail! G and I spent several hours one morning pedaling along this marvelously scenic gravel path – formerly a Canadian National Railway line – on the western coast of Cape Breton.
It was a hot day by Celtic standards, nearly 80 degrees with high humidity and not much of a breeze. The water couldn’t have been more calm or cobalt. The view was mesmerizing as we pedaled along the St. Georges Bay, which opens out into the far reaches of the Gulf of Saint Laurent.
How come I never get bodies of water named after me?
Here’s where we started.
And here’s a fellow traveler we encountered along the way.
He wasn’t the least bit shy as I approached for a close-up.
Later in the week, we took an entire day and drove the Cabot Trail, a nearly 300-mile loop around the western arm of Cape Breton that includes the Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
The views of the coast were spectacular, even if my photos on this overcast day don’t quite capture the grandeur. We highly recommend going counter-clockwise for maximum viewing vantage.
We took a detour off the main park road near the northern end of the loop and stopped at the North Highlands Community Museum near Cape North. Its exhibits underscore that you have to be hardy to live up here; this area gets some of the worst winter storms in the world and summertime lasts but a nano-second.
This particular information plaque drives home more than any other the grueling reality of what it’s like to live in such a harsh climate. Inexplicably, my photo cuts off the top of exhibit (apologies!) but flying at the top of each child’s pole is different color flag.
Can you imagine living in a climate so frigid that you have to equip your kid with a special color-coded flagpole hat in case of a sudden blizzard strike?
Toward the end of the day, we stopped at the Glenora Distillery and reveled in a “flight” of three single-malt whiskeys made on premise using barley grown in Saskatchewan, yeast from South Africa and water from MacLellands Brook just outside the distillery’s doors.
The whiskey made here is essentially scotch-whiskey, but can’t be called that as it’s not made in Scotland. (Think sparkling wine/champagne.)
Walking back out to our car, we chatted briefly with the woman in the green Westfalia parked next to us with her black-and-white border collie mix. Tall, well-dressed, probably in her 40s with light-brown hair, she recently sold her home in Seattle and, eager to leave the stresses of corporate America behind her, is spending a year living in her Volkswagon van traveling the continent to decide where to settle. She loves the Cape Breton area but is still searching for the right setting for the next chapter of her life.
We felt a bit like birds of a feather….
Speaking of birds, it took all week but we’ve finally identified the bird whose winsome song has so haunted us since we entered Canada. We’ve not yet laid eyes on it but my iBirds app makes me think the whistle-like call that descends distinctively in tone is that of the Eastern Meadowlark….
Earlier in the week, after our Unfortunate Incident at the border, we had to work a bit to enjoy New Brunswick.
The views of the bay from Fundy National Park were fabulous, and we enjoyed chatting with our campsite neighbors from Ontario at the Ponderosa Pines campground.
This area is famous for its tides. They are the highest in the world, reaching nearly 60 feet. That seemed hard to believe. So we took a couple of hours to visit the Hopewell Rocks.
We arrived at 10 a.m., precisely at low tide, by design, and walked on what a few hours later would be the ocean floor. (Every visitors center and campground in the area distributes flyers with the high and low tides listed for the month so you can time your visit for maximum benefit.]
Here’s a picture from the top.
And here are the displays that explain the tidewater phenomenon.
We walked down the trail to the “ocean bottom” and were astounded by the enormous ocean-carved formations. Some looked like the eponymous flower pots; I also imagined animal shapes and linebackers on the run.
In a few hours the entire area we’re standing on would be covered by several “stories” of water.
At one point, we looked up into the red cliffs overhead and actually saw three fledgling peregrine falcons. The ranger told us one had fallen amid a maiden flight earlier in the day and his boss had scrambled up the rocks to gently right the young raptor for its more successful second takeoff attempt.
We piggy-backed onto the end of a ranger tour in French and learned that just beyond this area are 2 kilometers of protected beach. This is where plover-like birds come to feed on tiny shrimp before beginning their flights to Brazil and French Guiana. Here’s a shot of the protected Daniels Flats at low tide.
Alexander Graham Bell
I still think there’s a family resemblance. This is a a picture of the scientist, who was born in Scotland in 1847, emigrated to the Boston area as a young man (where he invented the telephone with “Mr. Watson”) and settled in Cape Breton for the last half of his 75-year life.
And this is a picture of my great-great grandfather Samuel R. Bell in central Ohio, whose great grandfather, Anthony, emigrated to the area from Wiesbaden nearly a century earlier.
But I digress.
There’s a lot more to Alexander Graham Bell than the telephone, an invention that won him financial independence – after fighting for 18 years to protect his patent – but which he grew to dislike for its intrusiveness. (I shudder to think what he’d think of today’s smart phones!)
So substantial are his contributions to our knowledge of the physical world that three countries claim him as a native son – Scotland, the U.S. and Canada. It was to the government of Canada that his two daughters donated their father’s trove of tools, instruments and inventions, on the condition that a monument be built in his honor.
This museum opened in the 1950s. It’s a wonderful facility – assessable, informative, awe-inspiring, affordable – and it asserts that AGB’s most productive years were in Cape Breton, long after the invention of the telephone. His work in Canada included:
• Inventing the tetrahedron kite, a four-sided shape of equal-sided triangles. It was exceptionally lightweight and sturdy. He hoped to learn from this ways to advance flying….
• Building the Silver Dart airplane in 1909. It flew a half mile. This was maybe six years after the Wright Brothers flew their plane at Kitty Hawk, but it represented the first piloted motorized air flight in Canada.
• Experimenting with solar stills for desalinization, establishing evaporation-and-condensation protocols still in use today.
• Breeding sheep to produce more twin births as a way to maximize livestock production.
• Building x-ray machines, including one that took picture of the assassin’s bullet in President Garfield’s body.
• Creating the graphopone, an upgrade of Thomas Edison’s phonograph.
Those are just the CliffsNotes. The full breadth AGB’s interests and accomplishments is mind boggling. We signed up for the White Glove Tour, which featured a behind-the-scenes display of some of AGB’s original work. (There are still some tools and contraptions whose uses or intended uses remain unknown; visitors are invited to speculate along with the scientists.)
My favorite was the blow-in-the-paper contraption. The original built by AGB himself was on do-not-touch display, but a larger model reproduction has been constructed for visitors to try their hand (er, breath) at. Here’s the original.
You blow directly down on the metal disc from above, which disperses the airflow out and then under the paper disc at the bottom of the pole, which causes the paper disc to rise to the top. It helps understand how planes get lift, even how sails on boats produce speed.
Another behind-the-scenes favorite was what I’ll call the water bassoon. The actual tool is at the top of the table in this photograph. And to the right on the table is a photograph of the “water bassoon” in use.
You breathe repeatedly into a cold metal bassoon-shaped tube and the condensation that runs off into a container from the bassoon becomes fresh water that is consumable. ABG was motivated to find ways to produce drinkable water by the number of shipwrecks in the dangerous waters of the North Atlantic, where people on lifeboats adrift at sea would die for lack of hydration while surrounded by (salt)water.
Also on the White Glove Tour was a copy of the first fax sent across telephone wires. It dates to 1924, two years after AGB died. Appropriately, it was a photograph of Alexander Graham Bell.
AGB came by his inquisitiveness naturally. His father, as well as his grandfather, was a speech and hearing specialist. He shared their passion from an early age.
ABG continued to research speech and hearing for many years. This is how he met his wife, Mabel. Deaf since age 5 due to scarlet fever, she had learned to lip read in three languages, but her speech was difficult to understand. She came to AGB’s institute in Boston at age 15 to learn to better her articulation. Three years later they married.
Alexander Graham Bell was the second president of the National Geography Society, serving for five years following the founder of the organization, his father-in-law, Gardiner Greene Hubbard. The society’s website calls Bell “a visionary” and credits him with many little-recognized achievements. He “worked on building the world’s fastest ship (it set the record in 1919), proposed renewable energy sources, and endlessly sketched flying machines (the device he described in an 1892 article resembled the helicopter invented 40 years later).”
The article continues: “The year after the Wright brothers received their patent, Bell’s kite lifted an associate to over 160 feet. In 1915 he’d made the first coast-to-coast phone call; soon after, a man in Virginia spoke to a man on the Eiffel Tower in the first transatlantic transmission. Bell predicted a day when calls – and ‘any mechanical operation’ – could be made without wires. He also foresaw the devices someday displacing their makers: ‘On every hand we see the substitution of machinery and artificial motive power for animal and man power.’ “
I’d call him prescient. But AGB was never really professional inventor like Edison. He was less interested in the commercial applications of invention than in the joy of gaining knowledge. According to one plaque, he was “more interested in possibilities than realities.”
Still, Bell will forever be associated with the telephone. When he died in 1922 at the age of 75, an estimated 14 million phones in North America observed a minute of silence at 5 p.m. in his honor.
His wife was accomplished in her own right. Mabel Hubbard Bell established the first free library in Nova Scotia. Earlier, she had established first Montessori school in North America during their time together in Washington, D.C. When Mabel died precisely a year after her husband, in a remarkable testament to the role she played in his science as his wife and partner, the phones were silent for a minute in her honor as well.
There are other reasons I’m drawn to AGB. It is said that he lived each day twice – once experiencing it and a second time recording it. I can relate this … as I write each evening in my Perimeter journal … and craft this blog post….
We could have stayed at this museum – and in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick – much longer. The landscapes are luscious. Lovely lupin – mostly purple, but also pink and white – decorate the roadsides like spring bluebonnets in Texas, except its blooms are bigger and bolder.
And Gwen’s fresh blueberry pie was the best blueberry pie I’ve ever had. (Blueberries are Canada’s largest fruit crop, and the provinces on the Atlantic produce nearly half of North America’s total.)
See the following four photos, in a time-lapse of about 20 minutes….
But G and I have itchy feet.