Cape Breton Whirl

December 5, 2006
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In the fishing port of Cheticamp, I spot the name I’ve been looking for since I came to Cape Breton. “Sat Mat Fiddle Ashley,” the sign reads. The day is Saturday, the time about 3 p.m., my luck running just fine. Minutes later I squeeze through the lounge door of Le Gabriel Restaurant, pay my admission, and find standing room between an old lady with an aluminum frame walker and a lanky man with black Irish looks who waves his Labatt’s bottle in welcome.

Three hundred people are crammed into the lounge, which looks big enough to house most of the local fishing fleet. Like me, they’ve all come to hear Ashley. Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, may be home to multiple Anguses, Dans, and Neils, but this summer there seems to be only one Ashley, the one here on Le Gabriel’s stage: Ashley MacIsaac. On this island of legendary fiddlers, singers, and step dancers, this teenager from Creignish, Inverness County, is the musician everyone is talking about.

The room throbs with the driving rhythm that is Ashley MacIsaac’s signature. He plays with his eyes clenched shut, his feet jackhammering the floor. Sweat beads his close-cropped hair as he moves from a traditional air full of longing to faster pieces, ending with jigs and reels. Those who can reach the dance floor move onto it now, some with partners, some dancing solo, feet flying and knees lifting.


Germaine AuCoin, a friend of my neighbor with the walker, couldn’t be prouder if she were Ashley’s gran. “We’ve been watching ‘im since he was ten,” she says, leaning close so I can hear her. “He always had it in ‘im, even when his little feet couldn’t reach the floor from ‘is chair.”

“He’s fantastic, eh?” the dark-haired man asks. He’s Arlie Fitzgerald down from Pleasant Bay, at the edge of nearby Cape Breton Highlands National Park. “I like natural music, and you can’t get much more natural than this.” Arlie adds he’s a bass player himself. “But never with Ashley. I was never that good.”

Ashley MacIsaac enjoys international attention, a U.S. recording contract, and invitations to play with the likes of the Chieftains and Paul Simon. And he’s by no means the only Cape Breton musician being heard outside this green island. Celtic music has a fast-growing following in the United States, where it’s not hard to find tapes and CDs by the Rankin Family, the Barra MacNeils, Natalie MacMaster, and other Cape Bretoners. When I first heard Raylene Rankin singing the lovely “Gillis Mountain” or the misty Gaelic cadences of the MacNeils’ “My Black Haired Girl,” I hungered to see the places that produced such sweetness.


So here I am, amid the Cape Breton sound that rises from stages and church halls stretching from the Strait of Canso to Aspy Bay. And I am learning how these songs and dances were carried to these rocky shoresand how they survived after all this time.

Psychologically, as much asgeographically, cape Breton is an island. Part of the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, the island was at one time independent and has a long history of separatist movements – and sentiments. Only the three-quarter-mile-wide Strait of Canso separates Cape Breton from what islanders call the “Mainland” – mainland Nova Scotia, that is. The strait is known as The Gut, and a 19th-century Presbyterian minister

referred to it in a prayer islanders sometimes quote to make their point: “And more especially do we thank Thee, O Lord, for the Gut of Canso, Thine own body of water, which separates us from the wickedness that lieth on the other side thereof.”


Separation has been less than total since World War II and construction of the Canso Causeway, which spans the strait and now carries a segment of the Trans-Canada Highway onto the island and across its midsection. But for 450 years after John Cabot explored Cape Breton’s northeast coast, this was a place as lonely as it was lovely. Even in recent years it has been a place apart.

“Before the causeway, it wasn’t easy to get off the island, particularly when the drift ice came down from Labrador and interrupted ferry service,” one Cape Bretoner told me.

Furthermore, Cape Breton communities that lie close to one another on a map may be distant in highway miles because of the broken shape and tattered edges of the land. Several long rivers slice the interior and large saltwater lakes called Bras d’Or lie at the island’s center. It makes for a spectacular landscape. (“I have seen the Canadian and American Rockies, the Andes and the Alps and the Highlands of Scotland,” said Alexander Graham Bell, who chose the Bras d’Or lakeshore at Baddeck for his summer home, “but for simple beauty, Cape Breton outrivals them all.”)


The separateness of Cape Breton has helped preserve the culture of the island’s Scottish and French communities. Even today, a glance at a telephone directory can tell you which is which. In Inverness there are columns of MacDonalds, MacInnises, MacIntyres, MacKinnons, MacLeans, MacLellans, and MacNeils. Here in Ch¿ticamp the names are Cormier, Bourgeois, Chiasson, Doucet, Lefort, Boudreau, and LeBlanc.

“Have you been to the Doryman yet?” Arlie Fitzgerald asks me as Ashley MacIsaac takes a break. “Donnie LeBlanc’s playing there this afternoon, and you really ought to hear him.”

Happy as an opera lover at La Scala, I head for the Doryman pub a block or two away on Ch¿ticamp’s harborfront main street. Inside, I discover another cavernous space. Amazingly, with a large chunk of Ch¿ticamp’s population back in Le Gabriel’s lounge, this place is full, too. Long tables are pushed together in bingo hall rows on acres of indoor-outdoor carpeting.

LeBlanc, who looks as unmistakably French as any fiddler in Louisiana’s Cajun country, sits before a mural of fishermen working aboard a dory. He, his guitarist, and his piano player all wear jeans and red shirts – for visibility through the smoke, maybe. A yellow neon sign advertising Labatt Genuine Draft seems to be doing its job; determined waiters edge through the crowd with fresh rounds on tin trays. But big-name tennis players on the large-screen TV get less attention even than the gap-toothed fellow playing air fiddle at the table beside me.

On stage LeBlanc’s right leg pumps, heel hitting the floor about two feet from a full pitcher of beer. The bow flies, the musician’s sharp profile saws at the smoke. Formidable!

Many of Cape Breton’s LeBlancs, Doucets, Boudreaus, and others are of Acadian descent. Their ancestors were peaceful farmers in mainland Nova Scotia before the French lost that colony to the British in the 18th century. The British demanded that French Acadians take an oath that would have meant renouncing their Roman Catholic religion. Refusal brought expulsion. In the mass deportations that followed, three-quarters of the Acadian population were forced into exile, scattered from the Canadian Maritimes to Louisiana – where they became “Cajuns.” One of those Acadian families produced my grandmother, Mary Boudreau.

Bits of Acadian culture, from language to folk arts, have survived in Ch¿ticamp for nearly 250 years. “We employ about 100 hookers, most of them women,” Anna Deveaux says, speaking of one of those arts. She works at Flora’s, a respectable establishment that specializes in Acadian-style rugs.

Ch¿ticamp is known for its hooked rugs, especially rag rugs first made by frugal housewives who cut worn-out clothing into strips, then pulled the strips through a taut backing with a rug hook, often making designs – ships, houses, or farm animals – with the use of different colors and textures. In a variation on the rag rug, some hookers use yarn, producing work that looks like needlepoint.

Later, I find the old-fashioned rag rugs I love at Le Motif, a combination gallery and craft shop, whose back door stands open to a working harbor full of boats. Here, in a bright blue house with overflowing window boxes, Ch¿ticamp native Diane Bourgeois sells rag rugs made by local hookers, along with primitive paintings of Acadian life, hand-knits, and a few souvenirs. (On one T-shirt, Ch¿ticamp is spelled in the first letters of Acadian words Chafraille, Horiotte, Eloize, Tamarin, Icitte¿.)

Diane is sitting before a frame on which a rag rug is taking shape. She’s pleased with her own work but points out the sophisticated tapestries of her cousin, Yvette Muise, as the best work in the gallery. Muise, who began hooking rugs at the age of six, has exhibited in Europe and the United States, and her work is in several American collections.

Muise’s aunt, Donna Petrie, is an artist of a different sort, an island Grandma Moses. One of 18 children, she populates her yarn rugs and hangings with children. Her scenes, worked in soft-colored yarns that she dyes herself, recall earlier times: barns, sleighs, a man plowing a field, a fisherman, a kitchen with a big black stove.

Near Mabou, in Gaelic Cape Breton, I come across a tradition that combines textiles and song, extending families’ roots to Scotland’s Highlands and islands. Rough wool cloth is woven on primitive frames, then made thicker, or “fulled,” with soap and lye. Next the cloth is shrunk by pounding it on long tables to the accompaniment of songs that have been composed for the purpose. During this “milling frolic” a lead voice sings the verse, followed by a chorus sung in unison.

Although it has nearly disappeared from Scotland, the milling frolic still takes place in Cape Breton, if only to keep the tradition alive.

“I learned it years ago,” Neil John Gillis says. He is one of the white-haired men demonstrating the frolic for a group of youngsters at a Gaelic day camp. Seated at a table, the kids and the old men grasp a length of homespun blanket, twist it, and then, to the beat of a song sung in Gaelic, bang it on the table.

“There’d be variations on the words,” Gillis says. “Love songs, sailing songs, songs about people you knew. Some of the songs go way back, to the 17th century.”

My ancestors came from the islands of South Uist and Skye,” Stephanie Beaton tells me in Mabou, where I find her and another teenager hosting visitors to An Drochaid, a museum of local history. Mabou, whose population also includes descendants of refugees from the American Revolution – called “Tories” south of the border – is a center of Gaelic culture in Cape Breton. The home of the musical Rankin Family, the village is the site of three Scottish dances, or ceilidhs, each week in summer. It is also the home of Am Br¿ighe, a three-year-old newspaper devoted to Celtic culture. Published primarily in English with some articles in Gaelic, the paper is edited by Cape Bretoner Frances MacEachen.

During the 1930s, MacEachen tells me later in her office, there were perhaps 50,000 Gaelic speakers in The Maritimes. Now Cape Breton, where some families have spoken the language for five generations, is the last Gaelic-speaking area in North America. Gaelic is a soft tongue, a language made for poetry and song. I heard it often in rural Cape Breton, but usually from old mouths.

“There is definitely an increase in interest,” MacEachen says, referring to students like Stephanie who spent time in Scotland practicing her skills. “But the numbers of people learning Gaelic do not equal the number of Gaelic speakers whom we are losing.”

Gaelic came to Cape Breton in the 18th century, with some of the 20,000 or so Scots who left the Highlands between 1763 and 1775, for reasons including overpopulation, rising rents, and failing crops. The final push came with the Clearances of the late 18th and 19th centuries, when English landowners consolidated their Scottish holdings to make room for sheep.

Am Br¿ighe carries Gaelic lessons for beginners (am fidhlear – the fiddler; anns an talla – in the hall), and MacEachen also gives her readers oral histories, folklore, stories of cultural icons past and present, and articles that bridge the gap between Cape Breton and Scotland.

In one such piece she described a visit to the Highlands in 1993. In Lochaber, where many Cape Bretoners have roots, she met a man named Ronnie Campbell, who took her to a vast empty region.

“The Duke of Gordon cleared that in one fell swoop,” he told her. “They had a day of removal¿and everyone had to be out. All the people on that side were cleared for sheep.¿They mainly went to Mabou – Kennedys and MacMasters. That’s why there is such a congregation of people from the same area in Mabou. They were very tight knit, the Lochaber people.”

Campbell has met lots of Cape Breton descendants of those Highlanders. “Those type of people who did not go too far away from the farming community,” he said, “they had not lost their Lochaberness. My grandmother was a Cameron, and I heard words from a Mabou Cameron that I had forgotten that my grandmother had used.”

The gaels weren’t a materialistic people, but they were rich in culture,” Rodney Chaisson observes as we tour Highland Village, a living museum of Cape Breton life located in Iona. I have come for the annual Highland Village Day concert, reputedly one of the island’s best. Few performers are announced in advance, but top musicians often drop in to play a few sets. This day has begun with rain, though. The parking lot is muddy, and the fields are wet, so the concert has been delayed.

While we wait for clearer skies, Chaisson shows me around the village, a collection of buildings depicting Scottish pioneer life throughout the 19th century. First is a taigh dubh or “black house,” a crofter’s hut like those the settlers left behind in the Highlands and islands. Built of piled stone and roofed in sod, such houses were called “black” because of their dark interior.

“There was little wood available to them in Scotland,” Chaisson explains. “After they arrived here, they built log cabins.” Along the road are other original buildings, moved here from elsewhere in Cape Breton. In most of the structures interpreters work at old crafts such as weaving and blacksmithing.

“What is happening in music in Cape Breton is exciting,” Chaisson says as we drive a winding road in drizzle that’s getting heavier by the minute. “The number of young fiddlers – some even younger than Ashley MacIsaac – is rising very fast. That younger generation of musicians is maintaining the traditional, but adding to it all the time. Adding to it but never leaving it. And now we see more visitors coming because they’re interested in the culture, whether they have Celtic roots or not.”

Chaisson’s windshield wipers are by now producing their own rhythm, and it’s obvious that no concert will be held here today. Back at the reception center, he goes to telephone local radio stations with word of the cancellation, while I stock up on Cape Breton music in the gift shop. I find tapes by everyone from the Gillis Sisters and the Lighthouse Sisters to the Men of the Deeps, former Cape Breton coal miners. I also find a computerized genealogy program called Highland Roots, used, I’m told, by visitors to the island as much as by locals.

And if I’ve missed the Highland Village Day concert, an impromptu session at the nearby Highland Heights Inn is pretty good compensation. A dozen musicians and friends have gathered in the dining room for presentation of an award to Archie Alex MacKenzie – poet, singer and, in the words of the citation, “a true Gael and a promoter of everything pertaining to our heritage.”

On hand to play in Archie Alex’s honor is fiddler Theresa MacLellan, accompanied on piano by her sister Marie. Introduced as “two queens of music on Cape Breton,” they’ve been playing together for many years.

Archie Alex himself obliges with a song. A spare, white-haired man with a sun-ruddy face, he sings in Gaelic a composition by his late brother Hughie, his voice trembling slightly and filled with the sound of longing: “I would like to return,” he translates for me later, “to see the girl that left me so lonely. I’d love to go back again with the people

I love.”

In such songs, sung in a vanishing language, longing seems not so much individual as communal, rising out of ancestral memory.

That Cape Breton’s young musicians have great respect for elders is obvious at every concert, large or small. For one of the regular barn dances held at the Normaway Innin the green Margaree Valley, the master of ceremonies is the much-respected Archie Neil Chisholm. A robust 87-year-old, Archie Neil was a founding member of the Glendale Fiddlers Association, organized in 1972 to “disprove the idea of the vanishing Cape Breton fiddler,” as he puts it. More than 100 fiddlers attended the Glendale festival that year. “The popularity of traditional music has just snowballed since then,” Archie Neil says.

The star attraction on this night is Natalie MacMaster, a 21-year-old fiddler who is in the top rank of young Cape Breton musicians. “I had the pleasure of introducing her when she was only a little small girl,” Archie Neil tells the crowd in the barn. “Today, it’s nothing for her to be down in China, anyplace at all, giving a workshop.”

Dressed in pants and sandals, her blond hair loose, Natalie begins with a rich, lyrical tune. It’s identified by the man beside me as “Bonnie Lass of Head Lake.” The pace quickens; Archie Neil’s shoe echoes the rhythm of Natalie’s fiddle against the footrest of his wheelchair. Faster and faster flies the bow until the set is done. Archie Neil calls to the stage a vacationing fiddler, Roger Treat from Vermont. He has no violin; Natalie quickly hands him her instrument.

“Did you always hear music at home?” I whisper to her as he raises her fiddle to his shoulder.

“Oh, yes, that’s all we did hear,” she says.

Margie and Dawn Beaton, perhaps ten or twelve years old, step dancers with the straight posture of ballerinas, are up on stage next.

“You done very good, girls,” a woman in the crowd says as they finish.

Then it’s time for Marc Boudreau, nine-year-old Ch¿ticamp fiddler.

“There’s quite a distance between Marc’s age and mine, but we’re going to be good friends for a long while, I hope,” Archie Neil jokes.

The boy plays his set with great solemnity and retires from the stage to applause, handshakes, pats on the head, and a cheer from Mary Boudreau’s granddaughter.

Then, as the barn grows steamy and the ceiling fans whir, Natalie MacMaster resumes the stage, her bow a blur, her knees rising and feet flying as she moves into a step dance. The dance floor fills and the couples spin across it, descendants of exiles living a wonderful life.

Dancing well may be the best revenge.


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