Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 24, 2022

© David Greenwell

Locals come to the Rankin-owned Red Shoe Pub in Mabou for concerts and impromptu jam sessions.

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Cape Breton by ceilidh

Fiddles, singing and stamping feet preserve a rugged outpost of Gaelic culture

Like many Nova Scotians, my roots here reach back to those intrepid Scots who arrived en masse between the late-18th and mid-19th century. My father’s family crossed the Atlantic in the 1820s and settled within miles of their landing place – Pictou, on the west coast of the province’s mainland. But tens of thousands of other Gaelic speakers felt the magnetic pull of Cape Breton Island (, a wee bit north, where rolling hills, highlands, and a rugged coast cut by inlets – in short, a new world that reassuringly resembled their old one – awaited. They did not come empty handed: along with determination, tartans, and a taste for oatcakes, they brought a repertoire of tunes that still ring out island-wide.


Although pianos, bagpipes and the occasionally guitar each contribute to Cape Breton’s signature sound, fiddles clearly dominate; and folks continue to play them in a way their kilted ancestors would recognize. It remains a purer form of their ancestral music than anything you might encounter in Scotland where fiddling Gaels, heavily influenced by the English, often felt compelled to reinvent themselves as classical violinists. As a result, modern-day Celtic performers and ethnomusicologists view Cape Breton as a kind of cultural urtext, and regularly flock there to recover their lost heritage.

Through long years of isolation, only partly remedied by the opening of the Canso Causeway in 1955, Cape Bretoners have maintained the integrity of their music because its rising tempo and relentless optimism is a perfect antidote for an environment that was (and still is) harsh. Today, the best place to hear it is on Route 19 – the so-called Ceilidh (pronounced cay-lee) Trail – which begins just off the causeway at Port Hastings and winds 107 kilometres up the southwest shore until it meets the more famous Cabot Trail.


Make your first stop 30 minutes north of the causeway in Judique. Since Route 19, doubling as the main street, shoots straight through, you may be tempted to keep driving. But if you don’t know a jig from a reel or a MacIsaac from a Barra MacNeil, the village’s Celtic Music Interpretive Centre (5471 Route 19; tel: 902-787-2708;; $6 to $12) can teach you the basics. In addition to old-school recordings, oral histories and other archival material, it has an exhibit room with artifacts, instruments, and interpretative panels. Daily show-and-tell demos cover the “how” in an entertaining fashion; while video tutorials let you try your hand – or feet, as the case may be – at fiddling and Island-style dancing.

CMIC is a fine place to experience your first ceilidh, too. Derived from a Gaelic word meaning “visit,” ceilidhs hark back to the days when an evening out in Cape Breton meant congregating in a neighbour’s kitchen for a convivial jam that melded fiddle music, dance and a tale or two. Despite being more formal, concert-like affairs, contemporary public ceilidhs still focus on these same elements. The ones in the centre’s restaurant – held at lunch, Monday through Saturday, from June 14 to October 20 (free), and Sunday afternoons year-round ($8) – not only feature top talent; in a nod to the past, regulars (including fiddler and former Nova Scotia premier Rodney MacDonald) perform on a stage that’s decorated like a vintage kitchen.

While Judique offers a fitting introduction to the Ceilidh Trail, Mabou, lying about 30 kilometres further up near the route’s halfway point, is its literal and figurative epicentre. There is no mistaking the Scottish pedigree of Mabou, which comes complete with Gaelic road signs. However, the welcome sign proudly identifying Mabou as the “Home of the Rankins” is equally significant. Residents’ respect for the renowned singing siblings is readily apparent at the local performing arts centre, Strathspey Place (11156 Route 19; tel: 902-945-5300; The fact that a village of 1,200 has a theatre that can seat nearly 500 underlines the importance of music here. That the stage is named after John Morris Rankin reveals whose music matters most.

The Rankins return the love by operating Mabou’s cherished landmark, the Red Shoe Pub (11573 Route 19; tel: 902-945-2996; Housed in a former general store, the Lilliputian pub both acknowledges Cape Breton’s musical heritage (it’s named for a 1936 reel about homemade footwear brightened with Sherwin-Williams paint) and helps sustain it by serving up traditional tunes daily, from June to mid-October. In July and August, tourists cram in for shows on Friday night and Sunday afternoon ($8). Locals tend to come Tuesday for the free supper session, ideally dancing a few steps, showing their appreciation with enthusiastic yelps rather than applause, and then cross the road to catch the weekly ceilidh at the Community Hall (11538 Route 19; $7).


Continue north and you’ll be rewarded with more solid venues for music, and the sleep you’ll presumably need at this point. The Glenora Inn (13727 Route 19; tel: 902-258-2662;; doubles from $140) in Glenville, just north of Mabou, is the prime pick on Route 19. The whitewashed main building has nine rooms overlooking a courtyard and six handsome log chalets sitting on the hillside behind. The pretty brook-side property also happens to be home to North America’s original single-malt whisky distillery. You can see how award-winning Glen Breton Rare is produced and sample the result on a 25-minute tour ($7). If you want to taste more, you can try the restaurant, where it features heavily in dishes such as chicken in whisky-maple reduction or Scottish bread pudding with whisky-caramel sauce. An adjacent pub counters with ribs slathered in whisky-barbeque sauce, rounding out the menu with rousing live music twice daily, and of course plenty of varieties of whisky.

If you’re willing to go further afield, an hour north of Mabou is The Normaway Inn, (691 Egypt Road, Margaree Valley; tel: 800-565-9463;; doubles from $159), which has quaint rooms, cabins and chalets on offer. The Margaree River’s trophy-size salmon lure fly fishers, while foodies come for a seasonal menu that highlights local ingredients (think island-raised lamb, seafood, or blueberries from the inn’s fields). For music lovers the biggest draw is the Barn, where rafter-rattlin’ Three Fiddler evenings ($10-$20) go Wednesday in July and August, Friday in June, September and October. On off-nights, musicians unplug in the inn’s living room.


By this point you’ll have noticed that fiddle music is invariably accompanied by the percussive tap of dancing feet. Indeed, determining which takes precedence is impossible. One authority will say musicians rely on dancers, who act as human metronomes keeping them on beat; a second will argue that dancers, lacking dosey-doe-allemande-left-style callers, need musicians to dictate their movements. In either case, the combination hits its apex at square dances held almost nightly in summer along the Ceilidh Trail (for schedule see Like the hamlets that host them on a rotating basis, each is a bit different. Some are family-oriented, others for drinking-age guests only; yet all typically run from 10PM to 1AM and cost $7-8.

The actual dancing at these high-energy events takes two forms as partnered square sets are often punctuated by impromptu displays of solo step dancing. If you’re eager to join in (frankly, it’s hard not to), bear in mind that latter is improvised, the key being to keep your arms down and your fast-moving feet “close to the floor” with no Highland fling hijinks. As for the former, following each set’s established patterns is easier than it appears since the locals, who are friendly by nature and flattered you’ve come, will get you reeling in the right direction. It’s said that Gaelic culture here is bred in the bone, but as fingers fiddle and feet fly – making little rec centres and parish halls shake in the process – you’ll soon feel like an honourary clan member.

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