I've been on the Ceilidh Trail for nearly three days when I spot my first Rankin sister. There she is, pretty Heather Rankin, at the Red Shoe Pub in Mabou. It's 6 p.m. on a warm fall evening and the place is packed. But Heather is not harmonizing sweetly with her sisters Cookie and Raylene tonight -- she's standing next to my table and asking how I like the tourtière.
The thick slab of meat pie, smothered in gravy and served Cape Breton-style with her Aunt Mary Lorettes's bread dressing, is delicious, a specialty at this restaurant-cum-pub owned and operated by the famous trio. It's like everything I've encountered on Cape Breton Island -- warm, accessible and authentic.
I've come to Cape Breton -- the land of step-dancers and fiddlers -- to explore all things Celtic. There's a Celtic vein running through much of our Canadian musical history, and much of it can be traced to this rocky island in the Atlantic. This little corner of Canada has spawned so many Juno award winners -- from Rita MacNeil and Natalie MacMaster to the aforementioned family of Rankins -- that it bears investigating by anyone interested in our unique Canadian sound.
It's hard to turn around without bumping into someone who is connected to this Canadian style of Celtic music and the living culture that's so steeped in it. Everywhere I look, there's a notice stuck to a telephone pole or town hall door, announcing another ceilidh (pronounced KAY-lee). That's Gaelic for a party with musicians and dancing, and there's at least one, somewhere around here, nearly every night.
You might just luck out and see one of the famed Rankins take the stage, or run across some other local talent from MacMaster to Ashley MacIsaac or the Barra MacNeils, all purveyors of this East Coast style.
In Halifax, where the Juno Awards weekend is in full swing, legendary pubs such as The Lower Deck and the Halifax Alehouse have helped nurture a lively local music scene that's spawned hot new talents like Sloan and The Trews.
But on Cape Breton Island, The Red Shoe is ceilidh central. Along with the poutine, "westside" chowder and sticky toffee pudding on the menu, the Rankin sisters serve up Cape Breton's most famous export, Celtic-Canadian music. A poster behind the pub's historic storefront window announces a different musician every night of the week -- well-known locals like fiddlers Mairi Rankin, Andrea Beaton and Dougie MacDonald.
The Rankins (and the Beatons and the MacDonalds) all still live in this part of Cape Breton as their forefathers did. They were among the Scots who crossed the pond 200 years ago during the infamous Highland Clearances, forced from their homes because of economic hardships or evicted by British "lairds" who preferred sheep over tenant farmers.
Thousands arrived on the shores of Cape Breton Island, a remote and isolated corner of Nova Scotia, from 1780 to 1840. These early Highland immigrants arrived in geographical groups and stayed put where they settled -- thus, the MacNeil clan from the Isle of Barra (like the Barra MacNeils of pop-folk music fame) came en masse and still populate the area around Iona.
They arrived with their particular dialects of the Gaelic language, traditional songs and stories, and today Cape Breton is one of the few places in the world where that Highland culture, and its regional nuances, is still largely in intact. It has become kind of a living museum for those keen to preserve their Gaelic traditions -- a place that in some ways is more traditionally Scottish than Scotland.
Whatever the impetus for the 19th-century clearances, the disappearance of the population was so complete that the only evidence a modern Highlander in Scotland has of ancestral life is in museums. Scots were made to feel ashamed of their folk culture. Traditional piping was militarized -- now the domain of pipe bands -- while traditional fiddlers learned classical music. The Gaelic language is now considered "endangered" by organizations such as UNESCO.
But on Cape Breton, customs and traditions that were eliminated from the culture in the homeland have been kept alive for two centuries. Thanks to schools like the Gaelic College -- founded in 1938 to preserve Celtic language and culture, and the only institution of its kind in North America -- traditional Scottish music, dance and arts like weaving and kilt-making flourish.
Gaelic is still seen here on sign posts, still spoken by elder "Capers" and taught at schools. While other Canadian kids study French or Chinese as a second language, in towns like Mabou, Gaelic is part of the kindergarten-to-Grade 12 curriculum. And musicians, like the Rankin sisters and their Cape Breton contemporaries, keep it alive and popular in their songs and performances.
At the Highland Museum -- a living museum featuring costumed interpreters and historic buildings gathered from throughout the region -- the strains of Highland pipes fill the air as I leave my car. It's a world of homespun and shaggy Highland cows, where Gaelic is spoken and the lilt of the language permeates every conversation.
The museum sits near the town of Iona, named for the Hebredian island that traces its roots to the Irish saint who first brought Christianity to the Highlands. The replica "black house" -- a round Highland-style dwelling with its stone walls and peaked thatched roof -- recalls what the immigrant Scots left behind, while the wool mill, historic church, and log cabin speak to the new lives they created here.
"Gaelic is the working language here on the site," says Seumas (a.k.a. Jim) Watson, the Gaelic co-ordinator at the museum. As we sit next to the open hearth in one of the historic homes that dot the property, he breaks into one of the 1,000 Gaelic songs collected from people around the island. The music and stories are preserved and passed down here from older Cape Bretoners to younger ones, as they once were among clans throughout the island.
Scots who came to North America to seek better lives first settled in the Maritimes, but many also headed to Western Canada, naming places like Calgary and Banff for the homes they left in the Highlands. Colourful Scots figure prominently in Canadian history -- from the country's first prime minister to many of the two million Canadians who can trace their roots to Scotland today.
The culture brought to Canada by these early Scots is woven deeply into our own traditions. Scratch almost anyone and you'll probably find a Celt or two in the family tree, a kilt or a fiddle in the closet, which makes a trip to Cape Breton like a journey back home.
Pack your bags
WHERE TO HEAR MUSIC
Celtic Music Centre: Judique; 902-787-2708; celticmusicsite.com. The centre offers live music and dance demonstrations by local musicians, as well as a listening centre and archives where more than 200 Cape Breton musicians share anecdotes and musical history on tape. It's also the place to find a detailed Celtic Music Events Registry, listing ceilidhs and other small performances.
Celtic Colours Festival: 1-877-285-2321; http://www.celtic-colours.com. This annual 10-day event (Oct. 6-14) features dozens of local and internationally renowned Celtic musicians in concerts held across the island. Tickets go on sale July 10.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
The Red Shoe Pub: Route 19, Mabou; 902-945-2326; redshoepub.com. Owned by the Rankin sisters, this is a great place for Cape Breton-style pub food and live, local music.
Glenora Inn & Distillery: 1-800-839-0491; http://www.glenoradistillery.com. The only single-malt whisky produced in the Scottish tradition in Canada is made here and, in the dining room, husband and wife chefs John Haines and Tracey Wallace are turning out sophisticated Cape Breton cuisine.
WHERE TO STAY
The Keltic Lodge: Ingonish Beach; 902-285-2880; http://www.signatureresorts.com. This is a lovely, sprawling hotel (circa 1920s) that morphed from a wealthy American's summer home to a provincially owned lodge. Doubles from $279 in low season, including breakfast and dinner. Golfers will come for the famed Highland Links course next door.
Chanterelle Country Inn: Baddeck; 1-866-277-0577; http://www.chanterelleinn.com. Open May through October. Rates from $145 including breakfast.
Cape Breton: http://www.cbisland.com, or call 1-888-562-9848 for festival events.
Nova Scotia tourism: http://www.novascotia.com.