Most tourist souvenirs are best seen and not bought, but there’s some tempting stuff in the gift shop as I wait for the ceilidh to start in the tiny Nova Scotian village of Judique. The Confiture de Rhubarbe Sirop d’Erable (rhubarb and maple jam) looks good. Yet many things carry Canada’s staple maple flavour, and we’ve stocked up well already. So maybe the tartan ‘serviettes de plage’ (beach towels) complete with sporran, aka the Instakilt. Or the hip flask, a hint that there’s a whisky distillery just up the road.
Then my eye catches the Learn To Play The Bagpipes Beginner Kit (i.e., the pipe minus the bag). Hmmm. But I think of the neighbours. Best to leave it to the locals, with generations of musical tradition behind them, to make the pipes sound sweet this afternoon.
In Judique, like many localities on Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island, a ceilidh – pronounced ‘kay-lee’, a traditional Scottish or Irish gathering – is never far away. All you need is a few musicians and room for dancing. Here in Judique’s Celtic Music Interpretation Centre, while a trio make the notes, the audience make the moves, mostly in groups of eight. A lot of the steps are shuffles on the spot – “it looks like scraping chewing gum off your shoes”, my muse offers. Easier said than done, we soon discover, so we discreetly scrape our way back to our table.
We’re not the first foreign visitors who’ve failed to gain a decent foothold on this island. Over the centuries, the Portuguese, British and French came and went. Finally, in the early 1800s, in sailed 50,000 Scots, most evicted from their land during the ‘clearances’. And they’ve stamped their culture on the place, which is why, like the music, the whisky is so very good. Glenora Distillery, up the coast from Judique, was established in 2000 with the aim of producing high-quality single malt; it even won a seven-year court battle with the Scotch Whisky Association for the right to use that descriptor. The water, whisky’s most important ingredient, comes from a brook that rises in the highlands behind us and has, we hear, the same profile as Glenfiddich.
Glenora has a hotel, and in the restaurant almost every dish contains whisky – the scallops, the seafood tagliatelle, even the french toast at breakfast. It’d be nice to think that, before they add the malt and barley, you could shower in this rich water, but no, the hotel has a different source to the distillery’s, which is too good to waste on humans.