Little Breton: Canada’s Celtic outpost

Travelling Well | Jeremy Bourke | Posted on 15 January 2018

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.

Lighthouse at sunrise across a moody lake in hues of gold

A moody lake near Baddeck.

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. 

Cabot chose the best beach on the island, a golden crescent several kilometres long and perfect for a mid-summer’s afternoon siesta.

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.

The absence of vineyards on the island points to how the French had a hard time of it here, being upended by the British a few times, but a community hung on along the north-west coast around Cheticamp. Today the markers of its Frenchness are place names, various signs and a flag: the Tricolor with a small yellow star in the corner, symbolising Acadia, the French colony which for a few hundred years spanned most of Canada’s maritime provinces.

Yet it’s an Italian with an English name who’s lauded here, despite no firm evidence he set foot on the island. Born Giovanni Caboto, John Cabot set sail in 1497 under the patronage of Henry VII to “discover and investigate … islands, countries, regions or provinces of heathens and infidels, in whatsoever part of the world placed, which before this time were unknown to all Christians”. Basically, he was trying to find China. 

harbour with fishing barrels in the foreground and lighthouse behind

Neil's Harbour.

Green Cliffs Overlooking Cabot Trail at sunrise on a cloudy day

Green Cliffs Overlooking Cabot Trail.

Historians are sure Cabot landed somewhere on the Canadian east coast but it could have been further north at Newfoundland or Labrador, or even south in present-day Maine in the U.S. For the Cape Breton believers, it was near the north tip of the island, where at Cabot Landing Provincial Park a bust credits Giovanni/John – who by one account landed only once and never advanced inland “beyond the shooting distance of a crossbow” – with the discovery of North America.

If Cabot did land here, he chose the best beach on the island, a golden crescent several kilometres long and perfect for a mid-summer’s afternoon siesta away from the Cabot Trail. This is a 300km loop road which runs the gamut of quaint, lush and spectacular as it links communities on the east and west shores. On the north-west corner, every whale-watch operation more or less guarantees sightings, and so it is with Capt. Mark’s out of Pleasant Bay. In 20 minutes, our zodiac is among a pod of 50 small, playful pilot whales. You hear them a split second before they breach, and we get so close – some swim under us – you smell them, too. “It’s their breath,” says our boatman. 

Such magnificent land-locked harbours I never imagined. Every moment something new to enchant.

From Pleasant Bay, the Cabot Trail cuts across the island to the Atlantic. Seeing the ocean as you eat must en­hance the seafood experience, because at the Chowder House – a weathered weather­board on a promontory in Neils Harbour – the lobster club sandwich, served toasted with mash and wasabi coleslaw, is one surreal meal. But at the other end of the scale, the combo of seared halibut and Neils Harbour snow crab in hollandaise at the grand Keltic Lodge hotel, further down the east coast in Ingonish, is served with bay views on either side.

The Cabot Trail deposits you in Baddeck, in a setting on the shore of Bras d’Or Lake that moved a former resident to write: “Such magnificent land-locked harbours I never imagined. Every moment something new to enchant.”

While this observer, Mabel Hubbard Bell, was admiring the view, her serial inventor husband Alexander Graham Bell was beavering away in his workshop at Beinn Bhreagh, their home across the lake. The Bell Museum in Baddeck is a memorial to his enormous mind.

Yet another Scot to make his mark in the New World, Bell’s experiments in telephony had arisen from his main interest in phonetics and ‘visible speech’: his mother and his wife were deaf.

Some of his other ideas were fanciful, such as a device to aid sailors lost at sea by producing drinking water from their breath, but he also made a metal detector (used in a vain attempt to find the assassin’s bullet in the abdomen of U.S. President James Garfield) plus early versions of the aeroplane and the hydrofoil.

The farmers market, held every Wednesday, is a central feature of Baddeck life. It’s populated by artisan bakers, and so a warning about the Happy Butter Tart: the thing is so buttery, one bite and it collapses. 

Sure it’s an indulgence, but you can always dance it off at a ceilidh.  


Jeremy Bourke travelled as a guest of Tourism Nova Scotia and Destination Canada.


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