Originally published in the Vancouver Province and Edmonton Journal, August 2, 2009. 

It’s been a long drive along a craggy, wave-thrashed coast, through the lush green landscapes and wild lupine fields of the central Highlands. We’ve been confused by Gaelic signposts and lost on little roads, but what keeps us going is the thought of a wee dram of “uisce beatha” to heal the soul.

We’ve been searching for a local distillery in this misty, rugged land and before nightfall we find it — turning at a pyramid of old whisky casks, we are soon snug in a pub. Surrounded by patrons laughing over strains of fiddle music, we nurse a 10-year-old cask-strength single-malt on the grounds of the very distillery it came from.

It’s been a long journey, but not nearly as long as it could be, because we’re nowhere near the famed Scottish Highlands where distilling the “water of life” is an art form, but at home in Canada’s own Celtic heart, Cape Breton Island.

Twenty-five per cent of Nova Scotians are of Scottish heritage and Gaelic culture runs deep. With its stunning scenery, kitchen party ceilidhs, and single-malt whisky distillery, Cape Breton is the perfect place to have a Highland fling— all without leaving home.

The Glenora Inn and Distillery is where we start our exploration of the quaint towns that make up the Celtic culture route known as the Ceilidh Trail. It’s North America’s sole single-malt distillery, sourcing its water from a spring-fed stream that runs through the grounds.The distillery began production in 1990 and this year — after a court battle with Scotland’s distillers association — won the right to market its whisky, including a signature single-malt Glen Breton Rare, internationally. There are daily tours of — and tastes from — the distillery and afternoon and evening ceilidhs with fiddling and dancing.

The pub offers Glen Breton whisky-smoked salmon lox, local Mabou oysters with a shot of Cape Breton Silver and traditional Scots sticky toffee pudding with a caramel-whisky glaze. A final nightcap and it’s off to sleep at the inn.

Celtic culture in this part of Canada dates to the late 1700s and early 1800s, when the erosion of the clan system and rise of commercial farming in Scotland prompted the Gaels to leave. An estimated 25,000 to 50,000 Scots landed in Cape Breton. By 1900, there were an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 Gaelic speakers in the region — at Confederation in 1867, Gaelic was the third most-spoken language in Canada. Other Gaels settled in Eastern P.E.I. and on Nova Scotia’s Northumberland shore.

All told, between 1770 and 1993, about a million Scots immigrated to Canada. And aside from Scotland and Ireland, Cape Breton is the only region in the world where Gaelic is still in everyday use — an estimated 2,000 people are fluent. Evidence is everywhere: from Gaelic newspapers to bilingual road signs. Gaelic is taught in area schools and at local colleges like St. Ann’s, which offers summer school immersion.

We start off the next day a touch groggy, but the bracing sea air and stunning coastal views soon revive us. All it takes is a morning stroll along the windswept beach dunes and weather-beaten boardwalk in nearby Inverness. Inverness also offers local cuisine at the Coal Miner’s Cafe (lobster quesadillas anyone?) and the Inverness County Centre for the Arts, which houses a gallery of local artists and holds music and theatre performances.

From there we circle back to Judique for a fiddling lesson at the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre. The centre, opened in 2006, offers visitors a tour through Celtic music in Cape Breton — complete with hands-on fiddle tutorials and step-dance lessons on old wooden floors. You can learn the difference between a reel and a jig and then hear the difference at lunch-hour concerts in the Ceilidh Kitchen.

Locals here love their ceilidhs. Cape Breton is home to modern fiddle stars Ashley MacIsaac and Natalie MacMaster, and the birthplace of Canadian Celtic super-groups The Rankin Family and The Barra MacNeils. The museum exhibits take you back to the beginnings of musical culture on the island, starting with acknowledged grandmaster Buddy MacMaster.

Parched from picking up our heels, we pop over to the nearby town of Mabou, to the picturesque Red Shoe Pub in Mabou for a pint. The bar is owned by members of the Rankin Family, whose albums went multi-platinum in the 1990s. Sup on seafood chowder and salt cod cakes washed down with one of the province’s microbrews, then settle in: the pub is an after-dark hot spot with nightly ceilidhs featuring local musicians like fiddler and pianist Andrea Beaton (cousin to Natalie) and David Rankin (a Rankin family sibling who played with the group in the 1970s.)

If you feel like dancing, the West Mabou Sports Club Hall holds Saturday night square dances. And you can plan your cultural outings by picking up the Gaelic-English newspaper Lasag (little flame in Gaelic). From the Ceilidh Trail, we head to the Cabot Trail. Cape Breton has a thousand kilometres of ocean coastline, and the Cabot Trail’s 300 km is one of its most scenic stretches. A full third of the road winds through Cape Breton Highlands National Park, a 950-sq-km park that protects about 20 per cent of northern Cape Breton.

The park itself offers 25 hiking trails, from short beginner strolls to multi-day trails. Serious campers can pitch a tent in any one of six campgrounds, while daytrippers will enjoy short walks along the Buttreau trail for sea views, the Bog trail for moose track and carnivorous plant sightings, the McIntosh Brook trail which ends with a waterfall and the Lone Sheiling trail which reveals a replica Scottish crofters house set in the woods. But there’s no need to stay landlocked. Just off the trail, whale- watching outfits in Pleasant Bay offer glimpses of humpbacks, minke, pilot and fin whales from mid-May to October. From Ingonish, you can head to offshore islands to see Atlantic puffins up close. Or view the majestic cliffs of Cape Breton from a kayak — operators in North River and Gabarus offer day and multi-day paddles through sea caves and waterfalls. After hiking the Highlands, it’s time to regroup. At the edge of the park on the Gaelic Coast, in Ingo- nish we find the Keltic Lodge Resort and Spa. It’s an oasis of refinement amid the rugged terrain. Their Aveda spa, which offers seaweed body wraps and sea spa pedicures, is tempting, but so is the outdoor heated pool. The Highland Links golf course will lure some to practice their swing in the mist.

We choose to spend the afternoon enjoying Ingonish’s sandy beaches. Dinner in the Lodge’s Purple Thistle dining room grants sunset views out over Middle Head Peninsula and seduces with lobster ravioli garnished with thistle flowers. We finish the evening listening to a throaty balladeer sing odes to Alba Nuadh in the Highland Bar and Lounge. In the morning, we wander Middle Head trail through the fogged-in forest to the point where waves crash and seabirds circle — our eyes peeled for wild grouse and rabbits, whales, seals and eagles. It’s like tramping along a wild Scottish loch — save the sea monsters.

Refreshed, it’s time to ramble. In the town of St. Ann’s we find the Hall of the Clans Gaelic Interpretive Centre, where museum visitors can explore the history of the Gaels in Nova Scotia, then pick out a tartan or Celtic-engraved pewter. The centre also stages summer concerts and cod fish suppers, seafood and storytelling ceilidhs and classes in fiddling, bagpiping and step dancing.

The town of Baddeck was home to Alexander Graham Bell (he summered at an estate called Beinn Bhreagh) and the site of Canada’s first flight; the A. G. Bell National Historic site retells the tale. This sailing and water sport centre sits on Bras D’Or Lake, so named for the golden arms of sunset that spread across the lake. Take a boat tour and count the eagles — there are over 200 pairs in the area. The town’s also home to one of the region’s largest lobster suppers — you haven’t truly tasted all the area has to offer until there’s lobster butter running down your chin.

We halt our Highland fling on the island of Iona’s Highland Village Museum, a living-history museum of Cape Breton folk life where guides in authentic dress demonstrate rug hooking, blacksmithing, weaving and wool-dyeing. The period village with its church, farmhouses, store, forge, schoolhouse and black house, (a traditional Highland barra house of stone and thatch) seem all the more authentic through a haze of warm rain.

Visitors can also trace their roots back to Cape Breton — the Roots Cape Breton Genealogy Centre is on site. But we don’t have to. After unearthing Canada’s Celtic heart, we’re convinced we’re going home with more than a little Gaelic in our blood. Or maybe that’s just whisky.

Elaine O’Connor tells travel tales at Whywanderlust.ca and on Twitter at @WhyWanderlust.

If you go:

Gaelic to Go:

Here are some phrases to smooth your journey on the Ceilidh Trail.

  • Slainte! — Cheers!
  • Air do dheagh slainte! — To your excellent health!
  • Ceilidh — A Celtic music party Failte — Welcome
  • Gaidhlig — Gaelic language
  • Alba Nuadh — Nova Scotia
  • Cheap Breatuinn — Cape Breton
  • Ciamar a tha thu-fhien? — How are you?
  • De do naigheachd? — What’s new?
  • Se biadh math a bha sin. — That was a lovely meal.
  • Ciad mile failte. — A hundred thousand welcomes.

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