Cape Breton Island is world-renowned for being one of the most beautiful places on earth and the island has gained much publication and notoriety in recent years. It was voted second most beautiful island in the world. It was voted most beautiful island in North America. The Cabot Trail, the scenic route that winds along the coast of the northern portion of the island has been voted the most scenic drive on the continent.
So Cape Breton is obviously known for its beauty but it is also known for having North America’s only living Celtic culture. In the remote, rural areas of the island, some of the people still speak Gaelic, a language considered dead in most of the world and children are immersed into the world of Celtic music and dance at a very young age. Some of those “children” have grown up to become accomplished and widely known stars of Celtic music and there is even a Gaelic College located at St. Anne’s where students can learn the language and learn about the culture and visitors can take part in many events throughout the year. Some of the most popular events take place in Mid-October and are a part of the International Celtic Colours Festival which has events happening at dozens of other venues around the island. The festival takes place just as the fall foliage comes out in full bloom, making the famed Cabot Trail even more spectacular. The festival started back in 1997 and since I moved away to another province around that time, I never had the chance to experience it first hand. Over the years, the festival grew and attracted more sponsors, world-renowned Celtic artists and followers and is now known to be one of Canada’s top festivals. This year the celebration ran from October 11th to the 19th. Over the course of those nine days, visitors from all over the world took in a number of musical and cultural events including concerts, art displays, culinary events, farmers markets, guided hikes and story-telling sessions. Lucky for me, I happened to be in Cape Breton during that time and took in some of those events.
I love all types of music but the sound of the Scottish fiddle has always had a special place in my heart, particularly the unique style of Scottish fiddle that is unique to Cape Breton Island. I grew up to the sounds of the Rankin Family, Natalie MacMaster, The Barra MacNeils and Ashley MacIsaac, all well-accomplished Cape Breton musicians. Even while I was living away, I stayed on top of the new generation of musicians that were emerging on the local scene. So when a friend invited me to join her for a night of Celtic music, as part of the Celtic Colours Festival, at the Joan Harris Pavilion in Sydney, I jumped at the chance. I always wanted to attend the Festival and Lennie Gallant and Ashley MacIsaac, two of Atlantic Canada’s top acts, were headlining the show.
The show, titled “Taste of the Festival” featured artists in residence, Harald Haugaard from Denmark and homegrown talent, Kimberley Fraser. Nordic Fiddlers Bloc, a group of fiddlers from Norway, Sweden and Shetland played a beautiful set of traditional Nordic reels. Norwegian dancer, Hallgrim Hansegard wowed the crowd with his flawless dance routine and Lennie Gallant performed a mix of some of his most popular tunes, past and present. Ashley took the stage last and, as usual, left the crowd spellbound. His unique style of fiddle playing combined with the sounds of the Cape Breton piano, played by several notable Cape Breton pianists who were invited to the stage during his set, made for one heck of a closing performance! You can think what you want about him and some of his past actions, there is still no denying that Ashley always was and still is one of the best fiddle players to come out of Cape Breton…and maybe even Canada and all of North America.
Festival Club, an event offering artists the opportunity to showcase their talents in an informal setting, was taking place at the Gaelic College in St. Anne’s right after the concert and I wanted to go. Unfortunately, I had already had a few drinks and left my car at home, so making the hour drive to the college was out of the question. I wasn’t able to attend any more concerts during the festival due to other commitments but I did take in a few of the cultural events that were happening around the island as part of Celtic Colours.
One of the events I took part in was a historical hike in the town of Boisdale. I love learning about history and I love leisurely, morning walks in the country so this made for a perfect Sunday morning. And bonus: The fall foliage in that area of the island is usually very vibrant and this day was no exception. I met up with a small group of people at the fire hall in Boisdale and we made our way along the old railway track and up through the center of the village while our guides gave us the history of the area and its people. The walk lasted about two hours and ended at a small bungalow where a fire and some tea were waiting. Since I was in the area anyway, I made the short drive to Grand Narrows and poked around at the Farmer’s Market that was being held there that day and bought some homemade baked goods to bring home to have with my Thanksgiving Dinner that was taking place later that day.
So my first experience with Celtic Colours was enough to encourage me to make plans to take part in more of the festivities next year. And I won’t have any excuses. I know it is coming up so I can plan for it and I am living in Cape Breton full time now so I’ll have no reason to be out of town.
Taking part in Celtic Colours was a bit of an eye-opener for me. When the audience at the concert I attended was asked where they were from, it seemed that most of the people in attendance were from the United States, Europe and other parts of Canada. When I arrived for the hike in Boisdale and introduced myself to the other participants, I discovered that most of them were from away. Meeting all these people from far away places and hearing about their wonderful experiences traveling around Cape Breton gave me a sense of pride. But it also gave me a sense of disappointment. Hardly any of the people I met were from Cape Breton. I’m sure tons of Cape Bretoners took in some of the events during the festival but, in my opinion, maybe not near as many as there should have been. The island hosts a world-renowned festival that sees guests from all over the world and many of my friends and acquaintances didn’t even really know what the festival was nor did they have any interest in finding out more…so hopefully next year, more Cape Bretoners will come out and support this homegrown cause and learn more about our unique culture and heritage.