Wednesday, September 12, 2007



CEILIDH (pronounced kaylee) TRAIL

I’m still eating strawberries grown in Quebec. I’m not sure how they manage to grow them at this time of year, but I’m truly enjoying this delicious fruit.

I’ve chosen the Ceilidh Trail to follow up the west coast of Cape Breton. I’m sure the entire island is beautiful, but I can see why the original Scottish and Irish chose to live here. It reminds me a great deal of the Scottish Highlands, and parts of Ireland with the vast green fields, trees and rolling hills next to the ocean. It almost feels as though I’ve stepped back in time. The road is two lanes, in need of repair here and there and not conducive to driving fast.

Last year John Morris Rankin, of the Rankin Family, lost his life on this stretch of road.

Unfortunately, a car in front of me hit a mink; he didn’t stop. The animal was still alive, so I did. However, there was nothing I could do as she was mortally injured. Poor thing. Her fur was so soft.


Mabou is a village on the Ceilidh Trail where I decided to stay overnight in order to attend a ceilidh featuring Buddy McMaster, one of the true masters of the fiddle and the uncle of Natalie McMaster.

While waiting, I took advantage of the internet computer in the Mabou Post Office. There are very few places that have wireless in this region, so I must rely upon internet services available in libraries and other buildings. Unfortunately I couldn’t copy my Episode Number Seven on to the computer, so it will have to wait.

The family in the Red Shoe Pub last night told me that Inverness had a lovely beach, so despite the fact that the weather was cold and overcast, I drove up, but ended up at a private beach by mistake. A local man was there, selling organic yellow beans (I bought a bunch for $2), and in true Maritime spirit, he offered to drive in front of me to guide me to where I should go.

Inverness Beach is a long stretch of sandy shoreline, but on this day nobody was in the water. The waves were large and the air was too cold for swimming. Nevertheless, Ripley and I enjoyed a walk along the beach, she checking out all the new odours and chasing the shorebirds, while I looked for shells and pebbles. I’ve identified the shorebirds as semi-palmated sandpipers.

Back to Mabou where I parked in the lot beside the community hall, the site of tonight’s concert. The beauty of having the RV is that all I have to do is step back into the kitchen in order to prepare supper. Tonight I had left-over BBQ chicken, California salad, potato salad, root beer – and strawberries for dessert.

I noticed that Tyler Mullendore (one of the Top Twenty on this year’s Canadian Idol show) will be appearing nearby on September 6th.

The ceilidh was delightful – everything I had hoped for. Even at his advanced age (75??), Buddy McMaster is a true artist on the fiddle, and is responsible for rejuvenating the Celtic music tradition in Cape Breton and other parts of Canada. He paved the way for artists like Natalie McMaster and Ashley MacIsaac who have become famous in their own right. Buddy was accompanied on the requisite piano by Joey Beaton, also well known locally. It must be a difficult task to keep up with the changes in tunes, as Buddy moved from one song to another without pause. Joey’s wife, Karen Beaton (also a well known artist here) has been playing the fiddle for 25 years, and played with Buddy as well as solo. The audience joined in with a great deal of foot stomping and one oldtimer in the front row, played the spoons. It was a truly wonderful experience – one of the reasons that I wanted to take this trip.

I slept in the community hall parking lot – fairly comfortable but of course there was no electricity.

September 5, 2007

The weather was again cold and blustery and it seems more like late fall. While walking Ripley around Mabou, I came across the Shining Waters Bakery which opened at 7:00 a.m. After depositing Ripley back at the RV, I went back to the bakery to have breakfast of egg, bacon a still warm biscuit and coffee for $5.55. That’s a bit steep, but it was very good. The bakery sells bread in the shapes of different animals for the village children. I overheard a local man talking to two tourists in the bakery saying that all the children are leaving, as there is no work and house prices have skyrocketed from $27,500 to $150,000 currently. I suppose this is because of tourists coming in to buy summer properties and jacking the prices up as a result.

I was quite taken by the number of chestnut trees that grow in the town of Mabou. It is a rare sighting in the Toronto region now.

The bakery also exhibited the works of local artists, but I was quite taken by three pieces in the ladies’ washroom, of all places. They were what are describe I suppose as primitive, done on hand-made paper. When I enquired about the works, it turns out they were a gift to the bakery owner by Mary King of Orange, Massachusetts who is a professor of anthropology at U. of Mass. I’ll have to see if I can search her out.

The Celtic mist, as it is known locally, was quite heavy in parts as I made my way along a winding road to Whycocomagh where I stopped for gas. The station owner and I chatted about his horse farm that he had just sold. He used to have trail rides and it would have been wonderful to be able to go on one. He also owns a school bus business, a carpentry business, and a big truck towing company. Quite the entrepreneur.


On my way into town, I noticed a sign for a wool shop and thought it would be so nice to buy some wool made from local sheep. It seems that the majority of wool now comes from Asia! However, I did manage to get two lovely multi-colour skeins – one from a local woman who has Corriedales and Angora goats, and the other was imported but dyed locally in gorgeous Celtic colours. I have no idea yet what I’m going to make with these – but they will have to be special as they were very expensive.

It seems that just about everybody in this region plays a musical instrument. There are ceilidhs advertised everywhere. How wonderful to grow up in this environment!

Baddeck (pronounced Ba-DECK) is famous for being the home of Alexander Graham Bell, and there is a very fine interpretive centre. I had no idea that Bell was such a prolific inventor. The historic site has artifacts, audio-visual programs and photographs to tell the story of Bell. It features many of his inventions, including an x-ray machine, phonograph, hydrofoil airplanes, a solar water distiller the fastest boat in the world and of course the telephone. He started out working with the deaf to communicate through a system of spelling out the alphabet on the hands. In fact, his wife to whom he was devoted, was deaf. Many of his drawings were displayed as well. And, since I have a pass to the National Historic Sites, I got in for free!

The adjacent tea room featured home made raisin scones and Earl Grey tea – just the right pick-me-up!

Moving on eastwards, I passed a Gaelic College, where the old language is being taught and preserved.

Maritimers certainly like ice cream. Just as we seem to have a Tim Horton’s on every street corner, here you will find an ice cream booth.


Sydney Mines - The home of the Barra MacNeills and Bruce Guthro

I came across this small museum by way of a sign on the highway. I was intrigued to find that the museum houses many fossil examples of the Carboniferous period (250-350 million years ago). They were mainly plants (ferns, tree bark, seeds, leaves and roots) embedded in the rocks locally. I asked the attendant whether they had Creationists visit the museum, and what they might have to say. He said that he was aware of some visitors who held the view that the world was created in six days – a literal interpretation of the Bible, but didn’t comment on what their response was when looking at these fossils. On this note, I had heard on the radio recently that there is a Creationist Museum actually being built in one of the states (can’t remember which one) to refute the scientific community’s “theory” of evolution. It would be interesting to visit this Museum to see what they propose. The danger is that schoolchildren will probably be taken there on field trips.



Peter and Monika Harmathy had told me that I had to visit this Museum, and I am so pleased that I did. It is an hour-long fascinating tour guided by a retired miner. Sheldon worked in the mines for 29 years and had a great sense of humour. He started out with an orientation in a room decked out as it would be in the 1930’s. We were requested to put on hard hats and a cape before proceeding to the entrance of Ocean Deeps Colliery. We then proceeded to make our way underground in this once-operating mine and Sheldon described to us the working conditions in 1932. He gave us a genuine sense of how appalling the conditions were. In the early years there was no emphasis on safety. In fact, it was up to the miners themselves to shore up the beams. They did not get paid for any time spent on this chore – only for producing coal. The ceilings are quite low, requiring the workers to walk and work stooped over. It is noisy, dusty and damp. Many miners died of black lung disease as a result of breathing in coal dust every day.

In one area Sheldon, showed us how the coal was taken out. First a loud compressor breaks up the coal, and then it is shoveled into wagons on a rail track. The wagons are hauled by pit ponies who were born and died underground.
Marilyn with pit pony model
The miners used canaries in small cages to detect methane gas. If the canary died, then they knew there was too much gas, and there was danger of an explosion.

Sheldon demonstrating how he used a canary to detect methane gas
Sheldon also showed us an underground garden, where flowers were grown under lights.
Various amounts of money would be deducted from their meager paycheques to pay for items they had to buy at the company store, including their equipment and blasting powder. Hence, the song “Sixteen Tons”. And what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. St.Peter don’t you call me ‘cause I can’t go. I owe my soul to the company store.

There have been many changes since that time, but much remains the same. This tour truly gives the visitor a good impression of just how appalling the conditions are to work in a mine.

It seemed only fitting to buy a tape of the Men of the Deeps choir. You may have seen them on Rita MacNeil’s TV show. They are all miners.


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scott davidson said...

What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee,
The image can be seen at who can supply you with a canvas print of it.