CAPE BRETON: INTO THE LAND OF MOD
This is the month of the Mod. And the Macdonalds, McNeils and MacLeods gather to the skirling of the pipes on the gorsed hills above St. Ann for the Highland games as Cape Bretonners keep a tryst with tradition
WASN’T it a fine sound indeed, that grand skirling of the pipes and the lads stepping out so bra and all?” said Feenie MacRae on the Baddeck bus, the night of the Mod.
Everybody nodded, their heads bopping to the rhythm of bumps of the twilit gravel road skirting the Bras d’Or Lake.
“Was there a lot of people now at St. Ann the day, Feenie?” Harold McNeil turned from the wheel to ask.
“A grrrreat number there were.” Feenie relished
her rolling rs. “And most of them Macdonalds though it’s Maclean day, and a’. We MacRaes had no showing at all, at all. But,” she added with a tilt in her voice, “no trouble came of it.”
The bus load rocked with laughter. Everybody knew of the time when a MacLeod had flaunted a Macdonald, and a MacRae had been in on it. It had happened a mere 600 years ago in Scotland.
And then Feenie shrieked, “Harold! You’re going by my place!”
She got into the dusking night and addressed the bus driver, “Stop by in the morning and I’ll pay for the drive.” Then she said thorough good nights to everybody, adding to the only stranger in the
bus, “Come and see me, and you passing by. A right pretty place I have, isn’t it now, Harold McNeil?”
“It is that,” the bus driver said, “and a fine hospitable welcome.”
If it was necessary to give just a snapshot of Cape Breton that would be it. Not the Cape Breton of Sydney Harbor and Sydney Mines, and the smoke and the coal, and the unclean air of the city. It would be this: the old-fashioned lurching bus, the only means of transportation to most of the people of the interior and coastal villages. The blue hills in the gloaming. And these people, kindly, holding fast to the past of a far land because they are by contact and geography so far from the present of their own country.
Cape Breton, N.S., is the eastern land’s end of the Canadian mainland and it is an island not a cape at all. The Atlantic sweeps at the island’s jagged shores from the northeast and southeast; northwest there is the spreading Gulf of St. Lawrence. Whether you are driving or taking the CNR (a trunk line halving the island, with a few minor spurs jutting from it) you must, in the first place, cross the mile-wide Canso Gut by ferry from Mulgrave to Port Hawkesbury. Once across, the island’s isolation from the rest of Canada’s days and ways is striking. People here are still part of the lands of their origin. They have been so isolated by geography and weather that they have little chance or inclination to embrace other traditions than those their forebears brought with them 100 years ago.
Economically Cape Breton is a lone wolf too. Outside the coal and iron mines of Sydney, the 110-mile-long, 87-mile-wide island is painstakingly agricultural, with strong fishing and some lumbering thrown in.
About 84,000 of Cape Breton’s population of about 162,000 are of Scottish descent. They live along the northern coasts and the shores of Bras d’Or Lakes and 30,000 of them speak Gaelic with liquid fluency. There are also about 18,000 French, same number of Irish, and 36,000 English Cape Bretonners. Working in the Sydney mines and mills is a sprinkling of Ukrainians, Italians, Russians, Negroes from Virginia and Barbados.
Harold McNeil, the bus driver, who served his time in the Canadian Army and from that perspective is able to look at his native heath with a certain objectivity, outlined it simply. He said, “No, we haven’t much farming around here. The land’s not too good. Also, where could we sell our produce? Transportation is both bad and expensive. The stuff would be worth six times its price before it got to a place where it would sell. There is some lumbering. Not very inspired, that. The big boys with a lot of cash come in, buy a property, cut it down, leave us the hulk. But that’s the only thing that keeps some of us going—working for them in the winters. Sometimes a lad will go up to the mines, and that’s like a drug, that is. A miner seldom gets away from it.
“There is working for the rich,” he enlarged. “Summertimes it’s busy here. There’s as many of the summer people as us, I’d reckon. Lot of the rich are building big houses around these parts. Seem to like it here. They don’t have to make a living at it, you see. Many an island home is kept going by maiding and handy-manning for the visitor. What with one thing and another, and the tourist trade, that does for us.”
Harold McNeil appears to be typical of the upstanding Cape Bretonner. A black Highlander with thick, dark hair, wide-spaced pale-grey eyes, rangy wide shoulders. His speech is slow, courteous, not so accented as Continued on page 30
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Cape Breton: Into the Land of Mod
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that of some who haven’t been off the island. He knows everybody. Between him and the other people there exist grave familiar good manners. With strangers they appear reluctant to talk, a trifle distant. No wonder when you consider the hordes of dollar-flinging visitors who infest the land in the summer months.
To the rest of Canada Cape Breton appears to be significant mainly as a tourist attraction. Visitors in thousands head for the Cabot Trail, a motor drive skirting the north end of the cape and presenting breath-taking views and sudden thrills in the swiftly dropping descents. Most native Cape Bretonners have never driven the trail because they don’t own cars and buses aren’t allowed on part of it. Scottish Canadians from other provinces also turn up for the annual Gaelic Mod (Mod means a meeting for Highland games), a gathering of the clans to be held for the 13th consecutive year this month. It is a spectacle of hundreds of kilted men with pride in their bearing and rhythm to their feet when the bagpipes skirl.
More Sheep on These Hills
Apropos of the island’s gripe against the mainland, there was a case of Canada vs. Cape Breton at the beginning of the war. The use of the Gaelic at that time was forbidden over telegraph wires—not enough censors spoke Gaelic. The ranting and roaring that this order caused made Ottawa, by 1941, decide to allow Gaelic messages I to be sent if accompanied by an EngI lish translation. The incident, small though it was, still rankles in Cape Breton, the stronghold of the Gaels. That, they point out bitterly, was one of the few times Ottawa took personal I interest in the island.
There are both Catholic and Protestant Cape Bretonners and in many of the kirks the service is in Gaelic. Even yet you rather judge the purity of the clansman’s descent by his accent in the ancient tongue, and the proudest I families speak it exclusively at funerals and on other formal occasions.
The Gaelic revival seems scarcely i necessary in the light of this centuries old hugging of the traditions. However, j it has brought a lot of younger people ! to the fold through the picturesque I festival application of the old customs. The most recent of the revivals got
into full swing with the opening in 1939 of the Gaelic Foundation College at St. Ann, where the language, handicrafts and arts of the Gaels are taught. Now with Gaelic schools, institutes, colleges, scholarships, churches, choirs and Mods it appears true that Cape Breton actually is “the cradle of the Celtic culture in the New World,” as somebody phrased it.
St. Ann, by the Cabot Trail, on a peninsula in the western end of St. Ann Harbor, was where the Rev. Norman MacLeod landed with his group of pioneers in 1820. It is in his memory the Gaelic college was established here with the avowed intent of getting a “loom in operation in every rural home and more sheep on these Cape Breton hills.” Students have flocked in from other parts of Canada. It has been sustained by provincial grants, private donations, and the proceeds from the annual three-day Mod.
Since last year the college has been open throughout the year (it only functioned in the summer for its first years), and at the craft centre students turn out 25 of Scotland’s 200-odd tartans. Youngsters, fifth-generation Canadians, are industriously learning the bagpipes, the Gaelic tongue and the old tunes. There are more than 1,000 pipers in Nova Scotia alone.
They come to the Mod on the gorsegrown hills by St. Ann, above the bay which is like a deep loch, below high moorlands. In the distance Cape Smoky loses its peak in the mists. Purple and blue the hills slant north. Beyond, through a gap in the hills, you glimpse the Atlantic. And on the yellowing late-summer hillside small boys with straight backs puff out their cheeks and march the deliberate step of the piper as they blow out the doleful old songs of a land far away.
Even a Sassenach visitor feels obliged to quote,
From the lone shieling of the misty island
Mountains divide us, and the waste of seas—
Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland,
And we in dreams behold the Hebrides.
Cape Bretonners haven’t missed the opportunity. The poem is inscribed upon a brass plate set in a statue on a cape along the Cabot Trail.
At the Mod natives will point out with dour pride to you that “you wouldn’t find anything like this anywhere but in Scotland.” One year The Macdonald (Lord Macdonald from the Isle of Skye to the uninitiated), a stoopshouldered, sandy-mustached big man
in the best Hollywood British-earl tradition, got up to tell his clansmen in Gaelic, as well as in Oxford-accented English, that he had found himself at Cape Breton “at home away from
Grandmothers With Second Sight
Above the rough entrance gate to the Gaelic college grounds, where the Mod is held, are the words Ciad Mile Faille, which mean “a hundred thousand welcomes.” Dirging over the hills comes the Gaelic opening song. On the platform small girls with long loose bobs or tight ringlets appear and do a sword dance nimbly. The audience, as well as the visitors on the platform (The Macdonald, Angus L. Macdonald, Premier of Nova Scotia, the province’s Lt.-Governor who is of the clan of McCurdy), bend intently forward. The child’s wrist, a big bluff young man in the audience criticizes, does not bend according to the traditions, her steps are accurate enough but what about the spirit?
Lumbermen from the inland, steel workers from Sydney Mines, fishermen from many settlements along the tortuous coast, and farmers, give their whole-hearted attention to the intricacies of Highland flings, laments (sung without accompaniment), fiddlers, pip-
In their Sunday garb there is a very distinguishable and a pleasant same ness about them. They are lean spare people. There are two colorings, dark and blond, hardly anything in between
A dour farmer, eating his box lunch on the sun-yellowed hillside, explains the spectacle. “Yes, we carry on the old ways. Good and bad. Or is it bad to leave for tomorrow something that doesn’t necessarily have to be done today? Why should one lose a pleasant hour with a friend by rushing? What counts most in the end?” He appeared eager to launch into a philosophic contemplation. When interrupted with a question he expands on his grandmother who had the second sight (most Cape Breton grandmothers appear to have had it).
Many Cape Bretonners have the same surname and colorful patronymics are widely used. John Macdonald’s father was Hughie, so John, to avoid confusion, is known as John Hughie. Hain means white, so Neilie Johnnie Bain is obviously another man from Neilie Johnnie Kcudh (red). And you can easily tell what Johnnie Sam’s father’s name was.
Nicknames show a sly humor. Holy
Sandy might easily have got his nick-
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name from lack of piety, Sober Angus
for his liking for whisky neat.
The Scots began to arrive in Cape Breton about five generations back. More turned up between 1790 and 1828 following the breakup of the clan system in the Scottish Highlands. The most famed arrival was that of the Rev. Norman McLeod whose six little barks, filled with the evicted crofters of Sutherlandshire, were driven by storm into the rugged landlocked harbor of St. Ann in 1820.
McLeod lived on Cape Breton for about 20 years. Then wanderlust seized him again and he sailed with a group of settlers for Australia. All this is more than a century ago but some Cape Bretonners will describe their departure to you as though it had taken place yesterday. McLeod did not like Australia much either and went off to New Zealand where today there is a flourishing Nova Scotian settlement.
The Micmacs Were There First
Men of Cape Breton speak warmly of kinsmen across the world. Scotland sent out some settlers who stayed put. Scottish soldiers with Wolfe found their way to Cape Breton and sent for their families. From the wild coasts the settlers made their way to the Bras d’Or Lakes, sunk in the centre of the island, to the valley of Margaree River, emptying off the west coast, and to the more congenial soil by Canso Gut which separates the island from the mainland.
Micmac Indians are Cape Breton’s oldest inhabitants, but at the last census they numbered only 1,000. They live in shacks and even tepees at an Indian Reserve near Whycocomagh. In the summer the Indian women turn up at Baddeck with baskets, moccasins and bead work to sell to the summer visitors.
Next oldest inhabitants are the French. Isle Madame, off the south coast, is as French as any part of Quebec, and there are a number of French fishing villages on the south shore, and one or two on the north. These are the descendants of the early settlers of Louisburg, and of the Acadians who fled from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland and then back to Cape Breton, and their language is among the oldest and purest French spoken anywhere.
_ Wfid and rugged though Cape Breton is tfie islanders of whatever origin sport an inordinate pride of her. They are ready to fight for the fact that John Cabot landed there in 1497—Newfoundlanders say he landed in Newfoundland—feeling that this adds prestige to the island. They tell you, too, with their strangely present-day tense, of the rovers from Norway and Iceland in the 10th century and give all kinds of evidence that just about “here” on Cape Breton’s coast the Viking ships landed and the Norseman shouted “Markland.”
From the air Cape Breton seems all wilderness and wood with few bright light-green squares of fields tossed haphazardly. The 450 square miles of the Little and Great Bras d’Or Lakes gash the centre of the almost threecornered island like a black-blue flashing well. If the plane lands at Sydney the impression of primitive outpost solidifies.
Here, the first view of Canada to visitors from the Old World, is an airport, scruband brush-surrounded, and the big silver ships are incongruous in the wild setting. The airport buildings are wooden sheds, too small for the traffic, flimsy-looking, and quite out of character with the commerce with other countries. Dazed-looking travel-
ers are jam-packed into a tiny customs room.
Though industrial Sydney is Cape Breton’s largest place, Baddeck, on Bras d’Or Lake, almost the centre of Cape Breton, is the summer capital. Here along the village roads and by the many village hostels are parked cars with license plates of every American state and Canadian province. This is the beginning and the end of the Cabot Trail. Sometimes a villager will accost a visitor to baffle him with a question on what is the trail really like.
It is here that Alexander Graham Bell lived most of his life and conducted many of the experiments which were to change the world. Now he sleeps on Beinn Breagh, the high hill on the opposite shore, his grave set to face the view over the mountains and the islands, the lake and the village he
From here one blustery February day the Silver Dart took to air from the frozen Baddeck Bay, setting a record of the first heavier-than-air flight in the British Empire. Today the man whp piloted the ship, Douglas McCurdy, is the Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia, and turns up on summer week ends at his modest summer cottage in an RCA F plane.
Here, in the office of the town clerk and treasurer, Charles W. K. McCurdy, is a piece of the first Marconi cable. McCurdy will assure you with a mild burr that “Baddeck is the heart of Victoria County and that’s the county on which the British Empire was founded.”
The Giant Was Mad at Victoria
Then he’ll launch into the story of Angus McAskill, who hailed from these parts. Angus attained the height of seven feet eleven, a chest measurement of 84 inches and weight of 450 pounds and now lies buried in a 12-foot grave in Englishtown. He was the man who got so mad at Queen Victoria for not asking him to show off his strength when he was granted an audience that, as he hacked out of the regal chamber, he stomped his feet so hard pieces of rug came up with each step.
Baddeck is gay in the summer. Large houses dot the lake shore, with important people from far and near summering here. From the lodges and inns up and down the Cabot Trail welldressed visitors come, leaving a trail of dollars.
But when the woods tum and the north wind blows Cape Breton gathers close and quiet, and in the small settlements children stop looking up the road and down for foreign cars and creep close to the blazing hearth. There’s always plenty of wood. Then out come the old legends of far Scotland, the tales of the clan feuds, and hero stories. Now the fiddle sings qgain old laments and small children are taught the sword dance and the Highland fling. Gaelic sounds in prideful strength now that the American and Upper Canadian accents are gone, and every now and then a man will talk at a village gathering of secession.
Then again is quoted the old poem:
Hear, you Cape Bretonners, descendants of the braue.
Enroll yourselves together and freedom you shall have.
Muster all your eru-rgies and set your country free.
Despised by Nova Scotia no longer you shall br-
There is healthy pride in it. Man must hold something close to himself for warmth when the land is lean and there is the sea and all the wild outdoors outside the kitchen door. ★