Exploring Cape Breton Island Through Celtic Colours

Cape Breton Island: it is a place where mountain meets sea, an island that is the far northern part of the province of Nova Scotia. A bit out of the way, you might think.

Despite that, or perhaps because of it. Cape Breton Island has for centuries been a crossroads of cultures. As people have settled in and built lives there, patchwork might be a more apt description of Cape Breton: a quilt of landscape and community stitched together by memory, tradition, and music.

maple leaf cape breton

Pieces for that quilt, and bright threads that connect them, come from the Mi’kmaq, First Nations settlers who came to inland sea of what wold be known as Bras d”Or Lake, to fish and hunt and build their lives. Over centuries, from France, Ireland, Scotland, England and New England, and in more recent times other parts of the world have come to add their traditions to the mix in what is, after all, a rather small place geographically. It is, however, a place of wide open spirit.

cape breton island  forest fog

One of the ways this turns up is through music. Scotland’s traditions are strong — Cape Breton Island is one of a very few places outside the Highlands of Scotland where Scottish Gaelic is regularly spoken. You will hear French spoken as well. Mi’kmaq have a strong presence, as do those who draw on the traditions of Ireland. There are other bright strands in the fabric of life in Cape Breton as well.

These cultures connect always, and there is music on Cape Breton Island always. One of the best times to experience all this is the nine days each October which make up the Celtic Colours International Festival. This year the festival is on from 11 through 19 October.

highland village cape breton kitchenfest

This is a time when top class Celtic musicians from across the world and top Cape Breton musicians join up to bring their talents to communities across the island. In addition to those concerts — 52 of them this year across the nine days time — there are art exhibits, nature walks, farmers markets, workshops, talks, lessons, storytelling sessions, music sessions, and community meals.

At those workshops you could try your hand at learning, or improving, your fiddle playing. You could make dyes from local plants, learn a few traditional dance steps or take your partner for a spin in a community square dance. You could try your hand at carving pumpkins, or at making oatcakes — or at eating them. Fishcakes and beans, roast beef dinners, traditional Acadian fare, and, as it is Thanksgiving time in Canada, turkey and all the holiday fixings are a small taste of the sorts of food you could enjoy.

You could go for a nature walk in the highlands, go whale watching or try lobster catching on the waters, or see autumn foliage from a different perspective from the lifts at Ski Ben Eoin.

You could learn about Gaelic traditions of the island, and Mi’kmaq ones, join in an Acadian kitchen party, visit historic churches, or sit in as festival artists share personal stories in talks and interviews. There are many ways to explore Cape Breton Island during the Celtic Colours International Festival.

Music is at the heart of things during Celtic Colours, though.

cape breton island highlands road

You could make a drive with the rocky Atlantic shore to one side and Cape Breton Highlands to the other to get down north, as the far northern part of the island is called. There at the North Highlands Elementary School there will be a concert with Saltfishforty from Orkney, Donnie Campbell and Jinks O’Neill from Cape Breton, and the award winning fiddle based creations of Kittel & Co. from the United States.

You could stop in at Saint Matthew’s United Church in Inverness to hear family and friendship connections through music from the Scottish group Talisk, Cape Breton Island sister fiddle players Dawn and Margie Beaton with their former student Maggie Beaton, and Jenna Moynihan and Mairi Chaimbeul fiddle and harp from Boston.

margie beaton cape breton fiddle kitchenfest

On another evening, the Indian Bay Drummers will often a First Nations welcome ceremony to audience and artists at Wagmatcook Heritage Centre. The Ivan Flett Memorial Dancers from Manitoba and KInnaris Quintet from Scotland will be making their first visit to the festival, joined by several Cape Breton artists for the evening.

In Sydney, you could take in an opening day concert featuring the iconic Irish band The Chieftains, who will share the stage with Cape Breton’s fiery fiddler Ashley MacIsaac, harpist Phamie Gow from Scotland, Scottish/English guitar wizard Tim Edey and others. Later in the week the Cape Breton Orchestra will back up Cape Bretoners Heather Rankin as she shares songs from her family and her own music, and the lively group Beolach. You’ll not miss their venue, either: right at Sydney’s harbor, Centre 200 is fronted by a 60 foot tall fiddle and bow.

cape breton fiddler wendy macisaac by kerry dexter

Beolach, whose members are Wendy MacIsaac, Mac Morin, Mairi Rankin, and Matt MacIsaac, are artists in residence, as are Breabach, from Scotland, a band which joins the talents of Ewan Robertson, Calum MacCrimmon, James Lindsay, James Duncan Mackenzie, and Megan Henderson. You’ll hear these artists in several ways across the festival.

Cape Breton fest Scottish singer Julie Fowlis by Craig Mackay

Especially look out for the concert in Port Hawkesbury which will close things out for this year’s festival season, in which Breabach and Beolach will join their talents with those of top class Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis from Scotland. Expect both lively musical fireworks and thoughtful ballads on the night.

But what if you’ll not be on Cape Breton Island during the festival?

One concert each evening is live streamed over the internet, and usually kept up for most of the following day. Which concert it will be is not announced until about half an hour before showtime (most concerts begin at 7:30 PM Atlantic Time, which is 6:30 PM Eastern), although it’s fun to look at the schedule and see if you can predict which you will get to see. The Celtic Colours International Festival website is the place to keep an eye for information about this.

Celtic Colours takes place every autumn, and there are always different things to learn. I’ve written about some of those things for you before: here’s a look back on what was going on in 2018, and in 2015. If summer is your time to be on Cape Breton Island, though, you will want to learn about KitchenFest.

Photograph of Julie Fowlis by Craig Mackay.

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