Tuesday, 8 October — Jackson to Bangor
I left Jackson at 5h10 and arrived without event in Bangor at 16h10. I missed most of the New York City traffic—the only real slowdown was on I-87 by the mall approaching the Tappan Zee Bridge, which took a while to get through. By then it was daylight and the sun broke over the horizon just as I was crossing the bridge, making it hard to see the lanes. Once past the worst of the city traffic, I stopped for breakfast in Newtown (Connecticut)—the Blue Colony Diner there is a great place to eat with very reasonable prices—and had a good nap in the car at a rest area west of Hartford. Pure blue sky prevailed all the way except for some wind-blown stratus clouds in western Massachusetts and a few puffy cirrus clouds in central Maine: really lovely day! The trees were significantly changed in Westchester and all the way north from there; they are not yet at the peak of the fall colours, with plenty of unchanged greens, but getting there, with some occasional dazzling displays of oranges, yellows, and pastel reds. I saw an amazing number of entirely bare trees, especially birches, in central Maine—there must have been a windstorm that brought them down.
I will be early off to bed tonight for another long trip tomorrow, but Cape Breton is at the end of the drive tomorrow afternoon! As always, I’m eagerly looking forward to being back there!
Wednesday, 9 October — Bangor to Port Hood
After a good ten hours of sleep, I left the motel in Bangor a couple of minutes past 6h EDT and arrived in Port Hood at 16h11 ADT, crossing the Canso Causeway at 15h32 ADT. The total distance from New Jersey was 1670.2 km (1037.8 mi).
It was a cool morning in Bangor (+3 (37)) and cooler still in Calais (0 (32)), but the fog wasn’t a significant impediment to driving. Once the sun was up, pure blue skies prevailed all the way to Cape Breton, where puffy cirrus clouds floated above the shore and out into St Georges Bay. Evergreens seem to line much of the highways in New Brunswick and mainland Nova Scotia (it was too dark to see much in eastern Maine (and once the sun was up, it was directly in my eyes)), so it was hard to gauge how far along the colours were, though occasional areas seemed to be at or close to peak (including one dazzling stand of yellow trees east of St John that rivalled the sun in brilliance) while others showed mainly greens. I didn’t see a whole lot of colours in Cape Breton, though there were some, including some occasional bright red trees along the Cèilidh Trail. I’ll have a better idea of the state of the colours after driving the back country tomorrow.
After supper in Port Hood, I drove out the Colindale Road where I found a freshly graded gravel surface and brand new guard rails at the look-off (the cliff bank eroded sufficiently that the old guard rails there were no longer safe). Although the sun was by now down, I nevertheless took a few photos of the always gorgeous Cape Mabou from one of the best spots I know of to view it and some of the lovely pink post-sunset skies and a lovely crescent moon. I drove on to Rocky Ridge, where I visited a while with friends and caught up with their latest. Yesterday’s provincial election, which saw the Liberals decisively oust the NDP and win a majority government, turning the electoral map of Cape Breton from a mostly blue map to one with blue at the edges with a red stripe through the middle (see the bottom of this article for a before/after colour-coded map), was a hot topic of conversation. I will soon be off to bed and am sure I’ll sleep very well—it’s a long drive!
Thursday, 10 October — Port Hood
I slept in until 9h30. After a leisurely breakfast, I drove out Hawthorne Road to St Ninian Road (which my Prius’ GPS names Old Barren Road) to the Rear Intervale Road to the Glencoe Road to the MacKinnon Road to the Churchview Road. It was another fabulous blue sky sunny day and I took full advantage of it, stopping for photos at many places along the way.
I hadn’t been to the summit of Churchview Road in a while and decided to hike up there (a) because my Prius got motion sickness—indicated by a yellow skid light that comes on when it loses traction—the last time I drove up and (b) because I really needed the exercise. It took me 50 minutes, including two rest stops, and, though it turned out that I could have easily driven up, thanks to some kind Samaritan who put down a good base at the spot that caused me the minor grief the last time, I was very glad I walked, as it was a perfect day for it. The sights at the summit were gorgeous (likely the best day I’d ever been up there, though looking at the photos on the camera tonight shows some haze in the distant shots I don’t remember seeing in the air), with the Upper Glencoe and Glencoe Mills areas down below and views stretching to Cape George across St Georges Bay, to Rocky Ridge, and to the Cape Mabou Highlands from Mabou to and well beyond Glenora Falls to the north. By the time I arrived at the summit, I had pretty much convinced myself that the chlorophyll was in much greater evidence than the changed colours, though there were plenty of colours both on the drive and on the hike up, but close inspection revealed plenty of greens still in nearly all of the changed leaves. The mottled pastel hillsides seen in the distance from the summit confirmed me in that belief; there’s still a ways to go before the peak of the colours is achieved.
After enjoying the views for an hour, I made my way back down to the car, drove the rest of the way to the end of the MacKinnon Road on Whycocomagh Road, and returned to Port Hood over it and the Alpine Ridge Road. Apparently the bridge over Kewstoke Brook is out, as signs indicate the Whycocomagh Road from the end of the Glencoe Road east is currently closed to all but local traffic; that’s bad news for me as I drive that route most days when I’m in southwestern Inverness; it will make getting back from Boisdale Sunday night an even longer trip, as I’ll have to go around by Brook Village to get to the Glencoe Mills dance instead of just coming straight up the mountain—I’ll be lucky to get there by midnight! Boo!
After dinner, I drove to Judique for the Buddy MacMaster School of Fiddling Masters Concert, most likely the finest concert I’ll attend this trip: pure instrumental Cape Breton music played by the crème de la crème of fiddlers in the Cape Breton style. It featured the ten fiddle instructors who will be teaching at the school, each playing a set of standard repertoire tunes; in order of appearance: Rachel Davis and Allan Dewar; Stan Chapman and Troy MacGillivray; Glenn Graham and Mac Morin; Colin Grant and Troy; Mairi Rankin and Mac; Wendy MacIsaac and Mac; Andrea Beaton and Troy; Gabrielle MacLellan and Troy; Troy and Allan; and Shelly Campbell and Allan. A finale set of “Buddy jigs” was played by all ten fiddlers with Mac accompanying in honour of Buddy MacMaster’s birthday 18 October. The second and last finale set was a great blast o’ tunes during which all the musicians except Stan step danced in turn, except that Mairi, Wendy, and Mac danced together. What incredible performances by all—it was just a fantastic concert that couldn’t have been better! I enjoyed chatting with friends before and after the concert and during the break and was pleased to meet Nuala Kennedy, who was in the audience. Kudos to all the organizers and volunteers, who did a top-notch job. One marvellous day from start to finish!
Friday, 11 October — Port Hood
I arose at 9h to another lovely morning, though with some white clouds above and haze across the water. After breakfast, I drove via the Hawthorne, Beaton, and Mabou Roads back to the Cèilidh Trail and into Mabou for some errands. I continued on to Glenora Falls and drove up to the top of Cape Mabou and on to the site of the new windmill, where I took some photos of it very slowly rotating in the light breeze. While I was there, a couple drove up asking if I knew where the trail head was; it’s just back down the road a bit, but the signage is invisible from the road when driving north and the parking area has been rather disturbed by road work, so the location is no longer obvious to a newcomer. From Vancouver, this was their first time in Cape Breton and they were interested in seeing the area; today, they were going hiking on the Bear Trap Trail through the lovely, largely maple, forest there and I gave them some suggestions of other places to explore while they’re here. By this time, the skies were clouded over with some really grey clouds, so I decided not to hike out to Beinn Bhiorach as I had thought of doing. Cape Mabou road past the windmill is seriously eroded—I ended up backing down—so I didn’t drive out to the community pastures barn as I had thought I might.
I drove back down to the Cèilidh Trail and explored the lovely MacLennan Road in Riverville, my first time there; it traverses the forest through a level glen into a fold of Cape Mabou with a nice view of a couple of knobs at its end; it will be very colourful indeed in there in a week or so! I continued on to the Blackstone Road and over the Smithville Road to Glendyer; of all the hills I’ve seen so far, those behind Smithville (Mount Young and Mount Pleasant) are the most colourful at this point. From Glendyer, I drove on to Brook Village, where I took the Old Mull River Road to check out the Sunday night drive to the Glencoe Mills dance, and then drove up the Southwest Ridge Road; the sun was once again out and bright, so I stopped for photos at the summit overlooking Mabou and Cape Mabou. Then it was down the Ridge into Mabou, always a glorious drive any time of year, over to West Mabou, and up Hunters Road, where I stopped again to photograph the gorgeous panorama that surrounds one there. For sure, the colours are changing by the minute, but today’s drive, lovely as it was, will be way more spectacular once the colours are really at their height.
Back in Port Hood, I had a light lunch and then a nap at the motel room; apparently the effects of the long drive to Cape Breton are still lingering. When I got up, it was time to get ready for tonight. I’m not much for glitz and over-produced rock-concert style folderol (flashing lights and stage “fog” are two constant irritants of past opening shows) so I skipped the opening concert of the festival in Port Hawkesbury and opted instead for pure unadulterated Cape Breton music: Mairi Rankin and Wendy MacIsaac on dual fiddles accompanied by Mac Morin on piano, who played a cèilidh at the Red Shoe Pub. I got what was likely the last available seat in the house when I arrived at 19h; I was seated with three delightful young ladies from Portugal, who were on their first visit to Cape Breton and wanted to hear some Celtic music. Their English was excellent and I very much enjoyed their company through dinner and then through the cèilidh, during which I tried to explain sets, tunes, and turns and give them a feel for the differences between airs, strathspeys, and reels, in the last two of which I think I was not entirely successful. They certainly had plenty of fine examples of all three as the evening progressed! Janine Randall spelled Mac for three sets on piano, during one of which Gerry Deveau played spoons. Chrissy Crowley spelled Wendy for a couple of sets, during the second of which Wendy took over the piano. Gabrielle MacLellan spelled Mairi for a couple of sets. Several folks step danced at various points during the evening, but there wasn’t room enough for a square set. When the cèilidh ended after 0h, the musicians got a standing ovation and gave us a final great blast o’ tunes, which won them yet another standing ovation. What a wonderful evening of the very best of Cape Breton music!
Saturday, 12 October — Port Hood
Another sunny morning greeted me when I arose a little past 9h30 this morning, but the skies were mostly covered with white clouds with blue patches showing between the clouds. After breakfast, today’s meander first took me out the Colindale Road to the guard rails, where I found somewhat bluer skies. As I was busy taking photos, who should come along but the three ladies from Portugal with whom I sat last night at the Shoe! They were looking for the lighthouse at Mabou Harbour and had missed the turn. I pointed out its general location to them and, after taking some photos at the guard rails, they made a U-turn and drove back towards West Mabou.
When I finished, I too headed to Mabou, where I took the Rankinville Road and drove to Murrays Bridge, where not a lot of water was flowing, and then took Highway 252 to Brook Village, with a photo stop at the look-off near Smiths Lane, and then turned onto the Lake Ainslie Chapel Brook Village Road (it goes by other names too) to the West Lake Ainslie Road—some really gorgeous trees in the sun on the way forced a couple of photo stops—and that to Highway 19, with more photo stops along the way. I turned left and drove to the North Highlands Road and up the Foot Cape Road to Broad Cove Banks, where I first drove a short ways out the Sight Point Road to the cairn, turned around, and then up the Cape Mabou Road most of the way, where I turned around and slowly coasted back down, enjoying the views and stopping multiple times for photos. Considerable haze was in the air, making it hard to see all the way to Chéticamp, which is possible on a clear day, but I was still generally pleased with the views.
By then, it was a bit past time to get in line for the concert at St Matthews in Inverness, where I ran into the Vancouver couple who were hiking yesterday on Cape Mabou (they ended up not taking the Bear Trap Trail, but hiked the MacEachen Trail past the Highland Forest Trail junction, into a boggy area that they said had been badly torn up by cattle on the loose—only the section to the Highland Forest trail is officially open this year, so far as I’m aware). The time in line passed quickly with good conversation.
The concert was superb, as the St Matthews concerts invariably are. We first rose for the arrival of the Lieutenant-Governor and his party, piped to their seats by two of the Breabach musicians, and again as Alice Freeman, who emceed, gave us a wonderful Gaelic rendition of “O Canada!” in her beautiful voice. Troy MacGillivray on fiddle, Allan Dewar on keyboard, and Cheryl Smith on snare drums were first up and gave us several fantastic sets of tunes, including some gorgeous slow airs, a set of Prosper Gillis jigs from Troy’s forthcoming CD (to be released in November), and strathspeys and reels in profusion. The piano accompaniment was as superb as the fiddle and together were magnificent. Megan Henderson of Breabach step danced during one of the sets and JJ Chaisson joined the group on guitar. It was a real tour de force and was greeted with a standing ovation at the end. Simply fabulous! The Chaisson Family was up next. Kenny and JJ on dual fiddles, Kevin on keyboard, Koady on guitar, and Brent on snare drums played a dandy set of fiddle tunes and followed it with another set which Kenny sat out. The third set featured Koady on banjo and Brent on guitar, a combination the audience loved. Kenny on fiddle and Kevin on keyboard started the fourth set, joined by JJ on guitar and Brent on snare drums during the reels; Kenny and his brothers often played dances in Cape Breton in the 70’s and 80’s and many in the audience were familiar with and appreciative of his playing. Their last set had JJ and Koady on dual guitars, JJ pickin’ the melodies and Koady laying down the rhythm, with Kevin on keyboard and Brent on snare drums in a grand, fiery blast o’ great tunes. They too were greeted by a standing ovation. After the break, during which I chatted with a few friends, came the draw for the concert plaque and the compilation CD and Alice pulled my name out of the bucket! Woohoo! The Scottish group Breabach finished off the concert. The quintet does both instrumental music and songs in English and Gaelic. This group, new to me, consists of: Calum MacCrimmon on Highland bagpipes, whistles, bouzouki, and vocals; Megan Henderson on fiddle, vocals, and step dance; Ewan Robertson on guitar and vocals; James Duncan MacKenzie on Highland bagpipes, flute, and whistles; and James Lindsay on bass. I generally liked their instrumental playing, though one of the sets was way too far from traditional roots music for my taste; the ease with which Calum and James Duncan switched instruments was impressive and one certainly took notice when the two were on pipes together! The vocal numbers were doubtless fine, just not my cuppa. The band invited Troy on fiddle to join them on stage, making dual fiddles to go along with the dual pipes, a heavenly sound, to which guitar and bass was subsequently added. Alas, the band also encouraged the clappers, who mostly, if not entirely, restrained themselves during the earlier part of the concert, and their din covered over some of the subtleties I had heretofore enjoyed. The finale had everyone but Allan and Kevin on stage—there was no room on the stage for all the performers let alone two keyboards— with JJ and Brent on guitar and Koady on banjo, for a rousing set of tunes, again greeted by a standing ovation. After folks had filed out, I went backstage and talked with the Chaissons and thanked them for their fine music; they’re going to be here for a while, so I hope I run into them again later on.
I fell asleep after I got back to the motel room, so I missed out on Chrissy at the Red Shoe (I would have stayed only an hour anyway so I could go to the dance), but woke up in time for the dance at West Mabou, which was an epic one with Andrea Beaton on fiddle and Troy MacGillivray on (real!) piano. Six square sets were danced, but the hall was packed requiring two separate lines of dancers, so the reel figures each took a long time. Andrea and Troy switched instruments for the fourth square set and the fifth had Tracy Dares-MacNeil on piano with Andrea and Troy on dual fiddles. The step dance sequence drew: a lady whose name I was told was Andrea MacDonald; two of Tracy and Paul MacNeil’s daughters, whose names I don’t remember, dancing together in a synchronized step dance; Stephen MacLennan; a lass whose name I don’t know; Kimberley Wotherspoon; Melody Cameron; another and very young daughter of Tracy and Paul’s whose name I’m not sure of. The playing was lyrical and magical on both fiddle and piano and the fine local dancers made the most of it, taking to the floor as soon as the music started and steppin’ ’er off in fine style. What a magnificent day of magical music this has been!
Sunday, 13 October — Port Hood
Yet another bright, sunny day greeted me when I arose a bit groggily around 9h30. After finally waking up, I went off to Mabou for the annual community Thanksgiving dinner at the Community Hall. It was delicious as always and I was joined there by my friends from Rocky Ridge, making for fine conversation with the excellent dinner. Thanks and kudos to the many volunteers who work long and hard to pull this off each year and who extend a warm welcome to total strangers off the street: Cape Breton is a most hospitable place!
After dinner I drove up the Southwest Ridge Road, sorely tempted to stop for the fine views that will be even finer, if the wonderful weather continues, next week. I continued on to Glencoe Mills, where I noticed the “Road Closed” sign at the east end of the Glencoe Road had been removed; curious, I decided to see what was up with the Kewstoke Bridge, so I drove down the mountain to it. A “Barricade 300 m” and a “Road Ends” sign remained, but a brand spanking new bridge now sits over the brook; the dirt on either side of the bridge is still soft, needs packing down, and is somewhat rutted, but perfectly passable. I continued on to Whycocomagh, where I got gas for today’s long drive, and then returned to Glencoe Mills as I came, stopping for photos at numerous points along the way. Some gorgeous trees just below the Parish Hall were glorious in the bright sun and, as I continued on to Judique for the afternoon cèilidh, others forced additional photo stops.
Chrissy Crowley on fiddle and Jason Roach on piano were the afternoon’s musicians; dancers were in the crowd, but they had a hard time getting a square set going, although they succeeded on the second attempt. It was fine dance music and fine listening music too. They took a break at 16h15, when I left for tonight’s concert in Boisdale, a dandy drive.
The concert there, Gaelic in the Fiddle: a Tribute to [the late] Joe Peter MacLean, was sold out. Emceed by Paul MacDonald, who prepared an eight-page memorial booklet and programme containing tunes honouring Joe Peter by Brenda Stubbert, Jerry Holland, and Paul Cranford, the show was chock-a-block full of reminiscences of Joe Peter accompanied by the music he regularly played, liked, or was otherwise associated with; it both revealed his character and that he was a “character”, one greatly respected, fondly recalled, and dearly missed. The evening fittingly began with the Boisdale Trio, of which he was a founding member along with Paul Wukitsch and Janet Cameron (Father Francis Cameron was a later addition, actually making the trio a quartet, though it continued to play as the Boisdale Trio). Paul spoke for the group and introduced the several numbers they played. Colin Watson sang a Gaelic lamentation, his beautiful and powerful voice filling the large hall. The Iona Gaelic Singers first sang a song together; they then sang the verses of their second and third selections and the audience sang the choruses under their direction. Jes Kroman, a Danish fiddler who played tonight in the Cape Breton style, accompanied by Paul MacDonald on guitar, played a set of tunes on Joe Confiant’s fiddle, which he came to own in a long story involving Joe Peter, and then two additional selections, Jerry Holland’s “Tears” and a set of four tunes. After the break, Paul Cranford and Mario Colosimo played a set of jigs ending with one Paul composed the day Joe Peter died; they continued with a set of three tunes Joe Peter played that are not otherwise often heard. A special guest, Mildred Leadbeater, now 93, a noted accompanist and house party hostess who played with Johnny Wilmot among others, was invited to the stage with Paul Wukitsch and, with Mario on guitar, played a set of tunes. Doug MacPhee on solo piano played tunes in honour of Joe Peter. Brenda Stubbert, accompanied by Doug on keyboard and Paul MacDonald on guitar, played a long set, beginning with a march she made in Joe Peter’s memory. Her daughter, Tracy, step danced during a second set they played. Lastly, Lisa MacArthur on fiddle, accompanied by Mario on keyboard and Paul MacDonald on guitar, played three sets, getting into some of the “old tyme” music Joe Peter listened to on a radio set he cobbled together from discarded batteries and spare parts, and ending with the Gaelic song with which the Boisdale Trio opened the show, thereby completing a circle.
Because it was now after 22h30, I left just as the finale was getting underway as I have never missed a Glencoe dance when I’m on the Island and didn’t want to tonight, when Shelly Campbell and Allan Dewar were playing. I made good time in nearly non-existent traffic, arriving at 23h50 during the third figure of a square set that saw perhaps thirty people on the floor (I didn’t get an exact count). That was followed by the step dance sequence, which got only one taker, a young lady I didn’t recognize. A square set with fourteen couples and the last square set with seven couples, during which Joey Beaton relieved Allan, ended the dancing. Shelly and Allan played on after the last set, finishing just shy of 1h with few people left in the hall. Fantastic playing and wonderful music, a fine end to another wonderful Celtic Colours festival day!
Thanksgiving Day, Monday, 14 October — Port Hood to Kellys View
I’d like to begin by wishing all my Canadian friends a happy Thanksgiving. Truly, there is much we all have for which to give thanks and, in Cape Breton, that includes wonderful people, thriving cultures and living music, fantastic musicians, and scenery and beauty like nowhere else in the world.
Though with rather more white in the skies than yesterday, the string of beautiful sunny days continued today, a most unusual occurrence in my experience of Celtic Colours. I awoke at 8h30, an hour earlier than I should have, and, when it was clear I wasn’t going back to sleep, rolled out of bed a bit past 9h. Today I left Port Hood for the Sydney area for the next couple of days. I drove over the back country to Whycocomagh and took the Trans-Canada Highway to Boularderie Island, where I booked my room for tonight.
I drove on to Leitches Creek Station, where I headed south on Highway 223 and drove to Christmas Island, site of this afternoon’s concert, Comhla Cruinn: Gathered Together, a celebration of Gaelic language and culture. Lewis MacKinnon on guitar, accompanied by Brian England on guitar and Danny Sutherland on bass and both on vocals, started off the concert with five selections of Gaelic songs, one sung a cappella and one with the audience singing the chorus. Next, Rona Lightfoot sang a sad song a cappella about a lady who was a bride, a wife, and a widow all in the space of an hour, with vocal backing from a lady the program calls Sineag MacIntyre but whose name I thought I heard as Mairi MacInnes—I don’t recognize either lady by sight, both hail from South Uist, and the lady today looked like neither of the ladies with those names whose pictures I found on the web, so I’ll assume the program is right and my very fallible hearing is wrong. Sineag, then, sang a song a cappella and then did a puirt a beul, to which the audience contentedly tapped their feet until she signalled them to start clapping, which many were only too happy to more than oblige. Lewis, Rona, and Sineag then joined hands and, with Lewis in the lead and the ladies as chorus, gave us what sounded like a milling frolic song. After the break, Brian MacDonald on fiddle and Marion Dewar on piano gave us several sets of Cape Breton tunes; Marion’s accompaniments were a joy to hear again—it’s been far too long! Lastly, Mary Jane Lamond sang two Gaelic songs and then asked Marion back to the stage to accompany on piano a puirt a beul set; it was a super combination I didn’t recall hearing before, but Mary Jane told me later the pairing is present on her first CD, which I have, so I must go back and listen again. Rona and Mary Jane sang a duet and then Rona led Mary Jane, Sineag, and Lewis in a version of the Skye Boat Song. The finale was an unaccompanied Gaelic song followed by a tune set from Brian MacDonald on fiddle, Marion on piano, Brian England on guitar, and Danny Sutherland on bass. Altogether, a fine concert.
I then drove back by Long Island and Georges River to Little Bras d’Or, where I had supper, and then back to North Sydney for tonight’s concert, Playing for Keeps, featuring Andrea Beaton, Tim Edey, Kimberley Fraser, Troy MacGillivray, and Nuala Kennedy in the first half and Breabach in the second half (I assume). There were lots of Cape Breton tunes in the mix along with others that weren’t, but the technically brilliant playing by all was usually ramped up into a sometimes jazzy band sound that I found mostly off-putting, though the audience just ate it up, with too few good moments to make up for the rest. Way too much “gilding the lily” to my taste. I won’t comment further on this concert, which I left at the break, as I don’t appreciate the music I heard enough to report on it knowledgeably. All I knew as I was listening to it is how much happier I’d have been at the Brook Village dance tonight. Oh, well, live and learn! I’m still very thankful for all the other great Cape Breton music I’ve heard from these consummate players. Now it’s off to bed and hopefully catch up some of the sleep I missed last night.
Tuesday, 15 October — Kellys View
I awoke a bit after 9h to cloudy skies with fog covering the upper half of Kellys Mountain. Took it easy in the motel room until 10h45, by which time the sun had broken through the cloud cover and the skies were beginning to clear. I drove down the Trans-Canada Highway to the exit for Hillside Boularderie and across the island to the east side; clouds and fog were still visible on the far side across St Andrews Channel around Long Island and the mountains there; stopped for some photos near Graves Point and was reminded again of how rich this area is in scenic beauty.
I had a small lunch in Bras d’Or and then drove on to the Frenchvale exit on the 125 and followed it to Gouthro Road and that road to North Leitches Creek Road and it a short distance past the quarry to what looked to be a driveway, but proved to be Tower Road, as I ascertained from two brothers with whom I spoke when I turned around in their driveway. I had looked unsuccessfully for this road when I was here in the summer and deduced that this “driveway” must be it. One of the brothers works at the fire tower and told me I could, with care, drive my car to the tower—the light wasn’t good today, but the road past where I turned around didn’t look all that promising to me. He told me that there are fine views from the tower, but none from the ground—one has to climb up twenty rungs of an open ladder (there are apparently some seventy) before reaching the views. I didn’t have time today in any case to check it out further, but told them I’d be back next year, though I rather think I’ll hike it rather than drive it, even if there are no views—for sure I’m not going to climb an open ladder with my acrophobia!
I drove back to the Frenchvale Road as I had come and continued on towards McAdams Lake, taking the Bourinot Road there to Highway 216 and it to Highway 4. Then it was on to St Peters (I ran into some serious construction around Hays Cove) and Highway 247 to Lower L’Ardoise, where today’s Sounds and Supper by the Sea event took place at the Lobsters ’R’ Us in Little Harbour. I’ve been attending these afternoon cèilidhs followed by a boiled lobster dinner since they started some years ago and enjoyed this one as much as those of previous years. Several local entertainers share their music with the attendees, among them: Leona Burkey sang several folk songs, some in French; Allison Mombourquette played some very fine fiddle tunes with a guitarist whose name I didn’t get; but the sensation of the afternoon was certainly 12-year old Jayden Seymour, who gave us several songs in both French and English that she sang while accompanying herself on keyboard, finishing with a rendition of “Rise Again” that won her a standing ovation; apparently she’s a seasoned performer, as her stage presence was awesome. Way to go! I enjoyed seeing many friends there and got to chat with several during the afternoon. The dinner was great and the lobsters large. Kudos to the organizers and volunteers who put a lot of work and not a little pride into this community showcase each year. If you haven’t been, put it on your list for next year—tickets go on sale in the local stores in the summer and space is limited (120?), so pick yours up early.
I left after 17h; my car’s GPS wanted me to travel the Salmon River Road in Lower L’Ardoise, a road I hadn’t previously driven, so I decided to explore it in the waning light of the afternoon. It comes back out on Highway 4 near Chapel Island and is a gravel road in decent condition; two largish lakes, Garrets Lake and Gillis Lake, are found adjacent to the road, so this is one I need to come back to for photos in better light. Highway 4 follows the shore of the Bras d’Or Lake along its course from Chapel Island to East Bay, making for a very pretty drive; nearly all of its portion north of the construction has been repaved in recent years, making for a very smooth ride as well. The fall colors on the east side of Cape Breton Island are significantly more muted than those on the west side, but some very gorgeous red specimens were visible on the drive south in the bright sun.
By the time I reached Sydney River, it was at the far reaches of dusk and oncoming headlights made it hard to see; worse, my car’s GPS didn’t have an entry for Sydney River and I didn’t know where Our Lady of Fatima Church was, so I had to stop and ask for directions—it turns out it’s very close to the 125 and was easy to find had I just kept going. The church is a large, modern, beautiful structure, perfect for a concert. Dynamic Duos featured four duos tonight, beginning with Fiona and Ciarán MacGillivray. They are very talented siblings, half of the Cottars but now on their own, and I’ve never really cottoned to their music, which draws raves from everyone else. They opened with an a cappella duet with very fine harmonies, which I was surprised to find I liked. Their second number was an instrumental with Fiona on whistle and Ciarán on guitar; I liked that number too, though it went on for too long. Ciarán has matured considerably since the last time I saw him on stage, but Fiona’s voice, while generally nice, remains often rather strained and that was in great evidence in the three songs she sang after the initial duet, none of which I cared much for, including their signature “The Brier and the Rose”, which, with the organ accompaniment, I find over the top and have heard so often it’s stale besides. But they were clearly local favourites and the crowd obviously enjoyed their music. Howie MacDonald on fiddle with Mac Morin on keyboard then played three awesome sets of the purest traditional Cape Breton music. They were the reason I chose this show and I certainly wasn’t disappointed! The slow air “Silver Wells” was stunningly gorgeous and “The Grand-Étang March”, which Howie made, was equally as enjoyable. And the strathspeys and reels were perfection on both instruments, Mac’s fine accompaniments adorning Howie’s fluent fiddle. There was no gilding the lily here, just simple, natural beauty! After the break, we heard Antti and Arto Järvelä, two Finns playing 17th and 18th century Finnish music on fiddle and guitar or on dual fiddles; I have no idea whatsoever why the artistic director saw fit to include them on the program as their music wasn’t Celtic and, while passably listenable, few in the audience, including myself, had the cultural background and understanding to appreciate what we heard. Like a sideshow at the circus, it was an interesting diversion at best, completely unrelated to the main event. The last duo was Troy MacGillivray (mostly fiddle but some piano) and Tim Edey (accordion, guitar, vocals). After last night, I was fearful of a repeat, but it was generally OK and occasionally better than OK. Tim often plays way too fast, skipping over notes in his haste, and Troy followed; the music suffered. Troy played a beautiful slow air, but Tim’s guitar accompaniment intruded. The Road to Errogie was recognizable, but too fast and too jazzy. And so it went. Their final set by themselves received a standing ovation that I sat out. I’d have happily had Howie and Mac instead and normally, I’m a great fan of Troy’s playing. Troy invited Howie and Mac up for their final set and they gave us a great traditional set with Mac on piano, Howie and Troy on dual fiddles, and Tim on guitar, all played straight. The finale had a short selection from Fiona and Ciarán, another from the Finns, and then a superb traditional Cape Breton set in which most of those on stage joined in, with Fiona on bodhrán and Tim’s accordion barely coming through. Again, the audience gave them a standing ovation which I joined this time. All told, a very nice day.
Wednesday, 16 October — Whycocomagh
I awoke about 8h45 and drove south to Whycocomagh, where I got a room for tonight. I then drove over the back country to the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre in Judique for the lunchtime cèilidh. Troy MacGillivray on fiddle and Allan Dewar on piano played a magnificent set of tunes to start it off and continued playing for the next forty-five minutes; pure joy! Rachel Davis, one of today’s instructors at the Buddy MacMaster School of Fiddlng, took over the fiddle and Troy moved to the piano; they played fine sets for the next thirty minutes as her students ate lunch and watched and listened. Andrea Beaton, the other of today’s instructors, took over the fiddle and Troy continued on the piano; another half hour of bliss! The instructors and students returned to their classes and Troy on fiddle with Allan on keyboard finished off the cèilidh. What a wonderful treat of the finest music!
Then, I began a long meander looking, mostly unsuccessfully, for photo opportunities in the by now somewhat obscured sun—several layers of white stratus clouds began taking over the sky, gradually eating up all of the blue spaces well before dusk. I travelled south on the Cèilidh Trail and took excursions on the Chisholm MacLean, General Line, and Centennial Roads, finding a couple of good views but not much colour. I continued south to Port Hastings and took the Trans-Canada Highway to the General Line Road (the other end), which I drove to the Creignish Mountain Road and retraced my steps, then to the Rhodena Road to the quarry and retraced my steps, then down the MacMaster Road to the Crandall Road to the Long Stretch Road to the Cenotaph Road to the community of West Bay Road (Shelly Campbell’s home town) for the Mariner’s Supper given at the fire hall, my first time at this event. The chowder, served with a huge dinner roll, was creamy and tasty and the two apple-based desserts were superb. I’ll definitely try to make this event again next year if I’m in the area.
After the supper, I drove down the Big Brook Road, where the leaves seem to be very near their peak and brighter than anywhere else I’ve been; I say “seem” because there was no sun and it was getting on to dusk, but I’ll definitely be back for another look when the sun is out. At River Denys, I took the Southside River Denys Road to the Northside River Denys Road to the Trans-Canada Highway and on to the parish hall in Glendale for tonight’s concert, For Alex Francis [MacKay]. Of the official Celtic Colours concerts, it was easily the best to date. John Donald Cameron, who shared the emceeing duties (in Gaelic and English) with Goiridh Dòmhnallach (Jeff MacDonald), opened the concert with a set of tunes on fiddle, accompanied by Mary Graham on (real) piano and Sandy MacDonald on guitar. I rarely get to hear John Donald play, so this was a special treat. All of the tunes played tonight had some special relationship to Alex Francis and each of the players throughout the evening spoke about why those tunes were selected, shedding a great deal of light on Alex Francis’ life and times. Next, Goiridh sang a Gaelic song composed by Allan “the Ridge” MacDonald, accompanied by Sandy on guitar. Doug Lamey on fiddle and Sandy on guitar gave us two fine sets of fiddle tunes. Then, Glenn Graham, accompanied by Mary on piano and Sandy on guitar, gave us two more fine sets and were joined by John Donald for an unusual set formed of a jig, an air, and a strathspey. After the break, Donna-Marie DeWolfe on fiddle, accompanied by Allan Dewar on piano and Sandy on guitar, gave us a set of jigs and followed it with a slow strathspey, other strathspeys, and reels in a really rollicking set where Allan’s accompaniments were perfect. The only non-Cape Bretoners of the evening were Rona Lightfoot and Mairi MacInnes (and it was she and not Sineag at Christmas Island as well), who sang Gaelic songs and were joined by Goiridh on the fourth selection; no clappers at all tonight, but the floor was rocking all might long with tapping and beating feet, most noticeable on the ladies’ third selection whose melody was well-known to the audience. The last performers were Shelly Campbell, accompanied by Allan on piano and Sandy on guitar; John Donald gave Shelly a very fine and well-deserved introduction and Shelly herself had numerous anecdotes and reminiscences of Alex Francis, for whom she first played at the age of thirteen, and of his many encouragements for her playing. Her first set tonight was a set of jigs “to get the shakes out” she said, though I heard none, and the second set was a march/strathspeys/reels set with a very long list of tunes, many by Dan Hughie MacEachern and Dan R. MacDonald. The playing by all three was simply out of this world. Glenn then joined the three on stage and played fiddle while Shelly step danced and, after Shelly picked up her fiddle, Glenn step danced; they finished the set on dual fiddles. For the finale, Rona led off a Gaelic song with Mairi and Goiridh accompanying; Mairi sang a puirt a beul which the other players picked up as she continued singing; Danny MacKay joined in on spoons and Goiridh, his two daughters, Mary Graham, and the stage manager (whose name I didn’t get) step danced until the playing ended. A standing ovation greeted the players at the end. It was a wonderful concert with no out of place musical material, a rare occurrence at Celtic Colours concerts, and an audience who really understood and loved the music, also rare. The only fly in the ointment was the scheduling of a second fiddle concert tonight, Tunes for Scotty, in the same time slot at North Aspy Bay with Howie MacDonald, Dwayne Côté, Brenda Stubbert, Dave MacIsaac, Doug MacPhee, Paul Cranford, and Allie Bennett, which would have been another real barn-burner, as they always were in the past at Dingwall when Jerry Holland and Sandy MacIntyre were featured players there. Why the festival’s artistic direction sees fit to schedule two pure Cape Breton shows on the same night and none at all on the other nights is beyond me. Oh, well, I was very happy I got to see one of the two and am definitely counting my blessings it was this one!
It was raining when I got back to my car, so the long spell of fine weather has finally broken. But the rain is badly needed, so I have no complaints; I just hope I get some sun for photos next week after the festival ends.
Thursday, 17 October — Port Hood¹
The weather has definitely changed: grey clouds hung over Whycocomagh when I left this morning, though they had already risen some since I got up. The summit of Skye Mountain was shrouded in clouds which reached halfway down its slopes, but the visible part was significantly brighter from the fall colours. I drove out Highways 252 and 395 to the East Skye Glen Road and noticed there too a significant change in the colours; the leaves, even under dull skies, were much brighter and more vivid—they look to be at or very close to, their peak. I returned to Highway 252 and continued on into Mabou; Cape Mabou hasn’t yet lit up like Skye Mountain, Campbells Mountain, the hills from Brook Village to Mabou, and along the Mabou River below Mabou Mountain, still keeping a much deeper greenish-tinged hue, but it will not, I suppose, be much longer until it too bursts into a riot of colours. After tending to some errands in Mabou, I drove on to Port Hood and got my motel room key.
The colours from Mabou to Port Hood were significantly duller, but as I drove to the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre in Judique, the bright colours began to reäppear, especially a gorgeous yellow stand of trees on the hills behind Michaels Landing. The lunchtime cèilidh was again superb; Troy and Allan started and ended the session, with today’s instructors, Stan Chapman and Mairi Rankin each playing about twenty minutes in between. The cèilidhs this week are one of the finest bargains during the festival: pure traditional music with an excellent selection of good luncheon dishes. Highly recommended!
When I returned to Port Hood after the cèilidh, the skies were brighter and the sun broke through fleetingly once or twice, but a brief shower dashed my hopes of doing any photography, so I spent the afternoon in my motel room. I left for the Seafood Choices supper at the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre around 15h45; held, it appears, on the same nights as Celtic Colours concerts at the Judique Community Centre, it offers selections from the fine kitchen at the Interpretive Center along with dinner music. I had the pan-fried haddock, which was excellent and a lovely streusel dessert. Shelly Campbell and Allan Dewar were to play, but Shelly had forgotten that she was to play there, so Wendy MacIsaac, who lives not too far down the road, played for Shelly—embarrassed when she arrived, Shelly said it was the first time in twenty-five years she’d missed a gig and made up for it by giving a fine step dance. Wendy and Allan’s music was excellent.
Chatting between sets with new acquaintances seated at my table and with old friends who arrived somewhat later, the afternoon passed quickly and it was soon time to head next door for the Guitar Summit, a concert I’ve regularly attended in the past but missed in the last few years. I was there primarily to hear Patrick Gillis, guitarist for Beòlach, whose playing I’ve long admired and whose previous Guitar Summit performance I had missed. He was joined on stage by JP Cormier, Tim Edey, Maxim Cormier, John Campbelljohn, and Brian Doyle. Three times during the evening, each player led off with tunes of his choosing and was joined by none, one, various, or all the others as he requested, for a total of eighteen sets. Some of the tunes were original compositions, such as the piece Maxim wrote on the death of Danielle Muise. The adventurous and greatly talented Maxim also gave us a short and delightful Bach selection, marred by following a funky tune at the start of that solo set. Many of the tunes were from the standard Cape Breton fiddle and pipe repertoires, but sometimes veered off into variations in the Broadway or blues or bluegrass or jazz or funky genres, none of which I’m all that thrilled about, but there were occasional moments in these detours I did enjoy. In any case, I knew what I was in for from previous years, so there were no surprises. The pickin’ talent on that stage was downright amazing. JP and Brian both did great traditional sets and Pat’s fine traditional playing when in the lead was always sane and a delight to hear. The finale was another good Celtic pickin’ set followed by a brief tour of the players doing whatever they wanted returning back to Celtic pickin’ by Brian and Pat. All told, an enjoyable concert, a constant at every festival that always sells out, so if you have any interest in this kind of a concert, order your tickets next year early!
I then headed off to Glencoe Mills for the square dance there with Kinnon Beaton on fiddle and Betty Lou Beaton on keyboard, where I arrived during the middle of the second figure of what I assume was the second square set. Olivier Broussard of Port Hawkesbury, a lad of 14 or so I first heard at St Anns a couple of years ago and again both last year and this year, is already a very fine player; now a student of Kinnon’s, he and Kinnon played dual fiddles on the next square set. That set was followed by a waltz by Kinnon and Betty Lou. Troy MacGillivray had arrived a few minutes before and spelled Betty Lou on keyboard for the next square set, which saw twelve couples in two groups in the third figure, the largest number of dancers on the floor while I was there. With Betty Lou back on keyboard, Kinnon then played for step-dancers, of whom Allison Beaton was the only one to take the floor. A waltz and another square set followed. Olivier played alone with Betty Lou at the start of the next square set, which began with a “dry” jig set,² but relinquished the fiddle to Kinnon for the third figure; with a bit more experience playing for dances, Olivier will be a fantastic player and is already a fine one. The dance ended at 0h48, as there were too few people left in the hall. It was a very fine dance with some excellent local dancers on the floor.
Friday, 18 October — Port Hood to Margaree Forks¹
I arose after 9h15, greeted by another cloudy day. The sun was trying to break through, but with little success; I ran into sprinkles on the way to Judique, where heavy grey clouds lay over the shore. I stopped off at Michaels Landing as I was early for the lunchtime cèilidh and, while I was there, the sun broke through and a patch of blue sky opened up, so I took a few photos there.
I drove on to the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre for the lunchtime cèilidh, today with Andrea Beaton on fiddle and with shorter appearances by today’s instructors, Wendy MacIsaac and Troy MacGillivray; Allan Dewar on keyboard again played for the entire two-hour cèilidh. It was another top notch feast of traditional music played gloriously by masters of their art!
After the cèilidh, I meandered once again, though under dark skies and intermittent sprinkles, taking the Beaton Road to the Upper Southwest Mabou Road and it to the Glencoe Road and it to the Whycocomagh Port Hood Road and it to the Old Mull River Road and it to Highway 252 and it to the Smithville Road and it to the Blackstone Road and it to Highway 19, which I followed north. It was a very dark day, with rare fleeting rays of sun piercing the heavy clouds, but the colours on the western flanks of Cape Mabou, as seen from the Smithville Road and Highway 19 were noticeably changed from the last time I drove those roads and, as best as I could tell in the poor light, were close to their peak. I stopped in Inverness to renew my digital subscription to the ”Oran”. The drive north to Margaree Forks, where I got my motel room for the night, also showed peak or near-peak colours beside the road and distinctly orange-coloured mountainsides in the distance. The light was simply too poor for photos. Signs of the end of tourist season are starting to be noticeable: the motel will be closing Tuesday for the season and the Belle-View restaurant in Belle-Côte is already closed.
Today’s selection of concerts had players I’d have enjoyed hearing, but the rest of each bill was stuff I either knew I wouldn’t like or didn’t think I’d enjoy—just too much chaff with the grains of wheat, so I didn’t purchase tickets for any of them, most of which would also have placed me far enough away I wouldn’t have heard much or any of the square dance at Southwest Margaree. I had accordingly accepted an invitation to dinner with friends in Belle-Côte. I arrived there just after the heavens had let loose a strong burst of rain and spent a most pleasant evening of conversation and recorded music with them and a surprise guest from Boston I was delighted to see again. The dinner was magnificent, starting with a great seafood chowder, creamy and rich; biscuits; wonderful seafood: a perfectly cooked halibut steak, a delicious haddock loin, and tasty scallops; grilled potato halves; a great baked vegetable medley; and finished off with a lovely blueberry confection in caramel sauce. It was one fantastic dinner and evening!
When the time came for the dance, we all drove off to Southwest Margaree, where Kinnon Beaton, Doug Lamey, and Betty Lou Beaton were the evening’s musicians. The dance started tonight at 21h30—they normally begin at 22h—I have no idea why the change was made nor whether it will continue next year. Few couples took part in the first couple of sets, but the hall was fairly full, if not packed, after folks attending the concerts had a chance to get there. The first square set had Kinnon and Doug on dual fiddles; subsequent sets through the fifth alternated between Kinnon and Doug on single fiddle. The sixth square set had Kinnon and Doug back on dual fiddles and Joey Beaton on keyboard, relieving Betty Lou for a set; this set was also the high water mark for dancers on the floor—there were 25 couples in four groups during its third figure. Kinnon extended greetings to Jimmy MacIsaac, whose birthday on the 18th he shares with Buddy MacMaster. He and Betty Lou then played a waltz and the seventh square set and Doug and Betty Lou played the eighth and last set. Again, lots of good local dancers on the floor for the last square dance of this season. What a fine musical and culinary day this turned out to be!
Saturday, 19 October — Margaree Forks to Kellys View¹
Up after 9h, I drove to the Dancing Goat in Northeast Margaree, where I had breakfast. It was packed—I was barely able to find a parking spot—but the service was fast and the food top notch, as always. The fruit bowl had evolved a bit from its summer version, also delicious, and now contained sweet, juicy, lobed black berries a good 5 cm (2 in) long—a real treat I don’t remember ever having before.
I drove out the Cabot Trail under very grey skies to the West Middle River Road and followed it to the Church Cross Road, where I discovered a new bridge across the Middle River: it’s parallel to the regular bridge and cannot be accessed from the road—it looks like an ATV bridge and a footbridge—the regular bridge has a see-through bottom that some people I know don’t like to walk on. I took some photos there, as the skies had brightened somewhat, and then drove back to the Cabot Trail and followed it to the top of Hunters Mountain, where I turned down Highland Road (officially, Crowdis Mountain Road, apparently—it becomes Highland Road only further north). I drove out to Warehouse Road, which is at the top of the Cape Breton Highlands Plateau, where I turned around and drove slowly back down to the Cabot Trail. Even though the light was only so-so, I stopped several times for photos of the distant views, which I hope to be able to properly identify when I get home. I found not a great amount of colour on the Plateau, but some bright trees stood out from the evergreens while others had lost all their leaves.
I continued on to St Anns for the afternoon concert, titled Pipers Cèilidh, emceed by Paul MacDonald, who spoke movingly of the late Alex Currie, a renowned Cape Breton piper who was a beacon for the traditional non-competitive dance style of piping that was then moribund on Cape Breton Island. Matt MacIsaac led off the concert on solo Highland bagpipes with a set beginning with a Scott MacAulay march; he followed it with a set of jigs. Then he played the slow air “Farewell My Love” and a couple of jigs on whistle. For his last set, he returned to Highland bagpipes giving us five fine reels. The North Atlantic Drift consists of Ross Griffiths, an Uilleann piper from Ontario; Dan MacDonald, Paul’s brother, on fiddle; and Brian Taheny from Ireland on guitar and fiddle. Ross began the first set on solo Uilleann pipes and was joined later by the other two. A slow air on solo Uilleann pipes was followed by a guitar pickin’ solo after which the other two players joined in. Their third set started on fiddle and small pipes, switched briefly to fiddle and bouzouki whilst the piper quickly switched back to Uilleann pipes and was joined by the other two. Their next set began with Scottish strathspeys on Uilleann pipes and fiddle and then changed to Irish tunes on fiddle and guitar, soon joined by Uilleann pipes. Their last set started with Paddy on the Turnpike on dual fiddles and the piper joined on the second tune. I generally enjoyed this group, new to me. After the break, Paul reminisced further about the influence of Alex Currie on Cape Breton piping as Nuallan took the stage. This group, whom I first heard in a somewhat different configuration at the Gaelic College during the 75th Anniversary celebrations, consists of Kenneth Mackenzie, Kevin Dugas, Keith MacDonald, Rankin MacInnis, and Paul K. MacNeil on highland bagpipes; Tracy Dares-MacNeil on keyboard; Patrick Gillis on guitar; and Kyle MacDonald on percussion. The full-throated sound from this group, with the pipers playing in unison, is simply awesome; if you like pipe music, this group is an absolute must-hear. The first set began with a slow march started by Kenneth and adding each piper in seating order in turn until they were all playing; Pat’s marvellous guitar accompaniment came through clearly. The second set began with Donald Angus Beaton’s Memories of Paddy LeBlanc march and continued with other tunes. The next set featured the melodies of two well-known Gaelic songs and two reels normally sung as puirt a beul; only three of the five pipers played this set, making for a somewhat softer, though still plenty awesome, sound. During the fourth set of great tunes intended for dancing, Kevin step danced first, after which Keith and Kyle (twins) step danced as a duo. The fifth set was of jigs, starting with Donald MacLean’s Jig. The sixth set featured a set of tunes by John MacLean, Kenneth’s teacher at the Gaelic College: a gorgeous slow air was followed by reels. Jenny (Cluett) Mackenzie, Brandi McCarthy, and Anna MacDonald then came out on stage and danced unaccompanied, the clicks of their shoes making an audible melodic rhythm, after which the band joined in and accompanied the ladies, who continued to step dance to the reels. It was a fabulous performance by all! The concert finale added Matt and Ross on whistles, Donald on fiddle, and Brian on guitar to the Nuallan crew and Tracey’s daughters to the three step dancers, for a fantastic, rollicking set that was greeted by a richly deserved standing ovation. It was a wonderful concert that will remain as one of the finest memories of this festival.
Before last year, the Pipers’ Cèilidh was always held on Sunday afternoons, where it didn’t conflict with anything else and I never missed one; last year, for some inexplicable reason, it was moved to Saturday afternoon, where it now conflicts with the always superb Féis Mhàbu concert at the Strathspey Place, which I also always attended in the past. Given this irresolvable conflict, I’m now forced to alternate between them, which disgruntles me (and many others) greatly. I hope this can be fixed next year so I can once again attend both!
After the concert was over, I drove to Sydney for the evening’s concert, stopping along the way to pick up my motel room key. Forty Years Strong: A Celebration of Strings and Song was another fine concert. The first half, emceed by Wendy Bergfeldt of CBC Radio, featured the Cape Breton Chorale, founded in 1973. Lucy MacNeil (of the Barra MacNeils) sang lead on Òran Do Cheap Breatainn, a Gaelic song in praise of Cape Breton, and a second Gaelic song. A number of popular Cape Breton folk songs, arranged for chorale, followed, including the late Rita MacNeil’s She’s Called Nova Scotia and Working Man, the children’s song I’ll Tell Me Ma (The Belle of Belfast City) with Lucy on bodhrán, Mairi’s Wedding, and others whose names I didn’t get, some accompanied by Lucy on fiddle and by Shannon Forrester McMullin, a dancer. Rosie MacKenzie on fiddle, Nathan Rogers on guitar and vocals, and Allie Bennett on bass joined the chorale for Make or Break Harbour, Down in Fogarty’s Cove, Stan Rogers’ The Mary Ellen Carter, We Are an Island, Rise Again, and Home of our Hearts. A standing ovation greeted their last song and then it was time for the break. The second half of the concert, emceed by Bob MacEachern of 101.5 The Hawk, was given over to the Cape Breton Fiddlers’ Association, which was formed as a result of preparing for the Festival of Fiddling held in Glendale in 1973. The members present tonight gave us two tune sets accompanied by Lawrence Cameron on keyboard; I always find the lovely sound of massed fiddles a joy to hear. Kyle MacNeil on fiddle and Sheumas MacNeil on keyboard then played for Stephanie MacDonald to step dance. Leanne Aucoin on fiddle, accompanied by Lawrence on keyboard and Jesse Lewis on guitar, next gave us a fine set of fiddle tunes. Lawrence remained on stage and played a dandy piano solo composed of traditional Scottish tunes. Kyle and Lucy on dual fiddles accompanied by Sheumas on keyboard gave us more great fiddle tunes. They were then joined by Mckayla MacNeil (of St Peter’s) on fiddle in a long set of fiddle tunes popular in the 1970’s at dances, house parties, and festivals, during which Lucy step danced to the playing of the other three. The Cape Breton Fiddlers’ Association members present then played two final sets with Sheumas accompanying on keyboard, during which some members of the Association’s Board and others danced the third figure of an Inverness set. It was a very fine concert from start to finish and, unlike most Celtic Colours concerts, roughly two-thirds of the audience were Cape Bretoners and one third from away, reversing the usual ratio. A marvellous end to a superb day of music!
I had thought about attending Festival Club for more pipe music, since my motel room was relatively close, but decided against it because of the welcome construction between the Seal Island Bridge and the summit of Kellys Mountain, which had, alas, left the road surface with only the sketchiest of lane markings, a situation with which I feared my poor night vision could not safely cope, so I just returned to the motel.
Sunday, 20 October — Kellys View to Port Hood¹
I arose late after a good night’s sleep and didn’t leave the motel until after 11h. I ran into my first experience this year in Cape Breton of what I call the “flaming forest”, when the sun illuminates fall leaves at their peak in such a way as to make it appear that they are on fire as they shimmer and flare in the reflected sunlight. Alas, this occurred in a “follow-me truck” line in the construction zone at the base of Kellys Mountain, so I couldn’t stop to photograph them. Stunning! The sun was too strong for any photos at the Bras d’Or Look-Off, but I got several at the St Anns Look-Off, where the highlands had a rosy hue from a distance and I stopped again near exit 11 for photos of the gypsum cliffs across St Anns Harbour and more of the Highlands. I drove on to Whycocomagh on the Trans-Canada Highway and then over the back country to Port Hood; many of the trees in Dunakin and Glencoe Mills are now bare, though others remain colourful.
After getting my motel key, I drove on to the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre in Judique for the afternoon cèilidh featuring Ian MacDougall on fiddle and Tracey Dares-MacNeil on electric spinet. I was joined by friends from upstate New York whom I first met several years ago waiting in line at Festival Club one night, even though he had worked at IBM Endicott in the same building as I in the ’70’s; we have met at Celtic Colours every year since—one of the many side effects of this wonderful festival. The sound was a bit shrill at the start, but was soon properly adjusted and the playing fantastic. Since Ian has been out west, I haven’t gotten anywhere near enough of his fine music, so today was an especial treat for me. The crowd, which didn’t fill all the available seats, was mainly locals and they were in a dancing mood, dancing four square sets during the afternoon, though they passed up a jig set towards the end of the afternoon. A lady piper from Prince Edward Island whose name I didn’t get played a set on small pipes while Ian and Tracey took a short break. Gerry Deveau played a set on spoons. One waltz was danced.
And then the live music in Cape Breton was over for another year. It’s been a great time overall and it’ll have to last me until next spring! After saying good-bye to my New York friends, who are returning home in the morning, and to many local friends, I drove to Mabou Harbour, where I spent the evening with a friend there. Then it was time to crash and sleep, with no need to arise in the morning at all, if I didn’t feel like it. A luxury indeed!
Monday, 21 October — Port Hood¹
I got up after 9h30 fairly refreshed and had breakfast at Sandeannies. The skies were a mixed bag, with mainly heavy grey clouds interspersed with some open blue sky spots through which the sun was sometimes able to shine. I drove to Mabou and out the Mabou Harbour Road, where I stopped to admire Kinship Place, Mabou’s new community playground, and on to the Northeast Mabou Road. I didn’t find the usual striking colours on the trees at that junction and the light wasn’t proper to catch the reflections of Mabou Mountain in the Northeast Mabou River, but I did find a stand of brilliantly coloured trees further down the Northeast Mabou Road. I drove out a road I’d been meaning to explore that proved to be a private driveway leading to a beautiful farm at the base of a fold of Cape Mabou. I stopped for photos along the northeastern end of the Northeast Mabou Road, but the light wasn’t right and Cape Mabou looked faded out in comparison to previous years. I drove out the Glenora Falls Road a ways and found some more photogenic views, one of which, a riot of bright yellows, was too well screened for me to capture with the camera (unlike a human brain, which can assemble a coherent whole from fragments glimpsed behind a row of trees, a camera just shows the screening trees). I drove on to the Smithville Road, which offers some of the best views of the eastern flanks of Cape Mabou, and took several photos, but they were all dullsville, unless the sun deigned to briefly light up some small portion of the landscape. Some very pretty trees lined Glendyer Brook and environs near the bridge. I drove on to the Mull River Road and found none of the great colours of previous years; most trees looked beyond their peak and many had lost their leaves. I took Worths Road across the Mull River and again found no colours to photograph at the bridge, most unusual. The Old Mull River Road also failed to entice me to stop. On the Alpine Ridge Road, I found many tamaracks in various stages between green and gold but little else of note. Since the skies continued darkening, I returned to the motel and had a nap, not very happy with the results of the three-hour meander.
Then, I drove to Rocky Ridge where my friends there had invited me for dinner. I attempted to help my friend through some software problems he was experiencing, but dinner was ready before we got them solved. What a lovely meal: on a beautifully decorated table with a gorgeous fall season runner, we first had warm bread and a delicious potato soup garnished with bacon and parsley; then came a pork tenderloin with blueberry sauce, a combination new to me that proved delicious, served with roasted new potatoes, baked cauliflower au gratin, and glazed carrots; dessert was an apple/cranberry crisp, another combination new to me in a crisp (and I eat lots of crisps!). A very fine repast indeed! After dinner, we conversed, among many other topics, about the new travel trailer they had just acquired, which I got to see before dinner, and their plans for attending next year musical festivals at several venues in much greater comfort than heretofore. We then went back to work on the software problems and got them resolved to his satisfaction.
I returned to the motel, completed Sunday’s post and sent it out, and promptly retired, still full from the delicious dinner and ready to catch up on sleep I missed out on during the festival.
Tuesday, 22 October — Port Hood¹
I got up at 8h and out the door at 8h30. This was the day I had planned for a trip around much of the Cabot Trail with a side excursion to Meat Cove to deliver some photo CD thank-you’s to friends there. The skies were pretty grey, but that’s par for the course for such late October trips; at least it wasn’t raining as it has on previous October trips there. As I drove north, the colours now between Port Hood and Mabou took my eye, even in the dull light—they’ve changed considerably in a few days. I stopped at the Dancing Goat in Inverness for breakfast; their fruit bowl lacked the wonderful black berries I had at the one in Northeast Margaree and lacked other fruits too—just cantaloupe, honeydew melon, and pineapple, but still very tasty. The skies had improved a bit while I was inside and, as I was ruminating about possible photo stops driving north from Inverness, it suddenly dawned on me that I didn’t remember putting my camera in the car. I stopped at the Deepdale Road and sure enough, no camera! Another of these “senior moments” that seem to be occurring all too frequently these days! No panic, as I knew exactly where it was, on the unused bed in my motel room where I’d put it last night so I’d remember to take it with me in the morning. But some irritation at myself, for sure! Grr… Since it’s unthinkable to travel to Meat Cove without a camera, I drove back to Port Hood and got the camera and, two hours later than planned, started off once again for Meat Cove.
The delay proved fortuitous as, by now, the skies had brightened considerably, so I stopped at the kiosk in West Mabou and at the Marina in Mabou for the always beautiful scenery at both places. I also stopped in Grand-Étang and along the Chemin Cormier back of Chéticamp for photos. The skies there weren’t sufficient to brighten up the colours, but I took photos of the mountains anyway. I detoured to Charlie’s in Redman, but found they too didn’t have the CD I’ve been looking for. The Cabot Trail from Point Cross to Redman, in the process of being reconstructed this past year, is now paved and they were working on adding the final layers of asphalt, so that work will soon be done. I drove back to the Chéticamp Back Road and continued on to the Cabot Trail and to the bridge over the Chéticamp River, where I stopped for photos of the colours and of the newish (2010) bridge itself (there’s too much traffic for that in the summer). I then continued on the Cabot Trail up French Mountain and stopped for photos at the northern Fishing Cove Look-Off and at several points on the way down MacKenzies Mountain; whenever the sun reached any of the deciduous trees, for it was now occasionally breaking through the clouds, it lit the colours up brightly. They were clearly at their peak in the Pleasant Bay area.
I checked off an item on my to-do list by driving the Red River Road to its end at the Polletts Cove trail head and collecting GPS coördinates at various points along the road which were inexplicably missing from those collected in previous years. By now, the sun had made some major headway and was lighting up the scene very well, so I stopped for photos at several points on that excursion; the scene at the Red River bridge was gorgeous!
Back on the Cabot Trail, I discovered another instance of the “flaming forest“ just outside Pleasant Bay along the Grande-Anse River, looking backwards when I stopped for photos of the beautiful colours on the flanks of Roberts Mountain rising above the Trail. No still photo can possibly hope to capture that shimmering beauty, but I took a few! On the way up the “canyon” to the summit of North Mountain, where one is not allowed to stop (and I had a following car), I saw the brightest red tree ablaze in the sun that I’ve seen anywhere this year (and possibly any year)—it was truly magnificent! Stopped again for photos at the top of North Mountain and at Sunrise, west of Cape North Village. Even St Paul Island was visible off in the Cabot Strait! The flanks of the massif were awash in a mantle of bright oranges, yellows, and golds.
Alas, all that disappeared as I reached Bay Road Valley and the drive from there to Meat Cove was under grey skies with only the shape of the sun visible behind the blocking clouds. The leaves, however, were clearly at their peak and very vivid with lots of bright reds, especially along the Salmon River, on the Highlands above Capstick, and in the Meat Cove Brook valley; in spite of the dull light, it was still a glorious drive. Just after reaching the gravel surface west of Capstick, two juvenile moose (yearlings?) suddenly appeared out of nowhere, running along the right side of the road parallel to the car, apparently as startled as I was! I jammed on the brakes and came to an abrupt stop as they ran on and then off the road into the forest. I’ve never seen moose on the Meat Cove Road before and wasn’t expecting them; they’re usually well back in the Highlands. Quite the scare! I dropped off the CD’s (no one was there) and took a few photos, but the light was poor and my heart wasn’t in it, so I took my leave of this beautiful place for this year; I’ll definitely be looking to spending some more time there next year!
The skies remained grey on the trip south and, except at Ingonish on the Highlands at the end of Ingonish Harbour, I saw no other great bursts of colour. I had looked forward to supper at Main Street in Ingonish but it was closed for the season, as was the Lobster Galley in St Anns (or at least for the night if not the season—people were dining inside, perhaps at a private function). I finally found an open restaurant in Baddeck, where I had dinner, and got gas—the only open gas stations were in Dingwall, Ingonish, and Baddeck, so one needs to monitor one’s gas tank closely, as it’s a long ways between them! I returned from Baddeck to the motel in Port Hood over the back country, though it was by then way too dark to see anything. Having assumed I’d see nothing when I started this morning, I had instead a very fine and enjoyable trip. I’ve decided to stay on tomorrow as there are a few loose ends to tie up.
Wednesday, 23 October — Port Hood
I was up at 9h because the sun was shining brightly through the curtain. By the time I got out the door, however, it had disappeared again. Puddles littered the driveway, so some rain fell last night. The sun didn’t return until late afternoon.
I drove to Mabou to take care of an errand, visited a friend, and made a farewell drive to Mabou Coal Mines. The light wasn’t great, but I took a few photos there anyway. Then I drove out to Green Point, where the sun was trying unsuccessfully to light things up, and took more photos. I returned to Mabou and stopped off at other friends for a short visit. I drove back to Port Hood to take care of a couple of errands.
The sun chose this point to make a full appearance, so I drove out the Colindale Road for one last look (and photos) of lovely Cape Mabou basking in the day’s declining sunlight. I got a few more photos of Cape Mabou from a slightly different vantage point in West Mabou. Then it was off to the Mull for my last dinner this trip on the Island. Great food and great service!
Then it was back to Port Hood, where ’twill be early to bed for the first leg of the long drive back home. I’m starting it off well-rested at least. It’s been a great time. Thanks to all the friends who made me feel welcome and at home by a myriad of kindnesses, to the army of volunteers and its organizers who worked so hard to make this festival a crowning success, and to the wonderful musicians who played their hearts out. I will for sure be looking forward to next year!
Reflections on a Wonderful Festival¹
Now that Celtic Colours 2013 is over, I’m in a reflective mood and would like to share my thoughts and experiences on my ten years of attending these fine annual events. They are presented in the order in which they occurred to me and may be somewhat disjointed.
The organizers are incredibly politically able. In its 2013 edition, it put on 46 concerts in 38 venues (one venue had three concerts and six venues had two concerts), if I counted correctly. Over 2000 volunteers are involved and more than 20,000 tickets were sold. As one who has lived in small towns for half his life and knows how rife the divisions are in one small town, getting 38 of them moving together in one direction is nothing shy of unbelievable. Herding cats would be far easier. Yet, year after year, the organizers are able to cohere the multitude of factions and interests in tens of different communities into a united group that moves forward following a common vision, making concerts run well, on time, and with superb sound. It’s simply amazing to an outsider from a much more fractious society how this can even be possible.
Volunteers are the heart and soul of the festival. They drive the musicians around; feed them; direct traffic and use sparse parking areas safely and to their maximum; collect tickets and, when seating is assigned, guide ticket holders to their seats; act as stage managers and emcees; set up and tear down the seating before and after the shows; run errands; sell merchandise; handle the door prizes; and do all the myriad other things needed to make each venue a pleasant experience for the concert goer. And they are all unpaid, doing this work out of the goodness of their hearts and to raise funds for their communities and organizations. Be kind and polite to them: without them, the festival would not exist.
I come to Cape Breton to hear Cape Breton’s musicians (I include PEI and Antigonish in the reach of this term). I can cross the Hudson to hear much of the international talent that appears at the festival or music like it. I don’t need to come to Cape Breton to hear it and don’t want to. But I can’t cross the Hudson at will to hear live Cape Breton music. I know that Celtic Colours is an international festival and that some locals and many of the visitors are drawn by this foreign talent. So I’m not against having it in shows. But, the festival also needs to better cater to those seeking the traditional music of Cape Breton and it’s currently not doing the best possible job that it could. This is not a new problem and it is not being addressed; if anything, it’s getting worse. Of the shows this year, the Pipers’ Cèilidh; the Boisdale, Christmas Island, and Glendale concerts; and the Saturday concert at the Big Fiddle in Sydney, all of which I attended, qualified as pure traditional music shows. The St Matthews Saturday matinée concert was close, but Breabach played non-traditional music along with traditional music and it was Scottish modern, not Cape Breton, music, so it doesn’t fully qualify. Two others, the show at North Aspy Bay and the Saturday matinée at the Strathspey Place, fully qualified, but I could not attend either as each was scheduled in the same time slot as another pure traditional music show I did attend. Enough time slots exist so that these conflicts should not need to happen, yet they do, year after year after year. Worse, numerous time slots have no pure traditional music show at all. The information is no longer on the web site, but I believe that all these traditional music shows sold out. So getting people to attend them is not a problem and there is plenty of traditional musical talent in Cape Breton to fill every time slot and have lots of musicians left over!
Symphonic music directors often present musical programs that flout the public’s tastes because “it’s good for you”. So, with the Mozart you went to hear, you also get Schoenberg and Stravinsky or worse, whether ye will or no, for “artistic balance” or some such notion. I long ago stopped attending symphonic concerts like that. Many of the Celtic Colours concerts seem to embody a similar notion, especially because they have to interleave all the international talent with the local musicians and it’s most usually a bad fit, though many audiences eat it up. This, too, is not a new problem. I used to purchase a ticket for every time slot. This year I purchased only eight and I expect next year, unless scheduling conflicts are somehow resolved, it will be even fewer. It’s not worth the often long drive to hear fifteen minutes of the music you want to hear and an hour and three quarters of completely irrelevant or totally irritating other stuff. I ain’t a gonna do it no more!
Fortunately, that doesn’t mean a lot of dead time during the festival. For the fiddle music aficionado, Celtic Colours week usually offers the Island’s best musicians in three-hour cèilidhs every night at the Red Shoe (though one has to plan timing very closely to get one of the very limited seats there). The Celtic Music Interpretive Centre offers two-hour lunchtime cèilidhs every week-day featuring master fiddlers. Those are only two such venues: the Doryman, the Normaway Barn, and other venues all over the Island offer traditional music outside the Celtic Colours festival, though not on a daily basis. In addition, square dances are held at Glencoe Mills on Sunday and Thursday, at Brook Village on Monday, at Southwest Margaree on Friday, and there are others (e.g. Boisdale on Sunday); it’s usually three hours of the best fiddle music anywhere and that includes the Celtic Colours concerts. One can easily make up an itinerary that wouldn’t include any Celtic Colours concerts at all. It is certainly true that little of this outside activity would occur if Celtic Colours did not exist, but, given that it does, there’s no need to take what someone thinks you should hear unless you really want to hear it.
The Celtic Colours programme has, in recent years, done a much better job than in the past of providing information on community events coöccurring with Celtic Colours concerts: community breakfasts and suppers, craft shows, dances, art exhibitions, milling frolics, teas, jam sessions, square dances, and the like are now all highlighted and mentioned in the programme. (That also shows just how much would be missing from Island life without the Celtic Colours festival, as hardly any of this efflorescence of activity would exist otherwise.) And the programme exists as a downloadable PDF file on the Celtic Colours web site and in printed form long before the start of Celtic Colours (I got my printed copy at the Gaelic College in August). It’s a valuable resource; anyone planning on attending should get it early and study it carefully. Kudos to the team that produces it and the map stapled into it for a very fine job indeed! [Two minor map corrections: the course of Highway 19 runs too far inland of Port Hood (though the provincial road map has the same error), as Highway 19 runs by the shore at the Port Hood Day Park; Portage Road on the south side of Whycocomagh Bay is shown as a gravel road, but is paved.] My only complaint is that the artist biographical information that once was present (though never copious even then) has disappeared some years ago, replaced with an index and, where it exists, a URL for the artist’s web site; adequate, perhaps, but the old format of this information was more immediately useful.
Ticket ordering through the web site if you’re ordering more than one or two tickets is unnecessarily tedious and frustrating (and I speak here as a computer programmer), requiring the entry of (or correction of default) information with every concert for which you order a ticket. You should be able to set your defaults for such information. It is unresponsive in my experience in the first day or two of ticket sales in July, largely because the current design requires way too many server interactions. Use the phone instead; you’ll get a human and it’s far easier and less frustrating. However, you’ll be lucky to get anything but a busy signal when the tickets first go on sale. Still, my tickets have always arrived in the mail on time and without error, so if you can get through, it does work, which is the important thing.
People, being human, carp and complain and I’m certainly in that number when I see things that I think need improvement. I do not intend my comments to be disrespectful nor disparaging. Indeed, I have great respect for those who work so hard so long to make this the wonderful festival that it is. Long may it survive and prosper! My thanks to all the many fine folks who make it what it is: a wonderful nine days of nearly non-stop music.
Thursday, 24 October — Port Hood to Bangor
I arose at 7h to light rain and bleak skies and, after loading up the car, went off to Sandeannies for a final fish cakes breakfast there, where I also picked up one of Steve Rankin’s 2014 calendars—he has a marvellous eye and does fantastic work! Then it was off to Port Hawkesbury to get the driver-side low beam lightbulb replaced—it apparently went out on the drive of the Mabou Coal Mines Road yesterday—and to cancel my Telus phone service (I wasn’t allowed to suspend it, so will have a different Cape Breton phone number next year).
Then, it was time to say farewell once more to the lovely Island that is Cape Breton, even drenched in falling (and blowing) rain. Halfway to Antigonish, the sun appeared and was out for most of the rest of the day. I stopped in Truro to pick up a Scottish friend of a friend who wanted passage to Boston and we continued on to Calais. Probably because I look like a terrorist or drug dealer or something and likely too because I was accompanied by a non-US citizen, we were detained for well over an hour as the great intelligences at the border struggled to understand such an uncommon situation (and to search the car and our belongings) before we got the official “welcome to the USA” greeting—which I failed to return as I was ashamed of the way they treated a perfectly credentialed visitor to our country—and were allowed to continue on our way. Consequently it was dark when we reached Bangor, so I called it a night. It will be early away on the morrow to Brookline in the Boston area and then on to New Jersey and home. Time for bed!
Friday, 25 October — Bangor to Jackson
We left Bangor this morning at the start of dawn and stopped for breakfast at Newport (Maine), a few miles down the pike from Bangor. By the time we got back to the car, it had turned into a beautiful morning with none of the fog that one often encounters early in the day in Maine. We stopped again at the Kennebunkport (Maine) rest area; somehow, I managed to lose my wallet between the time I got out of the car and returned to it—to this instant, I still have no idea how. Fortunately, some kind soul found it and turned it into the lost and found at the service area, where I picked it up with everything intact when I went to report it missing. The amount of panic at this newest “senior moment” cannot be described—no way to buy gas (and not enough in the car to make New Jersey), credit cards, passport card, driver’s license, health insurance identification cards, all gone! I offer my undying gratitude to whoever found it and turned it in!
We made Brookline, a suburb southwest of Boston I knew nothing about, without further incident at 11h45 by relying on my car’s GPS, whose data, in spite of being four years old, had only one turn I couldn’t make (I went the only way allowed and made a U turn to recover); I left my charming Scottish passenger there, where she was greeted by the friends with whom she’s staying—I hope to see her again at the Canadian-American Club fundraiser a week from this Sunday before she flies back to Scotland.
It was fortunately much easier to head west out of Brookline than it was to arrive there from the north, so I was on my way before 12h. I did not, however, make good time: an accident in the opposite lane on the Massachusetts Turnpike near Worcester slowed traffic to a crawl in our lane (rubberneckers, I guess) and leaving Boston at 12h already makes it way too late to avoid the Friday afternoon rush hour in North Jersey, so there was plenty of tedious stop-and-go on the Garden State Parkway coming south; the New Jersey Turnpike is under construction north of Freehold and some very recent changes mean that the lane merge from six lanes to three, which always ties up traffic at rush hours and some normal hours too, now occurs north of the Jamesville exit, so I got caught in that too. But I made it home safe and sound at 17h43, tired but very glad to be off the road once more. It will be very early to bed tonight!
The colours were still very pretty in eastern Maine yesterday, if just past peak, and continued today pretty all the way south; Westchester and North Jersey still have deciduous trees whose leaves haven’t changed at all, so the colour extravaganza will continue here for another week or two at least. By 13h, the skies began to cloud up over western Massachusetts and Connecticut, but the sun was still out; by Westchester, most of the sky was grey with occasional sun peeking through the clouds. It was dusk when I got home and hard to judge the state of the trees here, but my oaks still have most of their leaves.
I wish to again thank all those who made this trip to Cape Breton the delight it was: friends, musicians, volunteers, organizers, and coöperative hosts. Celtic Colours is certainly a special time!