Thursday, September 18, 2008

Fiddles and Whisky on the Ceilidh Trail

A day to fill the heart and feed the soul!

Especially if you're a Celtic music fanatic. And I am.

But first, another one of those "this is where we are" geography lessons. And I'm going to throw in another history lesson, as well, because the history of Nova Scotia (especially Cape Breton Island) is bound to Celtic music like Atlantic lobster is to melted simply cannot have one without the other.

First, to put Nova Scotia into geographical perspective, here's our Atlantic Provinces map once again. Nova Scotia (specifically, Cape Breton) is just a six hour ferry ride from Newfoundland.

And as you can see from the map below, the Nova Scotia tourism powers-that-be have been busy. They have divided the province into seven areas, each with its own scenic drive. Well, except for Cape's so special it has five scenic drives!

This day found us exploring the scenic drive called the Ceilidh Trail (pronounced kay-lee), a 67-mile long stretch of road along the west coast of Cape Breton Island that winds through towns with enticing Scottish names such as Creignish, Dunvegan, Inverness, Glenora and Craigmore.

A wee bit of the history of Cape Breton is helpful in understanding how very, very important music is to the folks who call these villages home. And, as you might guess, a history of Cape Breton is simply not possible without a mention (just a mere mention, I promise you!) of the history of Scotland.

The mid-1700s in the Highlands of Scotland were a time of drastic change. After years of attempting to restore the House of Stuart to the British throne (remember Bonnie Prince Charlie?), the Highlanders suffered a decisive defeat at the bloody Battle of Culloden in 1746. The aftermath of this final defeat was as devastating as the battle itself. In an act of brutal repression (the British Parliament's Act of Proscription in 1747), the Highland clan system was banned, along with the wearing of kilts and tartans (unless a man was a member of a Highland regiment serving in the British army...a slap in the face to members of his old clan who would not pander to the English). In addition, economic oppression was rampant as rising prices for wool and meat prompted landlords to drastically raise rents in order to clear the land of the Highland people so that they might lease the land to Lowland sheep farmers instead.

A dismal future loomed for many of the Highlanders. In a quest for land they could call their own, many set sail for Nova Scotia. Why Nova Scotia? Because of the already existing Scottish connection. In 1621, King James VI of Scotland (who was also King James I of England...that's another history lesson, but I'll let you learn about that one on your own) granted to William Alexander, a Scottish poet and statesman, a charter to establish a colony in Canada. The charter stipulated that the new colony be called "Nova Scotia", Latin for "New Scotland". Due to French interference, the colony never really did succeed. So when the unhappy Highlanders of the 18th century needed a new home, Nova Scotia (with plenty of available land and the French now basically booted out) beckoned.

Now, something that needs to be mentioned at this point is that in Scotland, one of the most important facets of Highland social life was the ceilidh. Pronounced kay-lee, it's a Gaelic word that means "a gathering". And ceilidhs were exactly gatherings of family and friends that featured Gaelic storytelling, the singing of Gaelic ballads, fiddle and bagpipe music and step dancing. Besides being entertaining, and besides being a source of bonding for family and friends, ceilidhs were also a vital means of passing down precious Highland culture from one generation to the next...something the English authorities were not too keen on seeing continue and were actively attempting to suppress.

So when our hopeful Highlanders boarded the ships that would take them from their beloved homeland to the unknown that was waiting for them in Nova Scotia, their fiddles and bagpipes often had to be smuggled on board. But smuggle them they did. And over the years, as shipload after shipload of Highlanders arrived in Cape Breton (over 30,000 from 1817 to 1838 alone), the ceilidhs continued and the Highland culture thrived, some say growing to be more fiercely Scottish than Scotland itself.

Now, as I was saying before our little geography and history interlude, I am a Celtic music fanatic (Celtic music actually has several definitions, but for the purposes of this blog, let's just define it as music representative of Scotland and Ireland). In fact, I am so nuts about Celtic music that if I could only listen to one kind of music for the rest of my life, it would be Celtic. Hands down.

My apologies, Bach and Mozart. So very sorry, Miles Davis and B.B. King. Led Zeppelin, CSN, the Eagles...please forgive me. I dearly love all your music, but if there can be only one kind, please let it be Celtic.

So to be in Cape Breton, where a ceilidh can be found every night of the week...ah, such bliss!

Now back to our extraordinary day. It began with a visit to a shrine of sorts: the Celtic Music Interpretive Center in Judique, Nova Scotia (on Cape Breton Island). The mission statement of the center is to collect, preserve and promote the traditional Celtic music of Cape Breton Island through education, research and performance.

The Celtic Music Interpretive Center

One interactive exhibit helps visitors understand the difference between jigs, reels, slow airs, marches, strathspeys and hornpipes (it all comes down to timing). Another exhibit showcases all the famous fiddlers who have called Cape Breton home, including Natalie MacMaster, a spirited fiddler Art and I have had the pleasure of seeing in concert several times in Santa Barbara.

There is also an exhibit that explains the anatomy of a fiddle, and an interactive exhibit that allows visitors to actually pick up a fiddle themselves and attempt to learn a short fiddle riff, with the help of some video instruction by one of Cape Breton's best, Kinnon Beaton. Did I give it a try? Oh, how could I not?

Ha! Let's just say that Natalie MacMaster has nothing - absolutely nothing - to worry about.

The interpretive center's final exhibit is all about island step dancing (think "Riverdance", but with a special Cape Breton flair). A piece of wooden flooring and a video showing a few simple steps awaits any visitor willing to give step dancing a go. In my case, the spirit was willing, but the artificial knees said "I don't think so."

After viewing all the exhibits, we wandered into the little restaurant at the interpretive center and were delighted to discover a lunchtime ceilidh! The aforementioned Kinnon Beaton (who is also the current director of the Celtic Music Interpretive Center) was playing the fiddle, while his wife Betty (sister to Cape Breton fiddle legend Buddy MacMaster who is uncle to Natalie MacMaster...there are many connections among Cape Breton's musicians) was playing the piano. We had a wonderful lunch, all the while tapping our toes to the infectious music. Suddenly, our waitress walks to the area in front of the musicians and begins step dancing! Could this day get any better for a Celtic music fanatic? Yes, it could! And it did.

Somehow, Art managed to pull me away from this most wonderful of places and we continued our trek down the Ceilidh Trail. Our next stop: the Glenora Distillery, North America's only single malt whisky distillery. A beautiful building in an even more beautiful setting, we had a great time touring the distillery and learning how this Canadian nectar is made. And we learned that much like sparkling wine may only be called Champagne if it's made in the Champagne region of France, whisky may only be called Scotch if it's made in...Scotland! Who knew? I didn't, because I'm not a whisky drinker. But I must admit that the wee sip of the Glen Breton Rare Canadian Single Malt Whisky we received at the end of the tour went down really easy.

So for all our whisky and Scotch drinking friends (Mike and Tom, are you reading this?), this one's for you!

Those who make whisky say whisky is only as good as the water that it's made from. The location of the Glenora Distillery was chosen because of the purity of the water flowing in the stream on the property. The water from MacLellans' Brook flows into a pond in front of the distillery where it is stored until needed.

Malted barley is soaked in hot water in the copper mash tun (at the back of the room) to extract the sugars in the barley. The resulting sugar water is then put into the fermentation tanks (in the foreground), yeast is added, and the fermentation process begins.

The whisky is distilled from the now fermented sugar water in two phases using copper pot stills. The fermented liquid is first heated in the still on the left, and the resulting vapors are condensed to produce an intermediate concentration of alcohol. This liquid is distilled again in the second still on the right and the resulting whisky goes into the "spirit safe". The whisky is then put into oak barrels for several years of aging.

And then? Well, as the Irish writer James Joyce once said, "The light music of whiskey falling into a glass - an agreeable interlude."

Now, while I'm not a whisky or Scotch drinker, per se, I am rather fond of Drambuie, a Scotch whisky liqueur made from aged malt whisky and then enhanced (to my palate, anyway) with heather honey and a secret blend of herbs and spices. In a bit of historical synchronicity (considering Art and I are in Cape Breton and its history is tied to the aftermath of the aforementioned Battle of Culloden), the legend goes (one might also say, the marketing) that in 1746, after the devastating defeat at Culloden, Prince Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) fled to the Isle of Skye and found refuge with the Clan MacKinnon (there may have been an act of Parliament banning the clans, but is that going to stop a determined bunch of Highlanders?). Despite a high bounty on the Prince's head, the MacKinnons would not turn him in. It is said that a grateful Prince Charles then gave the clan's chieftain his secret recipe for a golden elixir. Somewhere along the way, this lovely ambrosia was named "Drambuie" which comes from the Gaelic "dram buidheach" and which translates to "the drink that satisfies". And it does.

Hey Lorna, maybe that special Scottish connection is why you and I are so partial to Drambuie! Well, that plus the fact that you are part Scottish and I wish I was! :-D

After our visit to the Glenora Distillery, it was time for dinner. And more Celtic music, please!

So we headed to the Red Shoe Pub in Mabou for some good food and drink and more toe tappin' Cape Breton fiddle tunes. The Red Shoe Pub is owned by the Rankin Sisters, one of Cape Breton's most beloved musical groups, so you can bet there's going to be music served along with the food.

This night's ceilidh was courtesy of Melody and Derrick Cameron.

Before I bring this magical day to a close, there's just a wee bit more I'd like to share...

As we drove the charming Ceilidh Trail, we would see signs in both English and Gaelic. We later learned that Gaelic is taught in many of Cape Breton's schools. And among the island's teenagers, fiddle and step dancing lessons are as popular as hockey. The Highland spirit is, indeed, alive and well in Cape Breton!

Finally, have you ever wondered what the difference is between a fiddle and a violin? It's actually quite obvious, especially after spending a day on the Ceilidh Trail.

A fiddle is a violin with an attitude!

Mar sin leibh an dràsda!

--- Barbara (currently near Boston, Massachusetts)
Day 100
Total miles: 9,488

1 comment:

Mike said...

Single malt Whiskey? Now I am REALLY jealous! This sounds like the trip of a lifetime!

Thanks for thinking of me!