The island is actually a chunk broken from the northern tip of Nova Scotia (New Scotland, get it?) and attached to the province by the Canso Causeway, which is a pile of 10 million tons of rock poured into the ocean and topped with a road.
My interest in Cape Breton Island was twofold: 1. the ferry to Newfoundland leaves from the eastern lobe of the island; and 2. the Cabot Trail rings its western lobe. Plus, it includes the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. This trail has won more awards and appeared on more “best-of” lists than Meryl Streep and Adele put together.
We’d have almost two weeks on the island, and I was pretty fuzzy about how to spend it. I didn’t know that the island is a hotbed of Celtic culture. Besides local music in every pub and eatery, St. Ann’s College of Gaelic Arts and Crafts is smack in the middle of the place, which makes it the beating chamber within the Gaelic heart of Nova Scotia. If you love Celtic music, art, and culture, this is the place to visit. Wish I’d know it at the time.
We headed north on Route 19 and pulled into Mabou in the late afternoon. I had heard about the Red Shoe Pub, which is owned by the Rankin sisters and is famous for its lively musical scene.
Kaye and Buddy Rankin had settled in Mabou decades earlier and had raised their 12 kid in a sprawling house behind the Community Hall. Having absorbed traditional music through their pores, the younger bunch of Rankins began performing together and eventually released a couple of independent albums. These were picked up by the big boys, re-released, and the rest is history. The musical troupe of five family members won awards, toured internationally, but never really left the little town that had been the cradle of their gift.
When we got there, a Celtic music festival was just winding down. We were not about to leave quaint Mabou, but in the absence of a campground, we’d have to scrounge a place for the night. Luckily, we are very good at that.
We turned left following a sign for a farmer’s market and passed St. Mary’s Church, whose
white spire floated above the treetops. Hmmmm. Churches are always appealing to me with their flat parking lots, purported mission of charity and hospitality, and maybe because they feel kind of safe and homey.
We pulled in and tried to make ourselves invisible.
I went to the rectory to ask permission to park overnight. No answer.
I intercepted a carful of visitors who told me that the pastor, Fr. Angus MacKenzie, (no joke!) would be playing fiddle at the ceilidh in the Community Hall tonight, and they were sure I’d be welcome to park at the church.
SCORE! We were in for a double-dipper–music at the Red Shoe Pub and the Community Hall.
After paying the cover charge and making ourselves comfie, we found that the crowd at the Red Shoe was anemic and so was the entertainment. The woman on piano at least looked pleasant and made an effort to interact with the crowd, but the guy on fiddle just sawed away without a word or change of expression. Maybe he was tired after a long weekend of traditional music, or maybe his wife had burned the toast that morning. After half an hour, we’d had enough.
Now the question was, did we want to throw another $10 (each) at a show-and-tell of local talent? This question was more urgent for fresh-out-of-college-and-currently-unemployed Julia. After quizzing the folks selling tickets, we decided to take a chance on the locals.
Best move of the trip.
That evening at the Community Hall in Mabou was not only an authentic glimpse into village life, but it was also a real toe-tapper.
* * *
Oh, darn. Will you look at that? I’ve kept you far too long. I can tell you’re getting restless.
Don’t you need to get back to those spreadsheets? Take out the garbage? You’ve wasted enough time here. This is your mother/boss/Jiminy Cricket speaking.
But don’t neglect to check back for photos and a full account of our amazing evening in Mabou.