Canadian Maritimes #03 – SE Nova Scotia & Cape Breton Part 1

July 31, 2020  •  2 Comments


Canadian Maritime’s #03 –Cape Breton Part 1

This is part 3 of a trip we took in October of 2019 to the southeastern portion of the Maritime Provinces in Canada.  On this trip we visited Halifax, Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton Island.  We flew into and out of Halifax Nova Scotia but the rest of the trip was by rented car. 

Three major destinations on this trip
01 Map 00 - Overview01 Map 00 - Overview

This installment is for southeast Nova Scotia and the first part for Cape Breton Island (or just Cape Breton as most call it).  After our visit with some friends on PEI, we headed out to our final destinations of this trip – the southeast shore of Nova Scotia and the island of Cape Breton. 

Prince Edward Island, Southeast Nova Scotia and to Cape Breton route
02 Map 06 - PEI to Cape Breton02 Map 06 - PEI to Cape Breton

Southeast Shore of Nova Scotia

After leaving our hosts on Prince Edward Island we head south for a one night stop over on the southeast coast of Nova Scotia before heading to our final destination on Cape Breton Island.  We really didn’t have a real reason to go down to Liscombe on the south shore other than to break up what would have been a long drive but decided it would be interesting to add another sightseeing stop on our trip.  So we booked a night at the Liscombe Lodge which was sort of a resort type operation.  It was nice but not having much time there (got there just before dinner, left the next morning) we didn’t really have time to go out in one of their boats or take one of their numerous hiking trails but we did play a bit of ping pong. 

During our time in Halifax as well as on PEI we were somewhat disappointed that there wasn’t as much fall color as we had hoped.  An odd tree here and there with some color was about it.  But as we left Liscombe on our way to Cape Breton we started to see a bit more color.  In the San Francisco area of California, where we live, fall color is not a “thing”.  Yes, there are some well colored trees planted along some of the streets but the native trees don’t put on any sort of fall show.  There are parts of California that are magnificent in the fall like Aspen groves in the Sierra Mountains whose vibrant yellow color is shocking in its intensity and other places in the state where red’s and gold’s proliferate and the desert wildflower blooms in some springtime’s are magnificent – but we only visit those areas.  So, stopping to photograph red, orange and yellow trees was definitely on the agenda.  Not knowing what the fall color situation would be on Cape Breton, as we toured the Halifax area and PEI, not wanting to miss what may be our only opportunity, we stopped at several “ho hum” locations to photograph what Northeasterners get to see every year.  But, I haven’t shown you any of those photos as Cape Breton delivered the goods (see next installment in this series).  But, on the way to Liscombe and then again on the way out, we still stopped at some fall color spots for a few photos.

Now don’t get me wrong.  Even though there were some nice patches of fall color it was not what I would call spectacular or even up to par with what I remember in New England every fall for the 10 years I lived there.  But it was there, and so were we, and photographing in the digital world is cheap so why not stop the car and rip off a few shots.

Fall color along the St. Mary’s River near Stillwater, NS
Fall on St. Mary's River (NS, Canada)Fall on St. Mary's River (NS, Canada)

NOPE (No Open Pit Excavation) over some oak (I think) saplings near Stillwater, NS
NOPE (No Open Pit Excavation) sign near Stillwater (NS, Canada)NOPE (No Open Pit Excavation) sign near Stillwater (NS, Canada)

On the way out of Liscombe and always on the lookout for something interesting we noticed a sign for the Sherbrook Historical Village.  Well, as we were in the town of Sherbrook at the time, we figured it probably wasn’t too far off our course so we made the turn.  And, we were right, it was just a few blocks down the road.  But, being mid October they must have either closed for the season or at least moved off their summer schedule as the sign on the gate to the parking lot indicated that they were currently closed.  Oh well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. 

But, lo and behold there was another sign pointing down the road indicating that there was an historic sawmill down there someplace.  So, just to be sure it was in the same time zone we goggled it and indeed it was just a mile or so further on.  So, why not. 

And there it was.  An historic water wheel powered sawmill – also closed.  But, one could wander around outside and even though we did not get to see the “Saw” part inside we were able to see the “Mill” part outside (well at least the water wheel part) so it was not an entire loss.

McDonald Bros Sawmill Waterwheel, Sherbrook, NS
04 5d3R04-#620604 5d3R04-#6206

McDonald Bros Sawmill Waterwheel, and mill pond, Sherbrook, NS
McDonald Bros. Sawmill Waterwheel 2McDonald Bros. Sawmill Waterwheel 2

But daylight was burning and we had a bit of a drive to our rental cabin at the far end of Cape Breton Island and neither our GPS nor Google Maps seemed all the certain exactly where it was so we wanted to assure we got there while it was still light out.

Cape Breton Island

After waiting for 30 minutes at the drawbridge over the channel that makes Cape Breton an Island we entered Cape Breton at its southern end. 

Where we went on Cape Breton
08 Map 07 - Cape Breton Route Map08 Map 07 - Cape Breton Route Map

Wait a minute.  Why is cape Breton an Island?  The dictionary defines cape as “a point or extension of land jutting out into water as a peninsula or as a projecting point”, and an Island as “a body of land completely surrounded by water”.  So how can it be both?  Well I need to tell you that I wasn’t able to find out.  All evidence is that it has been an island since the first humans showed up so how it became “Cape” Breton is a mystery.  But theories abound.

One theory is that the full name - Cape Breton - came from Capbreton near Bayonne France, but more probably from Cape and the word Breton, the French demonym for Bretagne, a French historical region.  But this too is challenged as when the name first appeared the area was occupied by the British, not the French, and it is unlikely for the Brits to name a major land area after their arch enemy the French.  As an alternative argument, the earliest form of the name appeared on Portuguese maps as "Bertomes" which at that time meant “The English” and referred to the region which John Cabot and his Bristol Englishmen discovered on their voyage of 1497...therefore our today’s Cape Breton would mean 'Cape of the English'.  But this still doesn’t explain the “cape” part of the name.

Cape Breton Island is just east of the smaller Prince Edward Island (PEI).  Although PEI is 50% smaller in area the Cape Breton, PEI is its own province but Cape Breton is just a part of Nova Scotia.  Cape Breton contains 4 of Nova Scotia’s 18 counties and has around 15% of the population. The southern part of the island where the only road bridge onto the island is located is rolling farmland and the island gradually slopes upward as you go north.  The northern end of the island is a mountainous area called “the highlands”. 

Much of the middle of the island is occupied by the 424 square mile Lake Bras d’Or (“Arm of gold” in French).  This lake is over 63 miles long and is rated as one of the largest salt water lakes in the world.  There is a very narrow isthmus, barely one third of a mile wide which separates the lake from the Atlantic Ocean at its south end so it is pretty obvious that it was recently a giant bay rather than a lake.  I suspect that with global warming and associated ocean level rise this isthmus may be breached in short order.  But wait a minute.  The middle arm that heads up north to the town of Bras d’Or seems to have a channel between the north tip of that arm and the open sea.  And look, the northwest arm actually does open to the sea without the need of a channel.  So, not only is cape Breton an island but Bras d’Or Lake is a bay.  I guess Geography was not a popular subject in these parts when things were being named. 

A bit of History

Cape Breton's first residents were likely archaic maritime natives, ancestors of the Mi'kmaq who lived there for several thousand years and continue to live there to this day.  Their ocean-centric lifestyle on the eastern edge of the continent however made them among the first indigenous peoples to discover explorers and sailors venturing out from Europe.  The Englishman John Cabot possibly visited the island in 1497 but histories and maps of the period are of too poor a quality to be sure whether Cabot visited Newfoundland or Cape Breton Island.  But that didn’t stop Cape Breton from applying his name to a major highway as well as many other land features. 

Over the centuries, the native population traded with European fishermen and didn’t put up much of a fuss when fishermen began sticking around in small settlements (circa 1520’s).  But of course no good deed goes unpunished and as a part of the French – Anglo war (1627-1629) the area was claimed by European countries.  But treaties with the natives didn’t come along till several decades later.  I’m not going to bother going over all the French, English, Scot, and Portuguese wars that came and went and the number of times the island changed “ownership”.  But it wasn’t until 1713 before anything resembling permanent European settlements were established that weren’t abandoned later.

Cape Breton wasn’t incorporated into Canada until 1820 when it was merged into Nova Scotia against its will.

During the industrial revolution Nova Scotia and Cape Breton became centers for coal mining and steel mills and those industries fueled the economy.  However as is the case in the US, over the past 25 years the island has consistently lost industrial investment and jobs.  In December 2018, Canada announced regulations to phase-out traditional coal-fired electricity by 2030.  This pretty much ended any semblance of an industrial based economy on Cape Breton and subsequently mine after mine closed down.  However, the closing of the coal and steel industry coupled with the presence of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, which buffers the pristine northern half of the island from its more commercialized southern half, have no doubt contributed to the island's very positive ratings for ecological stewardship and great scenery.

Finding our Cabin

Once we got over the bridge and onto the island we decided to head directly to our rental cabin on the other end of the island after stopping to pick up groceries.  As I mentioned earlier our GPS was providing some strange looking directions.  Google Maps was also providing strange, but significantly different directions.  One had us go up the west side of a large peninsula and then cut all the way across the peninsula - on what looked like cow paths on the map - to the east side where the cabin was.  The other had us go up the east side (the cabin was on the east coast of the peninsula), but then hang a left and wander around again on marginal looking roads before reconnecting with the eastern edge of the peninsula.

Ok, deciding on trusting to blind faith in technology we headed north on the proscribed road following the recommendations of the GPS that at least had us on the correct side of the peninsula.  We carefully watched the “next turn in” box as it counted down, 1 mi, 0.9 mi…..0.5 mi, 500 ft, 200 ft, 100 ft, zero ft.  Time to turn left.  Wait a minute – not only is there no road there it’s a sheer cliff where the road we were on was cut through a ridge.  Ok.  Maybe the GPS was off a bit so let’s continue a bit and if we don’t see a road a bit further on turn around and try going the other way, back south at bit in case we missed it.  Well no road (not even a driveway) in a couple of miles either side of where it told us to turn.  Ok, let’s see what the other GPS has to say for itself.  Hmmm.  It has us turn on the same road name as the first GPS but placed it 5 miles south back the way we had first come.  Ok. Let’s give that a shot.  So, we backtracked to the turn and were pleased that there was no cliff but at the spot where we were to turn there was just what looked like it had been a single lane dirt road 20 years ago but was now completely overgrown with brush and trees growing up in the middle of the one lane track - and a locked gate. 

Ok, let’s go back north again and see if we can find someplace to ask (as there certainly wasn’t any such place for many miles the way we had come).  So turn around again.  A mile or so further along than we had gone before we saw a sign saying “Cape Dauphine Next Left”.   Wait a minute, wasn’t that part of the address of the cabin?   Quick find that paperwork.  Yep, Cape Dauphine.  Well, even though both GPS were still insisting that we turn around and go back the way we came, we decided to give this a shot.  So, we made the turn onto a well graded dirt road wide enough for two trucks to pass with plenty of room to spare.  Both GPS’s showed that we were indeed on a road that they knew about but kept telling us to turn around and that our destination was close to an hour away in the other direction.  About 3 or 4 miles down this road I glanced down at the GPS’s and now both were saying that our destination was just 2 miles away in the direction we were heading.  We hadn’t passed any intersections of any kind coming in from side, no change in the road itself, no boundary signs, no nothing.  For some reason neither GPS thought that road went through.  But we arrived with plenty of daylight to spare and moved in.

The cabin was near the north end of Cape Dauphine (which is a peninsula) right on a bay (actually the bay that connects to Bras d’Or Lake) and the fall color was starting to get impressive.

View from Cabin
Autumn Sunrise in quiet Cape Dauphine Cove, (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)Autumn Sunrise in quiet Cape Dauphine Cove, (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)

Scottish Roots

One of the more interesting aspects of the colonization of Cape Breton is the Scottish influence.  While England had by far the largest impact on the settlement of the eastern half of northern North America, the Scots carved out what is now Nova Scotia as their strong hold on the continent.  As it turns out the name “Nova Scotia” is Latin for “New Scotland” and was applied to this area in 1621.  Although there were occasional Scots among the early settlers, they did not come in large numbers or establish permanent communities until 1773 when emigrants from the north-western coast of Scotland arrived in Pictou lured here by the name “New Scotland”.

The early Scottish settlers were attracted here by the prospect of owning their own property free from landlords.  Scotland, like Ireland, was over-populated and unable to support their population making emigration a necessity, even though they lamented leaving homes and relatives behind it was better than starving at home.  But, after 1820, thousands of Scottish families were actually forced to emigrate during ‘The Clearances’.  The Clearances was a period when landlords, eager to consolidate small properties into large profitable sheep farms evicted their tenants.  Nice guys.  But around 1840, after most of the evictions had been completed, Scottish emigration to Nova Scotia virtually ceased.  It did not resume in any significant way until the late 1800’s when many Lowland Scot coal miners came over to work in newly-established mining towns.  In all these later cases, they spoke English and a Lowland Scots dialect and were quickly absorbed into the prevailing culture.

As groups of Scot settlers arrived they tended to settle in towns and villages made up of others from their home towns in Scotland.  Of course when they came they brought their language and customs along with them and as they were isolated in homogeneous communities their customs and the Scotch Gaelic language persisted and is still in wide use today.  In fact in many parts of Cape Breton, Scot Gaelic is a primary language used in conjunction with English in everyday life.  This isn’t to say that there aren’t a few isolated pockets of French where remnants of the Acadian’s still live and they speak French, but for the most part it’s Gaelic and English.

Gaelic is an ancient and treasured language, but it is one of those that is dying out. There are very few places in the world where Gaelic is still spoken as a language these days. Some areas of Ireland, of course, still maintain the use of the language (but they now call their version of the language “Irish”), and the same is true in Scotland. The residents of Cape Breton also are going out of their way to speak Gaelic – known colloquially as Nova Scotia Gaelic.  Gaelic had become nearly extinct after the 1900s when an education act forbid schools to use or teach it. But, the locals kept the language going in secret and it is now making a comeback.

As most of you know, Canada is a bilingual country where both French and English are official languages.  As such, all civic sings – such as road signs – must be in both French and English as are all legal documents.  However, there is one place in Canada where this is not true.  In Cape Breton everything is in English and Gaelic (not French).

09 Gaelic Sign09 Gaelic Sign

Musical Cape Breton

Over the years, Cape Breton communities such as Christmas Island, Whycocomagh, Mabou, Grand Narrows and West Bay, where the residents were primarily Gaelic-speaking retained their enthusiasm for Gaelic song and story, as well as for piping and fiddle music – even if they had to do it underground when the language was banned.  Most families have some sort of musical gift rooted in the Scottish tradition.  Indeed, it is believed that there is a fiddle in every home on the island; not to mention the fact that at least one person in almost every family is believed to be a proficient musician.

In addition to music, story-telling and the recitation of historical lore and genealogical connections are part of most family gatherings such as kitchen parties.  Kitchen parties are a wide spread tradition on the island where families will host a ceilidh (believe it or not pronounced ‘kay-lee’).  A ceilidh is a party involving plenty of drink, food, music, and dancing, and has very definitive Scottish roots. The name is a Gaelic word meaning a gathering of people, and most likely originated in the 18th Century, when the Scottish settled here. The ceilidh is a big thing in Cape Breton, and there is a huge focus on music in these gatherings.

World’s largest fiddle at the cruise ship dock.
17 7d2R03-#934717 7d2R03-#9347

And, this brings us to the reason for our trip.  There is an 8 day, island wide Celtic music festival on Cape Breton each fall at the peak of the fall color season.  This festival is called Celtic Colours and features some international artists as well as many, many locals. 

As the coal industry plummeted, the island struggled with how to keep its economy going.  About the only thing left from an economic standpoint was a bit of farming and tourism.  But, with a short tourist season (basically May-Sep) and a topography not conducive to opening ski resorts for winter tourism they were on a downward trajectory.  But, after some brainstorming they determined that it would be a great help if they could somehow extend the tourist season through October – but how.  They didn’t really have the resources to compete with New England for fall color tourism,  There’s nothing to attract eco-tourism or even high adventure tourism and even though there is a lovely national park it’s not enough to get people out to this off the beaten path destination. 

So, they took a look at what they had that no other place did and it was their Scot Celtic culture.  So, they created a music/dance/folklore festival timed to take place in mid October at the peak of the fall color.  And just to make sure there was no mistake they named it “Celtic Colours”.  This festival was created in 1997 and has grown in popularity ever since.  By the way, for those of you who follow basketball, the Boston Celtics is pronounced “cell-tik” but everywhere else in the world the word is pronounced “Kell-tik”.

On our visit in 2019 they had 42 formal concerts in addition to 300 community events such as dances, traditional meals, tours, workshops and a plethora of other activates.  These concerts and events take place literally all over the island in local fire halls, parish halls, community centers, school rooms, and just folks houses.  In some cases they literally move the fire trucks out of the firehouse to accommodate a dance.  So, let me tell you.  Trying to figure out where to stay and which concerts or events to sign up for was quite a challenge. 

Map of the Celtic Colours festival venue’s in 2019
07 Map 08 - Celtic Colours Map07 Map 08 - Celtic Colours Map

We didn’t spend the entire 9 days there but rather planned out a modest 5 day itinerary.  We booked a musical concert for each evening as well as cultural events during a few of the days leaving other days for just plain sightseeing. 

Even though we enjoy and listen to a fair amount of Celtic music, other than the Chieftain’s (festival opening “BIG” concert in the hockey stadium) we were not familiar with most of the bands and performers.  We were able to find some samples online but for the most part we had to trust to luck.  But we had to have some way to narrow 42 potential concerts down to 5.  So, as we strongly prefer groups with singers rather than just instrumentalists we narrowed the field down by looking for groups where the photo on the Festival website showed the group with microphones.  Well, it was better than random guessing.  For the most part it worked out pretty well.  The Chieftain’s, who we did know, were wonderful as were the many guest artists they brought on stage with them throughout the concert.  Over the course of the week, one group we saw was way too raucous and loud for us – and didn’t have a singer, but for the most part the bands were good and had some songs mixed in with the reels, jigs and hornpipes.  Lots of fiddles, concertinas, all sorts of bagpipes, guitars, and a whole bunch of instruments that we could not identify.

However finding these venues was at times a challenge.  The address in the book was something like “Fisheries Building, Eskasoni” or “St. Mary of the Angels Parish Hall”.  For the 2nd one, Googling came up empty (at least empty on Cape Breton).  There is a St. Mary’s Church on the island but nowhere near the pin number on the festival map.  But we wanted to be able to use our GPS to get us to these spots so it was important to have something to type into the destination box and names like those listed just weren’t found.  Using street view on Google Maps near where the pin on the festival map was not only didn’t find a parish hall, it didn’t even show any buildings at all along that stretch of road.  And, in a couple of these cases, our GPS came up blank as well.  So, we just drove down to the town and looked for a bunch of parked cars and as it turns out we were able to find the venues without much trouble as most were right on the main highway through that town.

Of course the word town in many cases is a bit generous.  In one case the “town” was just the one parish hall building, just plunked down along the highway in the middle of nowhere.  Probably some farmer donated a corner of their farm to the church for the parish hall.  No actual church though, just the meeting hall and the name of the “town” became the name of the farmer who donated the land.

But the concerts were great and we must have chosen well as everyone was packed and we now have a definitive study of the relative merits of a wide variety of uncomfortable folding chairs.

Cape Breton Historical sites

During the day we tried to visit historical sites and museums.


In the town of Baddeck is the Alexander Graham Bell Museum.  This modern museum follows the life and inventions of the prolific inventor, including much of his personal life.  As we know he invented many things across many disciplines such as aircraft, kites, and artificial respiration.  But he’s best known for his work in audio with his invention of the telephone.  I didn’t know this, but it seems he first became interested in the science of sound because both his mother and wife were deaf. His experiments in sound eventually let him to want to send voice signals down a telegraph wire and as we all know, that resulted in his invention of the telephone.

Graham era telephone switchboard
Switchboard, Highland Village Musum (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)Switchboard, Highland Village Musum (Cape Breton Island, NS Canada)


The Highland Village Museum (An Clachan Ghàidhealaich for you Gaelic speakers) is an outdoor living history museum dedicated to Nova Scotia’s Gaelic folk-life, culture, and language located in Iona.  It sits on 43 acres of natural landscape overlooking the Bras d'Or Lake in Central Cape Breton.  Even though you can visit this place on your own like any other museum they scheduled some special tours as part of the festival (one of the 300 cultural events).  This was an extended tour through all the buildings on the site with an in character, in costume docent in each building who talked to us as if we were just a neighbor dropping in for a chat.  This tour included many extras not normally provided to general museum attendees.  For example in one house they treated us to tea and biscuits they had just made over the wood fire in the big fireplace.  In another house they showed us, and allowed us to take part in, softening woven fabric in the traditional manner (video for those reading this on my website).  The presentation was quite interesting and really gave a sense of life on the island in the 1800’s. 

Docent in a traditional house
Docent #2, Highland Village Musum, Cape Breton IslandDocent #2, Highland Village Musum, Cape Breton Island

In one house we were invited to participate in the singing of a “Waulking” song while “fulling” (waulking) cloth. This practice involved a group of women rhythmically beating newly woven tweed or tartan cloth against a table or similar surface to soften it.  Simple, beat-driven songs were used to accompany the work.  A waulking session often begins with slow-paced songs, with the tempo increasing as the cloth becomes softer. As the singers work the cloth, they gradually shift it to the left so as to work it thoroughly. A tradition holds that moving the cloth counter-clockwise is unlucky.  Typically one person sings the verse, while the others join in the chorus. As with many folk music forms, the lyrics of waulking songs are not always strictly adhered to. Singers might add or leave out verses depending on the particular length and size of tweed being waulked. Verses from one song might appear in another, and at times the lead singer might improvise to include events or people known locally. The chorus of many waulking songs consists of vocals, in which some of the words are meaningless, while others are regular Gaelic words, but sometimes have no meaning in the context of the song.

Some of the folks on our tour participated in a Waulking session
(video if reading this on my website)

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General Store
General Store, Highland Village Musum, Cape Breton IslandGeneral Store, Highland Village Musum, Cape Breton Island

Blacksmith shop
Black Smith, Highland Village Musum, Cape Breton IslandBlack Smith, Highland Village Musum, Cape Breton Island

Well, his portion of our trip has turned into a blog too long for one segment, and this looks like a good spot end part 1.  In Part 2, we’ll explore some more historic sites on Cape Breton including a tour inside an undersea coal mine as well as a tour of the highlands.


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Thanks for reading – Dan


(All images by Dan Hartford.  Info from Wikipedia, other web sources, and pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way)



Bree Kalb(non-registered)
Great story. Here's a tiny addition. It was in Mabou, Cape Breton, where I learned a new, useful, term from the dancers and musicians: Bed Lunch. It's the snack you have around 1 am when you get home from the dance or kitchen party.
Bruce McGurk(non-registered)
Great GPS story, and as always, lovely photos - the view from you cabin was terrific. Fun to see the things you found!
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