It can be a disconcerting thing to stand in Nova Scotia’s Margaree River valley on a clear August night. For if it’s possible anywhere to inhale the distilled essence of a single place, it is here, where even a jaded city dweller can experience Cape Breton Island’s peculiar soul and overwhelming natural grace. Inside a barn, Buddy MacMaster, his niece Natalie MacMaster or some other fiddle giant fills the room with soaring, centuries-old Scottish Highlands music. The dance floor is a jumble of kids, parents and grandparents—some of them changing shirts two or three times a night as they travel from ceilidh (barn dance) to ceilidh—going through tightly choreographed dance steps that haven’t changed since the days of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Outside, a few old-timers could be speaking “The Gaelic” from the old country, Acadian French or even the language of the Mi’kmaq First Nation. Someone might even hand a stranger a botde. And as the fire slides down your throat you stare off into the distance, at the mix of mountain meadow, hardwood forest and meandering river, and wonder if this is really North America in the 21st century.
All right, it isn’t exactly Brigadoon. But there certainly is a frozen-in-themists-of-time quality to the area, known locally as “The Margarees” and lying halfway up Cape Breton’s western coast.
No wonder the early senders fleeing the Highland clearances felt so at home
when they began arriving in the late 1700s. The island’s relative isolation—it was connected to the Nova Scotia mainland by a causeway only in 1955—meant that the music and culture they brought stayed pure in Cape Breton even as it became watered down back in Scotland. Nowadays, Buddy MacMaster, the dean of Cape Breton violinists, routinely travels back to the land of his ancestors to demonstrate the true way to play a Scottish strathspey, jig or reel. And, on this end of the island, it’s also possible to read a Gaelic newspaper, eat a Scottish oatcake or sip what may be North America’s only authentic single malt Scotch whisky, distilled 50 km to the south in Mabou.
Just the ticket, in other words, if you’re looking for a laid-back place, less travelled than the spectacular Cabot Trail to the north, and spiritually removed from the hardscrabble industrial towns to the east. The Margaree River—gorgeous enough to grace a Canadian stamp—sets the tone. Its pristine waters weave past hamlets like Upper Margaree, South West Margaree, North East Margaree, Margaree Forks and plain old Margaree before reaching the ocean at picturesque Margaree Harbour. When the salmon are running, usually in June and September, fly fisher-
men from around the world show up. Make no mistake: they’re here to catch fish. But if nothing’s biting there’s always a wee dram and perhaps a trace of fiddle music echoing through the hills to soothe their disappointed souls.
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