Travel Essay: Novia Scotia

Dorian at the Doryman by Richard LeBlond

(how a hurricane blew the lid off history and revealed the origin of Acadian music)

During my visit to Atlantic Canada in 2011, I left a day early from my home in North Carolina to avoid an encounter with hurricane Irene. But two days later the big blow-hard caught me anyway, in Cheticamp on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Friends were not surprised – they call me a hurricane magnet after so many encounters.

Eight years later, in September 2019, I again left a day early, to avoid hurricane Dorian. As in 2011, I headed for Cheticamp, where – fool me twice/shame on me – Dorian was waiting. It was now called an extra-tropical storm, but its winds were still maxing at 90 mph, and 250,000 Nova Scotians lost power. (Let us not forget that more than 600 people remain missing in the Bahamas, and likely will not be found.)

Dorian had virtually closed the old French town of Cheticamp. I arrived late afternoon, and the Doryman bar was the only open establishment I could find. The wind was so strong I had to use my body as a lever against the door to gain entry. There were maybe 15 patrons inside, and the view out the windows looked catastrophic.

But Acadian fiddler Chrissy Crowley was playing her heart out, bravely honoring a scheduled performance, and uncertain about her 20-mile drive back home. We were all on edge because a power outage would bring a quick end to everything: fiddling, food, beer, and most importantly, comfort from the storm. Thankfully, the outage never came. These are the moments we keep.


Here is a minute of Chrissy at the Red Shoe Pub in Mabou, also on Cape Breton:

The walls and windows of my cabin on the harbor thudded and wailed all night in the pounding wind and pelting rain. The experience was nearly identical to the noise and vibrations of stormy nights in a dune shack in the Provincelands of Cape Cod, and the revival of that memory put a shine on the bluster.

Next morning, the dozen old fishermen sitting in a Cheticamp cafe spoke a French that seemed as distant from Quebecois as Quebecois is from Parisian. Cheticamp is a lovely (though edgy) mixed bag: French fishermen, Celtic musicians, good restaurants, gorgeous natural setting, and often violent weather. It and its French bakeries sit at the beginning (or end, depending) of my favorite part of the Cabot Trail, the northwest coast of Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

Next evening I was in North Sydney, waiting for the midnight ferry to Newfoundland. I had time to kill and did it mercifully in Tim Hortons, a Dunkin Donuts equivalent. Thanks to the serendipitous Doryman experience with Ms. Crowley, I decided to research what is called Acadian music (a form of Celtic music) and Acadia itself. Acadian music may be Cape Breton’s proudest export, and by far the one with the least environmental impact. It has a substantial presence on the island itself, with several album-producing musicians, and many venues where live music is played.

Here’s a brief summary of what I found about Acadia and Acadian music.

Acadia (L’Acadie) was the first colony established in the part of North America known as New France, about 1604. By the early 1700s, New France included most of eastern North America west to the prairies and south to Louisiana. The Acadian colony originally included all of the Maritime provinces: New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island (P.E.I.), plus portions of eastern Quebec, Newfoundland, and Maine to the Kennebec River (Augusta et al.). Acadia was gradually overrun by the British, with Cape Breton and P.E.I. the last regions to fall, in 1763.

The Acadian diaspora, memorialized in Longfellow’s poem, Evangeline, happened mostly during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) and was known as the Great Upheaval or Le Grand Derangement. The British deported about 80 percent of the French Acadians, most to what we now call the Thirteen Colonies. Many eventually made their way to Louisiana, where they became known as “Cajuns,” originally a pejorative term.

According to Wikipedia, some Acadians “who had been expelled from Nova Scotia and Ile Royale [New France name for Cape Breton Island] were permitted to settle in Cape Breton beginning in 1764, and established communities in northwestern Cape Breton, near Cheticamp, and southern Cape Breton, on and near Isle Madame.”

In the 1800s, Scots began immigrating to Cape Breton in great numbers, primarily in response to what is known as the Highland Clearances, the removal or exodus of Highland clans due primarily to changes in agricultural systems from feudal to capitalist.

According to the Canadian Studies Center at the University of Washington, “These Scottish settlers came to provide the dominant culture of Cape Breton, and the relative isolation of the island from the Scottish homeland meant that the Cape Breton traditions remained closer to their 19th century roots than their counterparts in Scotland.

“While Scottish music and dance [in Scotland] came under the wing of nationalist movements and adopted a codified style for competitions, the music and dance of Cape Breton remained a community affair and kept the original dance rhythms and playing styles of pre-Clearances Scotland. Indeed, today Cape Breton musicians and dancers are sent back to Scotland to re-educate the Scots in their own traditional performance genres.”

Well, how about that?

It appears that “Acadian” in the term “Acadian music” refers only to geography, as I have not found evidence of a French influence in the traditional Scottish music of Cape Breton. But the Scots and Acadians are all descendants of refugees, and their cultures seem deeply intertwined on the island.

Hilda Chiasson was Chrissy Crowley’s keyboardist at the Doryman.

Cheticamp, Nova Scotia, enjoying a few of its many weathers.


BIO: Richard LeBlond is a retired biologist living in North Carolina. His essays and photographs have appeared in numerous U.S. and international journals, and his work has been nominated for Best American Travel Writing and Best of the Net.

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