Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Cape Breton Island

My wife and I just returned from a week of vacation in Nova Scotia. We particularly enjoyed our time on Cape Breton Island traversing the Ceilidh trail and Cabot Trail. Nova Scotia is a proud land with a noble history. Scottish Highlanders, with their distinctive Scottish Gaelic language, were cleared out of the Highlands of Scotland by English landowners in the 18th and 19th centuries. Pictou, Nova Scotia received the first wave of immigrants from Scotland on September 15, 1773. About 200 people arrived on a small sailing ship called the Hector. It's full size replica still sits in Pictou Harbour.

The Highlanders who landed in Nova Scotia (New Scotland) had to work hard to overcome the hardships of the land. They fished and farmed; grew flax to make linen cloth; raised sheep; built homes and tamed the land. They developed their own traditions, maintained the Gaelic language, and sang and played music everywhere they lived. They had songs that were sung while they milled cloth (milling frolic music), they sang while they milked cows, planted crops, and any other work they might have done. They brought with them the bag-pipe but adapted many bag-pipe reels, jigs, and strathspeys for the fiddle. The bag-pipe influence is still evident in the music of Cape Breton Island. Families passed down the knowledge of the family tunes and fathers taught their children to play the fiddle the way their father had taught them. To this day, you can tell what family or locality the player is from by the style of the fiddler and the way he taps his foot. Kitchen parties, or Ceilidhs (pronounced Cay-lee) held in the evenings were important ways that knowledge was passed from one generation to the next. Stories were told, good hearted arguments about the right way to play a tune or a note occurred, and the social fabric of the society was maintained.

Life was hard for these early settlers but hard work saw them through. In contemporary times, Nova Scotia has suffered more hardship. Unregulated fishing of cod and haddock allowed unsustainable numbers of fish to be taken out of the Atlantic resulting in the collapse of the cod and haddock industry. Government shut down all cod fishing to allow the numbers to return but twenty years later there are still few cod and haddock in the Scotian Shelf. Scientists believe that the ecosystem has been permanently changed by the overfishing. Today, a lobster season and a crab fishing season are the only fishing available to those who used to fish the mighty Atlantic sea. Much of the area relies upon tourism from May through early September and jobs are hard to find. Some bed and breakfast businesses and restaurant owners spoke of how many young people have become dependent on employment insurance cheques.

Nova Scotia exports most of its East Coast musicians, adding to the economic problems of the region. Many bands and artists write songs and adapt them for commercial markets but eventually make their way to the larger centres like Toronto or Nashville. Our travels through the Ceilidh trail were rich with music. Many restaurants and pubs featured live music by local artists. Some was traditional and some was contemporary folk music.

Jimmy Rankin from Mabou, Nova Scotia on Cape Breton Island (part of the Ceilidh Trail) writes of the sadness and loss of his home. His song called "Running Home" has references to his longing for home and how he must travel but he will always be "chasing home." The final three stanzas have a different style and tune and speak of the former glory of his home and how they have lost much: "Northern winds got the best of us; sure made a mess of us; hope they're not the death of us."

Running Home (Lyrics and music by Jimmy Rankin)

Say goodbye to the city nights
Now I need the northern lights and the changes
Gotta trade the bars for stars
Haven't seen your face in while must be ages

I'm always gonna be chasing highways
I'm always gonna be chasing highways
Home
Running home
Home
But I'm running home

This place is full of memories
Some of them of my younger days running carefree
I'm far away from the scene back there
Far away from the space I care deep inside me

I'm always gonna be chasing highways
I'm always gonna be chasing highways
Home
Running home
Home
But I'm running home

Trading tunes until daylight
Many times I burned up the night getting crazy
Tired of the scene back there
Back again to a space I care all around me

Home
Running home

(silence)

This ain't much, just a little note to you
I miss your touch and everything you used to do
You're miles away from where you used to be
Northern winds got the best of you
Sure made a mess of you

Can't go back to the place that was before
The past is past and no one lives there anymore
There're miles away from where it used to be
Northern winds got the best of them
Sure made a mess of them

This ain't much but I had to make it clear
I'll spread my wings and I'll disappear
To miles away from where I used to be
Northern winds got the best of us
Sure made a mess of us
Northern winds got the best of us
Sure made a mess of us
Hope they're not the death of us.

I too desire to see this proud land "Rise Again." May we live to see the rise of proud Cape Bretoners once again.

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