by Keith Skinner
Through the windows of the Doryman Pub, I watched the storm batter the coast, the same deluge that had raged since early morning and showed no sign of waning. Wind-driven breakers clawed at the ragged scarp of Chéticamp Island, an oblong stretch of offshore land that was both the town’s namesake and it’s only shield against the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
My wife, Chris, and I had come to Cape Breton for several reasons. There was the sheer beauty of the place: unspoiled beaches, dense forests, and crags that shot skyward only to plunge abruptly into the sea. But we’d also come for the island’s varied culture: the Scots with their legendary fiddlers, and the Acadians, their francophone neighbors.
Crossing the mainland en route to Cape Breton, we’d retraced Nova Scotia’s historic migrations and exiles. Pictou had been a port of entry for Scots who’d lost their land in the Highland Clearances. The colonies of Annapolis Royal and Grand-Pré had been settled by French farmers who had carved homesteads out of the wilderness and tamed the Bay of Fundy’s massive tides. But the land they called Acadie fell into British hands and the settlers were deported. Now, on Cape Breton, we were surrounded by the rugged landscape that had served as a haven for the spurned and the dispossessed.
Modern Chéticamp remained a small fishing village, the last bit of civilization before the huge Highlands National Park swallowed up the Cabot Trail. Chris and I had planned a hike in the park that day, but the storm changed those plans. We’d sheltered in place at the pub instead, and were waiting for the Saturday afternoon cèilidh to begin.
Seeing “cèilidh” on the pub’s sign had puzzled me. It was a Gaelic word that referred to a dance or concert. Seeing it coupled with the word “doryman” in the pub’s name—an obvious tribute to Chéticamp’s fishermen—seemed oddly out of place in such a French town.
Chéticamp was the island’s largest Acadian stronghold but had no movie theaters or malls, no video arcades or bowling alleys. The sole amusement on that rainy day was one that townsfolk had relied upon for centuries: music and dance. As the band took the stage and began to warm up, people continued streaming in through the pub’s doors, taking any remaining seats.
Chris noticed three older women searching for a place to sit and offered to share our table.
“You’re very kind,” said one dressed in a smart blue dress and bright chiffon scarf. She looked surprisingly unmolested by the storm. “It’s so crowded here today.”
She spoke with the distinctive Acadian patois, which was coarser and more guttural than most French accents. All three women were locals. As we chatted, a waitress snaked between tables, tray perched head high, exuding whiffs of fish and chips, seafood chowder, and poutine. Several large families were seated at tables in the back, one with at least three generations present. Clusters of four to six people occupied the center of the main room, and a smattering of couples sat at small tables along the wall.
The couple closest to us seemed an unlikely pair. The woman was uncomfortably large, to the point that just crossing the room might require great effort. She sat nearly motionless, lips pressed into a beatific smile, while her hands darted in tight circles, knitting and purling a skein of green yarn. The man, whom I mentally christened Jack Sprat, was trim and muscular, middle-aged but with the cut of a manual laborer. He might have been a farmer or an iron worker, something vigorous and physical. His eyes were fixed on the musicians and a broad smile played across his face as he rocked anxiously in his chair, waiting for the music to begin.
The band was a duo—fiddle and piano—a frequent pairing on the island. With little fanfare, they started in with a fast-paced reel. Within seconds, toes were tapping, knees were pumping, and fingers were drumming time on table tops to match the staccato thump of the fiddler’s heel striking the floor. Then the bow of his fiddle paused, hovered over the strings teasingly, and shifted into a strathspey, a bouncy Scottish style named for a Highland valley. The bow darted over the strings, faster and faster, surging into a feverish jig. Jack Sprat, who’d grown more animated with each shift in tempo, sprang from his chair and began a solo step dance on the parquet floor in front of the stage.
We’d seen step dancers on stage with Gaelic bands before but not from the audience. No one around us seemed surprised, however, and the fiddler nodded in approval as Jack’s feet stomped, kicked, hopped, crossed, and stomped again, legs churning beneath an inert upper body. I noticed for the first time that he was wearing the clogging shoes with metal taps that we’d seen on other dancers.
I glanced over at Ms. Sprat to gauge her reaction, but she was focused on her knitting. Never did her hands pause as her needles looped, poked, and looped again, the mysterious little smile undisturbed by the commotion around her.
Almost as suddenly as he appeared, Jack Sprat delivered a definitive stomp, then returned to his seat. The fiddler slowed his pace, drew his bow in a deep, resonant moan across the stings, and closed with a quick slap to the bridge of his fiddle.
Our tablemates erupted in a muted flurry of French, heads close together, hands shielding their mouths, as they peered over at Jack Sprat. One of them tittered, then murmured to us in English.
“He used to live here…the man who was dancing. He moved away long ago but comes back every so often. Just to dance.” Then, as an afterthought, she added, “He’s very good, isn’t he?”
The fiddler shouldered his instrument again, this time conjuring a slow, mournful air, a solo piece that lulled the crowd. The Acadian women continued chattering in their quiet, indecipherable French. It was an archaic dialect, I’d learned, one rarely spoken in modern France but preserved here on Cape Breton like an insect trapped in amber.
Gaelic music on the island, at least older styles like the Strathspey, had also been frozen in time. It was the music of eighteenth century Scotland that had traveled to the island with the Highlanders, and had been passed from one generation of musician to another ever since.
The fiddler on stage switched abruptly to a fast waltz, rousing everyone from their momentary reverie. Jack Sprat popped up again and circled through the crowd, this time searching for dance partners. When he’d coaxed two women and another man to the floor, they faced off to begin a country dance. Step. Join hands. Step. Change. Repeat.
The band quickened their pace and Jack again trawled the crowd for dancers. Most of them knew the dances but some looked lost. Jack positioned them, coached them patiently through each step, and cheered them on. Soon, the dance floor was jammed with people promenading, spinning, and dos-à-dos-ing. Whenever there was a misstep, a bunching up or breaking of the circle, Jack quickly sorted things out.
I had, by this time, forgotten the storm. That sense of intrusion one can feel in a strange place had dissipated. Our new Acadian friends were like neighbors now, strangers no longer. And yet, I felt a twinge of disappointment. I was enjoying the music, but I’d expected something different in Chéticamp, something more…Acadian, whatever that might be. Perhaps it was sadness more than disappointment, sadness that the Acadian traditions had somehow been lost among those of the Scots.
Entering town the previous day, we’d seen Acadian flags flying at the top of every flagpole, the defiant gold star of Acadie anchoring the French Tricolor. The Acadian Star: Stella Maris, Star of the Sea, the North Star—whatever else it symbolized, it projected a sense of unity among Acadians. Stars of wood or metal adorned every building in town, like silent anthems proclaiming their allegiance. How could such proud people let their traditions slip away?
The question nagged me for the remainder of the trip.
After we returned home, I found the answer while digging through some obscure texts on Scottish dance.
The reel, the dance of the Scottish Highlands, had descended from a fifteenth century dance called Haye d’Alemaigne, a German dance brought to Scotland by the French. Sixteenth century Scottish nobles, eager to prove their European sophistication, hired French “dance masters” to teach popular court dances to the upper classes. Those teachers traveled throughout the Highlands, employing the most versatile and portable instrument of the day: the violin. Scots not only learned European music and dance from these instructors, but the French language as well. The dances, called “heys” on the British Isles, evolved into the reels that became popular among the masses in eastern and southern Scotland.
I pictured that rainy day in Chéticamp: the fiddler playing what I thought was Scottish music, and the Acadian Jack Sprat, directing what looked like a Scottish dance. What we had witnessed in the Doryman Pub that day, much like the Acadian patois we’d heard, was an antiquity preserved in Cape Breton’s amber. The clothes and surroundings were modern, but the music and dance were that of sixteenth century Scotland. Like an Acadian Brigadoon emerging from a stormy mist, Jack Sprat had been the French dance master, and the humble pub, a Scottish laird’s castle. And for a few enchanted hours that afternoon, the French and Scots danced the Haye d’Alemaigne together once again.
Keith Skinner is a writer and photographer from Berkeley, CA focusing on history and culture. His nonfiction has appeared in Travelers’ Tales anthologies, The San Francisco Chronicle, Panorama, and others. His travel stories have been awarded Solas Awards for the past four years. He is currently at work on a historical novel set in 19th century California.