Nova Scotia: A beautiful isolation
This remote part of Canada has a distinctly Celtic history, writes Nigel Richardson
When Iain MacDonald, a Nova Scotian lobster fisherman, fell for Sabra MacGillivray, the woman who became his wife, there were some raised eyebrows around the village of Lanark. "When I started coming knocking on the door, her mother got worried," said Iain, laughing at the idea, "because she was a MacDonald too."
In fact, such coincidences are as common as the southeasterlies that blow through this corner of Nova Scotia, threatening to whisk away the clapboard houses like the cyclone in The Wizard of Oz. Nova Scotia's Latinised name encapsulates both the natural and human history of a windswept land that, with New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, forms the Maritime provinces of Canada's Atlantic seaboard.
I met Iain and Sabra MacDonald in the restaurant of the Glenora Inn and Distillery on Cape Breton, the northern extremity of Nova Scotia that lifts a granite snout towards Newfoundland across the Cabot Strait.
Next door in the bar a fiddle player was playing a Highland jig. Outside, a bonny burn ran through the distillery's grounds and the undulating horizon lines were serrated by the tops of a million spruce and fir. So utterly authentic was the Scottishness that I found myself muttering a line from that quintessential Scottish film Local Hero: "Strange times, Archie, strange times."
Iain's family, he told me, came here from the Knoydart peninsula, or possibly South Uist in 1806. When they landed they probably rubbed their eyes and wondered if they had sailed in a circle. Sabra's ancestors were already here, having come over from the Isle of Eigg on the first settler ship from Scotland, Hector, in 1773.
Those immigrants came because they had to – many were displaced by the Highland Clearances – and this experience of exile informs who and what their descendants are.
I arrived there braced for an American-style, post 9/11 grilling at immigration, and the immigration officer was the epitome of old-world courtesy.
At a whisky distillery, I met a lobster fisherman whose wife, it turned out, was a champion of Highland dancing. And outside it looked like the Trossachs. Strange times indeed.
But like all rewarding destinations, Nova Scotia is not one-dimensional. Hastily swapping costumes in the course of a sunny autumn week, it could look like a perfect and timeless New England, of white clapboard houses, barns painted the red of fresh blood and stumpy little lighthouses. And its history has undercurrents as treacherous as its seas.
The First Nation Mi'kmaq people have lived in this corner of north-eastern North America since the last Ice Age. They suffered the usual persecution at the hands of white incomers, and the 13,000 who now live in the province have yet to fold their culture into the tourism mainstream, which is a definite lacuna for the curious visitor. Predating the Scots were the French, and their history is as rich and intriguing as the accented English their descendants speak.
Settlers from France arrived in the early 1600s and called the land they claimed Arcadia. Over time the word was corrupted to Acadia and the settlers became known as Acadians.
Then the English redcoats bowled up, insisted the Acadians swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown, and when they refused, deported some 10,000 of them and burned their houses. This ethnic cleansing took place at about the same time as the Highland Clearances. What followed was a grotesque merry-go-round of deportation, exile and immigration.
Many Acadians ended up in Louisiana, where their name was further shortened and roughed up until it emerged as "Cajun".
From Grand-Pré in the Annapolis Valley I drove in a loop around the western bulge of the province. Every night was spent at a different "historic inn" or B&B, each with an interior that was a pastiche of an Edwardian English parlour. It was the kind of wholesomeness that made me think of axe murderers – Stephen King, too, apparently, as Nova Scotia has impersonated Maine in films of several of his books.
The food and drink were far from a horror show – Nova Scotia produces drinkable wines and hoteliers just have to trail their hands in the Atlantic to bring up wonderful lobster, scallops, mussels and halibut, which they serve both largely unadorned and reimagined in chowders, bisques and pasta recipes.
Even to a native of Halifax, the province's friendly capital – where the traffic stops dead to let jaywalkers cross the road – the boondocks of Nova Scotia can seem sleepy. In Lunenburg, a sloping grid of brightly painted houses and white churches, there was scarcely a soul on the street. Outside the back of the Dockside Restaurant a chef on his cigarette break told me he had moved there from Halifax seeking a quiet and safe place to bring up his daughter.
"Yep, it's just a drinkin' town with a fishin' problem," he said, rehearsing a phrase that fishing ports the world over have adopted. "But I can stick my hand up here and feel like the mayor every day of the week. Wouldn't be anywhere else."
From Lunenburg, I put my foot down to drive the 300 miles north-east to Cape Breton and its hillsides of spruce and fir. The day after my dinner with Iain and Sabra, I drove up into the Cape Breton Highlands National Park and walked the scenic Skyline Trail.
On the way, I fell into step, and conversation, with a fellow hiker, a Nova Scotian who had reservations about the compliments I paid to his home province's old fashionedness.
"If anything, Nova Scotia's problem is that it cherishes the past too much," he replied. "It doesn't look forward enough."
But maybe, in our increasingly paranoid, burst-bubble of a modern world, Nova Scotia's fumblin' old way is the way forward.