Celebrating Cape Breton’s Ceilidh Trail with music and dance

Historically Cape Breton, Nova Scotia has been known for a number of different things. Some of these industries – namely coal and fishing – are dying, taking away much needed money from the community and the population reflects this change as many youth who can are fleeing the region. But there is another industry that survives and thrives to some extent in the area: music.

Born out of a mix of Celtic, Scottish and Acadian influences, the Cape Breton musical style is slightly difficult to pin down as anything but its own. But the traditions surrounding the music are easy to find just about anywhere on the island as the locals and tourists alike celebrate their cultural heritage. Generally it starts with a fiddle and a piano. Add in some drums or a guitar if you wish. And then kick back, relax and enjoy the show. Or, if you’re feeling particularly bold, join in the celebration. That’s what we did!

Taking in the show at The Red Shoe in Mabou, Nova Scotia.
Driving the Ceildh Trail on Cape Breton

The performances, locally known as Ceilidhs (kay’-leeds), range from a couple friends gathering in song and dance to larger performances put on in pubs or halls around the island. The western side of the island south of the much more famous Cape Breton trail is known as the Ceilidh Trail, with every town along the way hosting music at least one night a week and some towns much more often (especially when the tourists show up).

Each of our four nights in the region included some sort of music. On our first night in Mabou we ended up at The Red Shoe along with what appeared to be pretty much everyone else in town. The crowd was split about 50/50 between locals and tourists, most of whom were also staying at the same hotel we were. We were all there for the same reason and soon enough everyone, local or visitor, was clapping or dancing along like old friends.

At one point during the set I moved to a different seat to get a better angle for some photos. No sooner than I was seated did I find myself engaged in conversation with Frank, one of the local residents. Over the course of our brief conversation we discussed a number of topics but the most important was the weekly town square dance that was happening the following night. After the great music at this show and the warm hospitality shown to us it was pretty much a certainty that we’d be there.

The square dance was much, much,much different than the last one I attended. For one thing, I was there voluntarily rather than because it was the evening entertainment at summer camp. For another thing, it was not a called dance. It seemed that everyone else more or less knew what they were doing and we most definitely did not. Of course, that didn’t really stop us and after watching for about 20 minutes (and getting over the fact that we were dead in the middle of a roughly 40 year age gap amongst the other attendees) Linnea and I rose to the challenge and joined the fray.

I’d like to think that I showed a bit of rhythm and some ability to pick up the dance steps. During our second go of it one of the women I ended up paired with even complimented me on picking it up so quickly. I’m pretty sure she was just being polite. Still, we managed to make it out of there without causing an international incident or embarrassing ourselves too much. And we had a lot of fun, too.

Each "set" is actually three dances in one. The first is relatively simple except that instead of dancing with your partner you get to meet someone new. I love this aspect of the dance except that it meant the very first thing I did was start a dance with absolutely no knowledge of what I was doing and with a partner who clearly did. Fortunately she was friendly and I was picking it up in no time. The second dance adds a few more moves to the routine and the third dance adds even more, building up to a bit of a frenzy at the finale.

Best of all, we saw Frank again, as he promised. We got to thank him for being such a welcoming host and making sure that we saw a part of the island life that perseveres, even in the face of a shrinking economy and population base.

Read more of our Maritimes adventures here!

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.