Monday, February 23, 2009

Nova Scotia, Canada 15.8.1983: Gaelic Laments, Fog-Shrouded Mountains

The last weeks of teaching were such a drudgery that I found nothing about which to write—just living for the end of the course.

My students very kind, though. Mrs. M. and her family took me to a lovely lobster supper—lobster, chowder, salad bar, cod in cheese sauce, cakes, and pie. On the last day of class, the class presented me with a painting by Glenda M., a member of the class. The painting is of a house in Emyvale (near Kelly’s Cross), with lupines in front. The lupines were my favorite flower here, so the painting touches me very much. A member of the class made a little speech of thanks on behalf of the class.

Then on Saturday, off. (Today’s Monday.) To my eye, Nova Scotia is far more beautiful than PEI. Has a wildness which attracts more than the tamed domesticity of PEI.

We drove the first day to not far from Antigonish and camped there. Then, on Sunday, through Antigonish, over the Canso Causeway into Cape Breton, and to Chéticamp, where we camped just inside the boundary of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

And in Antigonish, we paid our respects to the birthplace of the Antigonish Movement, the campus of St. F.X. (which Canadians tend to say in a way that sounds like the French évêque, so that, for a long time, I thought the name was St. Bishop).

FX is pretty—struck both Steve and me as Southern in appearance: red brick buildings and white trim, arranged in several squares. Oddly, we saw an Arkansas car parked on the campus and talked to the elderly man in it, a Mr. Foster from Texarkana.

Cape Breton itself is beautiful, forlorn, poor, tragic. The road hugged the coast, and so gave us several spectacular views from the cliff tops. The day was bright, so the water very blue.

The poverty brings to mind the worst pockets of poverty in the mountain South. This seemed particularly true of the road going up the east side of Cape Breton.

We took a back road to a little settlement called Glencoe, and found a cluster of poor little houses (some old trailers) around a little river.

Then on to the Acadian fishing villages, Grand Étang, Petit Étang, Chéticamp. We spent an hour at a Scottish-Acadian festival at the village of St. Joseph du Moine. There was fiddling, step-dancing, some singing. The singing was particularly nice—a Mr. MacDonald sang a Gaelic and English ballad, then a song of lament by an elderly Mr. MacDonald—a cry against the Canso Causeway “of mainland stone and mainland clay, built only to take us away.”

After the concert, we drove down to a beach near Chéticamp and watched the sun set.

Today, because the weather is cool and mizzling, decided not to camp, so we drove from Chéticamp around to Breton Cove. The tip of the park is very mountainous, with deep, narrow valleys. It was impressive and humbling to loop up at the fog-shrouded mountaintops.

Breton Cove seem to be solidly Highland Scots. The Mrs. McLeod, at whose house we’re staying, and a Mr. McGinnis we met on the shore, both speak heavily accented English. Mr. McGinnis is a lobster fisherman, a portly old fellow, very red of face, with prominent red veining and very blue eyes, somewhat faded. He told us that most everyone here once farmed, but no one does now, nor even gardens. Said he went to a school of 62, one of 4 small schools now consolidated to form one school, with only 40 pupils.

The Gaelic accent is very interesting. If I didn’t know that it’s Gaelic, I would put it down as German (emphatic ch-sounding j’s), or Scandinavian (sing-songy, with intakes of breath). The s’s are sharp and strong—where one expects a z sound for s, the s is pronounced strongly.

I wonder if the Irish and Highland Hebridean Scots make a point of never looking one directly in the eyes, or at least only for a moment? I found this among the PEI Irish, and now amongst the Gaelic-speaking Scots of Cape Breton. Could this go back to Celtic superstitions about evil eye, etc.? It’s quite unnerving.

No comments: