“A violin sings. A fiddle dances,” quips renowned fiddler and composer Kinnon Beaton in response to the common question of what distinguishes a violin from a fiddle, as we sit in the basement of his home on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Moments later, accompanied by his equally accomplished wife Betty Lou on piano, he launches into a traditional Cape Breton medley of tunes, holding the fiddle in his signature left-handed style. Immediately, we understand exactly what he means.
We met Kinnon and Betty our first night on Cape Breton; later we came to appreciate what an appropriate welcome this was. Everywhere we travelled, people were as open, friendly, talented, and eager to share their traditions and their stories as Kinnon and Betty were with their music and their oat cakes.
This new Global Field Studies course immersed students in the varied cultural traditions of Cape Breton Island, from the Mi’kmaq to descendants of early Scottish and French settlers to more recent immigrant groups. Such a diverse history of settlement lends Cape Breton an astonishing diversity of vibrant cultural traditions for a region of its size. It is an endlessly rewarding place to explore how culture grows from the uniqueness of this place and its landscape.
Step, shuffle, step, shuffle, step shuffle. Standing in a circle, next to stacked chairs and tables moved aside for just this purpose, we are moving our feet with studied purpose to, if not replicate the foot movements of master step dancer Mac Morin, at least not stumble and fall. We are at the Celtic Music Interpretive Center in Judique, being introduced to the techniques and styles of Cape Breton step dancing. Few of us approach competence by the time the workshop is over, but we are sweating and understand a bit more about the rhythm of this place.
As we explore the island, we try to practice what we are learning: Gaelic words and phrases gleaned from following along with a CD in the van, one of Kinnon’s tunes fingered tentatively on fiddles and banjos in the campground, steps from Mac’s workshop tried out in a village dance hall while old men gently but firmly guide us where we were supposed to be. These are not our own traditions, but engaging with them enables us to inhabit them and consider them in ways that would be impossible with books and CDs alone.
“Are you uncomfortable yet?” asks Abbie, our tour guide at the Cape Breton Miners’ Museum in the town of Glace Bay, the former hub of coal mining in eastern Canada. “Now imagine standing like this for hours at a time while digging coal. Every day.” We are standing in the darkness of an inactive mine shaft. It is cold and damp, and—because the ceiling is about four and a half feet high—we continually shift position. His question is clearly rhetorical. Abbie is a retired miner, and, despite our discomfort, we hang on his every word. He is a master storyteller. As he speaks, we can almost hear the pneumatic drills, see the headlamps of his fellow miners, and smell a hint of trapped gas.
Listening to Abbie, history becomes immediate, and we glimpse the legacy of the past in our present. In Cape Breton, formerly keystone industries—fishing and mining in particular—have long since ceded to tourism as the island’s dominant economic base. With few jobs, many young people leave to find work elsewhere. But the traditions remain—and those who can pursue them professionally can often get by.
There are many more images that remain, etched in our minds: Eileen at the Inverness Centre for the Arts demonstrating weaving techniques; Ian at the Hideaway Campground talking about his oyster farm; crowding into Sarah’s Wildfire Pottery studio to hear how she makes ceramic puffins, while her husband Paul plays her composition “Wildfire” on his fiddle; singing in Scots Gaelic while participating in a demonstration milling frolic at the Gaelic College in St. Ann’s.
These moments enabled not only rich exchange; they also challenged us to consider broader questions about the relationship between tradition and change, how the island’s topography and ecology influence its culture, and what it means to study culture. Our traveling library enabled students to engage in research while we were on the road, pursuing topics ranging from how traditional skills are taught and passed down and what make Cape Breton and Scottish fiddling distinct, to the significance of the revival of Scots Gaelic and storytelling as vessel for cultural preservation.
Indeed, each of us carried home with us a newfound sense of place from Cape Breton.
Carol Dickson is the Dean of Academics and a faculty member in Environmental Humanities.