Paid partnership with Tourism Nova Scotia
Timeless Dance: to listen along to this story, or to pause the playback, click the play button:
“I always take my glasses off before smudging. Your eyes are believed to be the gateway to your spirit, so, if you are wearing glasses, you are creating a barrier,” says Steven Julian, a Mi’kmaw cultural interpreter at Eskasoni Cultural Journeys.
As he readies himself, he explains: “We start with our hands first, then head, followed by eyes, mouth and finally our heart.” In front of him is a small wooden bowl with a handful of white sage ready to be ignited. Its sacred smoke is to be fanned over him, purifying his mind, body, and spirit.
In Mi’kmaw culture, smudging serves as a powerful ritual, fostering a connection with the spiritual realm in a quest for guidance from the Creator. The smoke rising from burning sacred plants, often sage, is believed to carry prayers and positive intentions, acting as a force to dispel negative energies and cultivate a sense of balance and harmony.
I was visiting Goat Island – a mere dot on the gigantic Bras d’Or Lake in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, linked only to the main island by a small causeway. I had just finished a two-mile cultural walk around the island with Matt Patlis from Eskasoni Cultural Journeys who had been teaching me some of the history and traditions of the Mi’kmaq people.
Eskasoni is one of the largest Mi’kmaq communities in North America, and the ancestral heartbeat of these lands. They were the island’s original stewards and Eskasoni Cultural Journeys offers visitors a unique opportunity to engage with and learn from the Mi’kmaq about their cultural traditions.
Cultural journeys typically involve immersive experiences that showcase traditional Mi’kmaq practices, such as basket weaving, drumming, hunting, fishing and storytelling. For many visitors, this acts as the gateway into the profound spirituality and rich traditions of the Mi’kmaq.
Having finished my walk around the island with Matt and now under the guidance of Steven, I began my first sacred smudging ceremony, immersing myself in the ritual’s profound significance.
As the smoke curled around me, I tried to listen intently to whispers that might echo through the eons. It was clear to me that the palpable connection between the Mi’kmaq people and the land is a living testament, a timeless dance, that unfolds harmoniously between nature and people.
Cape Breton is a small island spanning 4000 square miles. It protrudes into the Atlantic Ocean off the northeastern coast of mainland Nova Scotia. With awe-inspiring landscapes, featuring lush forest-covered mountains, undulating hills, breathtaking coastlines, and the renowned Cabot Trail, this island showcases the imperious brilliance of Mother Nature.
Yet, beyond the natural wonders, this place serves as a repository for tales of resilience, where the very land breathes narratives and resonates with the harmonies of diverse cultures across the centuries.
As a Brit, I arrived with a limited understanding – or perhaps a touch of ignorance – regarding the extraordinary cultural heritage of this land and the kaleidoscope of local traditions awaiting my discovery.
Here, the soul-stirring melodies of Gaelic music, the rhythmic beats of Mi’kmaq drums, and the lively cadence of Acadian folk music intertwine throughout the generations.
My journey began 17 miles to the west, driving through the rolling hills and snaking roads of Iona, a quaint village on the shore of the Bras d’Or Lake. My destination was the Highland Village Museum—a living embodiment of the Scottish heritage shaping the region.
This open-air museum beautifully resurrects a 19th-century Highland Scottish township, offering an immersive glimpse into the daily lives of immigrants during the era of the Highland Clearances that forced many across the Atlantic.
Accurately reconstructed structures, such as thatched-roof cottages, a blacksmith’s forge, and a traditional Scottish barn, transport visitors to a bygone era.
While glorious uninterrupted sunshine cast a warm glow over the buildings set against the cool blue waters of Bras d’Or Lake, I ambled around and found myself captivated by Gaelic culture. It was as though the very air resonated with the haunting tune of bagpipes and the lilting cadence of the language.
In the cottages, cultural interpreters, unwavering in character, brought to life the stories of families who undertook treacherous Atlantic crossings to settle on Cape Breton.
“Why did you leave Scotland?” I asked, with the wide-eyed curiosity of a child on a school trip, one of the interpreters embodying the role of a maid in one of the modest wooden homes. “Well, there was nothing for us back home. The Highland Clearances forced us from our homes, and the British government offered land grants to settle North American colonies,” she replied.
The museum provides a window into the resilience and resourcefulness of Scottish settlers who sought new beginnings in Cape Breton. Through interactive exhibits, costumed interpreters, and captivating demonstrations of traditional crafts and activities, the enduring cultural legacy of these settlers is vividly showcased.
Further east along the wild, Atlantic-lashed coast of Cape Breton, I encountered the third essential element in this diverse cultural confluence: the Acadians.
Descendants of French settlers who arrived in the 17th century, the Acadians crafted a unique way of life shaped by their French roots and the challenges of adapting to the Atlantic landscape. Nowhere is this distinctive heritage better showcased than at the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site, another remarkable living museum.
I was there to delve into the French legacy that flourished within the fortress walls and explore the pivotal role the Acadians played in shaping Cape Breton’s history.
Originally established by the French in the early 18th century, the fortress served as a vital hub for trade and military operations, guarding the entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
The fortress thrived as a seaport and military garrison until 1758 when it fell to British forces during the Seven Years’ War. The subsequent dismantling of Louisbourg marked a turning point in the geopolitical landscape of North America.
In the latter half of the 20th century, a restoration effort by the Canadian government transformed the site into the immersive historical experience it is today. Wandering through the meticulously reconstructed streets, homes, and military structures, once again I was transported back in time to an 18th-century colonial outpost.
The site offers interpretive programs, costumed animators, and interactive displays, providing a vivid window into the complex narratives of colonial rivalry and daily life in this significant chapter of Canadian history.
Yet, amid this harmonious convergence of cultures, a sombre note lingers in historical pages. The British colonial influence casts a deplorable shadow over the once harmonious existence of Gaelic, Mi’kmaq, and Acadian peoples.
History tells of a time when the British sought to reshape the cultural fabric of Cape Breton, bringing with them a wave of changes that disrupted the organic coexistence that had defined the island for generations.
The sorrow can still be heard in tales of land dispossession, and cultural suppression, by the British that impacted Acadian and Gaelic communities. The Mi’kmaq, too, faced the encroachment of their ancestral lands, as British colonial policies took root.
As I left the Fortress of Louisbourg, the crashing waves of the Atlantic served as a poignant reminder of the complexities woven into Cape Breton’s cultural fabric. The historical narrative tells of upheavals, disruptions, and a struggle to preserve identity.
But beneath the weight of the past, there lies an unwavering spirit, an enduring heartbeat that refuses to be silenced.
Cape Breton’s story, while marked by moments of sorrow and transformation, is ultimately a celebration of resilience. The whispers of the smudging ceremony, the melodies of the Gaelic tunes, and the tales of Acadian strength lingered as I departed this island of stories.
Cape Breton not only allowed me to witness its past but to become part of it – one that embraces the struggles, triumphs, and the harmonious coexistence of cultures, echoing through time.
Need to know
There are direct daily flights to Halifax in Nova Scotia from London Heathrow with Air Canada.
Starting summer 2024, WestJet will launch seasonal non-stop flights from London and Dublin (four times a week). A new Edinburgh route, operating three times a week, begins on June 20th, 2024. Additionally, Icelandair returns to Halifax in May 2024, with complimentary stopovers in Iceland for up to seven days.
From Halifax to Cape Breton Island is approximately 364km (4-hour drive).
The Highland Village Museum is in Iona (approximately 50 minutes from entering Cape Breton Island).
Eskasoni Cultural Tours take place on Goat Island (approximately 102km from entering Cape Breton Island) and only 28km from the Highland Village Museum.
The Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site is in Louisbourg (approximately 175km from entering Cape Breton Island).
Best time to go:
Late spring to early fall, from May to October, is the ideal time to explore this picturesque Canadian province. During these months, the weather is generally mild, with temperatures ranging from comfortable to warm. Springtime brings blooming flowers and vibrant green landscapes, while the fall foliage transforms the region into a tapestry of reds, oranges, and yellows. Summer is particularly popular for outdoor activities, such as hiking, whale watching, and enjoying the stunning coastal scenery.
Winter, though colder, can be wonderful for those who appreciate snowy landscapes and winter sports. But note that some places including the High Village Museum will be closed in winter.
Where to stay:
From cosy bed and breakfasts, cabins and cottages to luxurious resorts, there is a whole array of accommodations on offer on Cape Breton Island.
Louisbourg: North Star is just a 10-minute drive from the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site. The hotel underwent a recent transformation under the stewardship of its new owners, acclaimed Scottish Canadian TV designers, and hosts Colin McAllister and Justin Ryan (known for their work on Channel Five UK, BBC, Cottage Life TV, HGTV Canada, and Cityline). The result is a beautiful collection of “oceanfront” and “sunset” rooms suites.
It’s essential to be prepared for the diverse weather conditions in Nova Scotia. Pack layers to accommodate fluctuating temperatures, including a waterproof and windproof jacket for potential coastal breezes. Comfortable walking shoes are a must, especially if you plan to explore the picturesque landscapes and charming coastal towns. Don’t forget essentials like sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat for sunnier days, and insect repellent for outdoor activities.
How to do it:
Hire a car and explore the magnificent Cape Breton Island at your own pace.
Click here to navigate to the Highland Village Museum location.
Click here to navigate to Eskasoni Cultural Journeys.
Click here to navigate to the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site.
Admission to the Highland Village Museum costs $15.00 for adults (65+ is $12.00) and $8.00 for 6-17-year-olds. Children (5 & under) are free.
You will need to pre-book tours with Eskasoni Cultural Journeys. Tours cost $40.00 per person for adults and $20.00 for under 10s. All tours take approximately 2 hours.
Captivating Cape Breton | Discover the East of Nova Scotia – 10-night fly-drive holiday with Frontier Canada
Fly with Air Canada from London Heathrow to Halifax, 2 x nights Westin Nova Scotian Halifax – room only, collect intermediate hire car with Avis, drive to Baddeck, 3 x nights Inverary Resort – room only, drive to Louisbourg, 2 x nights Louisbourg Harbour Inn – BB, drive to Charlos Cove, 2 x nights Seawind Landing Country Inn – American Breakfast, drive to Halifax airport, drop car, 1 x night Hilton Garden Inn Halifax Airport – room only, morning flight back to London Heathrow.
Price based on 20th May departure – £1,945 per person based on 2 people. Find out more.
This article was brought to you in partnership with Tourism Nova Scotia.
The gateway to Atlantic Canada and only a 6-hour flight from the UK, Nova Scotia is filled to the brim with stunning natural beauty, diverse cultures, rich heritage, and warm, friendly people.
The province is known for its world-class experiences, spectacular beaches, and a top-notch locally sourced culinary scene shaped by the sea.
For more information and suggested itineraries, go to novascotia.com.
JRNY is an independent travel magazine published in the UK. Subscribe to JRNY for more stories like this.