“What I long for is the heather covered hills of Scotland and the salt air of Baddeck” – Alexander Graham Bell
Our drive from Halifax to our next destination, Cape Breton Island, was one of the prettiest drives we’ve experienced so far. The fact that it was a glorious day was a part of it, but the scenery was also gorgeous.
The 3,981 square mile island looked very promising with that oh so perfect combination of mountains and ocean. Cape Breton Island is connected to mainland Nova Scotia by the rock-fill Canso Causeway. Prior to the Causeway, which was built in 1954, the only access to the island was via ferry.
The first thing that struck me was that the welcome message in the main tourist brochure was written in four languages; Scottish Gaelic, French (Acadian), English and Mi’kmaq. Cape Breton Island has many influences, not the least of which is Scottish.
Many Scots emigrated to Nova Scotia and many to Cape Breton Island to provide better opportunities for their families. Some were seeking religious and political asylum, and yet others were fleeing from a famine.
After 1820, Scottish farmers came here after being forced off their rented lands, when their English landlords evicted them to consolidate their properties into profitable sheep farms. Then in the 1840’s Scottish coal miners came to newly established mining towns here. Their influence is very visible, more on this later.
Our campground was just on the outskirts of the village of Baddeck, located on the shores of the Bras D’Or Lakes. The Bras D’Or “Lakes” are open to the ocean and are actually an inland sea in the center of Cape Breton Island that has many beautiful anchorages and hundreds of coves and islands.
The village of Baddeck is also considered to be the beginning and end of the world famous Cabot Trail. This is not a hiking trail but a scenic 300-kilometer loop highway that goes through parts of the beautiful Cape Breton Highlands National Park, along the sea, through the highlands and the forest.
While exploring Baddeck we found a picturesque little marina, a few art galleries, restaurants and other shops. It was while at the marina that we spotted our first bald eagle flying overhead. Apparently, the Bras D’Or, with its brackish water, creates a rich eco-system for wildlife, especially eagles.
So we set out to find more eagles. We’d heard there was an eagle’s nest on Kidston, an island across the way from Baddeck. And we kayaked in the Bras D’Or over to and around the island. Although we didn’t find the eagle, we walked around Kidston Island and over to the Kidston Island Lighthouse. The Lighthouse was established in 1875 and the current structure was built in 1912. An added bonus to being on the island is that there’s a lovely view of Baddeck from there.
Baddeck also happens to have one of the best seafood markets we’ve found so far, the Kissing Cod, which was closed on the first day we went there. A note on the door said “We’re closed until July 31st gone to our son’s wedding”.
And we absolutely HAD to visit the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site. After all, this is the man responsible for Hector’s career. So what’s the Alexander Graham Bell connection? Mr. Bell was born in Scotland, his parents moved with him to Ontario, Canada when he was 22, then to the United States when he was 23, where he became a citizen.
The Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site is a museum that focuses on his life and many achievements, I frankly was unaware of all of his many achievements. And I also was unaware of his work with the deaf, which he was dedicated to his entire life and which contributed directly to his invention of the telephone.
His mother lost her hearing when he was young, and his father, who was an elocutionist, had invented Visible Speech, codes that show how the lips, tongue and throat are positioned to make speech sounds. Alexander began his career teaching deaf students, and had much success using Visible Speech to teach them to speak.
He fell in love with one of his students, the daughter of a wealthy family, Mabel Gardiner Hubbard who’d lost her hearing at the age of five after contracting scarlet fever. They married when she was 19. Their story is truly romantic,
Mabel was his partner in all things. They built a beautiful estate called Beinn Breagh on the shores of Bras D’or across from Baddeck. They are both buried on the estate overlooking the Bras D’or and Baddeck.
But the real surprise of the museum was the many things that followed his invention of the telephone, which financially freed Bell to pursue his other interests. The summer estate in Baddeck included research laboratories, where he experimented with aerodynamics and the designing of flying machines,
Mabel, who learned to read lips and speak in multiple languages helped to finance the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA) that Bell and four others (including a young Glenn Curtiss who would have a distinguished career of his own) founded. The AEA endeavored to “to construct a practical flying aerodrome or flying machine driven through the air by its own power and carrying a man”.
The AEA Silver Dart was the first powered flight in the British Empire having taken off from the Bras d’Or Lake in 1907. Baddeck is the birthplace of Canadian aviation. and Alexander Graham Bell had a huge role. Amazing.
Using his learnings from developing wings and propellers for flying machines he became a pioneer in the development of hydrofoils. The Bras D’or Lakes were the site of testing various design concepts in several generations of hydrofoils. The first military hydrofoil in the Canadian Navy in the 1970s was named the HMS Bras D’or.
And if that wasn’t enough, he also developed a predecessor to the iron lung, conducted experiments with X rays, and developed a way to send voice using light.
Now back to other Scottish influences. Throughout Cape Breton and other areas of the maritimes, there are a number of public gatherings called ceilidhs (pronounced kaylees). These continue a longstanding tradition of social gatherings.
In the old days, ceilidhs (Gaellic for visit) took place in people’s kitchens, and included music, storytelling, poems and proverbs. The modern ceilidhs are focused on Gaelic folk music and dance and many are open to the public. These gatherings are also a means to share information about the culture and traditions of the people.
We attended the Baddeck Gathering Ceilidh at St. Michael’s Parish Hall one evening. This one was set up as more of a concert style event with chairs facing the stage. There was a fiddler and a piano player, and both were very skilled. They played traditional songs and we learned (sort of) the difference between a jig and a reel. There’s also a portion of the event where the host asks four couples to volunteer to learn some traditional dances (Hector refused to volunteer :().
While at the ceilidh we met two lovely and funny ladies who were in Baddeck as part of a bus tour. Lois and Bev are from the Ontario area and love to travel. Lois has been to the Gaspay peninsula, which we are planning to visit soon and gave us quite a few tips on the area.
Once again, we meet more wonderful people in Canada.