(Nova Scotia flag)

Cape Breton Island,
Nova Scotia

Where the sea and fiddle rule

(satellite view of Cape Breton, click for larger image)
(Cape Breton Island from 169 miles in space, courtesy of NASA)

Updated: September 29, 2000

Fiddle (gif)The Music:

Thank you to all the wonderful Cape Bretoners who made my 3 (soon to be 4) visits to the Celtic Colours Festival so fabulous!


Cape Breton Island is a large island that forms the eastern part of the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. The people of the island today are descendants of mainly Scottish immigrants that came over in the late 1700s and early 1800s from the Highlands and Western Islands, the Gaelic and Catholic parts of Scotland. Here they joined early French settlers, now known as Acadians, and the original inhabitants of the area, the MiqMacs.

Although the settlers endured harsh times after immigration, the isolation of the island kept their cultures remarkably intact in the intervening centuries. Until this century (Scottish) Gaelic continued to be spoken in large areas of the island. In particular, the traditional dance music from Scotland was preserved here more than it was in Scotland. This link to their Scottish (or French) past is a central reality to most Cape Bretoners.

(Cabot Trail)
(Cabot Trail)

Remarkably, the Cape Breton musicians have not only kept the traditional music alive and remarkably intact, but have also kept it exciting and relevant to an age jaded with television and techno music. They have not only respectfully tended to the old tunes and songs, but continued the oral tradition by writing new tunes and incorporating new instruments into the music. Due to a concerted local effort Cape Breton music is thriving in Cape Breton. Due to the incredible talent on the island, this music is gaining the deserved appreciation, and even awe, of traditional music fans around the world. Good introductions to this music are: Cape Breton Music On-Line, the Cape Breton Musical Showcase, and (immodestly) my own Cape Breton Music pages .

Where is Cape Breton?

   Cape Breton Island is located off the eastern end of the peninsula of mainland Nova Scotia in eastern Canada. The island is about 100 miles north-south and 70 miles wide east-west. The geography of the island is complicated dramatically by the Bras D'Or Lakes, a 1,100 km², an inland extension of the North Atlantic that fills much of the center of the island creating a wealth of small peninsulas and bays separated from either other by large bodies of water. The southern part of the island is relatively flat, This has no doubt added to the isolation of many communities until quite recently. Most of the population lives on the eastern seaboard, the site of many, recently closed under-sea coal mines and steel mills. Music is strong all over the island, but particularly in Inverness County along the western end of the island.

Cape Breton (Nova Scotia) v. Breton (France)

   Those new to this music often confuse Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, with the adjective "Breton" used to describe the very different traditional celtic music from Brittany (Bretagne) in northwest France. Music from this region of France has enjoyed a major revival in recent years and Breton tunes are increasingly working their way into the repertoire of Irish and some Scottish traditional musicians, but only rarely into the Scottish music of Cape Breton. There is more information about Breton music elsewhere on this website.

The Music

Virtually everyone in Cape Breton has great knowledge and strong opinions about the local music, seems to play 2 or 3 instrument, can step dance for hours, and seems to have no need for sleep is the music is hot. Nothing like having a detailed discussion with the mechanic filling your car with gas on the relative merits of Ashley MacIsaac's different albums compared to those of 5 other local fiddlers to make you realize that Cape Bretoners are remarkably knowledgeable and justifiably proud about their musical heritage.

On the West Coast of the U.S., Cape Breton music is just being discovered, often traveling on the coat tails of the more established Irish music festivals and performers. Ashley MacIsaac and Mary Jane Lamond have been appearing at the bigger Irish festivals, appealing here to a Celtic Rock audience. The incomparable Natalie MacMaster is the best ambassador for Cape Breton music that can be imagined. Natalie's extraordinary live performances convert entire audiences to fans of Cape Breton music with an enthusiasm that would make Billy Graham envious. The amazing Rankin Family has been impressing a growing audience outside Canada. Those who listen to CDs have heard the wonderful fiddle playing of Jerry Holland. (Many other Cape Breton musicians such as fiddle great Buddy MacMaster, have played at numerous festivals, but this appear to be mainly East Coast festivals. Singer Rita MacNeil has huge followings in Canada and England, although she is less well known in the States.

The musicians mentioned above are just the tip of the iceberg. My experience was that there is just wave after wave of talented musicians, including an exciting number of very young musicians. I hope the increasing recognition and financial success of the bigger acts will help support this wonderful tradition. For more information about individual musicians and their albums, go to my Cape Breton Music pages.

The Scenery

Cape Breton has some of the most beautiful scenery on the East Coast. For many, the highlight are the rocky coastline and vistas of Cape Breton Highlands National Park as seen driving the Cabot Trail. However, the rolling hills around Glendale ablaze in autumn colors, or the lovely Margaree Valley. For Alexander Graham Bell, Bras D'Or Lake near Baddeck was the prettiest spot on earth. There are lots of places to chose from. For an absolutely gorgeous introduction to this scenery (and music) I very highly recommend the video, Cape Breton Island, the Video.

(Cape Breton shoreline)
(near Ingonish on the NE coast near the Keltic Lodge)


There are many festivals all summer long in Cape Breton, many of which feature the music. Lists of the festivals can be found at various places on the WWW. I had the good fortune to be at the first Annual Celtic Colours Festival, October 9-18, 1997, and I have a hard time imaging music getting any better. If we are lucky, this will be an annual festival. The downside of this time of year is that swimming is not much of an option, seabirds will be much harder to find, most of the whale-watching operations will be closed for the season. On the other hand, the fall colors of the trees were fabulous, there are fewer tourists, you may benefit from off-season rates or end-of-season sales, and the people have time to talk to you. I thought it was a great time of year to go.

Traveling to Cape Breton

Traveling to Cape Breton is relatively easy. Most tourists drive there from the East Coast, but for us west coasters, the easiest way is to fly to Sydney, NS, or Halifax. Cape Breton Island is about a 4 hour drive from Halifax. The road is very nice, and in the fall very pretty.

On my trip I stayed primarily in B&Bs which was great way to go. In the summer, camping is definitely an option. I think having a car is a necessity since public transit probably won't be adequate to see the places you want to go. In summer, many people bicycle, but be warned the island is quite windy and the Cabot Trail has very steep hills that would be "challenging" on a bike. There is a large amount of information about B&Bs and other travel information on the WWW.

(Maple leaves in Fall)
(Maple leaves in autumn)


(Pilot whales) For wildlife enthusiasts like myself, Cape Breton has its attractions. Whale-watching is a major activity. I went out of Chéticamp on the west coast and shared in the 97% success rate of these trips. We spent several hours just a few meters away from two pods of long-finned pilot whales. Other whales seen off Cape Breton are primarily humpback, fin and minke whales. In the Bay of Fundy on the west side of Nova Scotia, the endangered North Atlantic right whale is often seen.
Two pilot whales from a pod off Cheticamp.
Photo: Jim Scarff
(pilot whale)
You don't need a telephoto lens to get great photos of the cooperative pilot whales.

(Bald eagle)

Cape Breton has the largest population of bald eagles in the East Coast. They are relatively easy to see. The island also has Atlantic puffins (in summer), gannets, razorbills and dozens of warbler species.
(Photo: Jim Scarff)

Other Cape Breton Resources

Back to Celtic Music Page or Scarff's Home Page