As its name suggests, Nova Scotia is like a transplanted Scotland. The Canadian region clings tightly to its heritage, as ROBIN MCKELVIE finds out.
It was all getting just a touch too surreal. I had just seen a group of men by the roadside in kilts and we were on the road travelling from Inverness to Aberdeen on the way to taking a dram at a single malt distillery. None of this in itself, you may say, is unusual for a Scotsman, but this was not Scotland. This was Nova Scotia, the region of Canada famed for its Celtic links that manages somehow to be even more Scottish than Scotland.
It is the name that really gives it away – New Scotland. The British colonialists, in an unusual show of consideration, decided the people they had effectively exiled from the Scottish Highlands in the 19th century (you can check out a replica of the ship that first brought the Scots here) should be banished somewhere that looked a bit like home. And look like home it does, with sweeping sandy beaches, lush countryside and rugged hills.
The Scottish settlers in Nova Scotia on arrival were keen not only to survive, but also to prove the theory that Scots are most Scottish when separated from the Mother Country, and today the strong Celtic influences live on. Many place names are directly taken from Scottish towns and cities, and a lot of family surnames date back to the old Highland clans who battled the English before the disastrous battle of Culloden in 1746 ended their long struggle.
In Nova Scotia’s capital city, Halifax, the Scottish legacy is strong with theme bars, kilted soldiers and, somewhat bizarrely, factory outlets where you can stock up on kilts, sporrans (a pouch worn at the front of the kilt) and the like. Overlooking it all is the Citadel, a sturdy fortress built by the British to keep out the Americans, which it has resolutely failed to do judging by the make-up of the tourist groups that explore its history today. The daily tours are led by local students dressed up in the uniforms of the 78th Highlanders, the bekilted Nova Scotian regiment that used to garrison the Citadel.
Heading north from the compact city of Halifax, the urban buildings soon give way to ice blue lakes and sweeping forests, which look their best in autumn when the explosion of golden reds, bright oranges and yellow hues gives the American eastern seaboard colours a run for their money. The roads are long and often deserted, taking what few tourists there are away from all signs of the 21st century and into a world where wild elk and bears still roam free.
The Bras D’Or Lake is an expanse of inland saltwater that has become something of a draw for both sailors and the rich and famous. Just off the small town of Inverary is a small island. It was on this idyllic spot that Scottish inventor Alexander Graham Bell chose to settle when his family emigrated. The man who invented the telephone lived in splendid isolation that mirrored the scenery of his homeland in a huge house with sprawling grounds.
Bell’s attempts to invent planes and hydrofoils proved increasingly more outlandish, as did his behaviour – his granddaughters in Inverary’s excellent Bell Museum are recorded on tape recounting the times during violent storms when the inventor would float around in the icy lake in a life ring, puffing on his cigar and dreaming up wacky new ideas.
Also overlooking the lake is the Highland Village. This is dedicated to the first settlers and is an attempt both to delve into their lives, but also keep the Gaelic language and culture alive today. For a Scot it is a surreal sight seeing one of the traditional old ‘black houses’ that you find in the Scottish Highlands recreated out here across the Atlantic, with log cabins also on display to show how the new arrivals quickly adapted to what local materials they could find.
Delving yet further north is the wilderness of Cape Breton, much of which is a protected National Park. Here, tree-clad glens tumble from the lofty mountain ranges as crystal clear streams and their leaping wild salmon push up from the ocean. This is the most scenic corner of Nova Scotia and the locals beam with pride when visitors tell them that it reminds them of the scenic extravaganza of the Highlands.
Every autumn the association between the old and new Scotland is cemented at the Celtic Colours festival. This orgy of Celtic music, dance and culture takes over Cape Breton with a series of raucous concerts and impromptu live events and, of course, plenty of after-show drunken debauchery. This year the festival runs from October 6-14, with a string of concerts in the likes of Inverness and Dingwall, with big-name Scottish performers joining the locals in an event where the party goes on into the craic-fuelled wee small hours of the morning.
On my last night in Halifax, things took the ultimate surreal twist. With fiddles, bagpipes and all things tartan filling my head, I stumbled across McKelvie’s. This is the only bar, restaurant or shop anywhere in the world I have ever seen that sports my surname. Revealing my name, I was introduced to the manager. His name? You guessed it – Rob McKelvie. Heading for the airport after savouring the Caledonian joys of Nova Scotia, I was almost relieved – this slice of Scottishness in a far-flung land was getting just too surreal.
Top five Nova Scotia Scottish surrealism
• Downing a single malt in the only single malt distillery anywhere in the Americas.
• Driving around the ‘Scottish’ Highlands between Inverness, Aberdeen and Dingwall.
• Partying the night away in traditional ceilidh style to Scottish bands at Celtic Colours.
• Floating around the Bras D’Or Lake puffing a cigar like Alexander Graham Bell (at your own risk).
• Touring a traditional Scottish black house on the wrong side of the Atlantic.
For more information on Nova Scotia, see www.exploreNS.com. For more on Celtic Colours, see www.celtic-colours.com.