CAPE BRETON DIARY — PART I
Forgetting & Remembering: Encounters with Three Traditions on the Edge of Oblivion

July-August 2018By Richard Upsher Smith Jr.

Richard Upsher Smith Jr. is retired from teaching classics and honors at Franciscan University of Steubenville. After serving for 19 years in the Anglican ministry, he converted to Catholicism in 2001. He recently published “A Latin Hymn for the Jesuit Martyrs of North America” in Shared Treasure: Journal of the Anglicanorum Coetibus Society (vol. IV, no. 7; Lent 2018).

The Island of Cape Breton forms the northeastern extension of Nova Scotia, Canada. Cape Breton is beaten by the Atlantic on its eastern and southern coasts, and on its northern and western shores by swells sweeping down from the Gulf of St. Lawrence. From the nor’-east, forming a great sea loch, the ocean penetrates into the heart of the island from the Cabot Strait and fills a glacial chasm with its frigid, bitter waters. This is Bras d’Or Lake. On the southwest, the narrow Canso Strait separates the island from the mainland, but since 1955 a causeway has joined the two.

Cape Breton is well known today for its fiddle music and the Cabot Trail through the Highlands in the north. Yet how much about Cape Breton has been forgotten by the world at large! How many now remember, for example, that Alexander Graham Bell conducted some of his greatest experiments at his home, Beinn Bhreagh, near Baddeck on Bras d’Or? But much more disheartening is the forgetting of their past by the three historic peoples of the island: the aboriginal Mi’kmaq, the French Acadians, and the Scottish Highlanders. Of course, these people, their languages, and their cultures have been the objects of persecution over the centuries, so the people themselves are not so much to blame for this oblivion; and all three peoples are now busily engaged in recollecting their pasts. (A handful of Irish fisherman came to Cape Breton in 1713 with the French from Newfoundland, and a few Loyalist refugees settled around Sydney after the American Revolution too.)

When I visited Cape Breton the spring before last, I went, most of all, to see the humorous puffin. But I had secondary interests in certain historic sites and the beauty of the out-of-doors. Nevertheless, it became clear very quickly that the greatest interest in Cape Breton lay in its people, and in the phenomena of their forgetting and remembering. What follows is, therefore, not so much a travelogue as a diary of this opening of my mind and heart to the peoples of Cape Breton.

June 8, 2017. Arriving yesterday in St. Peter’s, Cape Breton, I found the forsythia still in bloom, though past its prime, and the daffodils blossoming too. The leaves of the trees in the forest have only partially unfolded, and the canopy is displaying shades of bronze, red, silver, and lime. The sky has been cloudless, and the sea, which is almost everywhere visible, either wild or tamed by the island in Bras d’Or, is a deep, dark blue. Even the fresh water lochs are a deep blue, unlike the florescent green ponds in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio where I live.

The Catholic church in Arichat, the Église de l’Assomption, is a handsome building, erected in 1837. While its round-headed windows and barrel-vaulted nave show Romanesque influence, its basic Renaissance style is seen most obviously in the pedimented west front, and in the pediment, supported on Corinthian columns, over the high altar. Among other Renaissance-inspired paintings, notable is the huge representation of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin over the altar, and a depiction of the Blessed Mother enthroned with the Persons of the Blessed Trinity in the middle of the vault above the nave.

I almost didn’t get into the church. I tried two of the doors, which were locked, and ignored the third; but it was noon, and an elderly, still vigorous Acadian pulled up to ring the Angelus, so I followed him in by the third door, which was open all the time. Inside, I said the Angelus and lit a candle.

I also went to the reconstructed historic forge in Arichat, where the iron work for the once-prosperous shipbuilding industry was done. The old Acadian at the church told me that long ago there were sometimes so many schooners in the harbor that a person could cross from one side of the harbor to the other on the decks of the ships. But, said he, “it’s all been forgotten. All they want anymore is…,” and he gestured with his thumbs as if composing on a smartphone.

The very fashionable guide at the forge, a junior at St. Francis Xavier University, was an Acadian. She spoke English like a native and told me that no one under 50 can speak French fluently anymore. In fact, her grandparents’ generation is the last one to speak French as real native speakers. So, Acadian French on Isle Madame is fast taking the same road to oblivion that Gaelic took on Cape Breton 70 years ago, and it may soon survive only as a cultural artifact. My guide also said that most of the young people leave the island for better opportunities in the west.

June 9. Today I drove the Fleur de Lys Trail along the southern coast of Cape Breton to Louisbourg. Coal has been mined in this area since the French arrived. The coal seams came right out to the cliff faces at the shore and could be easily dug by the soldiers. Coal mining was industrialized on a large scale from the second quarter of the 19th century.

The Miner’s Museum at nearby Glace Bay was established by a local lady to preserve the memory of the old ways of the mines. The chief experience at the museum is a walking trip underground with a retired miner into a mine that was dug decades ago just for the museum by a group of volunteer retirees to represent mining in the old way that was used from the 19th century into the early 1950s. Some of the techniques were still in use in the 1970s.

The garrulous, retired miner who led us into the earth, Wish Donovan, spent 32 years working underground and has now spent 15 as a guide. His stories and commentary were a necessary complement to the experience: always informative, and by turns funny, sad, or enraging. But the essence of the experience was physical and emotional. We walked through the four-and-a-half-foot-high tunnels where men worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, with no vacations, until a two-week holiday was legislated in 1944. Water dripped on our heads and seeped into our shoes. We were lucky. Our guide told us he had worked in one mine where they had to wear hip waders. The mines here go many miles out under the sea bed. It became unprofitable when they got nine miles out.

We had more light underground than the miners would have had before electrification, but it was easy to imagine the gloom. It was even easier when the guide told us that the Sable Island ponies that spent their lives in the mine often went blind. Their stables were underground, and they were never brought above ground at all, until the two-week vacation was mandated for the miners. The ponies had to be brought up for two weeks too.

Of course, the men lived in constant fear of methane gas explosions, as well as collapses. Our guide had been buried in a collapse that broke seven of his ribs. He didn’t know if he would be able to face going underground again afterwards, but he had to in order to support his family.

Until riots and strikes in 1925, the miners’ world was completely controlled by the coal company through company housing and the company store. If a miner was crippled or killed, the company agent would show up at the door and demand that the man’s wife send her eldest son down in the mine, as long as he was at least seven years old. And so, you had the phenomenon of the trapper boy, who sat in the dark for a 12-hour shift, opening and closing on demand the doors that controlled airflow in the mine. If he was responsible, he might be promoted to lead the ponies and their one-ton carts filled with two tons of coal out of the “rooms” where it was dug for transportation to the ground above.

Replicas of company houses can be explored on the surface. They were not bad little houses, though one wonders how a family could have accommodated, say, 10 children in one of them. The problem was that rent, coal, oil, all the food and goods purchased at the company store, the costs of the men’s tools, and even the price of the powder they used on the coal face were all deducted from the miners’ paychecks. In consequence, there was little or nothing in the brown pay packet at the end of the week. The miners’ families knew the company store as the “pluck you” store — as in “pluck you clean,” I suppose. As our guide told us, the miners themselves called it something else.

The miners brought their lunch in metal cans to foil the hordes of scavenging rats that lived in the mine. A few men suffered musophobia (fear of rats), which they generally disguised to avoid the raillery of their comrades. One man nearly killed a mate with an axe who had played a joke on him with a rat and a coat sleeve.

Our guide said that notwithstanding the danger and hardship, there was a great comradeship underground, and it wasn’t a bad life in his time.

Mr. Donovan actually lives in Tompkinsville, a small group of houses built in Reserve Mines by a miners’ cooperative inspired by Fr. Jimmy Tompkins, who was assisted by Mary Arnold, an American Quaker activist. There is a small monument to Fr. Jimmy at the corner where Tompkinsville meets the main road, but hardly anyone here, even the tourist-information people, remembers him or Fr. Moses Coady or the Antigonish Movement.

I used to be very proud of my English ancestry. After becoming Catholic and making some Irish friends, my pride began to take a justifiable hit. Here on Cape Breton, my pride reached its nadir.

Acadian French is moribund, at least on Isle Madame, Gaelic is all but dead as a first language, and Mi’kmaq is not spoken at all on some reserves. The Mi’kmaq are the Native Americans of the region, the Acadians were here early in the colonial period, and the Scots began arriving in the late 18th century from the Hebrides and the Western Highlands. They are thus the three historic peoples of Cape Breton. But their languages are endangered, their children have been leaving the island for a hundred years, and the cultures of the Mi’kmaq and the Gael have to be studied in various artificial settings contrived for tourists. (To be sure, the Gaelic College in St. Ann, Colaisde na Gàidhlig, just celebrated its 75th anniversary, and Cape Breton University has a Mi’kmaq Resource Centre. The Université Sainte-Anne in Church Point at the western end of the province maintains a Centre Acadien.)

Of course, the English-speaking political elite made it public policy to assimilate the Aboriginals and Highlanders by eradicating the Mi’kmaq and Gaelic tongues. These marginal languages were forbidden in government schools. Similarly, the English-speaking plutocrats tried to homogenize and exploit their workers for the sake of efficiency and profit. To be sure, over the decades of the 20th century, the lot of the working man did improve, until the collapse of the so-called Fordist compact. Nonetheless, this improvement in the workers’ lot was achieved in tandem with severe environmental and cultural degradation. Of course, neither the workers nor the plutocrats foresaw this, as attached as each side was to its own gain, and now neither the elite nor the common folk have solutions to the crises that face their world and ours.

Thus, the degradation of the languages, cultures, and economic practices of the three great peoples of Cape Breton — all of whom are predominantly Catholic, by the way — is a disaster. These three peoples had much to teach the English-speaking, largely Protestant elites. I do not mean to idealize the primitive or recommend that we all be “goin’ up country,” but I rue the monomania of the dominant culture, the culture into which I was born. I rue the professional landscaping, so to speak, of the human and the natural environments, the lifeless uniformity that modernity has imposed on the richly varied and vital landscapes of men and nature. The garden of life has been diminished to a suburban lawn.

June 10. The French Fortress of Louisbourg was systematically blasted to bits by English sappers in 1760 after its capture by the ubiquitous British General James Wolfe in 1758. It has been rebuilt beautifully by Parks Canada, or a quarter of it has. Louisbourg was established in 1713, after the French surrendered their fishing grounds on the south coast of Newfoundland to the British under the Treaty of Utrecht. Aside from being a formidable naval station on the Atlantic coast of New France, Louisbourg was the new headquarters of the French cod-fishing industry, which supplied a lucrative and essential market.

Louisbourg is a fortress, not a fort: It contains an entire town within its walls. This makes it much more interesting to visit. For example, the kitchen gardens of the more substantial houses are exquisite, even now, when the lavender is still scorched from the winter’s frosts. I spoke with the head gardener, who explained that he follows the principles of 18th-century French gardening, symmetry and beauty being chief among them. One garden had four large rectangular beds. The gardener had created balanced symmetrical patterns of chevrons around a central diamond in each bed. Each corresponding form in each bed would be planted with the same vegetable, say, carrots in the triangles in the corners of every bed. The entire garden was fenced in, and along the fence were raised beds of medicinal and culinary herbs.

The governor’s chapel in the main government edifice within the fortress is like an English auditory church of the same period: rectangular, the sanctuary neither narrower than the nave nor separated from it by anything other than a communion rail. Of course, the altar takes the place of the English triple-decker pulpit, while the pulpit with its tester is outside the rail. Reached by a staircase, it is still an impressive preaching platform. The chapel’s large windows are filled with clear glass, and the walls, though made of stone, are plastered and painted white. A painting of St. Louis IX of France hangs over the altar. Primitive, powerful statues of the Blessed Mother and St. Peregrine are in shallow bays in the nave, and a striking crucifix of the same genre hangs beside the confessional.

In this chapel and in the garden already described, I had a strong sense of the cooperation of nature, reason, and grace. In particular, the clear windows and whitewashed walls admit and intensify the light of the sun in a natural allegory of the illumination of the rational soul by word and sacrament in the liturgy of the Church. It is a thoroughly 17th-century French experience: Catholic and Platonic!

One of the docents with whom I spoke, who was dressed in the uniform of a French artilleryman of the period, was an Acadian. His ancestors had escaped deportation in 1758 by fleeing into the woods. Over the next four years, they made their way to what is now Madawaska, Maine, where they settled. This docent said the French and the Mi’kmaq were allies, and there was significant intermarriage. He said the Acadians were taller and swarthier than the soldiers from France because of Mi’kmaq genes and nutrition. The African slaves of the French also intermingled with the Mi’kmaq. One famous female slave, Marie Marguerite Rose, upon her emancipation, married a Mi’kmaq, and they established a tavern together in Louisbourg.

Why were the French so much less rigid about the aboriginal peoples than the English? It was surely partly policy: The French were in North America particularly to exploit the natural resources, and they needed the natives as allies and entrepreneurs. Nor, I suppose, were the French less vainglorious about their race than the English. Could it be that Catholicism helped them to perceive, however dimly, that nihil humanum alienum sibi esse (“nothing human was foreign to them”)?

Louisbourg fell to the English, twice, because the French counted on the fens, bogs, marshes, and ponds behind the fortress to prevent a siege from landward. Both times, the English were able to mount a landward siege and blockade the harbor, thus starving out the defenders. In fact, the English succeeded in implementing the same strategy the Athenians almost carried out at Syracuse.

I walked the so-called Light House Trail here today too. Though bright and clear, the wind was strong and the sea was high, and it battered the seaside cliffs ruthlessly and gleefully, rushing at the Precambrian palisades across submerged rocks and ledges from different directions at once, swirling in frothy demonic malice in the fissures and small coves it was eating away as I watched. One understands why the ancients hated and feared the sea.

June 11. I attended morning Mass at Stella Maris. An African priest, probably a Nigerian, celebrated and preached to a small congregation of mostly older Cape Bretoners. He did not shy away from preaching on the Most Holy Trinity, and he did a creditable job. The baby-bouncing music led by a guitar was to be expected, though why they can’t do better on an island with rich and living musical traditions, I don’t know. It must be a symptom of the general oblivion.

I took a motel room at the foot of the Cabot Trail. From my room’s picture window, down a saltwater loch, I could see St. Ann’s Harbor, which opens out into St. Ann’s Bay. In the afternoon, a heavy bank of cloud loomed low and dark in the west, but above it Apollo’s crown broke through in flat rays like sheets of golden foil. The surface of the loch was just beginning to turn bronze.

I visited the Alexander Graham Bell Museum in Baddeck. Bell certainly represents the best in the pragmatic, scientific tradition that stems from Sir Francis Bacon. Inquisitive, skeptical, inventive, and humane, Bell found the financial side of invention boring, and he was always intent on helping the unfortunate, particularly the deaf. And he just loved making new things work. His submarine-hunter hydrodrome (hydrofoil) is a hoot!

June 12. I went to the Nova Scotia Museum’s Highland Village, Baile nan Gàidheal, today. It is on the Island of Iona in Bras d’Or Lake. Most of the settlers were Catholic Highlanders. St. Columba’s Church still stands on the island, part of St. Barra Parish. One of the docents at the village gave me Mass times in the area.

I crossed to the island on a ferry. As I waited for the ferry on the mainland side, I looked at a Great War monument outside a waterside Presbyterian church. Three of the four faces of the 15-foot obelisk are inscribed with names — the faces on the sides record those of men who survived the war; the face in front, those who did not. A third of the young men belonging to that church who went off to war were lost. They were young men who never worked their fathers’ farms, which must have contributed significantly to the gradual collapse of farming in Cape Breton. We saw the same in my Anglican parish in Albert County, New Brunswick, years ago. The rural economy in the county never really recovered from the casualties of the Great War. Think too of the families that were never established, and the women who lived out their lives as spinsters because there weren’t enough men to go around after the war. My wife and I knew such a spinster in Fredericton, alive still in 1982. She had taught school in the “Boston States” and returned home after retirement.

The Highland Village is an exceptional museum, better in my opinion than the Frontier Cultural Center in Staunton, Virginia, which is excellent in its own right. The visitor walks up a steep path from the information building through a stand of fir and emerges on the flank of the mountain on which the village is built, overlooking a broad reach of Bras d’Or Lake. The land had been a farm but was abandoned after World War II and eventually given to the province by the owner.

The first stop is a replica of a crofter’s house and garden typical of the Hebrides in the late 18th and early 19th centuries: thick, dry-stone walls; wooden rafters built to a high peak; sod roof; louvered chimney hole. The floor is dirt. Doors in the middle of the long walls give egress and ingress to human beings; a shorter door at one end of one of the long walls makes a way for sheep. Under the chimney hole on the floor is a circle of stones containing a peat fire. A chain hangs from the rafters to which either a kettle or a griddle could be hooked for porridge or bannock. The women of the house ground their oats between two hand-operated mill stones about two feet in diameter, a quern. I tried the quern. It was very hard to turn, though I was assured that it moved pretty easily once the stones were lubricated by the disintegrating grain.

This replica croft has more wooden furniture than would have been usual — namely, a bench, a side board, and a sleeping cupboard. The latter fills one short wall, stands about five feet high, and has storage underneath. It contains two sleeping compartments, each about five feet long and three feet wide. The people slept sitting up with their backs to the back of the cupboard and their feet sticking out to the front, children in one compartment, parents in the other. Apparently, the Celts believed that if you fell asleep lying down, you would wake up in the land of the dead.

The Highlanders and Islanders began leaving for the New World in the 1790s. Rising rents, poor harvests, the lairds’ eviction of the tenants of their lands to make way for sheep (the Highland Clearances) all contributed to the emigration.

From the croft the visitor moves on to steadings typical of the several periods of development of Highland culture in Cape Breton. The docents will converse with you in Gaelic, if you wish. In this area of Cape Breton, some elderly rural people are still native Gaelic speakers. One young docent said that her grandparents are native speakers, but she herself is only learning it now. I was assured by more than one docent that there is a real interest in learning the language. It is even taught in the public schools, though, as I have mentioned, a word of Gaelic in school 70 or 80 years ago would have earned you the strap.

It is ironic that the peak of the material and cultural success of the Highlanders in Cape Breton around 1920 was followed by a rapid decline in Gaelic language, community, and culture. The hostility of the government to Gaelic, the spread of a cash economy (copies of Eaton’s Mail Order Catalogue are ubiquitous in the later buildings in the village), jobs on the railroad, in the mines, in the forests of Maine and Minnesota, the loss of life in the Great War, and probably many other things weakened the culture and dispersed the people. The dominant culture proved more powerful than the local culture through coercion, to be sure, but also through the material advantages it promised. Most people could not resist, though the work of the great Cape Breton writer Alaisdair Macleod records the melancholy and loss.

One fascinating exhibit at the village is a carding shop. It is the only one still functioning in North America and ceased commercial operation in 1963. Up until that date, local women were still bringing their wool to the carding shop, after they washed it at home, to have batting made for pillows and quilts, and a finer card for spinning. Each house in the village had all the apparatus for spinning and weaving.

The introduction of stoves was a godsend for women. In the days of cooking in fireplaces or over fires, burning was the leading cause of death after childbirth.

Like many of my friends, I feel nostalgia for the old ways. There was much good in them, especially a feeling of belonging and a lack of alienation. But there was much that was problematic too. For example, it was simple humanity to accept the “modern” wood stove (not to mention that it allowed loaves of bread to be baked to supplement the bannock). Was it also humanity to accept the gas or electric range? The microwave?

To live the old ways or even to modify them for the better — say, in soil management — would require living within natural limits that technology has surmounted. Moreover, such natural living would have to start in the mind and heart, with an acceptance of the limits of human nature, especially that family is the basis of all culture. No attempt to live counterculturally will work that doesn’t accept the natural forms and limits of our own sexuality.

June 13. More than anything else, I came to Cape Breton to see the Atlantic puffin. Now I have seen them. Veni, vidi, victus sum!

This morning, I sailed with Donelda’s Puffin Boat Tours seven nautical miles out of St. Ann’s Harbor, out of St. Ann’s Bay, and into the Cabot Strait to the Bird Islands. These are two uninhabited sandstone islands much favored by puffins and several other species for breeding. The horizontal layers of sandstone form fissures during the winter that the birds burrow out and use as nests. We also saw the black guillemot, a small black bird with white wing patches and the fanciest red legs you could ever imagine. The great black-backed gull, mortal enemy of the puffin, was there in abundance, as were several other species of sea bird, including two varieties of cormorant, which also find the puffin tasty.

The puffin is a lot smaller than I had expected, at most a foot and a half tall. That’s why the black-backed gull and cormorants, not nearly as big as eagles, are able to prey on it.

Why are puffins so attractive to human beings? On the way out through St. Ann’s Bay, Donelda’s husband, Captain MacAskill, brought the boat to a halt while four bald eagles gathered and circled for Donelda’s handouts of mackerel. She tossed the fish 15 to 20 feet out from the boat, and the eagles swooped in to snatch them from the surface of the water. Eagles are fierce, graceful, and acrobatic, just as bulls are massive, strong, and capable of a masterful rage, and lions terrifying, ruthless, and indifferent to lesser animals. Modern man tends to think of such physical, emotional, and moral traits as abstractions. Ancient man understood them through animals.

So, what about the puffin? Here we run into a problem. The puffin in real life is very different from what I, at least, had taken it to be. As I mentioned, it is small. It flies fast with rapid, inelegant wing beats, mostly from its hole in the cliff face to the sea to fish. It likes to be in groups, whether on the cliff face, at the edge of the turf at the top of the cliff, or floating in flocks on the surface of the sea. It is at risk every time it leaves its lodging, but it roosts on the islands with the black-backed gulls and cormorants because of the abundance of food available in the sea. It has one of the oddest shaped though most beautifully painted beaks in the avian world, eye markings that give it the look of a sad clown, and attractive orange legs, not to mention plumage that looks like a gentleman’s evening dress. Altogether it is a handsome, plucky, entrepreneurial bird that depends on its friends and has a trace of fatalistic humor. It impresses me as embodying the qualities that one finds in the best of the ordinary folk of the world. The eagle suits a Lakota chief, the bull a Minoan king, the lion an Alexander the Great; but the puffin suits the vast majority of us little people who struggle to make ends meet and raise a family, though we know the odds are probably stacked against us.

Donelda MacAskill struck me as a happy woman. She has raised a family, while at the same time being involved in the family business, which was originally only lobstering. She runs the boat and the various family enterprises with her husband; she has not had to choose between work and family. She is clearly highly intelligent and has been able to exercise her intelligence, for example, in learning about birds in detail. Do work and family need to be in such direct competition, not only for women but also for men? Imagine Captain MacAskill is at the helm, the boys hauling the traps, and Mrs. MacAskill sorting the catch. There is a forgotten ideal in this picture.

Ed. Note: This is the first of a two-part series. The second and final installment will appear in our September issue.





Back to July-August 2018 Issue

Read our posting policy Add a comment
Be the first to comment on this story!