MacDonald is a fierce advocate of traditional Scottish culture on Cape Breton. While many visitors are immediately and permanently lured to the dramatically beautiful northern tip of the island, MacDonald pitches the rustic beauty of the interior. I’m driving with him through the Margaree Valley in the central island. Cape Breton is dubbed an ocean playground in brochures, but the river fishing (there are 20 miles of fishable water on the Margaree alone) and vibrant culture offer plenty to explore inland. Travelers here turn their backs on the spectacular coast but are rewarded with a quietly rich culture. “There are plenty of people out there who are content to go to the lesser places,” MacDonald says.
Ambitious innkeepers carve out a living from the massive swatches of undisturbed land. To augment their income, most have side businesses providing guided tours, selling land for lumber, establishing craft businesses, or renting snowmobiles or other seasonal equipment. MacDonald, for one, operates a music venue on his property during the season. Even during the season, the interior is pleasantly empty of capital-T tourism lures.
MacDonald and I load into his pickup and wander the valley, first checking on his small herd of Scottish cattle. An unpaved turnoff leads to a wooden platform, where a pair of fishermen are mounted over a tributary of the Margaree, snaring small, bony Gaspereau with an antiquated diversion-and-net system.
Our drive continues, past the Margaree Fish Hatchery, where trout are being readied for an upcoming charity-fishing event. Fingerlings squirm in long troughs, and larger fish swim in outdoor ponds. As he drives, MacDonald tells stories of family connections that stretch across generations. He also speaks of more recent transplants who arrived with high-end dreams and found the luxury-tourism business tougher than expected. We stop at the Yellow Cello Café for ice cream and catch up on local gossip about who was seen walking, holding hands.
Besides gossip, Gaelic music is the strongest bond among traditionally minded Capers. Add a fiddle and a piano to almost any Cape Breton gathering and dutiful square dancing will occur. One node of this cultural legacy is the West Mabou Sports Club Hall. MacDonald tells me not to miss a square dance there, and I take the advice to heart, driving lightless backroads to find the long, nondescript building.
By 10:30 p.m., the place is filled with locals. Many are senior citizens; a surprising number are high school students. Each dance starts in a circle, and pairs split off as the hallowed rules require. But the young and old hold hands and go through the steps together, scuffling on a floor worn by the passage of countless festive boots.
The musicians play exquisitely, at a level that almost contradicts the small venue, except that the 30-something pair are performing to the best crowd possible: their fellow Capers. Adam Young, a Cape Breton native, plays the piano; sawing at the fiddle beside him is Dara Smith-MacDonald (no relation to Dave), who grew up in the same province but not on the island. The only percussion from the pair is the rhythmic thumping of her shoe on the foot-high stage. They play fast, addictive songs, weaving various fiddle tunes against a busy piano backdrop. The dancers respond to a particularly sweet-sounding tune with appreciative hoots.