Welcome once again to my latest offering in the series of posts concerning my dear friend Lynne, Betsy the very old campervan / RV and your humble narrator on a road-trip around the Maritime Provinces of Canada in the summer of 2014. I use the word summer loosely in terms of the weather we had experienced.
If you wish to find our what the weather had done to us and everything else the trip entailed then you can begin the story here.
If you want to find out what happens next then please read on.
18th July, 2014.
As the title of the of song goes, “What a difference a day makes” and it was certainly the case when I awoke this morning, again unusually early which was becoming a habit although probably not as bad as some I have. The day before we had awoken to drizzle and thick fog and now, 24 hours later it was glorious sunshine in the Arm of Gold Campground which I promised to tell you about in the previous post so here goes.
Great site, at a premium.
During our six week campervan / RV trip round the Maritime Provinces we sampled a number of RV parks / campsites and this was certainly one of the better ones in a gorgeous position close to Bras d’Or lake and which gives rise to the slightly odd name of the place. Allow me to explain if you don’t speak French.
Bras d’Or simply means Arm of Gold and the name apparently derives from the wonderful sunsets hereabouts which, when they reflect off the lovely stretch of water beside the campground, give it the appearance of an “arm of gold”.
Apart from being an aesthetically very pleasing site, it is also excellently positioned for exploring all of Cape Breton. Firstly, and very usefully, it is a mere three miles from the ferry which goes to Newfoundland and so makes a great stop if you are going to or coming from that Province.
Travelling a little further, it is only 15 miles to the major centre of Sydney and a similar distance to the Cabot Trail which has been described as one of the most stunning drives in the world.
Regrettably, our rather ancient campervan (RV) was not quite up to that but we had visited the excellent Miner’s Museum in Glace Bay which is 35 miles distant and Fortress Louisburg which is 40 and thus all these attractions are perfectly feasible daytrips from here.
So what of the site itself? It is clean and very well-run with all the facilities you would expect from a place like this – laundromat, playground, shuffleboard, a large recreation hall and free wi-fi which seems to be the norm nowadays.
Should you not have your own RV or tent, the site offers several camping cabins (one double bed in each) or a fifth wheel trailer that sleeps six. They also offer vehicle storage should you not wish to take your vehicle to Newfoundland with you.
So, to the title of this piece. Whilst it is an excellent place to stay it is definitely more expensive than comparable sites we stayed at. I am not sure if this is a Cape Breton premium as this is undoubtedly a popular tourist area but it is something to be aware of if the budget is a little tight. If a few $$ are not a consideration I can certainly recommend the Arm of Gold.
As was our habit we didn’t get underway until about midday and continued Southwest until we reached the village of Iona, which was only one of many Scottish place-names we saw signs for. In the area you have places like Barra Glen, Skye Glen, Glencoe, Campbell’s Mountain and even Alba, which is the Scots word for Scotland!
All this Scottish influence was the reason why we made our first stop so let me tell you about Iona and why we pulled Betsy in but on the way something very magical happened on a totally unremarkable stretch of road between the campsite and Iona. I am not going to tell you what it is so if your curiosity gets the better of you then there is a video of this important event here.
One thing to do and it is well worth it.
“You could easily pass through Iona and not even know you had done it. It is certainly in a stunning location sitting on Route 223 across the Barra Strait from Grand Narrows and Christmas Island, which themselves are not huge. It is miles from any major settlement which makes it fairly tranquil and the roads are not busy even in the height of tourist season.
Named for the island of Iona in Scotland, the Nova Scotian version appears to consist of a Post Office, a school, a few houses and a hotel. The traveller will probably not be stopping here for any of these though, what they will be here for is the absolutely outstanding Highland Village Museum or An Clachan Gàidhealach as it is known in Scots Gaelic. The name, use of the Scots language and the museum itself all bear witness to the huge influence of that nation in Maritime Canada and this area in particular.
Certainly stop to admire the delightful views out over the Bras d’Or lake but you must visit the Village as that is the big draw in Iona, charming as it is in and of itself.
Discover your inner Gael.
“I have mentioned in various other places on my blog series relating to the Maritimes how good they are at presenting the relatively short European history of the region, specifically when it comes to “living museums” or interpretive centres as I believe they are now called.
I love these places as I think it is so much more interesting than just looking at exhibits behind glass, much as that interests me in it’s own way. I do like history and museums and a very this facility is a fine example of the type, it is the Highland Village Museum or An Clachan Gàidhealach to give it it’s Scots Gaelic title.
Highland in this case does not refer to any uplands hereabouts but rather to the Scottish Highlands where so many of the forefathers of the present population arrived from, bringing with them their culture, language, music, cuisine and just about everything else.
It is hard to over-estimate the Scots influence in this part of Nova Scotia and you will see so many Scottish place names and surnames it sometimes feels like being In Argyllshire or somewhere similar.
We parked in the ample carpark and made our way to the Visitor Centre. On the way I noticed the “Tuning Room” which is basically a performance space where there are regular events although needless to say there was nothing happening on a midweek lunchtime. It did look like quite a sizeable space though, I’d love to play it.
The Visitor Centre is a modern building where we were greeted warmly and had a look round the obligatory gift shop and the exhibits here including a video to orientate you for your visit.
Following the map we took off up a slight hill to the first “exhibit” which is the Black House, pausing on the way to admire the view over Bras d’Or lake which is excellent as the whole village stands on a bit of a rise.
The Black House is typical of the first kind of structures the original settlers would have made in the mid-18th century and is fairly rudimentary. The walls are constructed in the same style as dry stone walls i.e. without mortar and it has a turf roof and earthen floor. Simply furnished and heated by an open fire, I suspect it must have been freezing in the brutal winters they have here.
One of the re-animators, a lady dressed in period costume, greeted us in Gaelic but then thankfully reverted to English as I don’t speak a word of it despite my Scottish surname. She explained all about the first settlers and how tough life was for them and looking at this place I can believe it. At least they would have felt at home as this is the type of dwelling many of them were used to in the Highlands and Islands of their native land.
Our next stop was the log house dating to the early 19th century. It is pretty small but must have been a lot more weatherproof than the Black House. Directly facing the Log House is the Centre Chimney House which was possibly my favourite of the whole museum.
Whereas the previous two buildings had been replicas, this one is an original structure dating to about 1829 when it was built not far from here before being moved to the village in the 1970’s. Apparently the chimney provides structural support as well as serving it’s more normal purpose of clearing the smoke from the two fires.
There were a young man and young lady in there, as ever in period costume, and they told us all about the relevant period for the building as well as fielding any questions we had. I have to say the animators, as they are called, were all extremely knowledgeable.
The highlight of this building was when I was invited to sit at a large wooden table with them and get involved in what I thought was a very odd thing. A large circle of homespun textile was battered up and down on the table in time to the singing of a Gaelic song.
It was explained that this was a common practice to “pre-shrink” the fabric so it did not shrink once it was made up into garments and that it was also a social event as people would all gather in one house to sing, socialise and, well, batter cloth on the table. It was great fun and if the reader thinks they can stand the sight of my legs in a pair of shorts, I have posted a video here.
On then past the vegetable plot and assorted pieces of old agricultural equipment to the barn which is again original and dates to the mid 19th century and was originally very local to here. It now houses various carriages, wagons and agricultural paraphernalia including a Wagon that was owned by no less a personage than Alexander Graham Bell, the man who did not invent the telephone! Go on, look it up.
Impressive as that is I think my favourite was a beauty of an old Fordson tractor. I am certainly no son of the soil but I have driven tractors under instruction once or twice and I remember helping my then fianceés Father, a landscape gardener, by driving an old Fordson on a job. I don’t know which is likely to surprise you more, the fact that I can drive a tractor or the fact that I was once affianced. Trust me, I am full of surprises.
Onward ever onward and to the Church which is again original dating to about 1874 and originally the Presbyterian Church for the community of Malagawatch and the River Denys basin. The Presbyterianism is very much reflected in the sparse interior which is devoid of any sort of adornment as is favoured by adherents of that denomination.
For me the most fascinating part about the Church was how they got it here in 2003. They took off the steeple, lifted the whole building in one piece, put it on a boat and shipped it here which is some feat.
Next up was what is known as the Centre Hallway House (they do have rather prosaic names for things here) which is another original dating to the 1860’s and originally situated near Port Hastings. It features period furniture including a fine weaving loom and I particularly liked the kitchen as I do enjoy looking at the minutiae of daily life as well as the grander exhibits in any given museum.
After this we managed to deviate slightly from the suggested route but that doesn’t really matter. We went next to the Carding Mill when we should have been going back to school, presumably to brush up on map-reading.
Actually it is a pretty poor performance as both of us were in the armed forces. I should mention that the Village is reasonably compact and so I shall suggest that we were merely overcome by curiosity at the mill and decided to go there first rather than making a navigational error. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!
The Carding Mill was used and indeed still is for rendering raw wool into something that can be spun and the machinery here is original dating to the late 19th century. Apparently there are regular demonstrations but there was nothing happening when we were there although it was still interesting to see.
After the Carding Mill we eventually got to the School, specifically Whycocomagh Portage School which again is original although not as old as some of the other buildings, having been erected in 1917. Remarkably, it was still in use in my lifetime which probably shows you how old I am getting and it closed in 1966 before being moved here.
From the School we actually managed to follow the map to the General Store which is later again and dates to about 1920. I did like the way the suggested trail was set out more or less chronologically which was useful to illustrate how things had developed.
The store is a complete cornucopia of everything imaginable and I suspect it is used as a bit of a repository for artefacts they cannot find anywhere else to put but it is fascinating nonetheless.
Leaving the early 20th century retail outlet we moved on quickly to the Forge where the young smith was busy working away and chatted cheerfully to us as he did so. I found the modern safety goggles with the period costume a little incongruous but better safe than sorry I suppose.
Bidding farewell to the smith, who was still hammering away, we made our way to the last place on the trail which is known as the Turn of the Century house and dates from about 1900 as the name implies.
Again there were all manner of fairly ordinary domestic items there which I took great delight in examining at leisure. There was another fine loom not to mention an excllent butter churn and an old-fashioned telephone exchange of all things. There really were so many similarities here to the Sherbrooke Village Museum we had visited a few days before. Smith, church, school, store, telephone exchange!
That was the end of the tour and we made our way back out through the visitor centre to the carpark.
As always I had taken rather a lot of images and I suggest the visitor has plenty of battery life and lots of film or space on the flashcard as the entire site is one big photo opportunity.
I really cannot speak highly enough of the An Clachan Gàidhealach as it is an utter delight like so many of it’s ilk in these parts and the traveller really should make the effort to visit if they are in the area.”
Shortly after leaving the Village I took a hand at a little more videography where I mention “off-roading” but it really isn’t, it is just a decent road they have not put tarmac on yet. It does give an impression, however, of the glorious scenery we were driving through and you can see it here.
That was a great if typically late start to the day but we still had a bit to go as we had decided we would try to get back to the mainland that evening but naturally there was still time for beer o’clock. This is an odd one in that cannot tell you what this place is called or where it is.
I have forensically examined all the images and can find no clue. I cannot even work out if it was on Cape Breton or the mainland, that is how confused I am here. Any ideas, Lynne?
What I can tell you with absolute certainty is that we ended up in the HyClass Campground, which I will tell you about in the next post and that I cooked, presumably amongst other things, a fancy cheese on toast concoction and some lovely asparagus we had picked up. I am sure there was something else although I singularly failed to take an image, I really am getting slack.
In the next post we shall find a lot more “Scotland” and then catch a boat to another Province so if you want to find out about that then stay tuned and spread the word.