MABOU, Nova Scotia -- The floors shake in these parts, where one is never too far from the pounding of waves against the rugged, rocky coast.
Fiddlers and piano players add to the bounce at crowded pubs, tiny historical-society halls, and midnight square dances along dark country roads.
The beat rolls on as fingers fueled by long family traditions fly across fiddle strings and toes and heels tap and stomp along to hoots and hollers.
"You can't avoid it here," said Kinnon Beaton, a Cape Breton fiddler from Long Point who has caused many a floor to shimmy. "It's in the blood."
The jigs and reels fill the cool night air of Cape Breton's Cape Mabou Highlands along the Ceilidh Trail in northern Nova Scotia. Celtic music and tradition abound in the small towns along the coast, 400 miles from the Yarmouth ferry terminal.
Happy feet, ignited at night by step and square dances and ceilidhs that pack in the crowds, can carry on by day, hiking trails along the windswept cliffs.
There is a touch of Scotland in Gaelic Cape Breton. Places like Mabou still teach the language in school, and an interpretation center is located in town, a skip from the area's premiere pub, the Red Shoe Pub. The country's only single-malt whiskey is produced up the road in Glenville.
Some 25,000 Scots settled in Cape Breton and eastern Nova Scotia between the late 1700s and the mid-1800s. Mining and steel were king for a while, attracting more workers who wanted a break from the farm. Industry rose and fell, but the music, dance, and storytelling that came with the immigrants remained.
Not that the music hasn't had its challenges. There was a time when fiddling was for nerds. Then 30 years ago, a CBC documentary called "The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler" rattled local musicians into action, and the Cape Breton Fiddlers' Association annual concert was born.
"During the late '60s and early '70s, it wasn't cool," said 51-year-old Mabou fiddler Gregory Campbell, taking a break from a late-night square dance in West Mabou. "But it's a family thing."
If there is one word to learn in Gaelic, it is ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee). And if there is one thing to do in Mabou, it's get to one. A ceilidh was traditionally a kitchen or house party where people got together to sing, dance, and play. Nowadays, its meaning is more like "fiddle concert," and on most nights, as sure as fish and chips are on area menus, there will be a sign along Route 19 saying "Ceilidh tonight."
If you're lucky, you might see Buddy MacMaster, the legendary fiddler from Judique. I saw him, onstage with daughter Mary Elizabeth MacInnis, fiddlin' away before 125 or so people in the cramped space at Jack's Old Store (a.k.a. the Judique Historical Society). The cost: Donations accepted.
In three nights, I attended five ceilidhs, including the one any visitor must attend, the Sunday afternoon jam at the Red Shoe Pub. Fiddles, pianos, spoons, guitars, and even some singing filled the halls, and musicians such as Cheticamps's J. P. Cormier, from up the coast along the famous Cabot Trail, kept toes tapping. Step dancing -- think grass-roots "Riverdance" -- can break out at any time. For a quick introduction, the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre in Judique is the spot. On a stage under a huge fiddle, Andrea Beaton was playing while a fellow tour guide step danced.
"I've been hearing it since I was in the belly," Beaton said. Her father is Kinnon Beaton, and her mother is Betty Beaton, who happens to be Buddy MacMaster's sister. That makes Buddy Andrea's uncle and Buddy's niece Natalie MacMaster, the internationally known new face of Cape Breton fiddling, her cousin.
On a Friday, the Glenora Inn was the place for a bit of a tourist ceilidh. Sitting in for a song was Brandeis student Aaron Hauptman, from Lexington, who plays and studies the fiddle. "There is something about the drive to this music, the feeling," he said. "The beat is different."
I would see Hauptman later that night at the Red Shoe and the next night at the West Mabou Hall for a square dance. The joint was jumping. Don't worry about not knowing anyone. By the end of a weekend, there will be familiar faces.
If nights are for fiddling, then days are for hiking along trails through glens, along the coast, and on top of mountains. The Cape Mabou Trail Club preserves some 12 square miles of coastal wilderness, with 1,115-foot-high Beinn Bhiorach the focal point. From its flat top, the land plunges to the Northumberland Strait, cliffs adding to the drama. Some of the trails follow cart tracks used by early settlers who cleared hillside meadows for farms that dot the seaside landscape.
Even with morning fog, a light drizzle, and the rumble of thunder, the climb up the Beinn Alasdair Bhain Trail to an outlook was rewarded with a seaside spectacle near the Mabou Mines.
The 4-mile hike up Beinn Bhiorach (Steep Mountain) via the Enchanted Valley circuit the next day went through a funnel-shaped hardwood ravine, with a brook running through it, to the joyous summit. Here one gets a sense of the isolation of the highlands, where long, cold winters and tough travel kept people inside to work on their traditions. The return was a bird's-eye beauty down to the jagged shoreline and the coastal MacKinnon's Brook Trail.
True Cape Breton is found along winding and narrow dirt roads where drivers wave, cows graze, and clothes flap on lines in the wind. The Sight Point trailhead to Beinn Bhiorach in Inverness is reached via a beautiful but rough dirt road. A stroll along the rust sands of Inverness Beach and its boardwalk is also a fine choice. So are the magnificent mowed seaside paths of West Mabou Beach. Take the short Western Coastal Trail up Meditation Hill.
Can't stay up late? Get to Mabou's Red Shoe Pub on a Sunday afternoon. The pub is in a former clothing shop opened in 1998 by Toronto transplant Rob Willson. The name is a tribute to Cape Breton fiddler Dan R. MacDonald, who composed a reel called "The Red Shoes." The place hops. The chairs are moved to make room for dancing. It's a who's who of fiddling, a home away from home for those who come to play or listen.
"The music has been around for hundreds of years," says Willson. "The music is just here."
And the floor shakes.
Marty Basch is a writer based in New Hampshire who is the author of several books.