For nine days in October, Cape Breton Island is home to a unique celebration of music and culture as the Celtic Colours International Festival presents dozens of concerts all over the island, an extensive line-up of community events, and a nightly Festival Club. Over the years, artists have traveled from Scotland, Ireland, England, Wales, Brittany, Spain, Denmark, Norway, Germany, and Cuba as well as from across the United States and Canada to join the finest of Cape Breton’s musicians, singers, dancers, storytellers and tradition-bearers for the annual Autumn celebration.
Since its introduction in 1997, Celtic Colours has grown to become one of Canada’s premiere musical events, and a cultural highlight of Nova Scotia’s tourism season, collecting accolades from regional music awards to national and international tourism awards. The festival has also been successful in extending Cape Breton Island’s tourism season well into the Autumn, and introducing the musical culture of Cape Breton to tens of thousands of visitors from more than two dozen countries.
Cape Breton Island is home to a unique combination of music and culture, inspired by 19th Century settlers from Scotland and Ireland, and influenced by the Aboriginal Mi’kmaq people, the island’s physical geography, and the waves of immigrants who populated its communities during industrialization. Generation after generation of settlers, from the Scottish and Irish to the French who came before them, were able to maintain their culture and traditions in this new land due in part to the island’s isolation and subsequent lack of outside influences. Music, language, dance and community played an important role in each of these cultures and continue to do so today.
One of the things that sets Celtic Colours apart from the vast majority of festivals taking place around the globe is that it isn’t limited to just one location. Communities around Cape Breton Island host concerts and workshops. These are the communities where the culture has been nurtured for over 200 years, providing context for the roots of the music and celebrating each community’s contribution to the island’s living Celtic culture.
In many of these communities, the local fire hall, parish hall or community centre has hosted musical events for generations, in some cases, literally moving the fire trucks out of the hall to accommodate a dance. Venues for Celtic Colours vary from an 18th Century reconstructed French Chapel to state of the art performance facilities to community halls, but all venues share in common the prominent place each holds in the community it serves. The Celtic culture of music, dance and story-telling lives on in these communities and provides foundation for the celebration of living culture that is the Celtic Colours International Festival.
The festival is held during Cape Breton’s most spectacular season, Autumn, when the leaves are turning colours and the vibrant reds, yellows, and oranges bring the breathtaking scenery to life as festival-goers travel from event to event. These travels may take a visitor around the pristine Bras d’Or Lakes, Canada’s largest saltwater lake, or around the Cabot Trail, often called North America’s most scenic drive. Wherever you go in Cape Breton at this time of year, you are bound to find amazing scenery around every turn.
With Celtic Colours’ ambitious schedule (as many as six concerts a day), it is simply impossible to see and hear everything. The organizers of the Festival realize this and take special care in the programming of each show so that it is possible to get a taste of all that the Festival has to offer on any given day. Whether it’s Gaelic singing, Cape Breton fiddling, local dance traditions, or an afternoon of world-class bagpiping, Celtic Colours festival-goers can tailor their musical experience to suit their tastes. And if listening to the music inspires a desire to go deeper, to learn more about the music and the culture it comes from, Cultural Experience Workshops and Community Events are offered in communities all around the island in association with Celtic Colours.
Community Cultural Events
Workshops, offered in many aspects of Celtic, Gaelic and Cape Breton culture, allow visitors and residents alike to get the hands-on experience they desire. This is an ideal way to enhance the Celtic Colours experience. Community Cultural Events are divided into five categories: Learning Opportunities, Participatory Events, Outdoor Events, a Visual Art Series and Community Meals.
Learning Opportunities offer a variety of workshops, presentations, demonstrations and lectures on Celtic history, music, dance, art, craft, and community heritage. Participatory Events welcome everyone, as a spectator or as part of the program, to community square dances, sessions, and kitchen rackets where participants can become part of the action. To take advantage of Cape Breton Island’s spectacular scenery, there is a series of Outdoor Events which includes guided walks, hikes, and bicycle tours. The Visual Art Series presents a wide variety of events for art enthusiasts, skilled artists, hobbyists, and collectors as exhibitions, demonstrations, workshops and Plein Air events are hosted by local galleries, guilds, and community art organizations. And there are plenty of opportunities to break bread together and share a home-cooked meal as Community Meals are offered on a daily basis.
Late Night Festival Club
One of the most popular features of Celtic Colours is the Festival Club. Located at the Gaelic College in St. Ann’s, the Festival Club opens as the evening concerts are closing, offering an opportunity for Festival artists to perform in a more informal setting, or to get a session in with friends and colleagues from near and far. Hosted by well-known singer-songwriter Buddy MacDonald, from the nearby North Shore, performance is by invitation only and depends upon artist availability on any given night. Although the license only allows the bar to stay open until 3am, the music has been known to continue well beyond that time.
Celtic Colours International Festival is recognized as a world-class event, locally, nationally and internationally. In 2011, the festival was added to the Canadian Tourism Commission’s Signature Experience Collection and it received the Cultural Tourism Award from the Tourism Industry Association of Canada. Celtic Colours has also been named the Tourism Industry Association of Canada’s Event of the Year (2007), has received five East Coast Music Awards for Event of the Year (2005-2008 & 2016), two Tourism Association of Nova Scotia Crystal Awards (Golden Hospitality Award 2005, Events / Conferences 2002), and was named American Bus Association’s Top Event in Canada and Attractions Canada’s Top Cultural Event in 2001. The Celtic Colours Box Office team received the Visitor Servicing Award from Destination Cape Breton in 2016.
Celtic Colours Festival Society Mission Statement:
To promote, celebrate and develop Cape Breton’s living Celtic culture and hospitality by producing an international festival during the fall colours that builds relationships across Cape Breton Island and beyond.