The Mabou Highlands
"a kaleidoscope that rivals the foliage carpeting the hills above"

By SCOTT CUNNINGHAM*./ Photograph courtesy of Scott Walking Tours

Photograph courtesy of Scott Walking Tours More than the adjunct of a well-known Celtic group, Mabou is a diverse region with a rich human and natural history. It was here that the Highland Scots settled Cape Breton Island, adjacent to the largest and most sheltered harbour along the western coast. It is a maze of country roads crisscrossing picturesque wooded hills and vales, meandering streams and sloping shorelines. And it is also the site of the Highlands.

But these are not "the" Highlands. The Mabou hills are usually bypassed by those on a rush to view the more famous, and marketed, lofty heights to the north. They are left to slumber in their gentle tranquillity. However, these remains of an ancient uplifted plateau are imposing in their own right, surpassing 1000 feet. Few spots in Cape Breton better this, and none on the mainland. This time of the year they are particularly striking.

In earlier times you could gaze from the slopes out over the Gulf waters towards Prince Edward Island with nary a wood to block the view. Most of these hills had been cleared for pasture and settlement. However, as with other rural areas, economic migration has depopulated the countryside and nature has reclaimed what is hers.

First came the spruce and fir, then the maples, oaks and ash. Still visible among this rich forest are the remnants of early settlement: a stone wall here, a hidden foundation there, an unexpected clearing. On the "summit," cattle still graze in the remaining communal pasture. A network of roads and trails lead the hiker through this world of past and present under a bright deciduous tapestry that spills down onto the sea. A local group has done considerable work in upkeep and signage.

The coast, this boundary of sea and land, of the meeting of the unknown with the known, is the most fascinating. For it is here that the wind and water have scoured the geology of vegetation, exposing a tapestry of textures, colours and form that inspire the artist to be found in all of us. Grey conglomerate, red sandstone, white limestone and the black seams of coal intertwine, overlay and intermesh in a kaleidoscope that rivals the foliage carpeting the hills above. The great cormorant and black guillemot nest in the cavities of sheer cliffs, surrounded by a painting of abstract lichens where fossils reveal another era.

This is indeed a special place in that seemingly endless variety along the Nova Scotia coastline.
Dr. Scott Cunningham's writing appears regularly in shunpiking. A biologist and writer, Senior Instructor (5*) with the British Canoe Union and co-proprietor with Gayle Wilson of Coastal Adventures in Tangier, Scott is author of Sea Kayaking in Nova Scotia (Nimbus) now in its second printing. He has paddled coastal waters extensively and circumnavigated Nova Scotia in 1980. He has also kayaked in Europe.