If you spend a little time on Cape Breton Island, chances are you’ll encounter someone in your daily travels being asked the familiar question: “What’s your father’s name?” Yes, it’s quite common. But, have you ever observed that with this gentle inquiry, the asker and everyone around them hold their breath in earnest anticipation; as if the answer carries its weight in tartan and gold?
For the people of Cape Breton Island, this age-old interchange is precious. It is a community affirming currency that stretches from heartbeat-to-heartbeat and across the island from tip to stern. Plus, for those making the inquiry (and those listening in), there is always a chance, albeit a small one, that you might be related—a second or third cousin, Mary Agnes’ eldest daughter returned from the mainland, or a new friend, to be embraced and welcomed into the clan.
Where did it come from?
When I left the island and travelled a little, I realized that not everyone was as interested in this treasured familial information as I was; just like all homes didn’t have a piano in the living room, a nice pot of tea (often boiled) sitting on the stove, or pork pies, oatcakes, and butterscotch pie.
So I began to ask myself what makes this simple phrase “What’s your father’s name?” so integral to our Cape Breton culture. Where did it come from? Yes, I understood what it meant in a literal sense, but there seemed to be a deeper meaning. Something elusive that whispered to my Cape Breton and Outer Hebridean sensibilities … with the force of an Atlantic wind!
Hands cross the water
Then one day, I had the good fortune to stumble upon an article by Bill Lawson, a well-known Scottish scholar who has been immersed in Family and Social History in the Outer Hebrides for almost 50 years. In the blink of an eye, a plausible answer to the “What’s you father’s name?” curiosity became crystal clear. The ancestral pivot point, at least in my opinion, was nestled into the Hebrides Gaelic expression “Co leis thu?” or to translate, “To whom do you belong?”
Bursting with excitement, I emailed Bill Lawson and received his reply within hours. He confirmed that although the old idiom shows signs of washing out with the tide, “Co leis thu?” is still “commonly used on the islands to put people in their place in the community. He went on to say, ”It is the sign of a society-based community rather than a person-based one”. Big exhale … mystery solved.
The legacy lives on
On a personal note, you’ll be pleased to know that although I no longer live in Cape Breton, the legacy of “Co leis thu?” and “What’s your father’s name?” still shines within me, sometimes with humorous consequences.
For example, in business meetings, I often catch myself asking new (and unsuspecting) attendees a form of “What’s your father’s name?” called “Where are your people from?” This question is frequently met with perplexed stares until someone explains “Oh, she’s from the East coast, Cape Breton Island, they always ask that.” At which point I give a friendly nod, and proceed with my self-appointed duty to find out where each person in the room is from, and in doing so, fulfill my innate desire to nurture a sense of belonging and build community … even if it is only for a few hours!
When I’m on a roll, it doesn’t end there. If the Cape Breton familial connection is missing, I’ll simply move on to “Have you visited Cape Breton?” If that yields silence, I’ll try the Celtic Colours International Festival. If no nibble, I’ll resort to my trump card “Have you heard of The Rankin Family, Rita MacNeil or the Barra MacNeils”? Luckily, a reference to one of these well-loved Cape Breton icons saves the day and I get a “yes”; to which we all heave a collective sigh of relief and get on with whatever we are actually there to do.
I’ve been thinking…
In a time when so many are feeling isolated and thirsty for a sense of community and belonging, the people of Cape Breton naturally step forward by offering one and all a deceptively simple question: “What’s your father’s name?” Come to think of it, it really is more a gift than a question. Wouldn’t you agree?
Enjoy the day! ML
- Bill Lawson: https://www.hebridespeople.com
- Outer Hebrides: http://www.map-of-uk.co.uk/map-of-outer-hebrides-scotland.htm
- Cape Breton Island: https://www.cbisland.com/
- Celtic Colours International Festival: https://celtic-colours.com/
- Engage Nova Scotia: https://engagenovascotia.ca/
Photo: Mildred Lynn/ Upsplash
This blog is PART 2 of a series on the cultural aspects of Cape Breton Island; my premise is that the world at large needs more of what Cape Breton Island has to offer. Go to: PART 1
Mildred Lynn McDonald: Healing Conversationalist| Health & Well Being Advocate| Integrative Life Coach| Mind Body Spirit Podcaster| Speaker
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