16 February 2009, 18:20
The first part of Billy’s epic ten-week journey sees him arriving in Nova Scotia then heading north to Newfoundland.
His journey by boat, motorbike, aeroplane and car takes him to the towns where European immigrants first settled, the graveyard where victims of the Titanic disaster are buried and to meet the man who earns a living making scarecrows.
He also meets the hospitable townspeople who took in airline passengers stranded by the 9/11 tragedy and goes in search of whales and icebergs.
Billy begins his journey at sea aboard the historic Bluenose II schooner, the symbol of which appears on all Nova Scotian number plates, before arriving at Halifax – the town to which almost two million Europeans migrated to start a new life on the edge of the world. Cruise ships now regularly dock at the town and are greeted by pipers and the town crier. Billy looks around Pier 21, now a memorial to immigration, and discovers that 30 William Connollys were among those who emigrated there.
He also visits the Titanic graveyard where he is amused to discover cruise ship passengers are taken as part of their tour. Among the graves is that of ‘J Dawson’, which many tourists believe to be Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Jack, in the Hollywood movie, ‘Titanic’. But Billy explains that the grave is actually that of a man named Joseph Dawson.
Billy says: “The grave just said J Dawson, but it’s a guy called Joseph Dawson. But nobody seems to be bothered too much about that. So in death he became sexy and Hollywood. Good on him, I say.”
Billy’s next stop is Lunenburg which was once North America’s fishing capital, but years of over-fishing means the cod supply has almost gone and the town now relies on tourism to survive. Commercial cod fishing is now banned, but fishing with a hook and line is permitted so Billy takes to the seas with two fishermen, Ralph Church and Bobby Beringer, to see what they can catch. Bobby tells Billy how he almost died when his boat froze over and started to capsize.
People have been moving to New Brunswick from Scotland since 1753 and the locals have retained their Scottish culture. Billy admits to mixed feelings as he watches the pipers and dancers at their Highland Games and says: “I think it’s a New World thing, a need for something old, and they seem to assume that old means good. There are bits of Scottish culture I just love, and it’s hard for me not to get carried away by it all.”
“The band of Scots that landed here has clung on to its highland traditions and kept them remarkably intact. I think culture should be constantly on the move, forever changing; but people here seem to relish being more Scottish than the Scots themselves.”
The next place Billy visits is Chéticamp where the residents speak French because of the 17th century French colonists who settled there. Billy meets Chester Delaney, a scarecrow maker, in his field of scarecrows which are all made to look like famous people or people he knows.
Next on the agenda Billy dodges wandering moose as he rides a motorbike around Cape Britain’s western shore on the Cabot Trail – one of the top five motorcycle rides in the world.
When he gets to St John’s in Newfoundland, Billy is met with a traditional seafaring way of welcoming outsiders to become honorary Newfies – a ‘Screeching In’ ceremony. The comedian wears a fisherman’s hat, chants, and kisses a fish - by tradition it should be a cod, but since they are in such short supply, a trout has to suffice. Before he gets a certificate proclaiming him a Newfie, Billy takes a swig of a substitute for the Jamaican rum ‘screech’, which is usually drunk at the ceremony. Now a teetotaller, Billy says: “I made do with pop.”
Next Billy visits Gander, a town with a population of just 10,000 which took in 6,500 people stranded when their planes were forced to land there after the 9/11 tragedy. The passengers were there for six days and locals let them stay in their homes and looked after them. Billy meets the mayor when he attends the town’s 50th birthday party, and goes fishing for salmon on the River Gander with hunter/fisherman Dave Brake.
Billy flies to St Anthony where he goes on the hunt for his first sighting of an iceberg. When he finds one he is mesmerised by its colour and says he thinks it looks almost edible, like a meringue.
He says: “The native Inuit, who live in Arctic Canada, believe that icebergs contain the spirits of their ancestors who come back to see them every spring. I love that. I just saw a face. That’s the nose on the left there the upper lips see it coming up and there’s hair at the back, just above the nose you see the eye. See, that’s the way they get you.
“Do you know what I would love to do? I’d love to tow it up the Clyde or up the Thames or the Tyne or the Mersey and let all those kids see it.”
Finally, before he heads further towards the Northwest Passage, Billy stays over at the Quipon Lighthouse which is the most northerly point in Newfoundland and is famous for whale spotting. En route to the lighthouse, in a choppy Atlantic, he is treated to a glimpse of a whale.
Last updated: 19 February 2009, 16:18