1790 to 1815

by D. Robert MacKenzie

During the process of conducting personal genealogical research, it became apparent that the decision to settle in the so-called “New World” must have had profound consequences for the Scottish people who came to what is now Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. For example, in 1802 some 400 Catholic Highlanders arrived in Pictou, Nova Scotia from the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides. Undoubtedly, their decision resulted in the severance of strong physical and emotional ties with a homeland in which they and their progenitors had, since prehistoric times, been born, lived, loved, died and were interred. Leaving an overpopulated homeland that boasted almost no trees and arriving in a virtually empty land where impenetrable virgin forests flourished right down to the brim of the sea would obviously have been an enormously stressful hardship for anyone.

This is an overview of the conditions the settlers found when they arrived in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, the kind of environments which faced them upon their arrival and how they coped with these adversities. Almost immediately they had to acquire land, learn to clear forests, cultivate soil unploughed since the beginning of time, produce livelihood and build a home. They would have had to do all of this within a shorter growing season and in a climate much more extreme than any they had experienced heretofore. This account will attempt to determine what the land was like, what species of wildlife were present and what resources were available from the sea in the form of fish and sea mammals, and determine how they survived those first difficult years and why they came specifically to Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia.

Approximately one-tenth or 3,000 square miles of Scotland are comprised of scattered islands. These, for the most part, are rocky, treeless skerries pounded by rough seas. Communication by road was difficult as many areas were roadless. However, this did not mean that there was no communication. Many localities could easily be accessed by boat and Highlanders from the Western Isles were proficient boatmen. The inhabitants were mainly of Irish and Norse extraction who harvested the sea for fish and kelp, reared sheep and Highland cattle and grew potatoes in the temperate climate of the Outer Hebrides.

On the West coast too, in certain areas, palm trees will grow in the open air. It is generally believed that the old stories of incomparable fertility are wishful imaginings, yet it is clear enough that much of the sand dune has been heaped up fairly recently over what may well be good ‘machair’ land near the coast, and some scholars hold that the great peat mosses themselves are not so very ancient.

The situation for the people on the Outer Hebrides was dire. They were without food, shelter or their traditional social support and were physically removed from their houses, their possessions and their houses destroyed without compassion or recompense. They were deprived of their freedom for payment of debt and sold into slavery by those who once inspired their loyalty and respect, their chiefs and their Church. Their position was untenable and there was literally no choice, as they were forcibly removed, but to leave their islands forever. The cry “Cha till mi tuille! - We shall return no more!” keened like a banshee throughout the Western Isles.

More than one third of those so displaced came to Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia with their physical possessions amounting to little more than the clothes on their backs. However, they brought with them a richness of language, culture, character and community which continues to shape and colour the social fabric of Atlantic Canada to the present. Their communities, isolated geographically and insulated by this isolation against the cold and Canadian Sassanachs by the ethos of Gaelic spirit until relatively recent times, have perpetuated this cultural transference. Although records of their eviction experiences document exceptional misery, even more horrid tribulations lay ahead for the landless and destitute Highlanders and their terrible ordeals were far from over.

THE COFFIN SHIPS. The only means of transport were second and third rate ships whose owners were as greedy for the filthy lucre as were the chieftain‑landlords. Regulations were in effect governing the number of African slaves the ships could transport. However, no such rules governed the number of Cleared Scots each ship could carry to the New World. The continued wave of emigration attracted some attention to the conditions of emigrant ships, many of which carried larger numbers in more crowded conditions than they were permitted under the slave trade. Shippers were reluctant to pay for improvements to ships involved in the timber and emigrant trade, for it was largely the rough and odorous hulks of timber ships that were used to carry the human cargoes. And until forced to improve the filthy and crowded conditions, some ship owners paid as much concern to one cargo as another. This would appear to be a very sensible business fit for the ship owners, as they carried people to Atlantic Canada and lumber to Europe knowing that on the way over it mattered little if the cargo perished and on the return trip a ship full of wood won’t sink unless it gets water-logged or it breaks apart. Further evidence of the abysmal conditions, even worse than that of the transporting of African slaves, in the ships ferrying human beings on a one-way Atlantic crossing is illustrated by the following passage.

In the summer of 1801, George Dunoon advertised the sailing of the Sarah and the Dove from Fort William for Pictou. Had the laws then governing slave ships applied to these immigrant vessels, they would not have been allowed to carry more than 489 passengers. Dunoon filled the tiny holds with 700 [Note: Shipping records indicate a passenger count of 569 for these two ships but perhaps these numbers may refer only to the surviving passengers.]... Forty‑nine people died on the Sarah alone.

Inadequate supplies of food and water, seasickness, lack of sanitation and toilet facilities, combined with the already weakened state of health in which the Highlanders found themselves, led to outbreaks of fatal diseases such as dysentery, cholera and scurvy. There must have been scenes of unimaginable misery on the appropriately named “coffin ships”. The treatment of the Cleared Scots may be explained in part because of the fact that African slaves had value and there was economic benefit to the slave-traders in getting as many of them as possible to their destination alive. Cleared Scots, however, had no such value other than the price of their passage, which was usually paid by their former chieftain‑landlords prior to departure, to the shipping agent submitting the lowest bid and there were no incentives to get them to their destination alive and healthy.


TROUBLING CHOICES.  In the face of the scourges visited upon a once powerful and resourceful people, it may be asked “Why did so many of them choose Atlantic Canada?” There are a number of answers to this question. The Highlanders had knowledge of Atlantic Canada through communications from Scottish settlers who preceded them during the previous half century. Many were intentionally misled by unscrupulous shipping agents or absentee land owners who required tenants to earn them a profit from their holdings in Atlantic Canada. For some Highlanders, arrival in Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia may have been purely serendipitous.

When peace between the English and French was finally achieved in 1763, many of the troops who mustered out and received for their services to the Crown, grants of land in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island were Hebridean Scots from Highland regiments. They noted the fertility of the land, the timber and the wildlife available for the taking and how superior it was to that of the Western Isles. They sent glowing accounts of their new homes back to the islands and encouraged their kin to emigrate. This was before the Clearances. With the imposition of forcible evictions, the Highlanders were faced with choosing between starvation and emigration. Exile forever to Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island or some other distant place, away from their familiar islands was their only alternative to a miserable existence or a lingering death. No doubt some of the evictees recalled letters from their kinfolk across the Atlantic.

Many of those who had friends in the colonies, and knew what they had to expect, emigrated with great alacrity; but thousands, who had no such desire, on the contrary, ...were heart-broken at the idea of being separated from them [the Western Isles] by a thousand leagues of raging sea. Many, it is true, especially the young men, gladly embraced the offers of their landlords to assist them in emigrating to a country where labour was abundant and the remuneration ample, and where they could with common industry soon acquire a comfortable subsistence; but the old people, who had passed all their lives in their native glens, clung to their birthplaces with a tenacity known only to the Celts.  

This tenacity is a trait passed on to almost every one of their descendants now living in Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia as expressed by this in the following poem:




Every morning when I wake up,

I thank the Creator for allowing me

To be born a Cape Bretoner.

Upon this beautiful island,

My forebears found sanctuary from war,

Famine, eviction, exploitation and persecution.

For half a millennium they have nurtured

Their families beside her waters,

On her mountains and in her valleys.

They have persevered against every adversity.

Pulsing within me is the confidence that

As their flesh and blood, I can withstand

Anything the Fates may cast my way.

Like the tenacious spruce tree,

My roots are intertwined with those of many others.

Every sinew grips the rocks

With the determined grasp

Of a new‑born babe

To its mother’s little finger...


 D. Robert MacKenzie


One Findlay MacKenzie [No relation to the writer], commonly known as Fionnladh Glas, served in the British army for twenty‑one years. He took part in the capture of Louisbourg in 1758 and the capture of Quebec the following year. After the capture of Quebec, he returned to his native Isle [Barra] where he lived in single blessedness during the rest of his life and was supported by a pension from the Crown. While Findlay never again set foot in Cape Breton, his descendants arrived in Pictou in 1802 and removed to Cape Breton in 1803. He was a progenitor of those MacKenzies living today in the Washabuck, Iona and Christmas Island areas of Cape Breton [also of the Barra MacNeils]. It is likely he gave favourable accounts of Cape Breton Island when he retired to Barra and doubtless he made mention of the topographical superiority of the area to their island home. It is easy to imagine that veteran of twenty-one years service in a Highland regiment of the British Army of the day, sitting around a blazing turf fire, a bumper of uisge bhatha in hand, regaling rapt clansmen with yarns of his escapades. Given that Barra is an almost treeless, isolated island approximately eight miles in length and from two to five miles in width situated at the southernmost tip of the Outer Hebrides, and if his descendants are any indication of his storytelling and musical abilities, he must have been equivalent of cable television in eighteenth century Barra.

However, for others desperate to try and sustain themselves and their families, there were only the garish lies of the ship owners to guide them. Those fleeing the cruelties of the lairds’ factors were told all manner of fantasies about the weather, the climate, the miraculous things which grew on trees, in what was portrayed as the Promised Land, and what wonderful ships would transport them there for a mere pittance. Witness the following:



A SUBSTANTIAL COPPERED Fast sailing ship will be ready to receive passengers at Fort William on the 10th of June and sail for Pictou and Canada on the 10th. All those who wish to emigrate to these parts in Summer will find this an excellent opportunity, as every attention will be paid to the comfort of passengers, and they may depend on the utmost punctuality to the date of sailing.

And                                                      FOR PICTOU DIRECT

The Fine Brigantine GOOD INTENT. 220 Tons Burden

E. HIBBARD, Supercargo

will be ready to sail from Aberdeen in March, and intends calling on Cromarty about the end of that month, if a sufficient number of passengers offer. This Vessel has most excellent accommodation for Passengers, and Mr. Hibbard the Supercargo will pay every attention... 

Based on these splendid portrayals of pampered voyages to the land of milk and honey across the sea, one would almost wish to travel via these luxurious vessels oneself. However glowing the advertisements, conveniently omitted are any statistics as to the probability of dying from a variety of diseases nor are there any hints that if land was not reached with a fair degree of “punctuality”, the “attention paid to the comfort of passengers” would run out and many of the said passengers would starve to death. Some of the more imaginative ship owners also promised that “ Nova Scotia they would find a tree that supplied fuel, soap and sugar...” As far‑fetched as this might sound, it is nonetheless true of the maple tree, which indeed grew in great abundance throughout the region. The wood of the maple may be burned for cooking after one had learned to use an axe [the Western Isles and Highlands were almost treeless], cut it down, sawed it into lengths, split it and dried it out for six months. Soap could be made with the ashes of the resultant burning and sugar could be made from the sap if one survived the vagaries of a winter much more extreme than that of one’s former homeland and provided there was someone around who was willing to show you how to collect the sap from the tree, inform you of the appropriate time of year to begin this process and the technology [i.e. a big copper pot or cauldron] needed to render it into sugar was available.

In other instances, the Cleared Scots may have arrived in Nova Scotia purely by happenstance at the whim of wind and tide as did a group of Irish settlers in Prince Edward Island. The source may not be as reliable as would be desired, coming from a book of ghost stories and legends. Nevertheless, there was an Irish settlement at Rollo Bay, King’s County Prince Edward Island  and this account does have an aura of authenticity about it as there is a community in King’s County called “Belfast”.

We had not been long at sea before we spoke an Irish Guineaman from Belfast loaded with emigrants for the United States; about seventeen families. These were contraband. Our captain had some twenty thousand acres on the Island of St. John’s or Prince Edward’s as it is now called, a grant to some of his ancestors which he had been bequeathed to him and from which he had never received one shilling rent, for the very best reason in the world, because there were no tenants to cultivate the soil.

It occurred to our noble captain that this was the very sort of cargo he wanted, and that these Irish people would make good clearers of his land. He made the proposal, and as they saw no chance of getting into the United States, and provided they could get nourishment for their families it was a matter of indifference to them where they colonized, the proposal was accepted, and the captain obtained the permission of the admiral to accompany them to the Island, to see them housed and settled. Indeed, nothing could have been more advantageous for all parties; they increased the scanty population of our colony, instead of adding to the number of our enemies. We sailed again from Halifax a few hours after we had obtained the sanction of the Admiral, and, passing through the beautiful passage between Nova Scotia and the Island of Cape Breton known by the name of the Gut of Canso, we soon reached Prince Edward’s Island.

During our stay, the crew cut down trees and built log-houses for the new tenants. They cleared by burning and rooting up as much land as would serve to sustain the colony for the ensuing season; and, having planted a crop of corn and potatoes, and given the settlers many articles useful in their new abode, we left them agreeable to our orders.

Although the preceding account is taken from a book of ghost stories and legends, there may be some truth to it. In her ABC of King’s County [P.E.I.], Joan Easton provides us with a more specific and detailed version confirming the basics of the account.

We have an early glimpse of Bay Fortune in 1811 when Captain Marryat the novelist was at that time a midshipman on the frigate H.M.S. Aeolus. In the Spring of 1811, the warship out of Halifax, bespoke an incoming ship from Belfast, Ireland, carrying seventeen families of emigrants to the United States. The Captain of the Aeolus was the Right Honourable James Townsend, son of the 1st Marquess of Townsend who was granted Lot 56 on Prince Edward Island.

The captain persuaded several of these emigrants to leave the U.S. bound ship and join him on board the Aeolus, which then set sail for Fortune Bay. After landing, they made a previous settler’s house on Abell’s Cape their headquarters, and every day the emigrants with the captain and members of the ship’s crew made an excursion to Lot 56. There they cut down trees, hauled them out of the forest, and built several houses. More land was cleared and corn and potatoes planted. Thus the new settlers were given a good start by their landlord.

It would seem an idyllic situation for the colonists and given the uncertainty of sea travel in those days it is not unthinkable that Scottish settlers may have ended up in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island in the same manner. Although it was probably unintended, the preceding account provides a clear example of a military commander exploiting his position for personal gain, albeit with the Admiral’s permission. He made a decision while on station to steer a shipload of illegal immigrants to the Unites States to his land holdings in Prince Edward Island. The crew of a military ship was used to carry out improvements to the “noble captain’s” land, i.e. they cleared land, built homes, planted crops and provided tools for the colonists. The captain received rents from his legacy, the colonists had a place to live and the “enemy”, presumably the United States, did not increase its numbers. Everybody won. It is not inconceivable that the Cleared Scots may have confronted similar circumstances. It is open to speculation that the Captain of the Aeolus, the Rt Hon James Townsend, while out on the high seas in command of a ship of the line, was looking for prospective settlers and may have encountered a few Scots whom he steered to his land holdings and used his position to advantage.

THE PROMISED LAND.  At this point we have a people mercilessly evicted from home and hearth. They came to settle in Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia in some cases, because of accounts received from kinsmen or friends who had already settled there. Others may have ended up here serendipitously as did the Irish settlers from Belfast. However, for the vast majority, they came here because that was where the coffin ships emptied their cargoes of survivors. What did they find facing them when they arrived?

First of all, as they sailed through the Gut of Canso along the coast of Guysborough, Antigonish and Pictou Counties, they must have been struck by the never-ending trees to the water’s brim. This writer has observed virgin forests in Nova Scotia and, even being familiar to the present trees covering our province, the sight of trees five to six feet in diameter extending upwards of forty or fifty feet skyward before branches emerge was quite impressive. One can only conjecture what the Scots, coming from a virtually treeless environment, must have thought at the sight of such giants arrayed before them to the horizon.

The weather too, must have been somewhat of a shock to the new arrivals. As previously noted, the Western Isles enjoyed a temperate, though stormy climate due to the confluence of the Gulf Stream and the Minches. In his A History of Cape Breton Island written in 1869, Richard Brown gives us the following description of what the settlers faced. The inference is drawn of a certain, but not absolute, degree of uniformity across the region.

...before the island was settled, [it] was covered with dense forests of pine, spruce, hemlock, birch, maple and ash with a few oaks and elms. The soil of the first region is generally good yielding abundant crops of grass, wheat barley, oats, potatoes, stone fruits and garden vegetables. On the banks of some rivers there are extensive tracts of rich alluvial soil of great fertility..

Although lying within the temperate zone, the climate of Cape Breton is marked by extremes of heat and cold; but, owing to its insular character, and its proximity to the Gulf Stream, the cold of winter is not so intense, nor the frost so continuous, as in Canada. During the summer the mercury has occasionally been observed as high as 92°, but it does not often exceed 75°. In winter it has only once fallen, in the course of the last forty years, to 30°, but it has frequently been seen as low as 20° below zero. Snow lies upon the ground from December to April but the atmosphere during that period is generally bright and clear. In the spring the drift ice, the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the ocean is often driven upon the North-east coast by the easterly winds which prevail at that season, chilling the atmosphere and retarding the operations of the farmer, but it generally clears off before the middle of April, although it sometimes does not leave until the first week in May. The summers of Cape Breton, say from May to October may challenge comparison with those of any country within the temperate regions of the world. During all that time there are perhaps not more than tem foggy days in any part of the island except along the southern coast, between the Gut of Canso and Scatari. Bright sunny days, with balmy westerly winds, follow each other in succession, week after week, whilst the mid-day heats are often tempered by cool refreshing sea breezes. Of rain there is seldom enough; the growing crops more often suffer from too little than too much. The rainy season, which sets in upon the breaking up of the summer, is of brief duration, seldom extending beyond the middle of November; and even this, the most disagreeable season of the year, is often shortened by an intervening week or two of warm balmy weather, known by the name of ‘the Indian Summer.”

This is a rather lengthy quote, but it provides a very detailed description of the environment that the Cleared Scots must have experienced upon their arrival in Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. As Mr. Brown’s account is dated 1869 and extends back through “...the course of forty years...” to the late 1820s, his observations are but two decades from the chosen time period of this research project and therefore his observations have a high degree of currency. It is presented to clearly illustrate the extent of adjustment the newly arrived Highlanders had to undergo. Although the Western Isles are north of Northern Ireland, their climates are quite similar. As previously stated, palm trees can grow out of doors and snow is unusual except on mountain peaks. Summer temperatures in the Western Isles would rarely climb to 70° and there is constant precipitation necessitating the wearing of heavy woolens or homespun tweeds much of the time. From Richard Brown’s account, it appears the greatest difficulty for the new arrivals would be coping with the savage winters. Even the most experienced boatmen from the Western Isles would have been astounded by the pack ice which locks up the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Northumberland Strait and the Gut of Canso and persists until late April or early May. Settlers in Cape Breton would also find the Bras D’Or Lakes frozen solid during the same time period. Farmers accustomed to having lambs dropped in late January or early February [February 1st is the ancient Celtic Feast of Imbolc which celebrates the lactating of ewes] and planting potatoes in March would have to adjust their agricultural clocks by at least two months. They would have to produce more in order to feed themselves through a much longer winter period. Also, it was necessary to accumulate a sizeable store of fuel, usually wood but sometimes coal, to keep themselves from freezing to death.

Owing to the fertility of the soil and the greater amount of summer warmth and sunshine, the settlers were able to establish a tenuous foothold along the shores of Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. In addition to the more favourable summer climate and the fecundity of the previously untilled earth, there were other assets available to them which were unheard of in their former homes. In Scotland only a powerful laird or a king could hunt or fish as the exclusive rights to fish, fowl and game were held by the nobility. In Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia rivers teemed with sturgeon, salmon, shad, trout, gasperaux, eels and smelt. The inshore waters yielded cod, mackerel, herring, haddock, halibut and sole, to mention but the most common. Bays and inlets held copious quantities of shellfish: clams, mussels, scallops, crabs and lobsters. So plentiful were lobsters that the common wisdom held that two lobsters to a hill of potatoes made excellent fertilizer. The forest was home to moose, caribou, bear, deer, and many varieties of small game abounded. The marshes yielded seemingly limitless numbers of geese and ducks. Besides fish, the seas were also home to seals and whales. All were there for the taking. The following incident took place in 1834, slightly later than the chosen time period, but it is most likely illustrative of what earlier settlers experienced.

July 14, 1834, On Thursday last about 1 p.m. a large shoal of Grampuses [commonly known today as pilot whales, blackfish or potheads, about 25’ in length] in full chase after small fish was seen from Orwell Cove [King’s County, P.E.I.]. On reaching Seal River they divided into two, proceeding up the two rivers to the number of about two hundred. Twenty boats took after them and managed to drive on shore about one hundred and thirty of them from ten feet long to twenty-five. The blubber was immediately cut off in squares, and a considerable quantity of oil obtained - a lucky windfall for these fishermen

With the bounties of nature all around them, it was not long before the determination and toil of the Scots made inroads against the forest and they began to adapt to their new circumstances. One of the largest landowners in Prince Edward Island, Lord Selkirk provides us with this description of the situation with regard to the arrival of 800 Scottish settlers and the progress they made on his own estate after they arrived there in 1803.

Coming late in the evening to the encampment established on disembarkation a few days before, Selkirk saw that each family had a large fire near the conical ‘wigwams’ (of poles covered with spruce boughs) that they had erected in a former Acadian clearing dotted with thickets of young trees. People milled about and ‘confused heaps of baggage were every where piled together beside ... {the} wild habitations.’ A month or so later, most settlers were on their own land, despite a contagious fever that ran through the camp in late August. Generally, four or five families ‘built their houses in a little knot together’ and similar hamlets lay less than a mile away. By this means, the rite of ‘emulation was kept alive’; settlers worked together, shared experience, lifted the spirits of those who grew despondent and cast out ‘the terrors which the woods were calculated to inspire.’ Although ‘their first trials of axe were awkward, they improved rapidly.’ Soon rough log cabins, fifteen or eighteen feet long and ten to fourteen feet wide, chinked with moss and clay and roofed with bark and thatch, housed the new arrivals. A year later there were abut two acres of cultivated land for every ‘able bodied working hand’ in each hamlet; potatoes had yielded in abundance; there had been a small harvest of various grains; and fish taken from several boats built by the settlers, supplemented the produce of the fields. Zealous industry and the ‘pride of landed property’ wrote Selkirk, had allowed these people to secure a considerable degree of independence in short order. For all that, the conditions in Orwell Bay, as in most other new settlements were far from easy. Some families had failed to gather a crop adequate to their own supply,’ and all lived in primitive conditions. ‘Their houses’ admitted Selkirk, ‘were, indeed, extremely rude, and such as, perhaps, few other European settlers would have been satisfied with.’ Yet here, as elsewhere, improvements came with time. Tighter, neater log houses, with shingle roofs and wooden (rather than dirt) floors were built within a few years; the treed horizon was pushed back; stumps and stones removed from fields. Success was never assured, but most knew something of it. By 1810, the newcomers’ efforts had left their mark on the regional landscape: along the many valleys and coastal inlets, modest (and even occasionally substantial) farms had been carved from forests unbroken a decade before.

From this account we can now observe a new societal alloy being formed in the crucible of necessity from the meltdown of their former lives and we can perceive a sense of community being forged out of the shared need to survive. The evolution of a social support network for fellow settlers who may not have produced enough to see them through a winter or who were despondent, established new bonds. As well, the pride that came with owning their own piece of ground, an impossibility in the Western Isles, also gave impetus to the settlement process. These years were a period of adjustment and a time for renewing old relationships and forging new ones.

In the space of seven years the Cleared Scots had managed to go from living in wigwams to modest houses and farms. It can also be seen that by 1834 there were some twenty boats in the Orwell Cove area and the settlers were confident enough to chase pods of whales up rivers and catch them. It is obvious also, that they now had gotten over “the terrors which the woods were calculated to inspire.” It is not difficult to imagine the reality of the apprehension in which the Scots must have held the forest. For someone used to locating his or her place in the landscape from seeing prominent land marks in line of sight perspective, the forest must have been a place of considerable dread as one could easily become lost and there were wild animals such as bears, wild cats and moose which could cause them great fear. However, in seven years the Scots had begun to tame the wilderness.

Acadian communities in Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton were not effected by the Expulsion to the same extent as their kin in Nova Scotia because these islands remained in French hands until the Treaty of Utrecht in 1763. By the time the Hebridean Scots began arriving in great numbers at the beginning of the 19th century, there were not a great deal of reminders of the Acadian’s presence in the areas where the Scots settled. Except for cleared areas where we have seen settlers and land owners such as Lord Selkirk and James Townsend first set up headquarters to develop their holdings, little remained of the French presence. However, there were some Acadian structures still standing in Eastern Prince Edward Island when the Scots arrived.

When about the year 1805 the family of Andrew McDonald, Esq. of Eilean Shonea Invernessshire and afterwards of Panmure Island [P.E.I.], came out to the land which their father had purchased in the eastern portion of Prince Edward Island, they found upon this point of land, which guards the southern entrance to Georgetown harbour, a large and venerable house. It was going to ruin. Indians used it as a shelter, and sheep had herded in its cellars but it bore signs of past importance. It was built on a luxurious scale and the roof was covered with lead, a sure sign of the nationality of its builders. There can be little doubt that it was a French mansion of considerable importance in the days of the old regime.

Mr. McDonald repaired it, and lived in it for some time. It then passed in to the hands of the Wightman family who still reside there.

Below the point on which this little house is built, a few hundred yards from the shore was at one time a pretty little island, which was in the last century a French burial ground. The early Scotch Catholics of these parts preferred to bury their dead on Panmure Island but the Protestants availed themselves of the more ancient cemetery, having perhaps a vague idea that they would profit by the blessing breathed over its precincts by the holy men of old. [NOTE: The small island has since been completely eroded by the sea and the bones of those who slept there are now interred in the nearby Pioneer Cemetery]

The Highlanders from the Western Isles who settled in Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton did share with their sparse Acadian neighbours, the Roman Catholic religion. Despite a significant language barrier, Gaelic and French, there must have been some contact and interaction between the two communities, even if they used the language of the Catholic Church, Latin. The main commonality was the sharing of a priest, Father Angus Bernard MacEachern. When Fr. MacEachern arrived in Prince Edward Island in 1790 to join his parents and family, the settlements had been without the services of a priest for five years. The bulk of the Roman Catholic population were Acadian survivors of the Expulsion and immigrant Highlanders. In 1798 there were approximately 2,000 Roman Catholics in Prince Edward Island but by 1835 this number had grown to roughly 15,000. Such was the paucity of priests that Father MacEachern’s missions eventually included all of Prince Edward Island, along with the Magdalene Islands, Cape Breton and the Gulf Shore of Nova Scotia.

There was little in the literature which pertained specifically to relationships between the Mi’Kmaqs and the Hebrideans who settled in Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia between 1790 and 1815. However, there must have been some contacts occurring between the two communities. There scarcity of mention may possibly indicate that the relations were friendly. This observation is based on the fact that every sort of minutiae has been recorded about every aspect of the lives of these Scottish settlers. It is reasonable to think that if there were unpleasant circumstances occurring between the Mi’Kmaq and the Hebrideans, they would have made mention of it. Then as now, people would probably made reference to a raid, a massacre, a theft, a beating or encroachments on lands claimed by both parties, yet there is none. Previous references in this paper have made noted that the settlers in Lord Selkirk’s estate were temporarily housed in wigwams [“the conical ‘wigwams’ (of poles covered with spruce boughs)”. As wigwams are not a part of Scottish architecture and neither are poles and spruce boughs common Scottish building materials nor is the technique of arranging the spruce boughs so that they shed water, one must conclude that the Mi’Kmaqs must have shown them how to do it. This in itself would indicate a lack of animosity between the two groups. Also, the shipping agents in Scotland were lauding the amazing properties of the maple tree [“ Nova Scotia they would find a tree that supplied fuel, soap and sugar...”]. This too, would indicate Mi’Kmaq - Scottish amiable contact.

Upon their arrival the colonists from the Western Isles found a land vastly different from their former homes. Their Hebridean islands were barren, rocky and treeless. The resources such as fish and game were critically over-utilized and there was little arable farmland. Their climate was moderate, although damp, and winters were just like the rest of the year except there was more rain. Their new homes had fertile land, but it was covered with virgin forest in all directions from the high tide mark. Fish and game abounded and winters were quite severe in comparison to the Western Isles. These factors meant that the newcomers had to adapt to a seemingly hostile environment and acquire new skills such as using an axe and a saw; trapping and shooting game; and building with logs.

In Darwinian terms this wave of immigrants to Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia has had a major impact not only on present day Atlantic Canada, but Canada as a whole and the world, in all fields of endeavour one would care to name. The weak perished and the strong, tenacious, intelligent and ingenious survived. To the survivors, language, culture and community really mattered to them and they held on to these concepts as tenaciously as if they were tangible. Isolation and insularity preserved the basics of their society in Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia [primarily the Counties of Pictou, Antigonish, Inverness and Victoria.] for nearly two centuries. Scholars such as Dr. Donald A. Ferguson, recorded in his collection of Gaelic tales, The Hebridean Connections, the oral legends handed down over many centuries through generations of sennachies [Persons, who passed on the oral accounts of legends, genealogies and poetry of their people.] It can clearly be seen that their music, to mention only one small example, performed by persons with names like MacNeil, Cameron, Rankin and MacIsaac, all of whom are descendants of settlers from the Western Isles, is presently having a major impact on the world’s stage. Their descendants who follow callings in law, finance, education, politics, the clergy, medicine, writers and even historians, can hold their own with any in the world.



NOTES AND BIBLIOGRAPHY. In conversation with the late Archie Alex MacKenzie he mentioned “What a pain in the arse it was when someone broke the bottom part of the quern.” I was quite astounded at this as the only reference to a ‘quern’ that I could ever recall was in scholarly accounts of archeological digs uncovering primitive artifacts. In case the reader is unfamiliar with querns, they are small devices made out of stone used for grinding grain into flour. The bottom piece is a basin-like depression carved into a stone. The top piece is another stone, solid and carved to fit smoothly into the basin. There are grooves radiating out from an off-center hole in it. Grain is put in the hole and a stick is inserted to use as a handle to rotate it and so grind the meal [referred to in the literature as a rotary quern]. It was this type of device used by Archie’s family in the early part of this century. Archie explained it was a great deal of work to carve out another basin if the bottom part of the quern got broken. The top part never usually broke because it was thick, solid stone. This may be a direct link with a very ancient culture, traces of which existed in the Western Isles up to 1802 and was still present in Cape Breton into this century. Archie’ first language was Gaelic and he was a descendant of Findlay MacKenzie.


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