Highland Culture in Cape Breton

July 8, 2009

Many Scots left Scotland near the end of the eighteenth and on into the nineteenth century. For some it was the thought of bettering themselves. For others, the Highland Clearances left them no choice. Around 30,000 Gaelic speaking Highlanders went to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The voyage to the new world was difficult and things weren’t much better when they arrived with the cold winter fast approaching. They built shelters as best they could. Many trudged through deep snow to sell their clothes so that they might buy food that first hard winter.

Trees were all they saw. They had nothing to work with. No way to dig up the roots of the trees they felled. In the spring they cut trees and planted around the deep set roots. Roots too difficult to remove. Machinery, even if they had it, wouldn’t be of much use to these farmers those first few years. They wouldn’t have been able to get the planting or harvesting machinery around the many tree stumps. Therefore, this back breaking hard work had to be done by hand. They eventually cleared the farm land given to them and worked their fields.

The fact the Cape Breton Island in the early days of settlement was quite isolated from the rest of Canada is one fact that attributed to the Highlander maintaining his culture and his way of life. The settlers were use to entertaining themselves. They helped each other build homes, and barns. They gathered together to have Ceilidh, milling Frolics, and to help each other with the harvesting. Attendance at church was an important part of their lives.

Unable to speak English, they were quite unaware of the great political maneuverings going on around them. The Mother Land, England, inadvertently helped maintain the Highlander’s way of life by not allowing more settlers to come to the Island during various periods of time during the early settlement. The Island, itself was physically cut off from the main land by the Strait of Canso. A water propelled ferry boat was used to transport goods from the island to the mainland. All the resources from the Island were sent to Halifax to help build that city. This left Cape Breton with rough dirt roads and not much in the way of government buildings. The bad roads and problems crossing the strait limited travel to the Island until the 1940’s.

In the book “The Scottish Tradition in Canada” by Stanford Reid he states:
” Parts of eastern Nova Scotia, particularly Cape Breton Island, became as Gaelic in speech and outlook as the Highlands themselves.”

All in all, through 200 years since the first immigrants arrived on the shores of Cape Breton, our ancestors continued to pass down from one generation to another, their traditions in religion, storytelling, the language, song, and dance.


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