How the Highlanders took Nova Scotia

For half a century they were taught to be ashamed of their Highland origins. Now, with their own tartan, music, folklore, flag, college and pageantry, they’re making the place more Scottish than Scotland

JOHN MACLURE November 12 1955

How the Highlanders took Nova Scotia

For half a century they were taught to be ashamed of their Highland origins. Now, with their own tartan, music, folklore, flag, college and pageantry, they’re making the place more Scottish than Scotland

JOHN MACLURE November 12 1955

How the Highlanders took Nova Scotia


For half a century they were taught to be ashamed of their Highland origins. Now, with their own tartan, music, folklore, flag, college and pageantry, they’re making the place more Scottish than Scotland


LAST St. Patrick's Day those members of the Nova Scotia Legislature with Irish blood in their veins turned up, as they always do on March 17, sporting shamrocks and green neckties. But even they applauded when long lanky Stewart Proudfoot, MLA for Pictou West, stole the show by appearing in a kilt and rising to demand that the provincial government advance culture and the tourist trade by building a replica of a Highland

village—this to be a sort of living museum and a constant reminder of Nova Scotia’s Scottish heritage.

While the village hasn’t been built yet there is little doubt that it will be, for the way the proud and touchy Irish cheered the proposal of the Pictou Scot, on the very day traditionally devoted to extolling the virtues of Irishmen, was typical of what has been happening lately in Nova Scotia.

There, 175,000 people of Scottish extraction, mostly of Highland stock, have been carrying on a campaign to make Nova Scotia more Scottish than Scotland. Their weapons in what is probably the happiest conquest in history have been songs, dances, poetry, bagpipes, bright tartans and Gaelic,

a lilting language with no curse words at all but forty words for expressing love. These weapons have proven so irresistible that instead of opposing the Scots other racial groups in Nova Scotia’s total population of 650,000 have climbed eagerly into the act.

It was a Jew, Mayor Martin Kaufman of Amherst, who persuaded the Nova Scotia government to hire a magnificent six-foot-four pipe major named Wallace Roy to greet summer visitors entering Nova Scotia from New Brunswick at the border of the two provinces, just west of Amherst.

Roy, playing an average of one hundred and twenty-five tunes and posing for an average of five hundred photographs daily through July and August, appealed to tourists so much that the Halifax Tourist Bureau decided Halifax should have a piper like him. It went looking for one and found handsome young Donald Siteman, who had fallen under the Highland spell and taken up the bagpipes although his forebears, early settlers of the fishing port of Lunenburg, were not Scottish but German. There are several other pipers among the Lunenburg Dutch, as Lunenburgers are called in Nova Scotia, and there are pipers, too, among


Nova Scotia’s French-speaking Acadians. For not only the Scots, but all Nova Scotians, take delight in Scottish things. At Antigonish a Chinese restaurant owner, as he seats his customers, smiles and says “dad mile failte”—the Gaelic for “one hundred thousand welcomes.”

The Scottish movement is deep-rooted in Nova Scotia’s past, for in much of the province the foresis were pushed back and the fields were cleared by sturdy Highlanders. But a desire to attract and titillate tourists with a Highland atmosphere has been partly responsible for the modern flowering of the movement, the impact of which is evident everywhere in Nova Scotia.

Gardeners are diligently cultivating heather. Italian laborers in the Sydney steel mills who used to favor grand opera are singing Highland ballads. And the ancient and distinctly Scottish flag of the provincea blue St. Andrew’s cross on a silver field with the royal arms of Scotland in the centre — flies again from public buildings and business houses, after being forgotten and neglected for generations.

As a companion for the old flag, which dates from

1621 when King James I

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granted the charter of New Scotland to Sir William Alexander, Nova Scotia has a new blue, green, yellow and red tartan registered with and recognized by the Lord Lyon King of Arms at Edinburgh. Thousands of Nova Scotia women are wearing skirts of Nova Scotia tartan. Thousands of Nova Scotia men are wearing Nova Scotia tartan ties.

They wear them at Pugwash, where Gaelic street signs are being put up under the English street signs, and at Sydney, where the Stornoway Society is providing free Highland dancing and piping lessons for sixty children. They wear them at St. Ann’s, where for five weeks each summer a privately operated Gaelic College offers instruction in Gaelic, Scottish dancing and piping from instructors brought from Scotland. These instructors this year included the world’s Highland dance champion, James MacKenzie, and the principal of the Glasgow College of Piping, Seumas MacNeill.

They wear them at Grand Narrows, where lean six-foot-two Hugh MacKenzie, farmer, lumberman, fisherman, newspaper correspondent, piper, fiddler and secretary of the Grand Narrows Board of Trade, writes comedies in Gaelic. He has produced four of these, with his neighbors as actors, staging them in church and school halls through his district to raise money for churches and home and school associations.

Nova Scotia tartan skirts and ties are also worn, of course, in Halifax, the provincial capital, where Dalhousie University has instituted a Gaelic course for teachers and where the Nova Scotia Department of Education has engaged a full-fledged Gaelic expert, Calum Ian MacLeod. A scholarly import from the British Isles, MacLeod is a poet who was crowned national Gaelic bard of Scotland in 1937. In midwinter, as in midsummer, he swings along in a kilt, knees bare. Once, his costume would have prompted stares and possibly jeers. But not now. For the Scottish renaissance has converted lots of Nova Scotians to the kilt.

One of Nova Scotia’s best-known lawyers, D. C. Sinclair QC, of New Glasgow, goes to and from his office in the green Sinclair kilt, a bonrtet with the white cockade—the sign of the Jacobites—on his head and a cromach or shepherd’s staff in his hand.

A less-prominent resident of New Glasgow, Charles Fitzpatrick, a laborer, dons a kilt and tucks his bagpipes under his arm when he is temporarily unemployed. This solves his transportation problem as he travels from place to place in search of a job, for no Nova Scotia motorist would refuse to pick up a kilted hitchhiker, and if Fitzpatrick’s funds run low he can pipe for supper.

One footloose Old Country Scot named Alexander Boyd, formerly a piper for the Cunard Steam-Ship Company, has settled down to a career of rambling through rural Nova Scotia from farmhouse to farmhouse, playing his pipes and giving lessons for his keep. As a piper he’s warmly welcomed wherever he chooses to stay.

But the warmth of the welcome extended pipers may be gradually diminished by the sheer weight of numbers, for five hundred Nova Scotians have learned to pipe in the last eight or nine years and more and more boys and girls are joining piping classes all the time.

More than half of them have been trained on Cape Breton Island, the rugged northeastern end of Nova Scotia, which is separated from the mainland by narrow Canso Strait and has more Macdonalds than Smiths, more MacNeils than Joneses, more MacLeods than Browns. On Cape Breton the music stores are currently selling bagpipes at the rate of at least one hundred sets a year, at from eighty to four hundred dollars a set. They used to sell about half a dozen sets a year.

That’s one yardstick for measuring toe progress of the Highland conquest. Still another is the sale of tartans, which has increased a hundredfold. And

which is new—there’s a brisk sale of recordings by Nova Scotia’s Scottish singers, pipers and fiddlers.

What explains the conquest? Why is everybody for it and nobody against it?

The answers aren’t clear-cut, but the quest for tourists has been a factor. In the 1920s when Nova Scotians began to build up a big vacation business (they estimate the 1955 tourist crop was worth forty million dollars to them) they advertised that the scenery of Cape Breton was like the scenery of the Scottish Highlands, which, indeed, it is.

Outsiders who came and saw it were enchanted by it, but were equally enchanted by the sound of bagpipes in the glens, the soft accent of Cape Breton Scots—who say "chust” for "j st” and "wass” for "was”-—and the occasional sight of Scottish dancers dancing and Scottish weavers weaving. So the authors of the tourist literature wrote the Highlanders into the script and a pretty girl in a kilt, doing a Highland fling, became to Nova Scotia tourist folders what a voluptuous girl in a Bikini bathing suit is to the tourist folders of Florida.

A New View on Gaelic

This was heady stuff for Cape Breton. More than seventy thousand of the island’s one hundred and sixty thousand residents are Gaels and they were accustomed to being ridiculed, not praised. Thousands of them in the 1920s could remember being punished by teachers for using in their schoolrooms, and in the yards of their schools for that matter, the language of their parents. While there was never a provincial ban on Gaelic the teachers discouraged it with straps, canes and the best of intentions. They were sure pupils who retained the Gaelic wouldn’t learn to speak English properly and would thus be handicapped in life.

The teachers held this conviction, and acted accordingly for half a century prior to 1921, when the Nova Scotia Department of Education ordered them to adopt a new attitude towax'd Gaelic and authorized the teaching of Gaelic as an optional subject in the public schools. By then the harm had been done. The Scots liad a deep-rooted inferiority complex about their Scottishness. Some who could speak Gaelic perfectly wex-e ashamed to admit it.

But when they were billed as a tourist attraction their racial pride reasserted itself. They weren’t aggressive about, it; they merely emerged and were themselves.

Ironieally, once the attention of the non-Scots was fixed on the Scots by the tourist literature, the non-Scots discovered they were as charming and colorful as the tourist litera tu re claimed. 1'lnis did the conquest of Nova. Scotia by the Highlanders begin, with the non-Scots waiting with open arms to ho captured.

But every movement, however popular, needs a leader. The Scots got one in

1933 when Angus L. Macdonald was elected premier of Nova Scotia. Except for the war years, which he spent as fedei-al navy minister at Ottawa, Macdonald was premier of Nova Scotia until his death in 1954. Already lie’s a legend in his own province, a kind of Nova Scotian Bruce or Wallace.

Macdonald, born on Cape Breton, spoke Gaelic before English and preferred the kilt to trousers. He was slim and handsome, like many Cape Breton Scots, and he had the poetic flair and the lilting intonation of the true Gael. It was Macdonald who

resui'rected Nova Scotia’s old Scottish flag, which had fallen into disuse after Confederation. It was Macdonald who appointed the border piper, Wallace Roy, at the suggestion of Mayor Kaufman of Amherst.

It was Macdonald who encouraged a Presbyterian minister, Rev. A. W. R. MacKenzie, to establish the Gaelic College at the Cape Breton village of St. Ann’s, although Macdonald himself was a Roman Catholic, like half the Scots in Nova Scotia.

It was Macdonald who had the Department of Education engage the

Scottish bal'd, Calum MacLeod. And when Mrs. Bessie Murray, a weaver, came out from the Old Country after the war and designed a lovely new plaid, it was Macdonald who prevailed on that august official, Edinburgh’s Lord Lyon King of Arms, to recognize it as Nova Scotia’s tartan. This was a major triumph. A plaid is merely a pattern, but once the Lord Lyon registers it as a tartan it is the textile equivalent of a coat of arms. No province had ever had its own tartan before.

For Mi's. Murray this recognition

“Cia mar a tha sibh,” the premier said. He just meant “How do you do?”

helped create a flourishing handicraft industry. She now has a staff of weavers and a Nova Scotia-born partner, Mrs. Alex MacAuley, who drives a convertible with a Nova Scotia tartan top. Mrs. MacAuley tailors all the kilts of Nova Scotia tartan, and insists that they must be hand-stitched —every stitch—to qualify as "real kilts.”

From their shop in Halifax, Mrs. Murray and Mrs. MacAuley have filled orders for kilts from such unlikely individuals as two Vancouver physicians and the mayor of Saskatoon. Customers from other provinces often volunteer proof of their Nova Scotia birth or ancestry to show they have a right to wear the Nova Scotia tartan. This isn’t necessary — anybody who chooses may wear it.

Nova Scotia’s tartan trappings, Scottish flag, border piper, patches of heather, scores of pipe bands, Gaelic College and Highland games and mods —which are competitions for pipers, dancers, singers, fiddlers and bards— make the province seem like a scene out of the musical comedy Brigadoon. It’s a scene with some funny lines.

When Scottish-born Ramsay MacDonald was prime minister of Britain and visited Nova Scotia, Premier Angus Macdonald greeted him with "cia mar a tha sibh?”—the Gaelic for "how do you do?” Ramsay MacDonald frowned and looked baffled. Suddenly the shadow lifted from his face and he beamed with pleasure. "Thank you, Mr. Premier,” he said. "It’s a unique experience to be welcomed in Iroquois.”

A tourist from South Dakota once pointed to the hairy sporran of Wallace Roy, the border piper, and inquired, "Where’d you get the scalp?” And an elderly woman from Georgia, who walked around and around him staring as he played his bagpipes, asked afterward, "Where’s the motor that makes the noise?”

But, under the musical comedy surface, Nova Scotia’s Highland movement has an earnestness and a heroicquality and a strain of sadness. Wallace Roy, for instance, is a piper because this was the dying wish of his father Ben, a coal miner who was fatally injured in a mining accident at Stellarton on Christmas Eve, 1918. Wallace Roy pipes at the border for two and a half months at two hundred dollars a month. A miner like his father, he’s unemployed the rest of the year because the shaft in which he worked has closed down. Last winter he applied unsuccessfully for a job scrubbing floors at Camp Hill Hospital in Halifax. Yet, with his fine face, his strapping six-foot-four figure, his pleasant Scottish voice and the five-hundred-dollar uniform furnished by the Nova Scotia government, he’s so impressive that none of the thousands of tourists he plays for would dream of offering him a tip— even if he were willing to accept.

Or take the story of the Gaelic College. Rev. A. W. R. MacKenzie, a stern-jawed Old Country Scot who was minister of Knox Presbyterian Church at Baddeck, Cape Breton, felt such an institution was needed to stimulate Gaelic culture. Premier Macdonald endorsed the idea. So, in 1939, MacKenzie and a handful of followers bought the abandoned homestead of Rev. Norman MacLeod, a fabulous figure in Cape Breton history. The fields MacLeod had cleared at St. Ann’s had grown up in spruce. MacKenzie and his followers cut and

peeled spruce logs and erected an over sized log cabin, stuffing the chinks with moss and oakum. This was, and is, thi main college building, although there are other buildings on the property now, among them a handicraft centre,

The hundred and thirty or so stu dents who attend the college for five weeks in the summer live in rustic dormitories. They are mostly in theii teens and the girls among them fai outnumber the boys. At classes theji sit on pews from MacLeod’s old church, MacLeod, a grim - visaged dictator, brought a shipload of Highlanders to St. Ann’s in 1820. A law unto himself, he once had a boy’s ear cut off because he thought the boy had stolen. It turned out later that the victim was innocent. When MacLeod noticed that the women of his congregation were curling their hair, he browbeat them into bringing him their curling irons, which he dropped into the deep water of Black Cove.

When his own wife wore a frivolous hat to church MacLeod preached a four-hour sermon in Gaelic about her shortcomings. He rode herd on morals so diligently that in the thirty-one years he was at St. Ann’s not one illegitimate child was born within a radius of twenty miles.

Finally MacLeod decided Cape Breton was not the promised land he had hoped for and ordered his congregation to build ships and prepare for a voyage to Australia. He sailed on the first of these ships, the Margaret, in 1851, but didn’t like Australia and went to New Zealand. Between then and 1860 five vessels trailed the Margaret to New Zealand. St. Ann’s people who didn’t emigrate nailed a cross over the door of his empty house, which was to crumble and blow down without ever again being entered by a human being.

MacAskill was a Giant

At the Gaelic College there’s a model of the Margaret and a picture of MacLeod. MacLeod scowls darkly from a dark frame. He wouldn’t have approved of the dancing, the piping, the gay kilts, the droves of tourists with their jeans and gaudy sport shirts and cameras.

But the Gaelic College also has a picture of Angus MacAskill, who would have approved heartily. MacAskill was the Cape Breton giant—height sevenfoot-nine, weight four hundred and twenty-five pounds. He was one of MacLeod’s flock but instead of going to New Zealand he toured North America and Europe with Phineas T. Barnum, the circus man, holding Tom Thumb the midget on the palm of his hand.

Eighty-five-year-old James D. Gillis, a retired Cape Breton schoolteacher, who describes strong drink as "tanglefoot” and is convinced that tobacco should only be used as a remedy for snakebite, wrote a biography of MacAskill. Reluctantly he headed one of his chapters, MacAskill Would Take A Glass. Then, with Scottish honesty, he confessed: "Did I say (he took) a glass? Well, ’twas a mistake. He used to drink out of a wooden dish called a tub.” Gillis added: "It may be

superfluous to say he was not a bigot.”

The Cape Breton Highlanders are fiercely proud of MacAskill, and most of them are fiercely proud of Rev. Norman MacLeod—but not the ones who live at the village of Boularderie. MacLeod one hundred and twenty-

five years ago called the pastor of Boularderie "a sheep”—the worst insult in the Gaelic language. The memories of Highlanders are long and the insult hasn’t been forgotten. Even today most Boularderie folks stay away from the annual Gaelic Mod and Highland Scottish Gathering at St. Ann’s because this is held at the Gaelic College on MacLeod’s homestead.

But, if it’s boycotted by Boularderie, the St. Ann’s mod and gathering, which lasts for a week, draws thousands from the rest of Nova Scotia and from elsewhere in Canada and the United States.

Highland games, mods and clan gatherings are held at such other Nova Scotia communities as Glace Bay, Dartmouth, Pugwash and Antigonish, and they vie with one another to secure the services of piper Fraser Holmes, Gaelic singers Malcolm MacLeod and Neil Steele, and fiddlers Angus Chisholm, Angus Gillis, Dan Campbell and Hugh MacDonald.

All these anti a dozen or so others are "recording artists.” Their music, taperecorded at Sydney radio station CJCB, has been put on records by Metrodisc of Montreal and Quality Records of Toronto, and the sale of these records in Nova Scotia runs into tens of thousands. The lively Scottish songs and tunes—several by Cape Breton composers like Jonathan MacKinnon of the village of Whycocomagh and Dan Alexander MacDonald of the village of Framboiseare giving recordings of nasal whining cowboy singers stiff competition. The Nova Scotia Department of Education, which tried in the old days to stamp out Gaelic, is happy about this. Says Guy Henson, Nova Scotia’s director of adult education: "When the Gaels began to lose their Gaelic culture a vacuum was created and hillbillyism moved in. With Gaelic

culture coming back I hope hillbillyism will be squeezed out.”

Henson’s branch of the Department of Education now has fourteen evening classes for the study of Gaelic, ten on Cape Breton and four on the mainland. And the Gaels wish their clan chiefs could be persuaded to come from Scotland and enroll. Their chiefs have been a tremendous disappointment to them.

The head of a clan has been imported each year since 1947 to preside at the St. Ann’s Gaelic Mod and Highland Scottish Gathering. Dame Flora MacLeod, chief of the MacLeods, was the first. She was a remarkably fine and attractive woman but to the eternal disgrace of Nova Scotia’s MacLeods she hadn’t a word of Gaelic. The MacLeods blushed with shame.

In 1948 the guest of honor was Lord Macdonald of Macdonald, chief of Clan Donald. Premier Angus Macdonald met him.

”Cia mar a tha sibh?” Angus Macdonald asked him, as he had asked Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald.

"I’m frightfully sorry, old boy,” said Lord Macdonald, in the unmistakable accent of Oxford, "but I don’t speak that ”

Hoping to avoid the shame that had fallen on Clan MacLeod, Angus Macdonald summoned his brother, Rev. Stanley P. Macdonald, parish priest of Big Pond, Cape Breton.

Father Stanley, as he’s called in Cape Breton, is a pipe-smoking snuffsniffing man, full of fun but stern when he has to be. He was stern with Lord Macdonald. He wrote a short address in Gaelic for him to deliver at the mod, spelling it out phonetically, and he stood over him until he memorized it.

The address, following on the shame of the MacLeods, was a terrific hit. The cheers of the Macdonalds could be heard from one end of Cape Breton to

the other. Unfortunately Lord Macdonald, overwhelmed by the reception, left the speakers’ platform to mix with the crowd. He was peppered with Gaelic from all sides and he didn’t understand a word of it and the awful truth came out. He had no Gaelic. The Macdonalds, like the MacLeods, blushed furiously.

But the Macdonalds and the MacLeods were not to remain alone in their misery. Sir Charles MacLean, the MacLean of Duart, followed MacDonald to St. Ann’s and couldn’t speak Gaelic either. Not knowing what was going on, he wandered off the speakers’ platform and sat down in the shade under a tree. So the MacLeans joined the MacLeods and the Macdonalds in their agony. So, eventually, did such other great clans as the MacNeils and the Frasers, whose chiefs also arrived for the St. Ann’s Gaelic Mod but had no Gaelic.

Ottawa Roasted in Gaelic

If the failure of their chiefs to speak Gaelic has disappointed Cape Breton Gaels, and Gaels elsewhere in Nova Scotia, it has likewise convinced them that they are the last custodians of Scotland’s mother tongue, "the language of the Garden of Piden,” and has strengthened their determination to keep it alive.

How many of them actually speak it every day instead of English? About seven thousand, according to the 1951 census. But Calum MacLeod, since 1950 the Gaelic adviser of the Nova Scotia Department of Education, estimates that another twenty thousand or more have a fair knowledge of Gaelic—enough, for instance, to understand a speech.

An incident last August 13 at the formal opening of the mile-long Canso Causeway, constructed to link Cape Breton with the Nova Scotia mainland, made MacLeod’s estimate look conservative. The ceremony was attended by two federal ministers, Rt. Hon. C. D. Howe and Hon. George C. Marler, and the program was arranged at Ottawa. One single minute was allocated to the only Gaelic speaker, Father Stanley Macdonald. Angered by the time limit, which he regarded as an insult to the Gaels, Father Stanley protested indignantly and was granted two minutes. In the two minutes he said, in Gaelic, exactly what he thought of Ottawa for restricting the Gaelic

speaker to two minutes on an occasion so important to Cape Breton, "the Highland heart of North America.”

If Ottawa had any excuse for its discourtesy, he said, it might be that Ottawa was a very young town and bad manners were frequently a mark of youth. Or it might be that Ottawa, which was originally a logging camp and where the smell of spruce still hung in the air, had clung to the notoriously bad manners of lumberjacks.

There were twenty-five thousand in the crowd who heard him and most of them had sufficient Gaelic to get the gist of his remarks. They laughed until they were doubled over and tears ran down their cheeks. The federal ministers, meanwhile, looked quite pleased. Even proud. While they hadn’t a clue to what he was saying they had heard the name of Ottawa frequently, so at least he wasn’t ignoring the national capital.

When Father Stanley referred to Cape Breton as "the Highland heart of North America” he wasn’t exaggerating. So well known is Cape Breton, because of the Highland conquest of Nova Scotia; that in recent years British film producers have switched the locale of two outstanding pictures, Johnny Belinda and The Kidnappers, from the Highlands of Scotland to the Highlands of Cape Breton. The plots of both movies revolved around Scottish character and its odd mixture of fierceness and gentleness, sternness and kindliness. While the films were actually shot in Scotland the producers felt the Scottish traits they portrayed would be more believable if Cape Breton were designated as the background, Cape Breton being more Scottish than Scotland of the present day.

An Ohio woman who had once been a resident of Cape Breton was engulfed by a wave of nostalgia when she saw The Kidnappers last spring. She had to hear Gaelic again, so she telephoned a cousin on Cape Breton, fifteen hundred miles away, and pleaded with her to sing the Cape Breton boatmen’s song, Fear a' Bhata.

Her cousin was on a rural party line. By the time she started singing, receivers were coming down off the hooks and staying down. As each receiver came off the hook the reception in Ohio grew fainter. But by then the song was no longer a solo. It was a chorus. it