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Folklore of Nova Scotia
Chapter I. The Land and its People

A glance at the map of Canada reveals the Province of Nova Scotia at the extreme east jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, which buffets its eastern, southern, and western shores. In fact, with the exception of twelve miles, where the Isthmus of Chignecto joins it to New Brunswick, our province is completely surrounded by water. The Bay of Fundy on the northwest and Northumberland Strait on the north, complete its boundaries. A closer look will show that Nova Scotia is composed of two natural divisions, the peninsula of Nova Scotia proper and the Island of Cape Breton, which is separated from it by a deep navigable water passage fourteen miles long and a mile broad, called the Strait of Canso. Look now at the indentations in the coast line, and you will not find it hard to believe that there are 1,200 miles of it, apart from Cape Breton’s inland sea.

Owing to our geographical position at the front door of Canada, it is not surprising that Nova Scotia should be the first part of America visited by Europeans. To the old Norse sagas the compilers of the “Chronicles of Canada” have gone for the record of these visits. As early as 986 A.D. a hardy Norse sailor named Biarne sailing from Iceland to Greenland, was driven by unfavorable winds to a part of the Canadian coast which, from the description given in the old saga may have been Nova Scotia, Newfoundland or Labrador. Again in 1000 A.D., Lief, son of Eric the Red of Norway, set out from Greenland and reached a place which corresponds to Nova Scotia in climate and general appearance. He named the place Mark-land (the Land of Forests). He and his men spent a winter here.

In 1007 A.D., Thorfinn Karlsevne attempted to form a permanent settlement in Markland, and for that purpose brought out a number of colonists. During his stay here a son was born to him who was probably the first white child born in America.

Apart from these old Norse sagas nothing more is heard of our province until John Cabot’s voyage of discovery in 1497. This intrepid sailor, at his first landing in America, stepped on shore and claimed the land first for God by planting the cross in its soil, then for England, the land of his adoption, by unfurling the banner of St. George for the first time on American soil. Cape Breton's claims to being that soil are based mainly on a map made by John Cabot’s son Sebastian, which was discovered in Germany in 1843 and which bears the date 1544. On this map the north-eastern point of North America, which corresponds to Cape North, Cape Breton Island, is named “prima terra vista”.

Basque and Breton fishermen followed in the wake of the Cabots and landed in Cape Breton. A relic of their having been here apart from the very name Cape Breton, we find in the name Baccalaos, the Basque for cod, which is applied to Cape Breton on the earliest maps.

Authentic history begins for Nova Scotia in 1604 with the coming of De Monts and his company, of which Samuel de Champlain was one, and the founding of the first permanent settlement of Port Royal in the northwest of the peninsula. This historic spot is located in a valley between

two mountain ranges, the North Mountain, which extends along the margin of the Bay of Fundy from Digby Strait on the west to Cape Blomidon on the east; and South Mountain, a range of hills which runs eastward to the Strait of Canso, thus forming a central watershed through the peninsula.

If you ride through this beautiful valley in the month of June, the odor of apple blossoms will perfume your way for fifty miles, for this is Nova Scotia’s finest fruit growing district. Some of the choicest of these apples, for example, the Beliveau, are called by the name of their planters—a sad reminder of the Acadian inhabitants of this valley, the story of whose expulsion embodies the greatest tragedy in the history of the province. These people were the descendants of sixty families who came from France to settle in Port Royal (now Annapolis), the first permanent settlement in Canada. For over a century they toiled to make homes for themselves, and by 1713 A.D. their villages dotted Minas Basin and the shores of the Bay of Fundy from Beaubassin (Amherst) to Port Royal.

During all this time their mother country was very apathetic in their regard. Edouard Richard in “Acadia or Missing Links in a Lost Chapter of American History,” describes their situation thus: “For a century they were strangers to France and to Canada. They had formed habits and built up traditions that made them a separate people. They were Acadians.” They had named their country Acadie. They had cultivated the fertile stretches of territory which extend along the Bay of Fundy and Minas Basin; they had built comfortable homes, and were a peaceful, light-hearted people. Missionaries had converted the Indians and had made them the friends of the Acadians.

The wars between France and England had left this happy, contented people unmolested. True the province had passed from France to England and back to France several times. During England’s ownership in 1632 it was given over to Sir William Alexander, who planted a Scottish settlement at Port Royal and named the whole peninsula, together with Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. But these Scots were soon absorbed by the Acadians, and Colson, Paisley and Mellanson soon became the names of good Acadian citizens.

In 1713 Acadie was permanently ceded to England by the Treaty of Utrecht, the terms of which provided to the Acadians, besides the free exercise of their religion, the choice of remaining in the country in full possession of all they owned, on condition of their taking the oath of allegiance to Great Britain; or, leaving the country and taking with them their movable goods and also the proceeds of the sale of their immovable property. They had one year in which to make their decision. Later, a letter from Queen Anne prolonged the time of departure indefinitely.

Up to 1717 the Acadians had refused to take any oath binding them to the British Crown, but as they were kept from leaving the country by one artifice after another, they no longer refused the oath of allegiance provided that a clause was inserted exempting them from bearing arms against the French, their kinsmen, and the Indians, their allies. After taking this oath, which made them neutrals, they were left unmolested until 1748, when Governor Cornwallis of Nova Scotia began to urge them to take an unreserved oath of allegiance to Great Britain, or leave the country, in which case their goods were to be confiscated. They wrote to the Governor for permission to leave, but were again detained by one excuse after another —once they had to wait for passports, again for ships to carry them to French territory, and so on. When they built ships themselves they were not allowed to use them. The governors of Nova Scotia were not anxious to lose such industrious subjects. Cape Breton, which was still a French possession, would become a powerful rival if, as was possible, many of them should settle there.

But the poor Acadians little suspected the dire tragedy of which they were soon to be the victims. The setting in which this drama was enacted was picturesque indeed. As you stand beneath the old willows near Evangeline’s well at Grand Pre it is easy to reconstruct the scene. Away to the north Cape Blomidon raises his hoary head 450 feet above the waters of the Minas Basin and keeps guard over the tides as they rush in daily between Capes d’Or and Split, and pile up the waters to the height of fifty or sixty feet. The dykes that shut out the tides of Fundy from the low-lying meadows just in front of you bear silent evidence to the industry of the Acadians. The Memorial Church to your left, built on the site of the old village church, and as much like it as possible, has no longer its cluster of homesteads, for, as Longfellow sings: "Nought but tradition remains of the beautiful village of Grand Pre.” The Gaspereaux River, which marked the eastern boundary of the village empties its waters into the Basin of Minas in front of you just as it did on that eventful August fourteenth, 1755, when Colonel Winslow with three hundred and thirteen soldiers dropped anchor at its mouth. Governor Lawrence—for the English Government was not responsible for this crime—had ordered that the Acadians should be carried into exile and had sent ships for that purpose. Col. Winslow, who conducted the deportation at Grand Pre, ordered the men to assemble in the village church, and when they had done so he declared them prisoners. With the utmost cruelty they were marched to the waiting ships, and made to embark at the point of the bayonet. Husbands were separated from their wives, parents from their children, brothers and sisters from one another. Many families were never reunited. Like scenes were enacted in all the Acadian villages, until 6,272 men, women and children were torn from their homes around the Bay of Fundy.

Many of the inhabitants of Port Royal fled to the forests to avoid deportation. Through the friendship of the Indians, they remained hidden for five years until peace was established, during which time they were reduced almost to the condition of savages, wandering about in the woods and1 living on fish, game and roots.

During this dreary time, religion was the only consolation of this suffering people. One of their descendants tells how they kept the faith alive on Acadian soil. “On Sundays and feast days they had reunions, which were really religious ceremonies devoid, of course, of the presence of a priest. But the priest was replaced by the most venerable and respectable person present. He was the priest who presided at what they called the “White Mass.” The rosary was recited, the Mass prayers read. This was not all. At these gatherings marriages were performed and children were baptized.”

Those who were deported were disembarked at the principal seaports on the American coast from Maine to Georgia. These ports were totally unprepared to receive them, and the unwelcome guests were treated accordingly. Many of these exiles, with great toil and suffering, made their way back to Nova Scotia through the unbroken forests of Maine and New Brunswick, only to find their old settlements bearing English names, and peopled by English inhabitants; while they themselves, gaunt and in tatters, were objects of terror to the women and children of the places through which they passed. So far as is known, only one family, D’Entremont, came into possession of its ancient patrimony.

At length they found new places of settlement in the western section of the province around Cape Sable and St. Mary’s Bay, which are to-day the most densely populated rural sections of the province. Some found their way to Cape Breton and settled at Cheticamp in the north of Inverness County, and at Arichat, L’Ardoise, Petit de Gras, Descousse, in the southwest of Richmond County. In these places the old names LeBlanc, Poirier, Boudreau, Landry, Richard, Doucet and many another increased and multiplied until a century later there were 56,635 Acadians in Nova Scotia. But the terrible years through which they had passed were hard to forget. When l’Abbe Casgrain visited their settlements in 1885 he could not but remark the sad wistful faces of the Acadian women.

The lands left vacant by the exiled Acadians were given over to people from New England. First two hundred came from Rhode Island; then twenty vessels loaded with colonists from Connecticut came on June fourth, 1760. “They met a few straggling families of Acadians. .... They had eaten no bread for five years.” Previous to this, a number of German colonists who had settled in Lunenburg County had crossed over to the Acadian lands and had driven many of the cattle back to their own settlement.

The great problem that now faced the governors of Nova Scotia was the peopling of the vacant lands, not only those of the Acadians, but also the long untilled stretches lying towards the east. Immigration from British territory was especially desired, and prospective colonists were encouraged by the promise of free lands. Two hundred came from Ulster, Ireland, and settled at Truro and Londonderry, in Colchester County; another larger group of Irishmen settled at New Dublin, in Lunenburg County. The population of Halifax was increased by a large immigrant body from Yorkshire, England. At the close of the American Revolution, many British who earned for themselves the title of United Empire Loyalists because they refused to give up allegiance to the old flag, were welcomed in Nova Scotia to the number of 35,000, and were given lands in Shelburne, Annapolis and Cumberland counties on the penninsula, and at Sydney, Cape Breton.

But Pictou, Antigonish and the greater part of Cape Breton were still waiting for colonists. On Sept. 15, 1773, the good ship “Hector,” owned by John Pagan of Greenock, Scotland, landed at Pictou with two hundred Highlanders on board. This was the beginning of a steady stream of immigrants from Scotland. To he descended from some one who “came over” in the “Hector” is a much appreciated distinction. These immigrants who settled in Pictou County were for the most part Presbyterians. Catholics began to come from the Highlands in 1785. They settled for the most part in Antigonish County and Cape Breton. Among the first arrivals was a great-hearted Highlander named MacDonald. He had built up a comfortable home before the full tide of immigration came in. His kindness to his fellow-countrymen on their arrival was proverbial. In one winter alone, no fewer than nine newly married couples among the immigrants were given big weddings at his house. One event of this kind would give much trouble and expense, for it meant entertaining the whole countryside with the best of everything that could be procured. Nine such events must have taxed even Highland hospitality.

Bishop Plessis of Quebec, who made a pastoral visit to the Maritime Provinces in 1812, reports that from Merigonish along the Gulf Shore, and thence to Antigonish town there were three hundred and fifty families of Catholic Highlanders. It is estimated also that 25,000 settled in the Island of Cape Breton alone.

All through these districts you find Highland place names, Arisaig, Knoydart, Morar, Lismore, Iona, Craignish, Inverness, Strathlorne, Glencoe and a score of others; and as for names beginning with Mac you have only to turn up a telephone directory to find interminable lists of MacDonalds, MacDougalds, MacPhersons, MacEacherns, MacNeils, MacKinnons, MacIntyres, MacGillivrays, and dozens of others.

They built their first church in 1792 on the rock bound coast of Arisaig in Antigonish Co. Rev. James MacDonald, who had come from Scotland shortly before, took charge of it, and thus became the first resident priest in the Highland districts. People came here from miles around to receive the Sacraments. They came even from far off Cape d’Or on the Bay of Fundy, where some Catholic Highlanders had settled. Tradition gives the names of three valiant women—Mrs. Mary MacLeod and her two daughters-in-law—who used to travel on foot the one hundred and fifty miles between Cape d’Or and Arisaig, guiding themselves by blazes made on the trees. On one. occasion, they carried with them Mrs. MacLeod’s newly-born grandson that they might have him baptized. This child was destined to be the first native born priest of the Diocese of Antigonish, Rev. William MacLeod.

The first place of settlement of the Highlanders in Cape Breton was Inverness Co. Many landed at the Strait of Canso and proceeded to make homes along the western shore. The north of Cape Breton must have reminded them especially of their old home. Here the lands rise to a height of two thousand feet, the highest elevation in the province. The deep gorges and ravines by which these lands are frequently broken, give a wild, rugged grandeur to the scenery.

Soon, however, ship-loads of Highlanders found their way to the entrances to Cape Breton’s inland sea, the beautiful Bras d’Or Lakes. These entrances are on the northeast of Cape Breton on either side of Boularderie Island. They lead into the irregular body of salt water occupying an area of 450 square miles. Two main bodies of water called the Little Bras d’Or, and the Great Bras d’Or, form this inland sea. They spread out through the heart of the island into bays and coves which are remarkable for their scenic beauty. They are joined together at Grand Narrows by Barra Strait—a name which show's that MacNeils were the first settlers here. In fact about 1804 James and Hector Mac-Neil, with others of their clan from the Island of Barra, Scotland, arrived at Grand Narrows, and began at once to clear the land for a settlement. How they were received by the Indians is told by Peter Googoo, an intelligent old native of the Whycocomagh reserve: “Our people River Denys and around here, hear about new people come Narrows. We go see ’em. He no speak like Frenchman, but say kaw, kaw. We ask him what doin’. He say ‘we work here permission of king’. We not know your king, and our people goana kill Scotchman. Then he make Sign of de Cross. Den we know him our brudder. We lob him. Dem Scotchman hab flat bonnet, so we call him Saskatbaymit, flat-head."

Many Highlanders went beyond Barra Strait and made homes all around the shores of the Great Bras d’Or. Eventually the small neck of land at St. Peter’s which shut out the ocean from the lake, was cut through, and to-day St. Peter’s Canal is the southern entrance to the Bras d’Or Lakes. Thence even large vessels can sail through the island to the Atlantic on the east.

On the southeastern coast of Cape Breton is historic Louisburg, which under the French regime was the Dun.

The Bras d’Or Lakes at Baddeck, Cape Breton Island. This body of salt water comprises a surface of 450 square miles practically tideless and dotted with spruce-clad islands kirk of America. Grass-grown ruins clustering around a granite monument are all that remain to mark this stronghold. A guide points out one heap of earth after another: “Here was the king’s bastion, there the queen’s, that elevation to your right, the dauphin’s. This depression just under your feet was the opening to an underground passage to the harbor.” A little further on, he pushes aside a clump of daisies and points to bits of white masonry:" This was the site of the convent; the church was there.” You look long and reverently at the spot where Margaret Bourgeoys’ daughters prayed and toiled to educate the children of the early inhabitants of Isle Royal, as Cape Breton was then called; then you pick a bit of stone from amid the flowers, together with a daisy or two, and as you leave the hallowed place your eyes wander seaward, and you think of those native born Canadian nuns who were carried away as exiles to France in English ships when Louisburg fell in 1758. One of them died on the way and the Atlantic is her grave.

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