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History/Bras d'Or Lake
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From Barra to Bras d’Or: The Scottish Settlers of Cape Breton
“Gone to America.”

While the terse notation beside the names of 50 families from the Scottish isle of North Uist may conjure up images of 19th century Boston or New York, these Gaelic-speaking emigrants were bound for the island of Cape Breton. In 1827, with the failure of the kelp trade in Scotland and few economic prospects for the future, the steady stream of Scottish settlers to Atlantic Canada that had begun in the late 1700’s had become a raging torrent.

Before the immigration flood subsided in the 1840’s, at least 20,000 Scots had settled in Nova Scotia, many of them along the shores of Cape Breton’s Bras d’Or Lakes. In the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, entire communities pulled up their roots, putting them down again in places like Iona, Christmas Island, Marble Mountain and Loch Lomond.

Language, songs, stories and religious practices were transplanted from one continent to another, and preserved for generations. At the turn of the 20th century, there were 100,000 Gaelic-speakers in Cape Breton. Most Scottish church services, Catholic and Protestant alike, were conducted in Gaelic. Most Cape Breton members of federal and provincial parliament were Gaelic-speaking, and the coal mining centre of Sydney, Cape Breton’s largest urban centre, boasted the world’s only Gaelic newspaper.

Although history traces some of Cape Breton’s immigration influx to “The Clearances” – the mass eviction of tenant farmers to make way for Scottish sheep farms – records show that many of the Island’s Gaelic settlers arrived long before the evictions took effect. Dreams, not desperation, drove many Scots to emigrate. Seeking new lives and new opportunities, they followed in the footsteps of the earliest pioneers.

Among the first to arrive in the Iona area of the Bras d’Or Lakes were the MacNeils, from the Barra Isles of the Outer Hebrides. Their ancestor, Donald “Og” MacNeil, was said to have discovered the beauty of the Lakes while serving in the British army at the 1756 Seige of Louisbourg. Before his death, only 2 years later at Quebec, he urged his family to leave Scotland and settle in Cape Breton. Although it was more than 40 years before his descendants heeded his advice, they eventually found the very place that Donald had described. Today, the “Barra MacNeils” are recognized as one of the Island’s first families.

Other early Scottish settlers found their way to Cape Breton from the mainland Nova Scotia communities of Pictou and Antigonish. Immigrants from the Hebrides isle of South Uist, originally bound for Prince Edward Island, had already reached the upper reaches of St. Andrews Channel when the Barra settlers began to arrive in Iona.

Today, while Cape Breton continues to honour and celebrate its Gaelic heritage, there are only 500 – 1,000 Gaelic-speakers in all of Nova Scotia. With a resurgence of interest in preserving Gaelic language and culture, members of the Gaelic community are working with the province of Nova Scotia to develop a Gaelic language policy.

Visit the Highland Village Museum in Iona
Follow in the footsteps of Scottish Highlanders and Islanders as they leave their crofts in Barra, South Uist and Skye for the wooded shores of Cape Breton’s Bras d’Or Lakes. At the Highland Village Living History Museum in Iona, overlooking Barramen’s Strait, 10 historic buildings, a working farm and a bustling village portray 140 years of Gaelic culture. The Museum is open daily from mid-May to mid-October.

Begin your time-travel journey in the Scottish Hebrides, in a stone-walled, sod-roofed “Taigh Dubh,” or “Black House” (the only one of its kind in North America), then cross the ocean to the pioneer settlement of Iona, where a log cabin, farm house, barn, schoolhouse, general store, blacksmith shop, carding mill and two town dwellings trace the settlers’ progress from early pioneers to prosperous villagers.

Listen to costumed interpreters sing Gaelic songs as they demonstrate pioneer weaving, quilting, rug-hooking and soap-making skills, and take part in special summer activities that include storytelling presentations, evening candlelight tours and codfish suppers.

The Highland Museum is also the home of the Roots Cape Breton Genealogy and Family History Centre, a unique resource centre that features a genealogy database of over 800,000 names, census information dating back to 1811, and an extensive collection of birth, death, marriage, property and church records.

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