From Barra to Bras
d’Or: The Scottish Settlers of Cape
“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
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.
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
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