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History of Inverness County, Nova Scotia
Chapter XXXIV - Highland Society of Antigonish

Highland Society of Antigonish. Why It Exists and Its History.

By Dr. A. G. MacDonald The rotogravure section of The Sunday Leader this week contains a number of pictures from scenes at the Highland Games held severel weeks ago in Antigonish. These were eminently successful and as a prelude to a similar athletic gathering in Halifax on the 13th of August, they served to maintain an interest that went a long way towards ensuring that favorable issue which attended the efforts of the North British Society.

The Braemar at Antigonish was conducted under the auspices of the Highland Society, and celebrated the diamond jubilee of that venerable organization.

Sixty years of existence is the record claimed by the Highland Society; the twenty-five years of its life prior to 1861 are not considered. History, however, testifies to the fact that for eighty-five years there has been such a society in the county of Antigonish and history further records that it is thus the oldest Highland Society in the Maritime Provinces, and the oldest Highland Society functioning in Canada. Why is the Highland Society? The question is pertinent. Five words are required to ask it. But considerably more are needed if it is to be adequately answered.

To Assist The Emigrant.

The Highland Society of Antigonish functions for several purposes. Chief amongst them is that of rendering assistance to the Scottish emigrant. The story associated with such an expressed need is a long one. It extends back over the last century and takes one to a period when Nova Scotia was not the smiling productive land it is now. The forest primeval was then the unpromising portion of the original pioneers.

"No one can understand the history of the Highland Society of Antigonish, without first having made a profound study of the background." One must try to visualise the hardships of the original pioneers of this country. They came, for the most part, from a treeless land, which for centuries had been racked with political and religious strife.

"The history of Scotland in the 18th Century is a history first of rebellion, and of discontent with the reigning power, accentuated by religious turbulence and repression. The freedom of worship enjoyed today by all the peoples under the British Flag was practically unknown in those days. Religious persecution and landlordism with its cruel greed and arrogance in a great many cases made emigration from their native glens and straths to the forests of America a happy if sad alternative to our heroic forefathers.

Hardy Ancestors.

Unquestionably our emigrating forbears were the greatest pioneers of which we have any account. When one reads of the various agencies employed in our day in getting settlers into our Western Provinces, and the paternalism and solicitude shown by governments in getting them settled on lands ready for the plough, the achievements of our forefathers in making homes in the forest, unaided in anyway by governments, only stand forth in bolder relief. To add to their disabilities for the herculean tasks before them, they did not know how to wield the axe, now became an indispensible instrument to success.

"Their native country taught them how to wield the broad-sword but not, in their treeless country, the axe.

"Nor were they capable of judging soil all land, good or bad, was the same, so long as they were free and owners of it. This is no reproach to them. The land they left overseas was rocky, sterile and incapable of being worked easily; but, born there for generations, never moving from their place of abode, accustomed to earn their precarious existence by the sweat of their brow, they had come to believe that this was the only kind of land there could be, consequently, if the portions of Nova Scotia in which they settled possessed all the characteristics of the land they had left, the belief became more firmly rooted than ever.

"The result is the apparent anomaly that meets your gaze as you travel through portions of our province.

"In Scotland they had to build on the mountain tops as a protection from their enemies; in Nova Scotia, they often built on the hilltops, simply because they had done so in Scotland.

Horrors of Sea Voyage.

"In the early days vessels used to come to Miramichi and other ports in New Brunswick for timber. The necessity of returning for their cargo furnished the cheap passages that looked so attractive to our Scottish ancestors. The ship-owners would rather bring the Highland peasants across than send their vessels back with empty bottoms.

"Imagine the conditions that prevailed. Small-pox and fever developed almost with every voyage. The destination was never certain.

"The history of Antigonish is connected closely with that of a voyage in which forty families were brought across the Atlantic of which only one individual on board could speak a word of English. They were dumped ashore at St. Andrews, N. B., but after a while they were picked up again by a French schooner and brought to Arichat. Later on, a Highland captain, Donald MacNeil, put into Arichat selling cordwood; he found them stranded and, taking them on board, carried them to Long Point, near Judique.
"Our ancestors came in small bodies from the same counties and the same islands of the Hebrides, and according to their religious denominations, they settled down in groups. Hence you find Pictou County predominantly Presbyterian and Antigonish Roman Catholic.

Ceaseless Toilers.

"The great question in those days was not entirely religion. Bread and butter was the insistent necessity. Our ancestors made war on the forests. They regarded the trees as their enemy, to be ruthlessly destroyed, and they did destroy them, and unfortunately with little care as to future landscape effects.

"Usually they were men with large families, with no educational advantages. They had no time to devote to schooling.

Work and work hard was their slogan. They cleared the land and made farms. They had to labor ceaselessly to obtain a meagre daily sustenance.

A New Exodus.

"The second and third generations, however, became weaned away from the land. They saw the American schooners fishing in the bay and felt attracted by the comparative ease of the life and the big money! With this and the opening of railways to the industrial centres in the United States the tragedy of Nova Soctia began. Our young men refused to stay on the land which offered them little remuneration. They joined the Americans; they became fishermen; they left Nova Scotia and settled in Gloucester, and in thousands they moved to the New England States.

"Thus the country became sadly depopulated, reverting in many cases to its native wildness.

"It is only in recent years that the descendants of our pioneers realize the extent of the extraordinary sacrifices made by their forefathers and they are beginning to feel that they should do everything to perpetuate and venerate their memory.

Atoning for Neglect.

"We realize that we have neglected our forbears; that we have not venerated their memory as we should; that we have made no attempt to preserve that which they regarded sacred, their mother-tongue, to perpetuate the games from which they drew joy, that joy which comes from striving for the prize. We are sorry. We feel convinced of negligence, and we wish to preserve what things they would wish us to have preserved. .

That is the background. What about that organization which flickers in the proscenium?

The Highland Society.

"In the year 1836, Lieutenant-Colonel Roderick Macdonald had the vision of the Highland Society. It was a time of strife in Canada. The Upper Provinces were seething with rebellion. Dissatisfaction was rampant. Some steadying influence was necessary, some link that would bind the sons of Scotland in this land to that of their birth across the seas. Roderick Macdonald founded the Highland Society and for twenty five years it existed within the small area of Antigonish, sometimes strong, sometimes languishing, but still maintaining a foundation of patriotic regard for the motherland. Macdonald was a son of Captain John Macdonald, laird of Glenaladale, who, with many of his Highland tenantry emigrated to Prince Edward Island in 1772.

"The continuous and recorded history of the society dates only from the year 1861.

"The Scottish emigrants who continued to arrive subsequent to its founding were not treated to the spectacle of a forbidding and inhospitable country; they were given what opportunities were available to educate their children.

Its Aspirations.

"The society directed its efforts towards preserving the aesthetic in Scottish life and in countering the impression that there was no artistry in the songs and poems and music of the Scottish Highlands. It strove to perpetuate the Gaelic and to encourage all the visible and cultivable characteristics of the Celts. Bishop Fraser was the first bishop of the diocese. He was a native of the Highlands and a master of Gaelic. Bishop MacKinnon and Bishop Cameron and the present Bishop Morrison are all descendants of the early pioneers, and the mother tongue of the first two was the Gaelic which they spoke with fluency and purity all their lives. The saintly Bishop Mackinnon and the venerable Bishop Cameron were authors of the Gaelic Catechism used in the diocese. Of the descendants of the pioneers who became judges, clergymen, lawyers, doctors, civil officers and teachers in eastern Nova Scotia, the majority spoke Gaelic as their mother tongue. This does not look as if the language was dying.

"The descendents of the present day who most ardently cherish the memory of their venerable forefathers take a distinct pride in being able to speak a language that was hoary with age before the languages commonly used today came into existence.

The Games.

The games held annually are only part of its work. The ambition of the society is to make the Antigonish Highland Festival the Braemar of Nova Scotia, to revive the ancient tongue and to perpetuate the ancient customs which have made the name of Scotland great throughout the world, and have made her sons the proud possessors of a priceless heritage."

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