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.
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
"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
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.
"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
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
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
"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.
"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
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."