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  • Writer's pictureChristine Dorman

A Taste of Scotland in North America: Nova Scotia


The beauty of Nova Scotia has attracted people from many countries, but the Scots have left a lasting cultural legacy.
The beauty of Nova Scotia has attracted people from many countries, but the Scots have left a lasting cultural legacy.

Celtic culture isn’t confined to Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Because of the diaspora, especially from Ireland and Scotland, pockets of Celtic culture can be found as far away from Europe as Australia. A thriving Scottish cultural community can be found on the North American continent in one of Canada’s oldest provinces, Nova Scotia. With a name that means “New Scotland,” and a city named Port Glasgow, Nova Scotia seems a perfect place for North Americans to get a wee bit of Scotland without leaving their continent. But there is more to this Canadian province than the cultural legacy of its Scottish settlers. It has a rich history and a population of varied ethnicities.


Today’s post looks at the history of the people of Nova Scotia, how the province developed into a diverse, multicultural community, and the things it is doing both to celebrate its Scottish roots and work to keep that cultural legacy vibrant.

Settlement, Conflict, and the Blending of Cultures


A beautiful peninsula almost completely surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the place now known as Nova Scotia has had a storied history of settlement, invasion, conflict, adjustment, and a blending of cultures.


According to archeological evidence, the First Nations People of the Mi’kmaq have called the peninsula home for about 10,000 years. Members of the Algonquin-speaking people of the Maritimes regions of North America, the Mi’kmaq their name means “the people.” They occupied land stretching from what are now Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick in Canada down to Maine and Massachusetts in the present-day U.S. Living close to the Atlantic, the first Europeans they encountered were fishermen. While a good trade relationship developed, the European contact also resulted in tragedy for the Mi’kmaq. The fishermen carried with them diseases that resulted, according to www.thecanadianencycopedia.com the deaths of about half of the Mi’kmaq between 1500 and 1600.


Stand with Ukraine against tyranny.
Stand with Ukraine against tyranny.

Then the Europeans decided they liked the place with its rich fishing, picturesque landscape, and potential for fur trading. In 1605, the French established the first European permanent settlement in North America north of Florida. (The Spanish established the oldest continuously occupied settlement on the continent, St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565). Shortly thereafter, in 1621, James I of England (and VI of Scotland), granted the area to Sir William Alexander, a loyal Scottish nobleman. He set up a Scottish settlement at Port Royal. But it was short-lived, existing only from 1629—1632. Financial issues and previous French claims to the land resulted in the land being turned over to the French.


The region that is now Nova Scotia went back and forth between the French and British for nearly a century. In 1713, the two warring countries signed the Treaty of Utrecht. It granted Nova Scotia permanently to the British. (Nobody bothered to include the Mi’kmaq in this agreement). But the tension and conflict between the French and the British continued for another half-century. Included in that was the French and Indian Wars in which the Mi’kmaq sided with the French against the British.


Later in the 18th century, the American colonists revolted against the British. Although, by this point, some colonists from the south had migrated to Nova Scotia and some of the residents had sympathy for the rebels, Nova Scotians decided to stay out of that conflict. After the American Revolution ended, however, loyalists from the former colonies fled to Nova Scotia for refuge.


Cape Breton is the site of several Scottish cultural events, but the French were there before the British. The British expelled them during an ugly chapter of Nova Scotia's history.
Cape Breton is the site of several Scottish cultural events, but the French were there before the British. The British expelled them during an ugly chapter of Nova Scotia's history.

Meanwhile, the French had maintained a strong presence on Cape Breton Island but, during the French and Indian War, the British managed to take control and, starting in 1755, drove the French Acadians out. This action, known as the Great Expulsion, included Acadians not only from Cape Breton but from Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and the colony of Massachusetts. During the second wave of the expulsion, the Acadians took refuge in then-Spanish Louisiana. Their descendants are well-known in the U.S. as Cajuns. In 1820, Cape Breton reunited with Nova Scotia and is now a key area of Scottish culture.


During the centuries of British control, Nova Scotia has seen a large influx of people from both Scotland and Ireland. These primarily have been speakers of the branch of the Celtic family languages known as Goidelic. Commonly, people refer to these languages (specifically Irish and Scots Gaelic) as “Gaelic.” Fleeing poverty and both ethnic and religious persecution, these immigrations brought with them their rich Celtic culture and traditions. These not only survive today but, since the latter part of the 20th century, there has been a sustained effort to help them thrive.


Keeping Celtic Culture Vibrant in Nova Scotia


People of Scottish descent are the largest ethnic group in Nova Scotia. As of the 2016 Canadian census, they made up about one-third of the total population of the province. People of Irish descent came in third, making up about one-fifth of all Nova Scotians. Although the majority of the population considers English their native language, Nova Scotia has the largest group of speakers of Scots Gaelic outside of Scotland. Many secondary schools in the province offer courses in the language.


Colleges and universities in the province also have contributed to keeping the Celtic cultural heritage alive. St. Ann's offers courses in piping.
Colleges and universities in the province also have contributed to keeping the Celtic cultural heritage alive. St. Ann's offers courses in piping.

To help fund initiatives to promote the language and traditional Scottish culture, the provincial government, in 2018, began offering a new Gaelic license plate that includes the province’s name in Gaelic: Alba Nuadh. The government estimates that about 230,000 people are descendants of Scottish settlers, and about 2,000 people speak Scots Gaelic.


Colleges and universities in the province also have contributed to keeping the Celtic cultural heritage of both the Scottish and Irish settlers alive. St. Francis Xavier University offers courses in Celtic Studies. The Celtic College of St. Ann’s on Cape Breton offers courses in Celtic singing, dancing, piping, and handicrafts.


Celtic Places and Events Not to Miss


When you visit Nova Scotia, be sure to check out the Celtic heritage events and places below.


The Celtic Colours International Festival: held annually in October, this event celebrates Cape Breton’s musical culture with a series of concerts by Cape Breton’s musical artists and dancers along with internationally renowned Celtic musicians. The festival also includes storytelling, workshops, demonstrations, and presentations on music, dance, arts and crafts, among other heritage topics. In addition, guests to the festival can join in square dancing, hiking, and guided walks. If you’d like to sample Celtic food, there are community meals. Also, be sure to check out the Farmers' Market where you can purchase local produce and handmade goods.


At Cape Breton’s Celtic Music Interpretive Centre, you can take a workshop on fiddling.
At Cape Breton’s Celtic Music Interpretive Centre, you can take a workshop on fiddling.

Cape Breton’s Celtic Music Interpretive Centre: Located on Route 19 on Judique, N.S. (on the west coast of Cape Breton Island), the center was established “to preserve, promote, and share Cape Breton’s music and culture.” Here you can participate in fiddle workshops, attend live music demonstrations, and visit an interactive exhibit room. Be sure not to miss the ceilidhs at the onsite pub. See the center’s website for the schedule.


Nova Scotia Gaelic Mod: held annually in August, this festival includes folk dances, sword dances, pipe bands, Scottish games, athletic events, and food. What more could you ask for?


Highland Games: Probably the chief event anyone interested in Scottish culture wants to attend is the Highland games. The Antigonish Highland Society, founded in 1867, has been sponsoring Highland Games in Nova Scottish for over a century. These include athletic and traditional Scottish “heavy events,” such as tossing the caber. Of course, there also are Highland dancing competitions, fiddle music, piping, and drumming. In addition, there are evening concerts and ceilidhs, as well as a huge parade. The games usually are held in early July. In 2023, they will be held from July 2nd to the 9th so mark your calendar. Click here for details.


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Slan go foil!

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