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Cape Breton/Nova Scotia History
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Trust me, Craig, you'll never read a more wonderful description of the
Highland history of Cape Breton and Nova Scotia than the following from
the Author's Note of Hugh MacLennan's "Each Man's Son" (1951, Little,
Brown and Company. Boston):
"Continents are much alike, and a man can no more love a continent than he can love a hundred million people. But all the islands of the world are different. They are small enough to be known, they are vulnerable, and men come to feel about them as they do about women.
Many men have loved the island of Cape Breton and a few may have hated
her. Ericson was probably the first to see her, Cabot landed on her,
and after Cabot came the French. She seemed harsh and frigid to the
first new-comers, but the moment the French saw her their imaginations
were touched and they called her the Royal Isle. After a while they
built on her eastern rim the master fortress of Louisbourg to dominate
Nova Scotia and guard the St. Lawrence (River).
When the wars began, the English and the New Englanders came up to Cape
Breton and for a time she was as famous as Gibraltar. Louisbourg fell,
the French were driven out, the English and Americans went home and for
a third of a century the island was vacant again.
Then across the ocean in the Highlands of Scotland a desperate and
poetic people there heard of her. They were a race of hunters,
shepherds and warriors who had discovered too late that their own
courage and pride had led them to catastrophe, since it had enabled
them to resist the Saxon civilization so long they had come to the end
of the eighteenth century knowing nothing of the foreman, the boss,
the politician, the policeman, the merchant, or the buyer-seller of
other men's work. When the English set out to destroy the clans of
Scotland, the most independent of the Highlanders left their homes with
the pipes playing laments on the decks of their ships. They crossed
the ocean and the pipes played again when they waded ashore on the
rocky coast of Cape Breton Island.
They rooted themselves, big men from the red-haired parts of the
Scottish main and dark-haired smaller men from the Hebrides, women
from the mainland with strong bones and Hebridean women with delicate
skins, accepting eyes and a musical sadness in their speech. For a
long time nothing but Gaelic was spoken in the island until they
gradually learned English from the handful of New England Loyalists who
came to Nova Scotia after the American Revolution.
To Cape Breton the Highlanders brought more than the quixotic gallantry
and softness of manner belonging to a Homeric people. They also
brought with them an ancient curse, intensified by John Calvin and
branded upon their souls by John Knox and his successors - the belief
that man has inherited from Adam a nature so sinful there is no hope
for him and that, furthermore, he lives and dies under the wrath of an
arbitrary God who will forgive only a handful of his Elect on the Day
As no normal human being can exist in constant awareness that he is
sinful and doomed through no fault of his own, the Highlanders behaved
outwardly as other men do who have softened the curse or forgotten its
existence. But in Cape Breton they were lonely. They were no part of
the great outer world. So the curse remained alive with them, like a
sombre beast growling behind a locked door. It was felt even when they
were least conscious of it. To escape its cold breath some turned to
drink and others to the pursuit of knowledge. Still others, as the
Puritans of New England had done earlier, left their homes, and in
doing so found wider opportunities in the United States or in the empty
provinces of Western Canada.
But if the curse of God rested on the Highlanders' souls, the beauty of
God cherished the island where they lived. Inland were high hills and
a loch running in from the sea that looked like a sleeve of gold in the
afternoon sun. There were trout and salmon streams lined by
sweet-smelling alder, water meadows and valleys graced by elms as
stately as those in the shires of southern England. The coast was
rugged with grey granite or red sandstone cliffs, splendid with
promontories, fog-bound in the spring when the drift ice came down from
Newfoundland and Labrador, tranquil in summer, and in the autumns
thunderous with evidences of the power of the Lord.
So for several generations the Highlanders remained here untouched,
long enough for them to transfer to Cape Breton the same passionate
loyalty their ancestors had felt for the hills of home. It was long
enough for them to love the island as a man loves a woman,
unreasonably, for her faults no less than for her virtues. But they
were still a fighting race with poetry in their hearts and a curse upon
their souls. Each man's son was driven by the daemon of his own hope
and imagination - by his energy or by his fear - to unknown
destinations. For those who stayed behind, the beast continued to
growl behind the unlocked door...."
And he goes on a little into more specifics about the actual characters
in the novel and their own "daemons". I'm not a religious man, but I
do like his talk of "the curse" and all that, kind of poetic I think.
Anyway, Dr. MacLennan had quite a storied academic career and ended up
teaching English at McGill University in Montreal for many years.
MacLennan taught history (and Latin) at Lower Canada College in
Montreal before accepting a position with the department of English at
McGill which he maintained for thirty years.
He wrote many novels and stories, is Nova Scotia's most renowned writer and one of the most loved writers in Canadian literary history. He died in November 1990. One editorial wrote, "MacLennan is one of those writers whose personal goodness and decency shine through all his works. His generosity of spirit is such that after a couple of hours spent with one of his books, the world seems a better place."
FYI, his novels include: Each Man's Son; Barometer Rising; Two Solitudes; The Watch That Ends The Night; The Return of The Sphinx. Other books: Seven Rivers of Canada; and The Colour of Canada.
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