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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 of Judgement.

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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