Last June I went to view the beauty of Cape Breton with some family and friends. I had wanted to go for several years, but the timing was just never right. This past year marked Canada’s 150th anniversary of confederation, and to celebrate, all national parks were free to visitors. This opened up the perfect opportunity as there were a few places in Cape Breton I wanted to visit that were operated by Parks Canada. We only had 3 days and there was so much to see and do, we unfortunately only saw the tip of the iceberg. (This just means we’ll need to go back another time!)
We rented a beautiful old farmhouse situated with stunning views of the Bras d’Or Lake. The house was off-the-grid, with the stove, hot water tank and fridge running on propane, and there was a generator and solar panels for some electrical use as well. The best part about it was it made everyone put away their phones and we played board games in the evenings. It had several book shelves scattered throughout, as well as knickknacks and interesting little items everywhere you looked. You were always finding something new you hadn’t noticed before.
On our first day we visited the Highland Village Museum near Iona. It told of the history of the Gaelic Scots who migrated and settled in Cape Breton in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. Knowing they would never own their own land in over-populated Scotland, families immigrated and resettled in hopes of a brighter future. More tenant farmers were evicted during The Clearances, and they came to find their former fellow villagers and kin and settled on this island on the other side of the Atlantic.
While some of their new land resembled the old life from the Hebrides – the highland qualities of Cape Breton along with it being an Atlantic island with the wind, salt spray, and cool temperatures – they were unfamiliar with the amount of great towering trees that seemed to cover every square inch of usable ground. They were often discouraged when they first arrived and realized they had to clear the land before they could even think of building a home and raising crops to feed themselves and livestock for the first few years.
Faith was a large part of the immigrant’s lives, and there were about equal amounts Roman Catholic and Presbyterians who settled throughout. Inside this church – a Presbyterian – it tells of Gaelic psalm singing led by a precentor, that can still occasionally be found today in heritage services. I was curious as to what it sounded like and thought I’d share this video clip I found from the Isle of Lewis in Scotland if you wish to hear it. (It also has some beautiful scenes from the Isle of Lewis.)
Their culture largely influenced the northern part of Nova Scotia (or New Scotland, when translated from Latin). The signs in Cape Breton today are often bilingual – English and Gaelic, and there are some of the older population for whom Gaelic is their first language.
After lunch, we toured around the town of Baddeck, and visited the Alexander Graham Bell Museum. I had known of his work with the telephone and that he was an inventor, but I was unaware of his work with the hearing impaired. In Scotland, his father and grandfather before him had worked with phonetics, and at age 21 Alec began teaching speech to deaf students. The family later moved to Canada, and Alec continued his teaching both here and in the US.
Alec and his wife established a summer home in Cape Breton, and he continued to work on many ways to improve life, including areas such as air conditioning, distilling drinking water from sea water and from human breath, flying machines, as well as an interest in genetics. His wife was also interested in science, and looked for ways to improve food preservation and growing plants in the shade.
It was a warm day and we found a nice spot to go for a cool dip in the Bras d’Or Lake:
We returned to the farmhouse for our supper and enjoyed the view as the sun set on our first day.