Articles - “A Fine, Hardy, Good-Looking Race of People”: - Travel Writers, Tourism Promoters, and the Highland Scots Identity on Cape Breton Island, 1829-1920


“A Fine, Hardy, Good-Looking Race of People”:

Travel Writers, Tourism Promoters, and the Highland Scots Identity on Cape Breton Island, 1829-1920

J. I. Little
Simon Fraser University

S’appuyant sur l’examen de récits de voyage et de publications promotionnelles, cet article suggère que l’image romantique du Cap-Breton en tant que bastion de la culture traditionnelle des Highlands remonte aux années 1870, à l’aube de l’antimodernisme américain. Les publications américaines continuèrent de présenter des portraits plutôt condescendants de sa population « éloignée de l’ère moderne », mais elles exprimaient aussi une admiration pour son mode de vie lié à la tradition et en communion avec la nature. Cette nostalgie, suivie par la réapparition de l’image traditionnelle du guerrier héroïque des Highlands, se fit sentir bien avant que le premier ministre provincial Angus L. Macdonald ait amorcé sa campagne de « tartanisation  » de l’ensemble de la province dans les années 1930.

Based on an examination of travel narratives and promotional publications, this article suggests that the romantic image of Cape Breton Island as a bastion of traditional Highland culture can be traced to the 1870s with the dawning of American antimodernism. American publications continued to feature somewhat condescending portraits of a people “far removed from the modern age,” but they also expressed admiration for a way of life that was tied to tradition and close to nature. This longing, followed by the re-emergence of the traditional image of the heroic Highland warrior, occurred well before Premier Angus L. Macdonald began his “tartanizing” campaign for the province as a whole in the 1930s.

1 REFERRING TO SCOTLAND’S INFLUENCE ON CANADA, historian Edward J. Cowan has suggested “there is perhaps no other example as graphic of one country being described in terms of another.”1 Cowan’s examples are mostly from the pre-Confederation era, and Nova Scotia is the province that springs first to mind in thinking of Canada as a “new Scotland.” Yet, according to historian Ian McKay, the province “became Scottish” only in the 1930s, when Premier Angus L. Macdonald decided to use the state’s cultural power to fuse “his own particularly romantic and essentialist reading of the Scottish tradition” with what he saw as “the redemptive power of tourism.” Previously, McKay claims, writers had either “subordinated ethnicity to the story of material progress,” or depicted the Scottish immigrants simply as “one rather uncivilized and undesirable group among many others in the province.”2

2 The Scottishness referred to by McKay was that of the isolated Highlands and Islands. The demise of the traditional Gaelic culture in those areas following the clearances of the late 18th and early 19th centuries had paradoxically and ironically been followed by the invention of an ersatz Celtic identity for Scotland as a whole.3 Historian T.M. Devine notes that this romantic, clan-based identity was closely associated with the fiercely loyal Highland warrior. This was particularly so after the leading role played by the kilted regiments in the Seven Years’ War and Napoleonic Wars had “lent a new prestige and glamour to the wearing of tartan.”4 The Highland warrior image gained new life during the First World War when, McKay concedes, the kilts worn by the Cape Breton Highlanders would suggest that Nova Scotia tartanism “did not spring forth, fully kilted, from the forehead of Angus L. Macdonald.”5

3 McKay’s thesis, nevertheless, raises the question as to why the romanticization of the Highlanders that emerged in Britain shortly after the defeat of the Jacobite clans in 1746 arrived so late to the shores of Nova Scotia.6 One reason for this may well have been that even in Lowland Scotland and England the early romanticization process did not preclude the general view that the Highlands needed to be “improved.”7 Katherine Grenier’s study on late-19th-century tourism on the Isle of Skye makes the important point that while the significance of the local crofters “lay in their perpetuation of values threatened by industrialization,” their poverty “made them ambiguous figures.” As a result, “the discourse on the people of Skye was liberally sprinkled with pejorative references to them as ‘simple,’ ‘primitive’ and naturally lazy, often within the same texts that honoured their goodness and simplicity.”8 Furthermore, it was easier to romanticize an Old World culture when it was in the process of being uprooted than after it had been transplanted to a New World settlement frontier where the focus was on adaptation and assimilation. But even though negative perceptions of Cape Breton’s Scots persisted into the late 19th century, the rise of American antimodernism and the resurgence of British imperialism ensured that the Highland myth – including the romantic concept of a clan-based pre-industrial folk – did have a prominent place in travel narratives and tourism promotion long before Macdonald became premier in 1933.9

4 Originally inhabited by Mi’kmaq,10 Cape Breton was first colonized by Acadians, Loyalists, and Irish in that order. But the population balance shifted dramatically with the arrival of approximately 20,000 Scottish Highlanders and islanders from the Outer Hebrides between 1802 and the early 1840s. By 1871 approximately 50,000 of the 75,000 inhabitants of Cape Breton were of Scottish origin. As historical geographer Stephen Hornsby notes, it had become, in large part, a Scottish island.11 Historical research has shown that rural Cape Breton society was much more stratified than the romantic myth of a tightly knit homogenous community would lead us to believe,12 yet Hornsby argues that most of the island’s population lived in rural communities that “were intensely local, even in the last decades of the century.” In these communities, he adds, “Gaelic was still widely used, and much oral tradition, folk medicine, and music from the Highlands flourished.”13

5 There was certainly little romance in the descriptions of the rural Scots produced prior to the 1870s. T.C. Haliburton, for example, well-known author of The Clockmaker, wrote in his An Historical and Statistical Account of Nova Scotia, published in 1829, that “the great number” of the island’s settlers “are indigent and ignorant Scotch islanders, every year receiving an increase of a thousand or two fresh emigrants, equally poor and illiterate, and almost all of the Roman Catholic persuasion.”14 Similarly, in his British-published travel narrative of 1832, John M’Gregor wrote:

The Scotch Highlanders and Islanders, who form the majority of the population, are not mixed with settlers by whose example they might be stimulated to exertion, and from whom they might learn a better system of agriculture and domestic management. Contented to exist as their progenitors did, they seem careless about living in a more comfortable, cleanly, and respectable style.15

6 The message had become somewhat more mixed by the 1860s, when the Cape Breton Scots were referred to as both industrious and unenterprising. Thus the Reverend John Uniacke, Church of England minister in the coal town of Sydney, declared in his “Sketches of Cape Breton,” originally published in London’s New Penny Magazine between 1862 and 1865,16 that “The chief settlers in this country at present are the poorer Scotch mostly from the Islands of Scotland. They are many of them industrious and frugal, and often succeed in making themselves tolerably comfortable upon a small piece of land: but they are not remarkably intelligent and do not bring with them a very extensive knowledge of farming, consequently in their hands agriculture makes slow progress.”17 In his travel article on Cape Breton, published in 1868, Nova Scotia native John Bourinot claimed similarly that “as a rule, the people are poor and unenterprising,” but he then contradicted himself by claiming “the great majority of the people are Scotch, many of whom exhibit the thrift and industry of their race.”18

7 The British travel writer John J. Rowan also focused on the social and economic characteristics of the Cape Breton Scots, but in a more uncompromisingly positive fashion. In The Emigrant and Sportsman in Canada, published in 1876, he observed that the local farmers “depend upon their cattle, for which the island is well adapted.” Furthermore, “a stranger on seeing the rough and rugged nature of the pastures is astonished at the condition of the cattle, but the practical farmer knows the value of a large scope for his cattle, and the advantages of a variety of feed in keeping his stock in health.” Nor were Cape Bretoners cut off from markets, Rowan observed, for they exported large quantities of beef and butter annually to Newfoundland “and other places.”19 Rowan criticized the Scots for being less willing to assimilate than the English or the Irish, but wrote that they were “a fine, hardy, good-looking race of people.” His main concern was that their strength and health were being undermined by the new diet “of the finest American flour, badly cooked, and washed down with a black and bitter infusion called tea.”20 What Rowan failed to mention was that those who farmed the more fertile and accessible land were relatively prosperous, while the “backlanders” lived in considerable poverty.21

8 British travel writers generally passed the Maritimes by, however, particularly once the railway era began.22 Instead, it was US authors who published the most widely read descriptions of Cape Breton and, rather than being interested in the material conditions of the inhabitants, they were effectively scouting out picturesque destinations for other travellers or exotic material for their readers. But New Englanders and New Yorkers were not inclined to admire the role of the Highland regiments in the American War of Independence, or the part they played in the protection and expansion of the British Empire. In fact, many northerners associated Sir Walter Scott’s novels with “misguided” southern chivalry and the term “Highlander” with the backward and impoverished Appalachians.23 Thus, in his humorously opinionated Acadia; Or, A Month With the Blue Noses, published in 1859, American yachtsman, marine artist, and travel writer Frederic S. Cozzens was being facetious when he professed his eagerness to meet in Cape Breton “the bold Highlandmen of romance; the McGregors, and McPhersons, the Camerons, Grahams, and McDonalds.” Cozzens added that “as a century or so does not alter the old-country prejudices of the people in these settlements, we will no doubt find them in their pristine habiliments; in plaids and spleuchens; brogues and buckles; hose and bonnets; with claymore, dirk, and target; the white cockade and eagle feather, so beautiful in the Waverley novels.”24

9 Had he been truly interested, Cozzens would have discovered a lively bagpiping culture in Cape Breton.25 Yet he reported that “the Celts in their wild settlements” were “without bagpipes or pistols, sporrans or philabegs; there was not even a solitary thistle to charm the eye; and, as for oats, there were at least two Scotchmen to one oat in this garden of exotics.”26 Continuing in this vein, Cozzens added “I have a reasonable amount of respect for a Highlandman in full costume; but, for a carrot- headed, freckled, high-cheeked animal, in a round hat and breeches, that cannot utter a word of English, I have no sympathy.” Finally, vaunting the superiority of the United States, as he did throughout his book, Cozzens criticized the colonial government for providing free land and setting low tariffs on foreign goods. The result, he claimed, was that “the colonist is only a parasite with all these advantages.” Rather than being “a citizen, responsible for his franchise,” he was “but a colonial Micmac, or Scotch-Mac; a mere sub-thoughted, irresponsible exotic.”27

10 Beginning in the 1870s, however, more sympathetic descriptions of these “exotics” began to appear in American travel narratives about Cape Breton. No publication was more responsible for this shift than the prolific Charles Dudley Warner’s oft-reprinted Baddeck, and That Sort of Thing, which first appeared in 1874. Warner travelled by rail, stage, and ferry to reach the island, and much of his account chronicles the challenges faced on the journey.28 There is no denying that – as with Cozzens before him – Warner’s descriptions of islanders he encountered echo the satirical tone of contemporaries such as Mark Twain, with whom he had collaborated in writing The Gilded Age a year earlier in 1873.29 Rather than providing detailed information for the prospective settler, investor, or tourist, Baddeck, and That Sort of Thing was written largely for the amusement of Warner’s readers. According to McKay, Warner depicted the Cape Breton Scots as “peculiar, ignorant country folk, good-natured savages far removed from the modern age.” Far from admiring their simplicity, McKay adds, Warner found them to be “a rich source of amusement.”30

11 But, just as Dr. Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1773) could express scorn towards the Highlanders yet convey a sentimental attachment to the old clan-based society,31 so too in Warner’s account one can detect a sense of nostalgia for what he viewed as the simpler, more innocent way of life in Cape Breton. Warner was clearly influenced by the initial stirrings of American antimodernism, which T.J. Jackson Lears has defined as “the recoil from an ‘overcivilized’ modern existence to more intense forms of physical or spiritual existence.”32 Thus Warner observed of the McGregor family in Middle River that even though their house was “little better than a shanty,” they refused to take payment for the pan of milk they offered and expressed “surprise that such a simple act of hospitality should have any commercial value.” Warner also fretted that “travelers themselves destroy one of their chief pleasures,” namely interaction with a generous and innocent folk, for he felt that he may have “planted the notion in the McGregor mind that the small kindnesses of life may be made profitable, by offering to pay for the milk; and probably the next travelers in that Eden will succeed in leaving some small change there, if they use a little tact.”33

12 Warner also enthused about the beauty of Cape Breton’s landscape. As a result, the island emerges in his book as a largely unspoiled refuge from the pressures of American city life. The “neat fishing village” of Whykokomagh, for example, is described as a “peaceful place,” where “the lapsing waters of Bras d’Or made a summer music all along the quiet street; the bay lay smiling with its islands in front, and an amphitheater of hills rose behind. But for the line of telegraph poles one might have fancied he could have security and repose here.” Recalling his departure from Baddeck on a Bras d’Or Lake steamer, Warner exclaimed that “the most electric American, heir of all the nervous diseases of all the ages, could not but find peace in this scene of tranquil beauty, and sail on into a great and deepening contentment. Would the voyage could last for an age, with the same sparkling but tranquil sea, and the same environment of hills, near and remote!” As foreshadowed by his comments about McGregor’s milk and the Whykokomagh telegraph poles, Warner ended his travel narrative with a concern about the future:

We received everywhere in the Provinces courtesy and kindness, which were not based upon any expectation that we would invest in mines or railways, for the people are honest, kindly, and hearty by nature. What they will become when the railways are completed that are to bind St. John to Quebec, and make Nova Scotia, Cape Breton, and Newfoundland only stepping-stones to Europe, we cannot say. Probably they will become like the rest of the world, and furnish no material for the kindly persiflage of the traveler.34

13 Only a year later, in 1875, the Boston-published tourist guide, The Maritime Provinces: A Handbook for Travellers, quoted some of Warner’s more enthusiastic passages. It also claimed that the Scots Catholics of Judique “are famous throughout the island for their great stature, and are well known to the American fishermen on account of their pugnacity. Yankee crews landing on this coast are frequently assailed by these pugilistic Gaels, and the stalwart men of Judique usually come off victorious in the fistic encounters.”35 The American artist, diplomat, and world traveller S.G.W. Benjamin was less impressed by such demonstrations of manliness, for he wrote in 1878 that the people of Grand Narrows “are a pretty rough set, with a decided talent for brawling and drinking.”36

14 After a more extended visit five years later, however, Benjamin was more generous in his assessment. At Baddeck, on market day, he observed a “lassie” whose “flaxen elf-locks, bright blue-grey eyes, rosy cheeks, tall, shapely form, and elastic step were for all the world so thoroughly Scotch one might have sworn she was Burns’s Highland Mary.”37 As Grenier observes of travellers writing about the Scottish Highlands, Benjamin’s description of this young woman reflected “a natural purity, healthiness, and modesty not to be found among the more sophisticated communities or among the urban working class.”38 Benjamin also wrote that most of the inhabitants of Cape Breton were “of Scotch descent, and a hale, hearty buxom race they are.” While commenting on their unwillingness “to dare which is called enterprise,” he added that “the yield of the mines and the fields and the large exportation of beef cattle are sufficient to keep the people comfortable, at least, if not wealthy.” Furthermore, given that “they all own their own farms and homesteads, and every commodity is cheap,” they had reason to feel contented. For those who felt otherwise, however, there was always emigration to the United States, and Benjamin felt they “should be welcomed, for they are of a nature to add real strength to the race now building up in this country out of various people flocking to our shores.”39 In short, the inherent racial characteristics of the Highlanders would make them impervious to the corrupting influences of modern American society.40

15 The first American writer to focus largely on the island’s Highland customs and traditions, however, was Charles H. Farnham, whose article “Cape Breton Folk” appeared in the prestigious Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1886.41 Adopting much the same wryly humorous tone as Warner, Farnham challenged the myth of Highland hospitality by noting that “Cape Breton hospitality seems to be in strata.” At a bay near Ingonish, for example, he and his travelling companion had “great difficulty getting shelter under any terms,” being taken for “blacklegs” (strike breakers) by the local hotelkeeper. At the next bay, fortunately, they ran into a “generous streak,” and were even taken to a party “where reels and jigs helped to pass the night.”42 The article’s main focus, however, is on Farnham’s first-hand observations of the gathering of the clans, the local courtship custom, and the annual outdoor Communion service.

16 The “clan gathering” Farnham attended in the northeast Margaree valley was a privately sponsored event to raise funds to build a house. Farnham rather sarcastically observed that the “average” program featured “talking, swinging, and waiting to swing” interspersed by a “cold temperance lunch,” though the event in question had the added attraction of a wrestling match.43 Such a description tends to support McKay’s observation that before the 1930s “we search high and low for the signs which today mark the Scot, and by extension the Nova Scotian: we look for the tartans, kilts, bagpipes, haggis and mods, and for the most part they are not to be found.”44 Farnham, however, was observing the adaptation of Old World customs to a New World environment, and he did report hearing bagpipe music, making the wry observation that “the pipes go well with the national emblem: they are a very thistle in your ear.” Farnham apparently had a change of heart, however, for he spent a day with one of the pipers, whom he described as “a very tall, very dark, very shaggy man,” and took notes on “some of the native airs of Cape Breton,” one of which he included in his article. Having studied music in Paris and taught singing in New York, Farnham was clearly interested in this folk tradition, for he also took the trouble to include the notes and words to a Gaelic song composed by another local musician, one that celebrated “the pastoral charms of the southwest Margaree.”45

17 As for the local courtship custom, Farnham reported that when a young man was ready to marry he built a house and set out with a friend to act as his spokesman at the home of his prospective bride. In the case that Farnham described, the young woman withdrew from the sitting-room when the two men arrived but agreed to marry after a brief discussion with the spokesman. The bride-to-be was then led to the middle of the floor where she took the hand of her intended husband and “thus the ‘contract’ was accepted, under the usual penalty of forfeiting twenty dollars in case the engagement was broken.” Unknown to Farnham, this was the old Hebridean custom of rèiteach, a Gaelic term meaning “clearing,” for it cleared the way for a marriage. On the Isle of Lewis, it was in effect recognized as a popularly sanctioned marriage, with the “kirking” by the minister to take place at some future convenient time.46 In the case Farnham described, however, the patriarchal tradition was subverted by the young woman who apparently had every intention of breaking the engagement because she was using it to prod into action another young man whom she preferred.47

18 If Farnham found the betrothal custom to be quaint and amusing, he was more moved by the traditional outdoor Communion service he attended at Englishtown on the north shore of St. Ann’s Bay where “the crowd was a gathering of austere and simple homespun folk.” While noting that for the worldly minded it was an occasion for horse trading and other transactions, and that for the young it was a time of amusement, Farnham claimed that the overall atmosphere was sombre. People “walked about greeting friends whom they had not seen perhaps for a year,” but “the greeting was sober; sisters even did not kiss; many met at first in silence, with teeth set and eyes fixed, and shook hands vigorously for a long time with the motion of sawing wood.” Farnham was again particularly fascinated by the singing, noting “the tunes have well-known names, such as ‘Elgin,’ ‘St. Paul,’ ‘Bangor,’ ‘London,’ ‘Martyrs’; but the actual compositions and the rendering are unlike any other music on earth.” He included the notes as sung by the precentor followed by those of the congregation, but added “the effect of the singing can not be imagined from seeing the score, or from a rendering of it according to the usual musical expression.” After observing that “so drawling is the execution that you just abandon all requirements of time, and accept the effects of intonation alone,” Farnham concluded “these Gaelic psalms often have an extraordinary effect; when the people at times happen to unite their plaintive voices on certain long notes and slurs, the multitude sends up a subdued wail that is wonderfully touching.”48

19 Farnham was also impressed by the hospitality of the local host families upon whom the five-day event imposed a considerable burden. And he was just as moved by the congregation’s “indifference to discomfort” as they listened to a sermon for hours in the rain and cold east wind, “the men’s heads covered by handkerchiefs, the women’s by black shawls.” In short, “the occasion showed in a striking way the hardihood of this people, their indifference to discomfort, the force of tradition among them, and, in some cases, the absorbing sincerity of their piety.”49 Tellingly, Farnham’s article was preceded by a sombre etching of black-clothed people in contemplation and prayer titled “The Open-Air Sacrament” (see Figure 1).

20 The fact that Farnham paid more attention to the “folk” practices of the Cape Breton Highlanders than did his predecessors reflects the intensification of American antimodernism in the 1880s. According to Lears, traditional customs were now considered to be admirable alternatives to the drive for the efficient control of nature.50 However, in his collection of essays entitled From Blomidon to Smoky, published in 1894, the American nature writer Frank Bolles was rather critical of at least one local custom – namely the settlement of local conflicts without resorting to outside authorities. Bolles, who was the secretary of Harvard University, described how a dispute over hay between “Rory This” and “Sandy That” resulted in the hay being burned “to quiet the trouble.” This led Bolles to observe that he “could not reason out the process by which either Rory who had labored, or Sandy who had owned the grass, could find comfort in putting match to the hay.” Although Bolles had clearly missed the point of the exercise, which was to apply an extra-legal sanction against two members of the community who were disturbing its social harmony, he was not immune from the romanticization of the Cape Breton folk. He wrote, for example, that the Englishtown ferryman Torquil McLean had a face that held “many a suggestion of the Highland stock from which he is descended, and the wild north country in which he lives, and its counterpart in which his race was moulded.” Then, en route to Cape Smokey, Bolles and his wife spent a night at the home of fisherman Sandy McDonald, where “simple food, reading by McDonald from the Gaelic Bible, a long breath of ocean air, and the benediction of the stars fitted us for early and profound sleep.” The local folk had not entirely escaped outside influences, however, for some, according to Bolles’s account, were eager to earn money from American tourists, and others were anxious to “try life under less picturesque but more profitable conditions.”51

Figure 1: A.B. Frost, “The Open-Air Sacrament.”
Thumbnail of Figure 1Display large image of Figure 1
Source: Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (March 1886): 494.

21 American travel writers appear to have lost interest in Cape Breton by the end of the century, just as Canadian-published promotional literature began to include tourism as a secondary strategy for economic development. Presumably because the image of a backward rural society would not be in keeping with this forward-looking economic goal, there was initially little effort to exploit the Highland myth. In 1884, Picturesque Canada’s Cape Breton chapter claimed that the island’s scenery was “germane to Niagara and the St. Lawrence,” that “the traditions of Louisbourg should kindle the imagination of the Canadian to as bright a heat as those which glorify Quebec,” and that it possessed “riches in coal and minerals complementary to the bountiful harvests of the fertile West.” The only specific mention that the authors J. McLennan and the Reverend R. Murray made of the Scots settlers was that they “still cherish their ancestral Gaelic, and cling to the ways of the Highlands and Islands.”52

22 This pattern is repeated in Cape Breton Hand-Book and Tourist’s Guide, which was published sometime after 1889. Aimed largely at promoting tourism as a means to attract outside investment, the guidebook consists largely of advertisements for local businesses.53 For example, the “enterprise and integrity” of the MacDonald brothers, owners of the Glendyer Woolen Mills near Mabou, had reportedly “acquired for their products more than insular fame.”54 The town of Baddeck, much loved by members of the American elite, was evidently the only one on the island not to have caught the entrepreneurial spirit. The guidebook’s compiler Edwin Lockett wrote rather disapprovingly that it “can hardly be called a red hot enterprising town. The system is mostly long credit and long prices.”55 Tourists were promised, however, that at the town’s Bras D’or House they would meet Maud, “whose tempting coffee warmed the heart of Dudley Warner.” Furthermore, in the “quaint village” of Little Bras d’Or were “many of those wierd, tho interesting traditions, for want of a historian fast falling into the oblivion of the past.” Lockett also claimed that John McRae, known as John “Bentinck,” had “never for the last twenty years cut the full complete crop grown. He fills his barn with perhaps two hundred tons; what more does he need, – the rest can go, he will get it all next year, and so the world moves on its axis.”56 In the Cape Breton Hand-book, however, such individuals are little more than objects of passing curiosity.

23 Another local publication that promoted tourism as a strategy for economic development was John M. Gow’s encyclopaedic Cape Breton Illustrated, which appeared in 1893. To stem the exodus of the island’s young men and women to the United States, Gow advocated more government investment and railway construction as a means of stimulating the coal mining, fishing, and tourism industries. After all, Gow claimed, “the scenery, the climate, the position, and the historic interest attaching to this part of the Dominion are unequalled.”57 Modernizing as this strategy was, there is a detectable shift from the earlier guidebooks insofar as Gow’s descriptions of the Scots-descended inhabitants are distinctly romantic. He promised, for example, that “people will treat you with that old-fashioned courtesy and hospitality for which we have to seek in patriarchal times.” There was also dignity: “If you want to see true dignity, either in man or woman, or if you want to meet with Nature’s ladies and gentlemen, come to Cape Breton.” Perhaps with the books by Cozzens and Warner in mind, Gow added: “Of course, there are antiquated ways and old customs and all that to laugh at, if you have the complaint distressingly bad; but then, perhaps, you have some new-fangled notions and ways that are just as laughable – at least as ridiculous and valueless as the old.”58

24 Gow was not, however, uncritical of the local Scots. He claimed that in the western and northwestern parts of the island “there are men who have lost the staid respectability of the ancient Highlander” and become “the wildest and hardest in the world. They will yell and rave and drink and fight all day long, and go raving mad because there is no more fighting to do.” On the positive side of this violent nature, Gow claimed, was loyalty, the “key-note” of the Highland character. Because they were “confined within a narrow glen or surf-beaten island,” their loyalty admittedly “lost in breadth what it gained in intensity.” With proper military leadership, however, that “deep and fervent spirit of loyalty” would “blaze upon the battle-field in historic splendour.”59 The clans had been broken up even before the migration to Cape Breton, but Gow clearly assumed that the Highlanders had an innate disposition towards obeying their chieftains for, as Grenier notes of Scotland, “clans were widely understood to be military regiments and the chief was conceived as a commander.”60

25 Ten years later, in 1903, C.W. Vernon’s Cape Breton at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century struck a more pacifistic note, claiming that the island had “begun a new warfare” though “not to devastate and destroy, but to create and build up.” Vernon believed that, with the discovery of readily accessible iron deposits on Newfoundland’s Bell Island, Cape Breton – “so long untouched by the onward march of commercial progress” – was poised to become a major iron and steel producer. Tourism would be an important part of this promising economic future because the island, “already famous for the beauty of its scenery of sea and mountain, lake and hill, deserves that the brightness of its skies, the invigorating properties of its pure air, the splendour of its crystal waters, and the loveliness of its landscapes should be still more widely known and appreciated.”61 Although he stressed the cosmopolitan composition of Cape Breton’s population, Vernon quoted Charles Dudley Warner’s “delightful classic” several times; he also included a chapter written in Gaelic by J.G. MacKinnon, editor of Mac-Talla. Furthermore, Vernon’s own English-language chapter on the Highland settlements claims that Gaelic was still spoken in hundreds of homes as well as being used in rural Presbyterian services.62 There was little place in Vernon’s progressive vision, however, for rituals such as the open-air communion. The fact that it would “eventually become a thing of the past is indeed a pity,” he wrote, “but the remorseless march of modern ideas, and that busier men live today, cannot but bring about this result.”63

26 It was Vernon’s publication that was out of step with the times, however, as far as tourism promotion and the images of the island were concerned. The Intercolonial Railway’s A Ramble and a Rest, which appeared in 1895, promised “the primitive simplicity which amused Charles Dudley Warner and other humorous writers is still to be found in many districts, but it is no longer a troublesome journey to reach even the mysterious Baddeck from any part of the continent.”64 The same statement was repeated in the company’s travel guide, Forest, Stream, and Seashore, which circulated at the turn of the century.65

27 The romantic image of the Cape Breton Highlander may have been fostered by American antimodernism, but it was also strengthened by the renewed growth of British imperialism and the militarism associated with the First World War. These developments help to explain why, in Henry Beckles Willson’s Nova Scotia: The Province That Has Been Passed By, published in London in 1911, there is a renewed focus on Highland customs. The Montreal-born and London-based journalist and historian was a fervent imperialist. As might be expected from someone whose preface lamented the mass immigration of “alien peoples” to Canada,66 Willson paid considerable attention to the “Gaelic folk.” He claimed, for example, that on Cape Breton there were still many bards “who compose epic ballads as they did centuries ago in the land of Ossian. And the songs of the Highlands, the ‘Fhir a Ohata,’ the ‘Tamhuil mòr, mac sheann Tamhuil,’ still float out upon the air; while the traditions of old Highland feuds or the Jacobite risings of ’15 or ’45 still linger, eked out by such visible memorials as one may see, beside the rude chimney-piece – an ancient dirk or a rusty claymore that some long-vanished ancestor had flourished at Culloden or Falkirk.”67

28 The militaristic tone was further amplified in Catherine Dunlop Mackenzie’s “The Charm of Cape Breton Island,” which appeared in National Geographic in 1920. Referring to the recent war, Mackenzie claimed that the strategic position “that once made her the mistress of the northern seas has given Cape Breton a new chapter in war history – a fascinating chapter, with its pageant of transport and convoy and patrol, and back of it the great war effort of her people.” This effort, Mackenzie made clear, was largely due to the martial ardour of the Highlanders, for “here can be heard the old Celtic tongue that hurled defiance at Caesar from the shores of Britain two thousand years ago – a tongue that has sounded the slogan of the Highland clans on every battlefield of the Empire.” From the second battle of Ypres, to “the undying glory that was theirs at Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, and the breaking of the Queant-Drocourt line,” the Cape Breton companies had “stood a wall of fire around their much-loved isle.”68 In short, the trajectory of the Cape Breton Scot from backward peasant to noble warrior was now complete.

29 A travel narrative can reveal as much about its author and the author’s own society as it does about the people and places it describes. For example, in the British travellers’ accounts of Cape Breton Island can be detected the colonist concern for social and economic progress. And Frederick S. Cozzens’s pejorative account of the Cape Breton Scots reflects not only a strong sense of upper class American confidence and superiority but also a Yankee distaste for Highland romanticism in the pre-Civil War era. That tone changed considerably in 1874, with the publication of Charles Dudley Warner’s Baddeck and That Sort of Thing, and especially with Charles Farnham’s “Cape Breton Folk” a decade later. Just as British travellers in Scotland’s Highlands had been searching for a culture whose closeness to nature and racial heritage contrasted, in Grenier’s words, with their own “rational, mechanical, and progress-obsessed world,” so the same could be said for the Americans who were attracted to Cape Breton in the later 19th century.69 They may have valued the island primarily as a scenic retreat for yachting and fly fishing, but they were also fascinated by what they considered to be a traditional society that did not share the individualistic and materialistic values of the United States. Not surprisingly, then, Cape Breton’s bitter coal mine strikes of the 1880s were simply ignored in the island’s travel accounts.70 The Canadian-published promotional materials adopted a more dispassionate tone, but the image of a clan-based, tradition-bound culture persisted and even regained strength with the rise of imperialism and militarism in the First World War era. The quest of the Nova Scotia folk would certainly become more intense and more sentimental after the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s,71 but Premier Angus L. Macdonald was building on a foundation that had already been well established by the travel and tourism literature that described the Scots of Cape Breton Island.

1 Edward J. (Ted) Cowan, “The Scots Imaging of Canada,” in A Kingdom of the Mind: How the Scots Helped Make Canada, ed. Peter E. Rider and Heather McNabb (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006), 4. I wish to express thanks to the journal’s anonymous readers, whose detailed critiques were of great assistance in producing the final draft of this article.
2 For example, travellers’ accounts criticized the Presbyterians of Pictou for their religious factionalism and the Catholics of Cape Breton Island for their ignorance. See Ian McKay, “Tartanism Triumphant: The Construction of Scottishness in Nova Scotia, 1933-1954,” Acadiensis XXI, no. 2 (Spring 1992): 8-10.
3 See T.M. Devine, Clanship to Crofters’ War: The Social Transformation of the Scottish Highlands (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), chap. 6, and John R. Gold and Margaret M. Gold, Imagining Scotland: Tradition, Representation and Promotion in Scottish Tourism since 1750 (Aldershot, UK: Scolar Press, 1995), chap. 4.
4 Devine, Clanship, 87. See also Peter Womack, Improvement and Romance: Constructing the Myth of the Highlands (Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1989), chap. 3.
5 McKay, “Tartanism Triumphant,” 15-16. See also Ian McKay and Robin Bates, In the Province of History: The Making of the Public Past in Twentieth-Century Nova Scotia (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010), 269. On the 185th Battalion, which became known as the Cape Breton Highlanders, see Barry W. Shears, Dance to the Piper: The Highland Bagpipe in Nova Scotia (Sydney, NS: Cape Breton University Press, 2008), 150-2; and Ken MacLeod, “Roots of 185th Cape Breton Highlanders Can Be Found in Broughton,” Cape Breton Post, 5 September 2014, 3859512/Roots-of-185th-Cape-Breton-Highlanders-can-be-found-in-Broughton/1. On the popularity of Highland regiments in Canada, particularly after the First World War, see H.P. Klepak, “A Man’s a Man because of That: The Scots in the Canadian Military Experience,” in Rider and McNabb, Kingdom of the Mind, 40-59.
6 Womack, Improvement and Romance, 2.
7 See, for example, J.I. Little, “Agricultural Improvement and Highland Clearance: The Isle of Arran, 1828-29,” Scottish Economic and Social History 19, Pt. 2 (1999): 132-54, and Krisztina Fenyo, Contempt, Sympathy and Romance: Lowland Perceptions of the Highlands and the Clearances During the Famine Years, 1845-1855 (East Linton, SCT: Tuckwell Press, 2000).
8 Katherine Haldane Grenier, “Tourism and the Idea of the Skye Crofter: Nature, Race, Gender and the Late Nineteenth-Century Highland Identity,” Victorians Institute Journal 25 (1997): 113.
9 McKay dates the origins of Nova Scotia’s folklorization to the late 1920s. See Ian McKay, The Quest of the Folk: Antimodernism and Cultural Selection in Twentieth-Century Nova Scotia (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994), 9. My main sources for identifying the travel literature discussed in this article were Elizabeth Waterston et al., eds., The Travellers: Canada to 1900 (Guelph, ON: University of Guelph, 1989); Brian Tennyson, ed., Impressions of Cape Breton (n.p.: n.p. 1986); and the online catalogue of the Nova Scotia Archives:
10 On outside perceptions of the Mi’kmaq, see Tennyson, Impressions of Cape Breton, x-xiii, 81-6.
11 Stephen J. Hornsby, Nineteenth-Century Cape Breton: A Historical Geography (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992), 31.
12 See, for example, Rusty Bittermann, Robert A. McKinnon, and Graeme Wynn, “Of Inequality and Interdependence in the Nova Scotia Countryside, 1850-70,” Canadian Historical Review 74, no. 1 (1993): 1-43.
13 Hornsby, Nineteenth-Century Cape Breton, 123, 144. In addition to the rural settlements, Cape Breton’s eastern coalfield employed approximately 2,500 men and boys by 1890 – many of them Scots from the island’s thin-soiled backlands. See Hornsby, Nineteenth-Century Cape Breton, 169-83.
14 Quoted in Tennyson, Impressions of Cape Breton, 101.
15 John M’Gregor, British America, vol. 1, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: William Blackwood; London: T. Caddell, 1833), 462.
16 The series was initially titled “Letters to a Friend”; the friend in question was Archbishop Whately of Dublin, who died before it was completed. See C. Bruce Fergusson, ed., Uniacke’s Sketches of Cape Breton and Other Papers Relating to Cape Breton (Halifax: Public Archives of Nova Scotia, 1958), 7-8, 36.
17 Fergusson, ed., Uniacke’s Sketches, 64. Much the same assessments were made in the responses to the 1861 survey questionnaire distributed by R.G. Haliburton, Secretary of the Nova Scotia Commissioners for the International Exhibition. See Fergusson, Uniacke’s Sketches, 33, 158-60, 170.
18 Quoted in B.D. Tennyson, “Cape Breton in 1867,” Nova Scotia Historical Quarterly 6, no. 2 (June 1976): 205. Bourinot also wrote that “the inhabitants are all Scots, and, as a rule, are a well-to-do class” (204). The article was first published in The New Dominion Monthly in May 1868.
19 John J. Rowan, The Emigrant and Sportsman in Canada. Some Experiences of an Old Country Settler (London: Edward Stanford, 1876), 158-9, 163. On Cape Breton’s Newfoundland market, see Hornsby, Nineteenth-Century Cape Breton, 59-61. According to Alan MacNeil, the poor reputation of Nova Scotia’s Highland settlers as farmers was based on their focus on livestock as opposed to cereal crop production. See Alan R. MacNeil, “Cultural Stereotypes and Highland Farming in Eastern Nova Scotia, 1827-1861,” Histoire sociale / Social History 19, no. 37 (May 1986): 39-56. See also D. Campbell and R.A. MacLean, Beyond the Atlantic Roar: A Study of the Nova Scotia Scots (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1974), 56-7, 63-4, 86-91, 182-4.
20 Rowan, Emigrant and Sportsman, 162.
21 See Hornsby, Nineteenth-Century Cape Breton, 131-43, and Rusty Bittermann, “The Hierarchy of the Soil: Land and Labour in a 19th Century Cape Breton Community,” Acadiensis XVIII, no. 1 (Autumn 1988): 33-55.
22 Kevin Flynn, “Destination Nation: Nineteenth-Century Travels Aboard the Canadian Pacific Railway,” Essays on Canadian Writing 67 (Spring 1999): 197-9.
23 See Michael Newton, We’re Indians Sure Enough: The Legacy of the Scottish Highlanders in the United States (Auburn, NH: Windhaven Press, 2001), 255.
24 Frederick S. Cozzens, Acadia; Or, A Month With the Blue Noses (New York: Derby and Jackson, 1859), 198.
25 See Shears, Dance to the Piper.
26 Cozzens, Acadia, 199-200.
27 Cozzens, Acadia, 202-3.
28 Charles Dudley Warner, Baddeck, and That Sort of Thing, 15th ed. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1892).
29 Tennyson, Impressions of Cape Breton, 163.
30 McKay, “Tartanism Triumphant,” 11. Similarly, Womack (Improvement and Romance, 6) claims that the Highlander in Scotland was originally “textualized as the fool, as the rogue, and as the beggar.”
31 Gold and Gold, Imagining Scotland, 45.
32 T.J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1981), xv.
33 Warner, Baddeck, 149-50. Similarly, Grenier notes of travellers’ perceptions of the Highlanders in Scotland that “having no access to the luxuries of life, they did not pine for them, thus their ignorance kept them at peace.” See Katherine Haldane Grenier, Tourism and Identity in Scotland, 1770-1914 (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005), 180.
34 Warner, Baddeck, 111-12, 156, 189-90.
35 M.F. Sweetser, The Maritime Provinces: A Handbook for Travellers (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1875), iii-iv, 141-71. The quotation is from 169.
36 S.G.W. Benjamin, The Atlantic Islands as Resorts of Health and Pleasure (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1878), 226. Also in a similar vein, the British military officer and “sportsman” Richard Lewes Dashwood claimed that the Cape Breton Scots were “most kind and hospitable, but some of them very ignorant, and rather lawless.” See Richard Lewes Dashwood, Chiploquorgan, Or, Life By the Camp Fire (London: Simpkin, Marshall and Co., 1872), 75.
37 Tennyson, Impressions of Cape Breton, 187, quoted from S.G.W. Benjamin, “Cruising around Cape Breton,” Century Magazine (July 1884): 352-64. See also S.G.W. Benjamin, The Cruise of the Alice May in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Adjacent Waters (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1885). On Benjamin, see Alan Andrew MacEachern, “Discovering an Island: Travel Writers and Tourism on Prince Edward Island,” The Island Magazine 29 (1991): 10.
38 Grenier, Tourism and Identity, 186-7.
39 Quoted in Tennyson, Impressions of Cape Breton, 185.
40 On this theme, see Grenier, “Tourism and the Idea of the Skye Crofter,” 115-16.
41 Harper’s at this time had a circulation of 200,000 in America and 35,000 in Great Britain, giving it “the widest readership of any magazine of its kind.” See Eugene Exman, The House of Harper: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Publishing (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), 79.
42 C.H. Farnham, “Cape Breton Folk,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 72 (December 1885): 610. This article was reprinted “with only minor omissions” and with a brief introduction by Stephen F. Spencer, in Acadiensis VIII, no. 2 (Spring 1979): 90-106.
43 Farnham, “Cape Breton Folk,” 617-18.
44 McKay, “Tartanism Triumphant,” 14.
45 Farnham, “Cape Breton Folk,” 618. Farnham provides a brief autobiography in his “Labrador, First Paper,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 71 (September 1885): 500.
46 The custom endured on Cape Breton into the 1920s, though by the late 19th century it was usually a predetermined event with the couple having already come to a private agreement with the permission of the prospective bride’s father. See Peter Ward, Courtship, Love, and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century English Canada (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990), 105-6. See also J.I. Little, Crofters and Habitants: Settler Society, Economy, and Culture in a Quebec Township, 1848-1881 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991), 199-200.
47 Farnham, “Cape Breton Folk,” 615-16.
48 Farnham, “Cape Breton Folk,” 620, 622-3.
49 Farnham, “Cape Breton Folk,” 624-5. For an excellent description, see Laurie Stanley-Blackwell, “‘Tabernacles in the Wilderness’: The Open-Air Communion Tradition in Nineteenth and Twentieth-Century Cape Breton,” in The Contribution of Presbyterianism to the Maritime Provinces, ed. Charles H.H. Scobie and G.A. Rawlyk (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997). For a reading of Farnham’s article that stresses its romanticism, see Michael Vance, “Powerful Pathos: The Triumph of Scottishness in Nova Scotia,” in Transatlantic Scots, ed. Celeste Ray (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2005), 165-6.
50 Lears makes a sharp distinction between the longstanding American agrarian concern with urban “effeminacy” and “luxury” and the more broad-sweeping dissatisfaction with “rationalization” that he claims emerged in the 1880s. See Lears, No Place of Grace, 5-7. On the perception of Highlanders in Scotland as a folk community, see Grenier, Tourism and Identity, 176-94. On Farnham’s use of the folk concept in his Quebec articles, see J.I. Little, “Travels in a Cold and Rugged Land: C.H. Farnham’s Quebec Essays in Harper’s Magazine, 1883-89,” Journal of Canadian Studies 47, no. 2 (Spring 2013): 215-45.
51 Frank Bolles, From Blomidon to Smoky and Other Papers (Boston: Riverside Press, 1894), 42, 23, 30, 19.
52 Rev. R. Murray and J. McLennan, “Cape Breton,” in Picturesque Canada: The Country As It Was and Is, ed. George Monro Grant (Toronto: Belden, [c. 1882]), 841, 846-7. On Picturesque Canada, see J.I. Little, “Picturing a National Landscape: Images of Nature in Picturesque Canada,” forthcoming.
53 E. Lockett, Cape Breton Hand-Book and Tourist’s Guide, Containing in Addition Valuable Recipes, and Other Useful Information (North Sydney and Sydney, NS: Author, n.d.), 109.
54 Lockett, Cape Breton Hand-Book, 91, 201.
55 The only exceptions, apparently, were J.P. McLeod and J.E. Campbell, who “seem to be pushing along and keep rather neat stocks.” See Lockett, Cape Breton Hand-Book, 95.
56 Lockett, Cape Breton Hand-Book, 19, 57, 21.
57 John M. Gow, Cape Breton Illustrated: Historic, Picturesque and Descriptive (Toronto: William Briggs, 1893), 406-9, 421-3. The quotation is from 408.
58 Gow, Cape Breton Illustrated, 366-7. Cape Breton writers were expressing resentment of Warner’s book as late as 1930. See, for example, D.J. Rankin, Our Ain Folk and Others (Toronto: Macmillan, 1930), 162.
59 Gow, Cape Breton Illustrated, 358.
60 Grenier, Tourism and Identity, 186.
61 C.W. Vernon, Cape Breton at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century: A Treatise of Natural Resources and Development (Toronto: Nation Publishing, 1903), 3, 4, 299, 302, 304. The last chapters in the book trace a number of travel routes, focusing on tourist attractions such as historic sites, picturesque views, and trout streams.
62 In the 1932 census 24,303 Nova Scotians are listed as having Gaelic as their mother tongue, making it the third most widely spoken language in the province after English and French. See McKay and Bates, In the Province of History, 260.
63 Vernon, Cape Breton, 61. Laurie Stanley-Blackwell claims “by the first decade of the twentieth century the open-air communion had lost many of its communal and participatory aspects.” See Stanley-Blackwell, “‘Tabernacles in the Wilderness’,” 116. On Vernon’s publication, see McKay and Bates, In the Province of History, 263-4.
64 Intercolonial of Canada, A Ramble and a Rest: Pure Air, Sea Bathing, Picturesque Scenery; Summer of 1895 (Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau, 1895), 27.
65 Intercolonial Railway, Forest, Stream, and Seashore ([Springhill, NS: s.n., 1894?189- or 19-]), 115.
66 [Henry] Beckles Willson, Nova Scotia: The Province That Has Been Passed By (London: Constable and Co., 1911), v, vi. The author’s first name is not used in this publication, but he is identified as the author of books that were written by Henry Beckles Willson. For a brief biography, see Damien-Claude Bélanger, Biographies of Prominent Quebec and Canadian Historical Figures,
67 Willson, Nova Scotia, 185-6.
68 Catherine Dunlop Mackenzie, “The Charm of Cape Breton Island. The Most Picturesque Portion of Canada’s Maritime Provinces – A Land Rich in Historical Associations, Natural Resources, and Geographic Appeal,” National Geographic 38, no. 1 (July 1920): 37, 39, 40, 42.
69 Grenier, Tourism and Identity, 176. Tourism did not become a major industry for the island, however, until the opening of the Canso Causeway in 1955. A recent study notes that the ceremony was marked by the cutting of a tartan ribbon by a ceremonial claymore, followed by the “March of the Hundred Pipers” playing “The Road to the Isles.” The same study, though, claims that “interest in Scottish culture . . . was not apparent during the two decades following the opening of the causeway.” See Meaghan Beaton and Del Muise, “The Canso Causeway: Tartan Tourism, Industrial Development, and the Promise of Progress for Cape Breton,” Acadiensis XXXVII, no. 2 (Summer/Autumn 2008): 68-9. On Nova Scotia tourist numbers, see McKay and Bates, In the Province of History, 63.
70 On these strikes, see Del Muise, “The Making of an Industrial Community: Cape Breton Coal Towns, 1867-1900,” in Cape Breton Historical Essays, ed. Don MacGillivray and Brian Tennyson (Sydney, NS: College of Cape Breton Press, 1980), 76-87, and David Frank, “Tradition and Culture in the Cape Breton Mining Community in the Early Twentieth Century,” in Cape Breton at 200, ed. Kenneth Donovan (Sydney, NS: University College of Cape Breton, 1985), 202-18. On the more complicated reaction to the Crofters’ War of the same decade, see Grenier, “Tourism and the Idea of the Skye Crofter,” 119-25.
71 See, for example, Rankin, Our Ain Folk and Others; Neil S. MacNeil, The Highland Heart in Nova Scotia (New York: C. Scribner’s, 1948); and Celia C. Dimock, Children of the Sheiling (Sydney, NS: Lynk Printing, n.d.).

Acadiensis. ISSN: 00445851