After an overnight, five-hour, transatlantic flight from Halifax, Nova Scotia, our WestJet 737, touched down in Scotland, UK. It had been a long journey…but we had not yet reached our ultimate goal. Making our way to Edinburgh, we mounted Castlehill and crossed the large forecourt of the magnificent Edinburgh Castle. Our destination?
No, that is not a typo. In 1625, in an effort to develop Nova Scotia (Latin for New Scotland), King James I created what were known as the Baronetcies of Nova Scotia. Wealthy merchants and others of means could receive large grants of land and noble titles in exchange for hard cash. The catch was that you had to receive your grant on the territory that constituted the baronetcy, namely, Nova Scotia. Said baronets didn’t want to make the long, arduous, and often dangerous trip across the Atlantic, so King James took the simple measure of declaring a portion of Edinburgh Castle to be in Nova Scotia. A plaque found to the right of the castle’s main gate, before you cross the moat, declares:
“Near this spot in 1625, Sir William Alexander of Menstrie, Earl of Stirling, receiving sasine, or lawful possession of the Royal Province of Nova Scotia by the ancient and symbolic ceremony of delivery of earth and stone from Castlehill by a representative of the king. Here also (1625-1637) the Scottish baronets of Nova Scotia received sasine of their distant baronies.”
Despite these noble aspirations, Nova Scotia ended up in French hands again, but later became a British colony with the subsequent expulsion of the Acadians immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, Evangeline.
Ultimately, Nova Scotia entered into confederation with Canada. Down through time, despite all of these events, however, the Royal Decree continued to hold. Homesick Canadians staying in Edinburgh can take heart that they simply have to make a brief journey up the Royal Mile, approach the castle, and re-visit their homeland.
For this we should offer a toast of thanks to Scottish King James VI, who became King James I of England and founder of the Stuart line of British monarchs—an event triggered when Elizabeth I died without issue. Of course, you would have to wave your goblet of wine over the water glass if you did make such a toast, at least if you’re a good Jacobite. This was meant to acknowledge the “king across the water” and refers to the fact that James’s descendants stubbornly insisted on being Catholic in a protestant nation, hence resulting in their being ousted and exiled “across the water” to France.
No Stuart ever held the throne thereafter, though the son of James II tried in 1715, and his grandson “Bonnie” Prince Charlie made a determined effort to do so in 1745-1746, very nearly taking London before being soundly defeated at the Battle of Culloden. Many know the “Skye Island Song”, which memorializes Flora MacDonald, who rowed the defeated prince across to safety. Though she is buried on Skye, she did have a sojourn in Windsor, Nova Scotia, where a plaque at Fort Edward commemorates her stay. Ironically, she subsequently married an officer of the British forces, hence the reason for her staying at this British garrison fort.
We did get to tour the Isle of Skye, visiting the cemetery where Flora was buried. Subsequently, we explored the site of the 1746 Battle of Culloden and walked the fields where the hundreds of Highland Jacobite soldiers met their fate. Stone markers dot the hay fields covering the site and showing where members of the various clans fell, never to rise again.
The Jacobites, cunning highland warriors to a man, had previously sneaked up at night on British government forces and massacred them in other battles. The British this night had strict orders for silence and no fires or lights. The Jacobite army became disoriented, and by morning met a large government army while still in disarray. They were able to charge and break the government line, but at slow speed due to the nature of the ground that they trod. Subsequently, government infantry and mounted soldiers surrounded and massacred the luckless Jacobites.
A stone tower marks the site of the battle and an interpretative display contains many artefacts, including a sword that belonged to “Bonnie” Prince Charlie. Anyone with Scottish highland roots will likely find a kinsman or two who fell at the site. There are records kept on site and inquiries are encouraged.
Ironically the Battle of Culloden could have been won if the French allies of the Jacobites had been more helpful. King Louis XV that same year spent massive amounts of money outfitting a fleet that, had it reached North America intact, would have expunged the British from the Americas. Due to storms, plague, poor food from corrupt suppliers and delays in departing the fleet, its sailors and passengers were decimated. It limped into Halifax Harbour (then known by the native name of Chebucto) where its commander, the Duc d’Anville proceeded to have a massive stroke and died from a brain tumour. He was joined in death by hundreds of others, and his body still lies in the chapel at the French Fortress of Louisburg on Cape Breton Island.
Had the resources of this expedition, launched only one month after Culloden, been devoted to helping Prince Charles Edward Stuart, history would have been quite different.
After the Jacobite defeat in 1746, the British commander, the Duke of Cumberland, ordered his troops to burn, loot, and massacre their way through the Highlands. He had flown the Red Dragon Banner before giving battle, which symbolized that no quarter was to be shown to the defeated. None was given.
After 1746, the Highland tartan, the bagpipe, and traditional dancing were made crimes punishable by death. Lands were given to those who were sympathetic towards William and Mary, who reigned after James II was ousted in the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688.
These new landlords, unlike the old clan chiefs, had no love, nor felt any responsibility to look after, the residents of their lands (many whose families had occupied farms or crofts for centuries). During the so-called Highland Clearances, these people were thrown off their property to make way for sheep. The crofters were often simply burned out and left to die of exposure or starvation. But the Highlands Scots were a tough breed, able to overcome almost any adversity. An interesting fact is that the Highlanders carry a gene that makes them hoard iron in their bodies. In rare cases, this causes disease, but simple carriage of one gene means that you are unlikely to develop anemia from low iron stores. The theory is that this gene provided a survival advantage by allowing those who carry it to recover quickly from blood loss. Hence, in the bloody feuds that sometimes occurred between clans or with outlanders, those who carried the gene would recover the ability to fight again much sooner, giving a survival and reproductive advantage. Small wonder that the first Scot named in history was called Calgacus, “the swordsman”, by first century Roman historian Tacitus. (Of note is that the author of this article carries just such a gene, as do large numbers of Nova Scotians.)
The Highland Clearances resulted in a diaspora of Highlanders all over the world, with many more people with Scottish ancestry living in places like the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand than those currently residing in the “auld country”. These people were (and are) tough, frugal and savvy…and they thrived virtually everywhere they settled.
Many ended up in Nova Scotia, and especially the island of Cape Breton (with its own highlands), which boasts towns with traditional Scottish names such as Inverness, Arisaig, and Iona. A few people still living here grew up speaking Gaelic; though, despite a popular myth, the Gaelic speakers of Nova Scotia do not outnumber those in the west of Scotland.
The island of Cape Breton even boasts a single malt whisky dubbed Glen Breton, produced at the Glenora Distillery from the soft waters of MacLellan’s Brook, a burn that runs through the property. The Scotch Whisky Producers Association fought and lost a court battle to prevent Glen Breton from using the word “glen” in its name, stating that this would create brand confusion. Of course, we could argue that since Scotch must be produced in Scotland, and since at least part of Nova Scotia lies within Scotland by decree of a Scottish monarch, perhaps whisky produced in this Canadian province should be allowed to call itself “Scotch”, too…I will leave that one for the courts!
Those of Scottish ancestry who live away have provided a bonanza for the Scottish tourism industry, with huge numbers coming back to seek out their roots, to purchase kilts, to patronize Scotch whisky distilleries, and to take sightseeing tours around the country—perhaps searching for monsters in the deep glacial lochs of the Highlands. These visitors sometimes create a bit of amusement for native Scots, with their unbridled enthusiasm for all things Scottish. But who can blame them for taking pride in their descent from some of the toughest, proudest and most spirited people ever to walk the planet!
*Scottish Gaelic for To your health!
George Burden—All rights reserved