Celtic Tradition in Cape Breton

Mabou - Inverness County, Nova Scotia - an unincorporated area - now defined as a school district and postal area - formerly the mail distribution point for a number of small post offices in surrounding communities each of which also had one or two room schools. It may also be defined very roughly as the area drained by two branches of the Mabou River.

While the name of the place may well be of Mikmaw (native) origin, the meaning of the word is obscure. The name was used in the 1700's. The location was known prior to the settlement by Europeans for the deposit of coal, for the headland which is today called "Cape Mabou" and for the sheltered inlet called "Mabou Harbour". The Mikmaw in their yearly peregrinations were attracted to the area by the abundance of fish - alewives, salmon and lobster - and by the natural meadows where game was plentiful - deer, moose, beaver and mink. The mouth of the river was also one of the closest places to Prince Edward Island - often visited by the Mikmaw.

Tradition hold that the French used the steep banks along the southeast or Mull River for constructing shipways during their occupation of the island in the 1700's. No remnants of such ways have been found, but the French were known to have used stone from adjacent Port Hood in the construction of Fortress Louisbourg....

The earliest European settlement of a permanent nature was made by families from the United States at the time of the American Revolutionary War. These families from Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey seem to have had small sailing vessels of their own and may have engaged in some coastal trading and fishing as well as possibly some privateering. Although some were Loyalists, others may have been adventurers or land speculators....

The English-speaking settlers in the Mabou-Port Hood area in the 1780's and 1790's were joined about 1800 by Irish adventurers and settlers, by British seamen and one Portuguese sailor. Early in the 1800's, the Scottish immigration began with a number of former regiment members from the British Armed Forces and families from the Western Islands and Coast of Scotland. Two families from the Lowlands of Scotland, one from the Orkneys and one from the Island of Jersey are also noted among the early inhabitants. But the Highlanders and Islanders were predominant...

The Highland Scottish settlers began to intermarry with the previously settled English and Irish within a short time so that it appears as though the English language predominated as a commercial language here from the earliest years. Many of the families from the Scottish Area of Lochaber (who came here between 1801 and 1848) tended to continue a pattern of intermarriage which had been common in the old country so that the Scottish Gaelic Language and Song continued to be a household language in these families down to the present time.

The two languages existed with very little friction, it would appear - and while some people still living today knew no English until they went to school, English was the language of commerce, education and politics from the beginning of the settlement. It is noteworthy that the earliest Presbyterian Minister and the first Priest were not Gaelic speakers. In fact, it would appear that the adjacent church in Broad Cove and the one in Whycocomagh had Gaelic Services down to the present generations. The Roman Catholic clergymen following the first one had Gaelic down to the 1950's. Although Gaelic was not the language of the Catholic Church, the church at least did not discourage the use of the language and may indeed have fostered it in the area.

The Gaelic tradition was so strong in the area that a number of Gaelic Poems and Songs were composed here. In fact, in the opinion of a local resident, a student of Gaelic from Scotland, the compositions of the MacDonald writers of Mabou equaled if not surpassed in quality any compositions in Scotland during the middle years of the 19th Century. Since there was a strong oral-transmission tradition in Gaelic literature, it is certain that many interesting and significant compositions have been lost. A number, however, have been written down in manuscript form and some have been published.

The outpouring of the Muse from the Gaelic writers seems not to have been equaled in English; nothing remains of any compositions by the Irish immigrants. While many long songs and occasional poems were written in English, few if any have survived.

The Mabou community is justifiably proud of the large number of fine musicians who have their origins here. Not only have these fiddlers, pipers and singers preserved ancient tunes, but they have also composed new tunes - and indeed developed a highly stylized form of playing dance tunes. While the origins may be obscure, the impact of the Mabou style of fiddling remains both here in Mabou and in places in North America where Cape Bretoners have settled.

From its inception to the present day, Mabou has been much more of an agriculture and lumbering center. There was once a processing plant for fish as well as a canning plant. But the raising of cattle and sheep and the making of butter and cheese was a major economic venture during the 1800's. Today, three of the largest dairy herds on the island of Cape Breton are within the confines of Mabou - and a number of moderately large and prospering dairy farms are to be found. The second oldest agricultural society on the Island of Cape Breton has existed here in one form or another from 1821 to the present.

In keeping with the agriculture attitude of the community, a number of grist mills were to be found during the years before milled flour could be imported more cheaply from the West. In fact, Mabou at one time shipped flour to the mainland and to P. E. I. Shiploads of cattle and sheep and butter and cheese went from the area to Newfoundland until shortly after the time of Confederation. Agriculture declined from 1871 on until after World War 11 when improved roads and transportation made the shipping of milk to the processing plants in Sydney and Antigonish a profitable venture. It may be interesting to note that for every cleared acre seen today in this area, one hundred years ago there were three.

The shipping of lumber in large quantities to Newfoundland and to the Mediterranean as well as apparently to the States was very common in the 1800's. The present activity is almost entirely in the shipping of soft wood to the Pulp Mill in Port Hawkesbury.

A number of small manufacturing concerns were to be found in the area during the 1800's. The most significant was the MacDonald Woolen Mill in nearby Glendyer. It and all of the grist and grain processing mills were operated from water power. Some making of sleighs, buggies and farm implements as well as a small cottage industry of shoe-finishing could be seen here as well. But the first decade of the twentieth Century saw the end of these activities. Several of the MacKeen families were engaged in saw and grist mills for the larger portion of the 19th century.

The insistence of local people on good schools resulted in bringing of a number of teachers to the area from Ireland and Scotland. As early as the 1820's, schools were to be found here earlier than in most parts of rural Cape Breton. It is perhaps an influence of the English settlers from the New England States that such schools were established. From the 1830's on, Mabou had a reputation for excellent schools. The MacKeen Family also brought to the area teachers as tutors for the many children in the family. Although the outpouring of people from the area into professions in the U. S. and Western Canada has never been properly studied, it is certain from reading the accounts of early families found in books Mabou Pioneers 1 and 11 that an unusually large number of doctors, lawyers, clergymen and business men came from the area. The establishment of St. Joseph's Convent in Mabou in the 1880's by the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame, a teaching order, continued to place emphasis on scholarship and the pursuit of excellence.

The early decades of the Twentieth Century saw an increasingly large number of people moving from the area to the New England States and to Central and Western Canada as well as to the rapidly industrialized Sydney area of Cape Breton. The out migration has occasioned the thought that perhaps the chief contribution of Mabou to the life of North America has been its people. The migration continues although somewhat abated as young people look to Calgary as to a Mecca. The improvement in employment opportunities at the Strait area has helped to slow down the out migration.

The local organizations in Mabou are all striving to provide for the residents as rich a variety of activities and enterprises as existed in the past.

The above information was taken from the Bridge Archives, compiled by Jim St. Clair

Fishing around the turn of the 21st Century began to improve especially in the lobster and crab areas. New boats were being purchased in the Mabou Harbour and the Mabou Coal Mines areas and the standard of living was raised because of increased quotas and better fishing management. The future looks somewhat brighter, but as with this industry numerous factors, controllable and uncontrollable, can change the industry. Ed’s Hydraulic & Marine Services, not only brought employment to local people but also offers a much needed service to the fishermen, not only in the Mabou area, but also Eastern Nova Scotia....

Beaches at West Mabou and Mabou Coal Mines offer warm salty waters and sandy area for all who enjoy a swim or the occasional walk as you breath the fresh air and mingle with the friendly locals.

The population of the area is decreasing, as the young continue to leave the area in search of better jobs and a higher standard of living. This was always the trend in Mabou, but there are less young married people living in the area, as the declining enrolment in the schools show. The future of the area at the moment may be questionable to some, but no matter how long people of the area live in other provinces or countries when they say that they are going home, they mean MABOU.

Donald Cosman

FROM THE CBC http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/capebreton/miners.html:
Coal settled Cape Breton. From the very early days coal attracted men from around the world. Those immigration trends gave Cape Breton a culture that today is recognized as distinct by artists and musicians. There would be no Rankins, or Natalie MacMasters or Rita MacNeils without the mix of cultures that made Cape Breton.

While both the French and English exploited the fishery off Cape Breton in the 1600s. They also saw the potential of coal. As early as 1687 the French had plans to use coal from Sydney Harbour to refine sugar in the West Indies.