[Taking A Close Look At...]


"An old man named Allan Grant aged 80 years danced a Scotch Reel at the Highland Pic-Nic last Friday." [Aurora, 26 July 1882]

"[T]he members of the Highland Society of the County of Sydney, attired in their Highland Garbs, recently imported from Scotland, met at the Store of Duncan Chisholm, Esq., Antigonish, at 3 o'clock on last Tuesday afternoon, and immediately afterwards proceeded in procession, headed by banners and cheered by the martial Pibroch of the Gael, to take a sleigh drive through the streets of Antigonish and vicinity. That being over a merry meeting was held at Cunningham's Hotel, where the members with several guests enjoyed themselves in eating, drinking, singing and speaking until about 4 o'clock next morning when the company broke up." [Casket, 1 January 1863]

"Big Allan (McDonald of Keppoch) was remarkable for his strength of body. In his native country he was known as Allan Mor na clach neirt--the champion stone thrower. He it was that carried home from town on his back a huge grinding stone." [Aurora, 1 February 1892]

Supporting Evidence

Supporting Evidence for this item.
[ View object ]

Date:unknown, possibly 1800-1840
Dimensions:21 x 21 x 8 cm

Comments:This quern (brath in Gaelic) was found in a field at Williams Point, near Antigonish, and was originally used to grind grain and make flour. It consists of two flat round pieces of stone. The larger of the two is rectangular in shape, with a rounded opening in the centre which was typically used as an outlet for the crushed grain. The second piece is circular in shape and fits perfectly in the centre of the larger stone. There is a hole (some models had two) in the centre of the smaller piece through which the grain was poured. A wooden peg handle was also inserted in this hole to assist in the grinding process. After the grain was ground and dried, it was then further processed with a sieve (cralthar in Gaelic) which would separate out the husks.

Judging from its design, this hand mill can be classified as a "rotary quern" or "circular quern". It is extremely heavy; however, its convenient size suggests that it was used at home rather than for commercial purposes. The property on which the hand mill was found belonged to Angus and Mary Grant. The house on this site was built in 1825 and the original owner, Angus Rod MacDonald, and his descendants, were farmers. Since the quern was found in the field, there is no way of determining who originally owned it.

The quern has a long history. It is believed that the circular quern was introduced into Great Britain by the Romans. It is possible that this stone was brought from Scotland, where the Scots relied on the quern for grinding grain. It was usually the women who performed this household task during the evening hours. Sometimes they squatted on the ground, but later the device was kept on a shelf. The hand mill was not particularly efficient in terms of output, so in a large family it had to be used frequently. With a well-made quern, the grinding faces of the stones were slightly slanted from the middle to the rim; this was the most significant difference between a good and a poor quern. The Scots used their querns to do their own milling, to avoid the exorbitant charges at the landlord's local mill. These hand mills symbolised self-reliance and liberation but they were generally forbidden and, if found, were disposed of immediately, often dropped into the sea. The transgressor was usually fined. As late as 1876, thousands of querns were still being used in the Highlands of Scotland. Many families brought their querns with them during emigration, as they were objects of both utilitarian and symbolic importance.

Martha Black and Shane Dempster

[ View object ]

Date: Summer 1899
Dimensions: approx. 66 cm x 97 cm

Comments: This poster is an advertisement for the 38th Antigonish Highland Games in 1899. It came originally from the "Stonehouse" in Heatherton. The poster is somewhat plain, with several different fonts, small floral designs and a border of Celtic crosses. The poster is crammed with details listing professional and amateur events and prizes ranging from $2.00 to $5.00. The Games included many conventional Highland sports, but these Games also featured a Bicycle Meet, reflecting the growing popularity of cycling in Maritime Canada. According to the poster, the event was to be graced by the presence of the Citizen's Band; D.C. Fraser, M.P. for Guysborough, "A Genuine Highlander of Rare Wit and Humor"; and Ronald J. MacDonald, the "World's Strongest and Fleetest Runner." Ronnie J. was regarded as a local sports hero, a reputation earned when he became the first Canadian to win the Boston Marathon in 1898. After such an extravagant billing, audiences must have been disappointed when he did not appear at the Games.

The Highland Games has a long history. Legend says that the sporting feast originated in the 11th century during the reign of King Malcolm Canmore. During the Middle Ages, these competitive events included running, jumping and stone casting, all of which celebrated strength, speed and endurance. There were several different events with different weight classes: the throwing of the blacksmith's hammer, which often weighed from twelve to sixteen pounds; the throwing of a well-rounded stone from the riverbed, which usually weighed from sixteen to twenty-four pounds; and the throwing of block weights, which could weigh up to fifty-six pounds. The most famous event was the tossing of the woodsman's tree or the caber, which was sixteen to twenty feet long and weighed up to one hundred and fifty-four pounds. Dancing also played a role in these Highland festivals. Sword dancers and other dancers competed for prizes with wild steps and complicated jumps.

The first Games sponsored by the Highland Society of the County of Sydney (which included Antigonish) was held in Antigonish on 18 October 1863. The event featured many of the traditional Highland sports, with the addition of two new novelty events, the wheelbarrow race and the sack race. Some of the contestants must have been ungainly, for according to the Casket's editor, the participants in the footrace "ran like moose". In 1868, the Games saw the addition of the hurdle race, sword dance and the Highland reel. The entry fee for competition was raised to fifty cents and males competed in all events for first and second place with cash prizes up to five dollars. The Highland Games sports heroes of the 1860s were Big Alex McKinnon and his brother John, Big Tanner McKinnon. The 1870s and 1880s saw these Highland Games gain significant momentum and the Antigonish Highland Society decided to build a special grandstand for spectators. This led to an entrance fee of twenty-five cents for visitors and fifty cents for grandstand seats. There were also train excursion rates from Halifax and Sydney to encourage attendance at this huge celebration of Celtic culture. The Games continued to evolve. In 1921, there was the addition of a violin competition, a boxing exhibition and a Gaelic concert.

Shane Dempster

See the poster's transcription.

[ View object ]

Date: 1886
Dimensions: 11 x 14.5 cm

Comments: This catechism titled Athghearradh an Teagaisg Chriosta was written by Bishop John Cameron, one-time Bishop of Antigonish. It was published in 1886 by the Halifax Printing Company. The text is exclusively Gaelic and the translated title reads: The Teachings of Christ, A Revised Edition. Cameron was an accomplished cleric, equally conversant in English, French, Italian and Latin. His mastery of Gaelic was somewhat tentative; he admitted that "he had had considerable difficulty with his attempt at Gaelic literature." Nevertheless, he composed the first version of his Gaelic catechism in 1883 to meet the needs of his Gaelic-speaking parishioners. In the early 1880s, his diocese of approximately 75,000 adherents included no less than 41,000 Highland Scots.

This pocket-size catechism was donated to the Antigonish Heritage Museum by Anna MacDonald, who was formerly a MacGillivray. The catechism circulated within her family who originally lived in Maryvale as farmers. The MacGillivrays, dubbed the "Highfield MacGillivrays", boasted an impressive pedigree. One of their ancestors was John "The Piper", a gifted Gaelic scholar and famous piper, who started farming near Malignant Brook, Nova Scotia in 1818. The members of this family greatly valued education and were important tradition-bearers within Antigonish County's Scottish community.

The catechism's plain cover (decorated with only a cross) has a tear and the print has faded over time. However, it is clear that this volume was a treasured source of religious illumination. In the early 19th century, Catholic Gaels in Maritime Canada had Gaelic missals, catechisms and prayer books. Alexander MacGillivrary's "Companach an Oganuich" (The Youth's Companion), published in 1836, is allegedly the first Gaelic book written and published in North America. It was filled with moralistic essays and enjoyed an appreciative audience, especially in Antigonish County, one-time residence of MacGillivray. In 1841, Father Ronald Rankin's Gaelic Manual was republished in Prince Edward Island to benefit Scottish Catholic immigrants. The print run for Bishop Cameron's catechism was small--no more than 200. Antigonish County in 1871 had a population of 16,512, of which 13,999 were Roman Catholic and the majority of those were Scots. However, by this time Gaelic literacy was noticeably on the decline, due in part to inadequate government support for the maintenance of the language.

Martha Black

[ View object ]

Date: possibly 1795, if not older
Dimensions: 9.24 m x 81 cm; with fringe 9.76 m x 81 cm

Comments: It is assumed that this tartan was brought to Nova Scotia by Scottish immigrants. The earliest recorded owner of the tartan was the MacNeil family of Giant's Lake, Guysborough County. Around 1995, the widow of the late Alexander Lee MacNeil, Mrs. Dorothy MacNeil, donated this piece of plaid to the Antigonish Museum. The remarkable heirloom was passed down through the family, beginning with John MacNeil who was born in Scotland and was Alexander Lee's great-grandfather. Logically then, the tartan pre-dates 1843 when the MacNeils emigrated to Eastern Nova Scotia. Experts suggest that the plaid dates back to the 18th century. The weaving displays a high level of technique and style. The subtle decorative border is particularly noteworthy, for this practice died out in Scotland in the early 1800s. The cochineal and indigo dyes in the plaid also point to a Scottish origin; these colours were very popular in early Scottish plaids. In the 18th century, Highlanders used the plaid (usually two widths sewn together) as a blanket roll or a garment. Highlanders would wrap the plaid around their bodies in the form of a feileadh-mor, which means Big Wrap. The technique for wearing this garment has been described as follows: "The plaid was worn by laying a belt on the ground and placing the plaid over the belt, folding it lengthwise into a series of pleats. The wearer then laid down on top of the plaid so that he was parallel to the pleats and folded the material on either side of him over the front of his body, fastening the belt around his waist--a forerunner to the modern kilt--and a mass of material above it. This would sometimes be allowed to hang down at the back or it could be arranged over the shoulder or--in bad weather-- form a protective covering around the neck and head." Although traditional Scottish dress featured such lively colours as red by the 18th century, it is interesting to note that early Highlanders preferred the colours of purple, blue and dark brown which served as useful camouflage in the heather. The garment was warm, loose and flowing. Still, the hardy Highlander went bare-legged, hence the nickname "Redshanks".

The term "tartan" originally referred to a particular French kind of cloth. The true Gaelic word is "breacan" meaning "chequered" or "variegated". Although clan tartans are considered synonymous with Highland culture, most designs were invented in the 18th and 19th centuries. The few that predate the Jacobite uprising of 1745 were associated with specific regions, or signified rank rather than family lineage. After the defeat of Prince Charles and the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the British government banned the use of "any tartan, plaid or any part of the Highland garb". The proscription was lifted in 1782. However, for the Scots, the tartan remained a powerful symbol of their independence and ethnic pride. One can understand why the tartan in the Antigonish Museum was handed down with deliberate care as a family treasure.

Martha Black

| BACK |

, HTML by Intern.