Bantjes, Rod, “Introduction.html,” in Eigg Mountain Settlement History, last modified, 14 August 2015 (


Eigg Mountain Settlement History (see Index)




These pages document a vanished agricultural settlement, abandoned almost a century ago, on a high plateau in the northeast corner of Antigonish County known as Eigg Mountain.  In the intervening years, forests have reclaimed land that once was in fields and pastures – new and altered forests that bear the signature of the land’s history.  Forests in turn have been harvested for pulpwood and lumber.  Generations of forestry operations have left their own distinctive layers of marks upon the land.  History lies embedded in the landscape in traces that are becoming fainter with time and that are visible only to those with the skill to read them.  This project provides a map (available in ArcReader, Google Earth and PDF) for those who, for whatever reason, want to explore that landscape through time.


My own reason for exploring Eigg Mountain was to show students how landscapes that we sometimes take to be “natural” – indeed much of Eigg Mountain is now protected as “wilderness” as though it were untouched by human activity – are often subtle human artefacts.  I knew from the 1864 map by A. F. Church that people had settled here.  A conversation with a retired forester, Peter Jackson, got me interested in the idea that these lands might have been abandoned for ecological reasons.  Old censuses were a source of information on agricultural production.  If the students and I could link census records to actual plots of land, then we might be able to determine when agricultural productivity declined and whether that decline could be attributed to loss of fertility of soils that, as Peter Jackson had suggested, were too shallow, thin in organic matter, or situated on slopes that were too steep and thereby subject to erosion.


We brought Church’s map into the digital age, transferring old locations first onto a computer-generated base map, then from there, where they acquired precise co-ordinates in longitude and latitude, onto a hand-held GPS unit.  We ventured into the woods keeping one eye on the landscape and one on the GPS screen – following what remote satellites were telling us about the compass direction and distance from our position to each of the hidden farm sites.  At one spot we found old rock piles that showed that people had once cleared fields there, but no evidence of buildings.  What we did find we recorded as “waypoints” on the GPS which we later uploaded to the map.  At the next spot we found the house site and barn, but only because others had got there before us.  In fact they had built a hunting camp, “Maple Lodge,” cleared and mowed the area and set up a commemorative stone “In honour of the men and women who shed their blood, sweat and tears on Eigg Mountain, and from whom we are descendants.”[1]


Standing in the yard as though he’d been expecting us, was Charlie Teasdale, who greeted us with characteristic warmth, listened with interest to our story, and thought a bit.  He knew where most of the old basements were, he told us, and who had lived there and what their stories were.  Over time I was to learn just how extensive his knowledge was – all of it stored in his head.  For some time he had been trying to figure out how he could possibly record or pass on what he knew.  What he had weren’t just stories that could easily be written down, but an understanding of the ways in which the lives that these stories recounted were “attached” to real and uniquely significant places.  Our GPS mapping project seemed to offer a method of recording genealogy, stories and their connections to the landscape.  So he offered to help us.  This was the beginning of many years of collaboration between Charlie and me and the forming of an unspoken commitment on my part to pass on what I learned.


Charlie has a unique way of narrating the landscape.  No matter where we were, hacking through bush in a deep ravine on Eigg Mountain, or driving down some back road at the other end of the county, and everywhere in between, he had a story to tell about the place.  Stories are about people, and talk of people led to genealogy – how people were connected to other people.  Charlie would trace these connections, on an astonishingly detailed map in his head, to other places, in Antigonish or adjacent counties as far away as Cape Breton, where these people were attached to the land.  “Attached” means a range of things – a working engagement with, a claim to, or a love of a piece of land.  The record that I have designed here is meant to work according to a logic similar to the one that I observed Charlie following.  It records a small fragment of Charlie’s map.


You can start with the map at a place chosen randomly or because you have a particular attachment to it.  There you can see what we know about the locations of nineteenth-century farms and fields, property boundaries and the names and dates of some of the people who owned or made claim to the land.  If you look at the ArcReader version of the map, and press a button that looks like a little lightning bolt, a series of points will light up in blue.  Click on any of these and you will find a write-up on what is there.[2]  Often it will be just a bare-bones description of a stone cellar, or photographs of artifacts.  Sometimes there will be a story and links to related sites – so you can move laterally through the write-ups, following whatever narrative line you choose.  If you click on a family name, you will be taken to a genealogy, where you may want to click on other names to see what we know about how these related people were attached to the land.


If your first interest is family history and you want to trace family names, you can start with a list of all the surnames of people that we know had ownership claims on Eigg Mountain.  You can also, using the ArcReader version of the map, search for names from the map itself and zoom to the locations where these names are mentioned.  In only one sense is our work on Eigg Mountain complete, and that is, we believe we have identified all of the old farm sites.[3]  The original plan of charting changes over time was ambitious, complex and fraught with unexpected difficulties.  It turned out to be diabolically difficult to connect census records to places.  There are a handful of prominent surnames on Eigg Mountain such as Fraser, Gillis, MacDonald, MacEachern and MacIsaac, and a handful of popular first names like John, Ranald, Donald and Laughlan that get reused often many times within the same family.  The census-takers did not record the crucial nicknames (“Red,” “Mor,”  “Ban,” and the like) that could distinguish the many John Gillis’s, so it is sometimes impossible to know who, located on which farm, their records refer to.  Nor is it easy to reconstruct the path that the census-taker must have followed along the mountain roads.


Only in outline can we offer a chronological story of settlement, one that begins with an Irish settler, John Kickham taking up residence probably in 1822 and a Scottish settler, Ranald Fraser, from the isle of Eigg on Scotland’s west coast, in 1823.  The story has no definitive ending, but two important markers are the final closing of the school and community center in 1914[4] and the departure of the last full-time resident of the Mountain proper, William, “Fettle” Gillis, in 1936.[5]  There are however personal stories that attach to places, such as Lame Angus’s altercation with a bear over a still, or the strength and courage of Mary Delaney giving birth on a lonely mountain road.  Charlie and I were occasionally called upon to record other sites and stories from around the county.  Bernie MacIsaac recounted what he knew of the back settlements of Georgeville and Cape George.  He told us what a luxury it had been for the mysteriously wealthy Jack MacDougall to use as many nails as he wanted in building his home while others relied on wooden pegs.  Ingenuity in the use of local materials shows up in many examples of fine stonework from fieldstone of varied and often challenging character.  There are few more impressive stories of making do with what was available than John Haley’s account from Merland of how his dad moved their entire house down a bank, across a stream and up the opposite bank using only a capstan and a single horse.


Reading the Forested Landscape[6]


When Charlie and I first searched the woods together, I realized that despite all of my high-tech mapping and navigating tools, I was blind to things that he saw right in front of us.  We would be in the middle of what looked to me like a spruce forest and he would say “this is a field.”  Even more perplexing to me were the “lines” he saw.  He would say “there’s the line” and I would see patterns of moss and undergrowth and hardwood and softwood trees, but no lines.  He would know what boundary or property this line represented, where it led and how it connected up to others and in this way could locate us on a grid that went far beyond the spot where we stood.


Charlie had spent summers up on Eigg Mountain with his family, and had worked in mills, cutting wood and had explored and hunted on these lands since the 1940s.  At that time some of the former pasture was still open or had only just begun to grow over.  I had seen this version of the landscape as a bird’s eye view from old aerial photographs of 1945.  I had scanned these photos and georeferenced them to my digital base map.[7]  The past – 1945 – was a digital layer.  I could transfer features of it onto the “Historical features” layer that you can see in ArcReader and from there onto the GPS unit.  In the field all I “knew” at first were impersonal co-ordinates logged in a hand-held machine.  Charlie worked as much from stories as from maps.  So for example when we were trying to find our way out of a ravine he all of a sudden knew exactly where we were because he had shot a deer there maybe 20 years previously.  The bullet had gone through the animal’s rump leaving it to run off injured and he had tried to follow it.


Spots such as this were like familiar personalities; Charlie might not have seen them for years and they had changed with age but he could still recognize who they were.  As time went on I learned to carry the digital map in my head, but it was always the bird’s eye view with impersonal elevations and grid lines which I could “georeference” with more or less accuracy to the landscape beneath my feet.  Over what each of us could immediately see we superimposed very different types of knowledge imported from other times and places as a “layer” to help us recognize what was in front of us.  This allowed us to think and to feel, “...we are in such-and-such a gulley” with what we imagined to be its shape and tending in what we imagined to be a certain direction, rather than the gulley to the north with a different structure, orientation and ultimate destination were we to follow it.  We occasionally had discussions and debates, trying to georeference one internal map to the other.


I never quite developed Charlie’s appreciation for “lines,” but began to learn to see below the immediately visible layer to past landscapes.  I learned to recognize the traces of grooming under a mossy forest floor where people toiled a hundred years ago picking rocks, ploughing and planting.  I learned to pay attention to the species mix and age of the forest cover.  Cleared land tends to grow up in softwood.  An old, even-aged stand of white spruce is a good indicator of a past field.  If Charlie or I were botanists, I think we would recognize other clues in the regrowth – subtle changes in the vegetation that we only sense but nonetheless give us an intuition that we are near a vanished farmyard.  When you are looking for lost places, lost, completely overgrown roads can often lead to them.  Charlie showed me how to detect the kinds of roads we wanted – old “horse roads” made without power equipment – and distinguish them from roads made after the 1960s with bulldozers.  This capacity to sense the hundred year old landscape is partly a rational skill and partly an intuitive gift that is difficult to explain.  Charlie would sometimes describe being close to an invisible farm site or a school as feeling the presence of people.  I can understand why he would put it in those terms.[8]


We think that our eyes reveal the landscape directly, but often, like me when I first encountered the woods of Eigg Mountain, we can look without seeing.  What we think we “see” we always filter and augment with the maps we carry in our heads.  Maps are ways of seeing the world.  Some of what I have written here is about how we build these maps; some serves as a kind of instruction manual for how to perceive the historic “layers” of the wooded landscape.  I also hope to give users a taste for the beauty and power of map-making.  Overlaying information spatially, like elevations, surveys of soil quality and evidence from aerial photos of farm abandonment can reveal relationships that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.  The historical maps themselves, such as Bayfield’s map of Antigonish Harbour, and sometimes the overlays produced from them are often not only evocative, but attractive to look at.  Maps appeal to the eyes and wherever possible I have included images of the many maps that were used in this project.


Written and recorded maps are public statements of what the landscape is that can in interesting ways claim greater authority than the reality on the ground.  Land surveys and the maps that record them can be used as tools of social power – for asserting one group’s understandings of or claims to the landscape at the expense of another group’s.  They often assert or try to produce a reality that is highly contentious rather than simply report one that everyone accepts.  In a document called Making Claim to the Land, I consider these themes in relation to land claims on Eigg Mountain.


This mapping project is designed to be interactive.  You can choose your own route through it and explore as much or as little as you want.  We also hope that it will inspire you to explore the actual landscape that it represents in a way that allows you to better appreciate the rich layers of natural and human history embedded in it.  You may know or discover things about this or similar landscapes that we have not recorded.  We encourage you to take a GPS along and send us waypoints, photos or stories.  We would be happy to add them to the map and its associated documents.  Charlie and I have taken up work on Brown’s Mountain and the more we find out, the more we realize how much remains undiscovered.  Finding old stone walls, basements and other traces on the land is more fun than geocaching.  You are welcome to get involved, or start your own project.

[1] For the family connections that tie Charlie and his brother Kenton to Eigg Mountain, see MacLellan genealogy.

[2] You can also now do this to a more limited degree with the Google Earth version of the map.

[3] A few have only rough locations from maps, and are either obliterated or still awaiting discovery and recording with GPS.  A few we don’t have names for.  I have compiled a list of the gaps in our knowledge as of July 2015.

[4] For an explanation of why the settlement ended when it did see Eigg Mountain Soil Fertility.

[5] There is a good story of a later “last” departure by John Archie MacEachern from a farm below the mountain on the Gusset Road.

[6] For more on this idea, from a similar landscape to that in Nova Scotia, see Tom Wessels, Reading the Forested Landscape: a Natural History of New England (Woodstock, Vt: Countryman Press, 1997).

[7] You can see examples of georeferenced aerial photos for the farms of Pat Mooney, Angus Malcolm Fraser and Allan MacDonald

[8] For a further discussion of how we used these intuitions to find far sites see Finding Places.