Cape Breton Island lies off the north east coast of Nova Scotia, Canada. It is separated from the mainland by the Strait of Canso. The Canso Causeway, completed on December 10, 1954, is the one and only ‘road to the isle’.
It is 175 kilometres (110 miles) long and 140 kilometres (87 miles) wide and, to our great delight, has over 1,000 kilometres (650 miles) of Atlantic coastline. In the middle of it all is the Bras d’Or Lakes, a salt water lake system that stretches across the Island from East Bay to West Bay.
Cape Breton’s origins began 1200 to 600 million years ago as an island off Africa. Great ferns grew in the swamps that covered most of the land, and dragonflies the size of gulls thrived.Click to enlarge Cabot Trail photo Eventually our island made a slow journey northward and all that shifting and colliding caused the Highlands and canyons to form.
The history books tell us that John Cabot ‘discovered’ Cape Breton in 1497. He apparently landed at Aspy Bay in Northern Cape Breton and erected a cross there claiming the land for the King of England.
But long before that, Norsemen are believed to have stopped off here on their many voyages of discovery across the ocean. There is evidence, too, that Cape Breton was inhabited by Indians as far back as 6000 BC and that the Mi’kmaqs have been here for a thousand years.
In the early 1500’s European fishermen began to fish in our waters and occasionally visit our shores. By the early 1600’s English, French, Portuguese and Spanish fishermen were using Cape Breton as a place to dry their fish and trade furs with the natives.
The first permanent settlement, though, wasn’t established until 1629. A Scotsman by the name of Sir James Stewart, Lord Ochiltree, settled with sixty others at Baleine Cove, near Louisbourg.
The 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, officially gave Cape Breton to France. To protect ‘Isle Royale’, as it was then called, France set about building its great fortress at Louisbourg. For a short time Louisbourg was one of the busiest ports in North America and a vital commercial centre of New France. But the struggle for supremacy in the ‘New World’ was never far away, and in 1745 the British attacked and captured the town. It was returned to the French only to be captured a second time in 1758. Two years later the British destroyed the Fortress.
It was around the same time too that Cape Breton began to receive its first major influx of Scottish settlers. In the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden legislation was enacted that saw to the destruction of Gaelic social and political institutions as well as the military presence that was such a vital part of Highlanders’ way of life – a way of life that had endured for centuries.
Some chieftains were replaced by landlords, some became landlords themselves. This resulted in the tenant farmers being charged excessive rents which they couldn’t pay. Throughout the Highlands and Islands tenant farmers were evicted en masse from their ancestral homes in order to convert those lands to sheep runs which would turn a profit for the landlords.Click to enlarge Grand Étang photo
As a result of these changes in the lives of the Highlanders, a mass exodus to the New World took place which history calls “The Highland Clearances”. The potato famine of the 1840’s further decimated the Gaelic population of the Highlands and Islands through starvation, disease and emigration.
Between the years 1775 and 1860 upwards of 25,000 immigrants came to Cape Breton from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Today in Cape Breton we still maintain the language, music and culture of our Highland ancestors-and we do it with a distinctive Cape Breton flavour.
It was during the 18th century, too, that Cape Breton received its first influx of Irish settlers. Caught between the imperial rivalries of France and Britain, hundreds of Irish came to Cape Breton because they shared a common religion with the French and a distrust of the English. Irish immigration to Cape Breton reflected religious, social and economic developments in Ireland and Britain. Between 1713 and 1760, approximately 1,000 Irish emigrants arrived in Cape Breton and found work among the French as servants, trades people, fishermen, clergy, soldiers and merchants. Click to enlarge Margaree Harbour photoMost of the Irish who came to Cape Breton with the French arrived from New England, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland seeking freedom to practice their Roman Catholic faith.
There were many Irish, too, who came to Cape Breton as members of New England forces during the sieges of Louisbourg in 1745 and 1758,virtually all of whom were recent immigrants to New England from Ireland or Newfoundland. After 1758 some of these men returned to Cape Breton and settled with their families. Their descendants remain in Cape Breton today.