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In our dreams we behold the Hebrides
By Jim St. Clair, The Heritage of Inverness County


Our lore is replete with accounts of the unusual sights which people have seen over the years: in the mist of an early morning a woman walking along carrying her head under arm as she seeks for her lost lover (or perhaps a surgeon to re-attach her head to her neck); a flaming sailing ship just off the coast in the evening fog with sails afire; or a large black horse with wings and glowing eyes. So many stories of apparent visions or sights of the unexpected!

In our just waking hours as well, often, we seem to see places about which we have read or people from years long past. Often in conversation with old friends, we recall the faces of people long gone or the circumstances of events of years ago. Shakespeare's plays have many examples of visions of the past and the future, of witches and warriors.

For many of our immigrants from overseas, the only image they could keep of their old homes was one that was in their minds, stored in their memory. But as a stimulus to recall and to remind others of their origins, they bestowed names on their communities, names which reminded them (and still remind us) of their origins.

Stretched out along the western shore of Scotland are more than five hundred named islands, some of them just a bit of rock in the sea and uninhabited except for sea birds and seals. Others, a bit less than a hundred of them, are larger and have permanent residents or at least summer people. These islands are the Hebrides, which the old poem suggests that we may indeed still see in our dreams.

But in our place names as well, we recall these sturdy and picturesque locations in the ocean. From them (as well as from many parts of mainland Scotland) have come customs and practices and songs and dances and language which we celebrate in ceilidhs and concerts, at square dances and milling frolics and at events at the Gaelic College and Nova Scotia Highland Village and other locations as well.

These islands, the Inner and Outer Hebrides, still produce much wool from the thousands of sheep which graze across them; tweed, woven in traditional patterns on contemporary looms; fish, harvested offshore; and a variety of other natural and manufactured products.

But the major contribution of these islands to the world has been the thousands of emigrants who have left them behind over the past three hundred years for the mid-Atlantic states of the U.S.; for Australia and New Zealand; and, of course, for Canada, both the Pacific and the Atlantic coasts and many locations in between.

These emigrants carried with them their language, their song, their dances, their stories, their crafts and their interest in family history. But they also brought with them their memories of their beautiful, if somewhat damp and windy, old homes.

And so, in names of places around Cape Breton, we do daily recall the Hebrides – and perhaps still in our dreams behold them after so many generations have passed. New Harris, Beinn Scalpie, Castlebay, Tarbotvale and Tarbot itself, and Iona – to name but a few in other counties of Cape Breton.

In Inverness County, we have a rich gathering of names which recall the Hebrides. Way up the Margaree River Valley, beyond the Forks is Portree, the name of the chief town on the Island of Skye. Portree in Cape Breton, so far from the sea, speaks of the port of the king in Gaelic. Skye, a Norse word we are told, is a place of much diversity and beauty from the Cuillin Hills to the rich agricultural lands of Strath, to the cliffs of Staffin and the ancestral home of many MacDonalds in the peninsula of Sleat.

It is no wonder that Skye is recalled in the Glen and the river and the mountain of the same name.
An t-Eilean Sgitheanach in Gaelic – a land area of more than five hundred square miles on which are living more than eight thousand people.

The tiny island of Ulva with its two square miles, is nestled close to the Isle of Mull. The original home of many MacQuarries, Ulva today has less than two dozen year-round residents living in the shadow of a fine beechwood forest. And there, again way up the Margaree Valley is the small community know as Ulva, which for forty years had its own post office.

Mull, known in Gaelic as
Muile, is much larger with three hundred and fifty square miles and perhaps as many as two thousand, four hundred residents today, many of them "incomers." But it sent MacFarlanes and Campbells; Livingstones and MacDonalds, MacCallums and MacColls and others to Cape Breton – people seeking better opportunities for themselves and their children.

Mull River, both the community and the stream (to say nothing of the Mull River Shuffle) bring to mind Ben More, the big mountain, and the track followed by St. Columba and other early missionaries as they made their way to Iona, some great waterfalls and deserted glens with roofless stone houses. But the beauty lingers long in the hearts and minds of those who have been there.

Lewis Mountain makes reference to the great Island of Lewis on the northern end of the great chain of islands of Outer Hebrides; and the old name for Roseburn, Uist Glen, identifies the old home (North Uist) of many early residents of that valley.

Yes, indeed, in the culture and in the place names, we in Inverness County do behold the Hebrides in our everyday lives – a rich and enduring heritage.


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