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Canadian History
The History of the Presbyterian Church in St Ann's

St. Ann's has the distinction of being the first Presbyterian congregation in Cape Breton, and the Rev. Norman McLeod the first minister to make his home on Cape Breton Island.

Previous to 1820 there were other Presbyterians in Cape Breton, but widely scattered and without the services of a regular minister. As early as 1789, the Sutherland family of Sydney River, wrote to Dr, James MacGregor, of Pictou, to come to their home to baptize their children. After a long journey from Pictou through Grand Narrows and Little Bras d 'Or, he finally reached Sydney River to minister to the needs of the Sutherland family.

Later, several Scottish presbyterians came to Upper North Sydney. In 1802, the Rev. Alexander Dick ministered for a few days in North Sydney. At that time there were not more than twenty families in the whole of Cape Breton.

On a stormy day in May, 1820, "The Ark", with her living cargo of men, women and children ran into the St. Ann's Bay to escape shipwreck and loss of life from the storm which was raging outside the Bay.

When "The Ark" dropped anchor in St. Ann's Bay, she had the entire Presbyterian congregation on board. She carried the minister, members and adherents of the congregation with all their possessions. That same congregation had followed Mr. McLeod from Scotland in 1817, to Cape Breton in 1820, and later to Australia in 1851, and finally to New Zealand in 1854.

The people who came with Mr. McLeod to St. Ann's in 1820 were all old friends, admirers and followers of this extraordinary man. After a brief sojourn in Middle River, Pictou County, Mr. McLeod decided to answer a call to Ohio, USA, and his band of followers agreed to accompany him. "The Ark" was built in 1819, and they left Pictou County in the Spring of 1820.

It is thought by some of the McLeod descendants that Norman McLeod intended to settle in St. Ann's as a result of an earlier visit, and that he was well acquainted with the land around the Bay. There is no doubt that Scots from Pictou County came to Cape Breton earlier than 1820, as requests for land grants are to be found at the Provincial Archives. However, it is reasonable to think that the labor intensive work that went into the building of "The Ark" was intended for a greater voyage than the one to Cape Breton. We shall never know, but it is likely that the storm had battered "The Ark" to such a degree, that the haven of St. Ann's Bay proved to be such an inducement to the storm weary travellers, that they decided to go no further; and they decided to settle in Cape Breton. They believed that an overruling Providence directed them to come to the Island, and to make their home here.

The first years at St. Ann's were hard, but the previous years at the Middle River in Pictou Co., had hardened the settlers; and they were now accustomed to the area, and the work of clearing land and building their log cabins.

They had no livestock, but the larder was stocked with moose meat whenever it was needed. The meat was hauled into the settlement on hand sleds, and salted down, or frozen until needed.

When cows and sheep became available, the bears were a problem, and a corral of heavy logs had to be built, and all livestock penned up for the night.

Very early in their stay at St. Ann's, the first log church was built in the Black Cove. This building served the needs of the St. Ann's people for several years. However, immigration increased every year with settlers from Harris, Lewis and Skye, to such a degree, that by 1840, all the land around St. Ann's Bay, the Baddeck area and Boularderie was settled by people from the Hebrides and the western shores of Scotland.

The log church was not large enough for the congregation, so in 1846, a huge frame church, which could seat up to 1000 worshippers was built in the Black Cove. Worshippers came by boat, on snowshoes, and on foot through the forest trails, from as far away as Middle River.

Rev. Norman McLeod spent the best part of his life at St. Ann's. He was 40 years old when he came from Pictou, and he was 71 years of age when he left for Australia in 1851. During these 31 years under his care, the people grew and prospered. He was their preacher, pastor and teacher. Under his patriarchal administration, St. Ann's became distinguished for intelligence, rectitude and sobriety. He was a mighty force for righteousness in this part of the Island.

Life in Cape Breton was carried on very much the same as in old Scotland. Family ties and a close bond of friendship kept the settlers in close touch with each other. Anyone in need was looked after by the neighbour. At times of sickness or trouble, the women gave freely of their time and assistance to the needy family.

All types of labour were organized into working bees or frolics. Such work as barn raising, hay making, bush clearing and the harvesting of crops was made easier by the impact of many hands.

Life was hard for the pioneer woman, and it can truly be said that "woman's" work was never done. There was the everlasting work of providing meals for the family, washing clothes, spinning and weaving and quilt making, as well as butter making, to name a few of the chores which constituted the work of the pioneer woman.

The families were large in those days, and children learned at an early age that they must work to help out. The girls helped in the house with numerous chores, caring for 11 younger brothers and sisters; and the boys helped with the farm chores.

The pioneer women of St. Ann's wore the drugget skirts and shawls for everyday wear; but on Sunday, the best black dress and bonnet was worn to Church.

The mark of a married woman was a frilly white bonnet called a curth or mutch. It was always worn outside the home. A special iron was used to prepare the ruffle.

For everyday wear the men wore the heavy homespun cloth (clo) made into pants and shirts but for church and meetings they wore a broadcloth coat and a black silk hat. They had a special sense of proper dress, and the women took great care of the good garments.

Life at St. Ann's was centered around the church and school, and the influence of the Rev. Norman McLeod was the pivot around which all the community revolved. As soon as the settlement was housed, he opened a school at St. Ann's. Navigation was a subject on which he laid great importance. As a result, many of the young men of the congregation went to sea. Ships were built at St. Ann's, and regular trips were made to the West Indies and Britain.

In 1848, a famine came upon the community of St. Ann's. Early and late frosts ruined the crops, and the fishing was not successful. Rev. Norman McLeod had to apply to the government for assistance. In the middle of the famine, a letter arrived from Donald McLeod, the minister's son. He had left home some years before, and had finally arrived in Australia. He highly recommended that country to his father as a place of milk and honey, just the place that his father had been looking for. Rev. McLeod was convinced that this letter was a sign of Divine Providence. He became convinced that he and his people should go to Australia.

Preparations were made to get ready for the trip, and a vessel was built at the Black Cove. She was built by the McGregor brothers, and was a barque of 236 tons. Rev. Norman gave her the name "Margaret", after his daughter.

The "Margaret" sailed on October 28, 1851. After touching at the Cape Verde Islands and Capetown, she reached Port Adelaide on April 11, 1852. There, Rev. Norman McLeod found a letter from Donald, saying that he had gone to Melbourne. The "Margaret" sailed on May 27, and reached Melbourne on June 4, 1852.

The Cape Bretoners found life in Australia hard, and many of the men went to the gold fields to work.

Typhoid fever struck the settlers, and many died. Norman and Mary lost two of their sons. For a long time he was depressed and believed that providence was angry with him. Finally, in desperation, he made arrangements with Sir Earl Grey, Governor of New Zealand to obtain a large grant of land in the North Island. There he could keep all his people together. Here indeed, was a land of "milk and honey". The soil was fertile, the climate mild, and ready cash was available from the sale of Kauri gum. In all, six ships left Cape Breton for New Zealand, and all went well on the voyages. Friends and neighbours were reunited in New Zealand, and all settled in happily to make a new home there. When they thought longingly of home, it was not Scotland's braes and glens that they longed for, but the hills of St. Ann's, and the golden blaze of autumn trees. In many cases, there were loved ones left behind, and they knew that they would never see them again.

The Rev. McLeod settled into the new life with his people, and guided and controlled their lives as before. When he could no longer stand to preach, he held the Sabbath services from his bed, and his flock gathered outside the open window to hear him. Faithful to the end, they listened with love and respect to their revered leader. He died in March, 1866, at the age of 86. His last words to his flock were: "Children, children, look to yourselves; the world is mad".

In St. Ann's the religious customs of the Highlands of Scotland were carefully followed for many years. The family "altar" was in every home, and family worship was held every morning and evening; grace was always said at meals.

The Sabbath was the most important day of the week. No cooking or ordinary chores were done. The potatoes were cooked and the Sabbath meal prepared on Saturday. Even the water was brought in.

Everyone went to church. They came to the big church at the Black Cove from twenty-five or thirty miles away. They came on foot, by row boat, or by sled in the winter time.

It was not uncommon to hold a two or three hour service. On occasion, Rev. Norman McLeod was known to preach an additional sermon in English for a listener who could not understand Gaelic.

Although Rev. Mr. McLeod was ordained, he rarely administered the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper. After he departed for New Zealand, the congregation was vacant for five years, with the exception that itinerant preachers supplied the pulpit.

In 1856, Mr. Abraham McIntosh was called to be the minister of St. Ann's. It was at this time that the greatest celebration of the year, the Sacrament, was started in St. Ann's. The "Sacrament" was held once a year, and lasted from Thursday to Monday. The meetings were held in the open air, as no buildings were large enough to hold the crowd. They came from far and near, and stayed with the kindly people of St. Ann's who must have been hard pressed to feed and lodge so many people. Thursday was the "Fast Day". No food was taken until evening. Friday was "Question Day". A passage was read from Scripture, and one by one, the men were invited to expound on it. No woman was allowed to speak. Women had to keep silent, and listen to the men. Saturday was the day when candidates for church membership were tested by the minister and elders.

For years, the yearly Sacrament service was held on the site where the South Haven Community Hall now stands. A small building served as a shelter for the minister. Nora and Tottie remember the people sitting around on the ground, and the rain pouring down on the congregation. The women had shawls and bonnets, but the men were bare headed. No one had any thought of moving until the service was finished.

As a Gaelic psalm was being sung, the partakers of the Sacrament rose from the ground and advanced to the table, which was covered by a snow white cloth. On presentation of a token, the Sacrament was administered to them. This occasion was of greatest importance to the early settlers, and showed the devotion and sincerity of their religious beliefs.

The last outdoor Sacrament service was held in 1922 when the Reverend Murray was the minister.

As the years went by, the old customs changed, and the big church at South Haven became the combined congregation of St. Ann's and Englishtown.

The St. Ann's communities became smaller as young people left the Island to find work elsewhere. This is still the pattern of life; but they retain their love of home, and Cape Breton; and very often come home to retire.

Many descendants of the Scottish settlers are going on trips to Scotland to seek the places where their ancestors came from. The bond is still there, and the Celtic spirit is strong.

The Gaelic College, St. Ann's, and the Highland Village, Iona, strive to retain the Gaelic language and culture.

The ties with New Zealand are amazingly strong after all these years, and distant cousins visit between the two countries.

The 1989 twinning between Waipu, St. Ann's and Baddeck has already sparked a renewed interest and exchange between the two countries. Already culture and heritage exchanges are planned.

We look to the future with great expectation and hope.


"MARGARET" - built at Black Cove, St. Ann's in 1851, sailed for New Zealand - 140 passengers, including the Rev. Norman McLeod.

"HIGHLAND LASS" - Built at Baddeck River, sailed for New Zealand in 1852 - 136 passengers.

"GERTRUDE" - Built in PEI Refitted in St. Ann's, sailed for New Zealand in 1856 - 190 passengers.

"SPRAY" - Sailed in 1857 - 93 passengers

"BREAD ALBANE" - Sailed in 1857 - 160 passengers.

"ELLEN LEWIS" - Sailed in 1859 - 200 passengers.

Thanks to the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts for this story
where you can also find other stories of Scottish settlers

 Return to Canadian Scottish History


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