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
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
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
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
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