2008 Robert Burns Dinner Address

Cape Breton is the land of my love,
The land of trees and high mountains.
Cape Breton is the land of my love;
We deem it the most beautiful land on earth.

Dan Alex MacDonald
Cape Breton is the land of My Love (song)

‘S e Ceap Breatainn tìr mo ghràidh,
Tìr nan craobh , ‘s nam beanntan àrd’;
‘S e Ceap Breatainn tìr mo ghràidh;
Tìr is àillidh leinn air thalamh.

Dan Alex MacDonald
Òran do Cheap Breatainn


An Address to the Clan MacLeod Society of Cape Breton
On the Occasion of its “Rabbie” Burns Dinner

By Kevin MacLeod, C.V.O.

Saturday, January 19, 2008
Baddeck, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

Thank you Dr. MacLeod for that warm and generous introduction.  Let me say at the outset how pleased I am to be here tonight – not only to be back in Cape Breton but also among so many members of Clan MacLeod.  Although my father is unfortunately a bit under the weather tonight and is resting at home, I am pleased that my mother, Norma MacLeod, is here with us.  I should point out that my mother was a MacLeod before marriage so as a consequence, I am truly blessed with a rich clan pedigree.

I must admit that when Dr. Alastair telephoned me last November and raised the possibility of my addressing you tonight, I was a bit taken aback.   True, we had met shortly before during the Celtic Colours Festival at Highland Village in Iona and, true, I had just released my historical novel of Cape Breton – A Stone on Their Cairn / Clach air An Càrn.  Still, my real life job as chief of protocol dictates that, at events such as this, I would normally be happily positioned where you are and have the luxury of simply watching the action unfold up here – hopefully without major incident or embarrassment.

So it was with a bit of trepidation that I awaited the call back from Dr. Alastair.  However, in the interim, I had the luxury of time to reflect on what it was that had driven me to write the book and I began to realize that perhaps there  was an opportunity for me to share some thoughts on heritage  and identity – in essence linking Robert Burns with both Clan MacLeod and A Stone on Their Cairn.

The reason we are gathered here tonight, and the reason why literally thousands of people around the world come together each year to toast Scotland’s national bard, is to celebrate something terribly intrinsic about our heritage and sense of identity.  If pressed, we oftentimes find it difficult to articulate precisely what this heritage and identity entails:  what it means to us – what it makes us.  More often than not, I find that it is much more of the heart than the head.   It is more than the literary genius of Robert Burns who so beautifully articulated the essence and glory of life in the most simplistic of ways – as in “To A Mouse”.  It is more than Clan MacLeod’s laudable record of coming together to renew acquaintances, develop new friendships and forge new bonds, as many of us will do at a North American clan gathering in Ottawa later this summer.

This evening, I will attempt to focus on my novel, which I trust a few of you have had the opportunity to read, and share a few “appreciations” that I have come to in the process of committing pen to paper.  It is not by accident that I have entitled tonight’s address “There is So Much More” and I hope that I will be able to offer some insights into the process of my writing of book and how, in so doing, I arrived at a better understanding of what makes me who I am - as an individual, a MacLeod and a Scot.

IMG_0020Let me briefly explain then why it was that I felt compelled to write A Stone on Their Cairn.   There are two reasons.  first of all, I was raised on a farm on Boularderie Island in the 1950s and 60s.  Next door lived my paternal grandparents who were part of the last generation in this particular area to have Gaelic as their mother tongue.  As is often the case with children of a younger age, there was no greater appreciation on my part as to the heritage and treasure that were Dan K. and Merdina MacLeod.  Long after their passing, I came to the realization that I should have spent more time with them – to ask them questions about their youth, their dreams, their aspirations in the Cape Breton of their earliest days.  One of life’s many maxims is surely that we become our parents as we grow older and, by extension, I suspect that we also become our grandparents.  By setting the novel in the historical period that I did, I consciously chose a time when my grandparents would have been born.  Dan K. and Merdina are in the pages of the book, perhaps not in name but, in spirit - as young children being nurtured by family and the fictional highland community that is Loch Dubh.  Therefore, I confess that the first reason is a very selfish one – to arrive at a better understanding of myself by weaving together a story of the highland Scots of Cape Breton that would flow through time to where I stand before you tonight.  

In order to explain the second reason for writing, I feel compelled to share a story with you and, therefore, beg your indulgence as I go off on a bit of a tangent.   I never really knew my maternal grandparents – Norman R. and Ida MacLeod.  I was six years old when my grandfather passed away and a mere two when my grandmother went to her rest.  However, from stories and pictures, I understand that my grandmother was a rather stout woman, a kind and gentle soul whose heart was as large as her frame.  I would have liked to have known them as well but this was not to be.  Yet, years later, I often looked at my mother’s eldest sister Anne and, perhaps foolishly or innocently, imagined my grandmother through her.

Some of you here tonight may have known Anne MacIntyre who, for many years, operated a canteen at Fyffe’s Bridge – mid way between Big and Little Bras d’Or on Boularderie Island.   Auntie Anne was in many ways an eclectic woman – someone with tremendously varied interests and great talents.   One of these talents and a real personal love of hers was oil painting.  She was extremely prolific and became quite well known locally for her work.  

Years later at her funeral service at St. James Presbyterian Church in Big Bras d’Or, one of the presiding ministers told the story of how he had approached Anne one day and asked if she would do a painting for him.   She agreed and quite matter of factly asked what sort of components he would like to see included.   After some thought, he suggested that some mountains, evergreen trees, a brook and a bridge, might be nice.  As he relayed this story at the funeral, he brought to mind the moment when the painting was finally placed before him.  He stated and I paraphrase:  “I looked at the work and there were the mountains, the trees, the brook and the bridge - all beautifully portrayed on canvas.  But there was so much more and this is the story of Anne MacLeod MacIntyre’s life.”

I recount this story not because it centers on a cherished relative of mine but rather because it demonstrates how easy it is for us to so often not see or fully appreciate some fundamental truths about our lives and who were are.   Living away as I do, I experience first hand how people in other parts of Canada, the United States or wherever come to “understand” (and I use that word advisedly), to understand the Scots of Cape Breton through the lens that is the musical excellence of various and extremely talented artists.  Who could fault these many fans of Celtic music for believing that those highland Scots were real “party animals”?   While I would be the first to applaud and promote these elements of our cultural richness, an obvious caveat must be applied.   What is being painted is an incomplete picture of who we are as Cape Breton Scots.  It is an incomplete picture of the lives of our forebears that were forged on this soil.   It is an incomplete picture of the individuals and the society that gave rise to who we are right here and now in all our individual and collective complexities.    Therefore, the second compelling reason for writing was to tell a story – a more complete story – a story that was begging to be told ladies and gentlemen if for no other reason that there is indeed so much more.

IMG_0019In this context, the story that is A Stone on Their Cairn is a story of a highland Scottish farming community on the North Shore of Cape Breton 
in the years 1896 – 1914.   The bookends:  at one end,   the joyful festivities of a royal jubilee in 1897 and, on the other, the lingering trepidations of war clouds forming on the August 1914 horizon.   What comes between is an attempt to present a realistic portrayal of what daily life was actually like – including all the “so much mores” about which, unfortunately, fewer and fewer people are truly aware.  There were many twists and turns on the road to telling the story.  For example, the very first page begins with Runnag the cat on the manse veranda in the presence of the Reverend Duncan Fraser.  The last page concludes with another Runnag and another Reverend Duncan Fraser in the very same place.   Everything has changed and yet nothing has changed.  The road to Loch Dubh and the lives of those who travelled upon it are indeed replete with numerous twists and turns.

For those of you who know Cape Breton history far better than do I, you will know that this time period was critical in terms of our heritage of language and culture.  
It was a turning point.  While many Scots sought to preserve language and culture as important links to the past and who they were, still many other Scots sought to discard them as irrelevant links to the past that kept them from becoming who they thought they could be.  Thus the importance of using Gaelic in dialogue as the story unfolds.  At times, you can sense the linguistic haemorrhaging as if it was an open wound – some characters sought treatment while still others resigned themselves to the bleeding.   As author, I fully realized that, even with the provided translations, the use of Gaelic in dialogue might be seen as an “inconvenience” for the largely English-speaking audience.   But in all good conscience, I could not honestly tell this story about these people in a language that was not completely theirs.   

I set out to produce an honest portrayal of the lives of the people of Loch Dubh both as individuals and as a collective society, at a specific time and place with all the warts that that might encompass.  In this regard, the jury is still out as to whether or not I have reached any degree of success.

To those of you who have not yet read the book (and I presume  there are precious few here tonight), I would respectfully suggest that if you are looking for a Harlequin romance  or a Tom Clancy / John Grisham thriller, then please don’t add this one to your must-read list.  However, if what might interest you is gaining some insights into the how and why of what makes us who we are as Cape Breton Scots in the 21st century (and I say this with as much humility as I can muster) then I encourage you to pick it up and have a read.  

In approaching the book, we must begin with a fundamental truth - the lives of these early settlers were harsh! – exiled from their beloved Scotland to a land that was, in so many ways, foreign to them.   In the case of my ancestors who came to these shores in the 1830s, they were from Harris and N. Uist, which is, as you will know, almost completely treeless land.   Whenever possible, I  take the time to  stop at the St. Anns look off on Kelly’s Mountain just down the road here, gaze out at the panoramic view and wonder what must have gone through their minds as they first laid eyes on these magnificent tree cloaked mountains that  cascaded down from sky to water’s edge.   Where to begin as they stood on deck with spouse, children and oftentimes parents – as they stood on the verge of a new life somewhere else.  They called it tir nan craobh – land of trees - for very good reason.

IMG_0018Unlike the Pilgrim Fathers who had crossed the Atlantic to build a supposed  “shining city on a hill”, our forebears were, for the most part, doing nothing more that simply erecting a most-basic cabin in the woods – surviving as best they could together as family.  And even when these crudely-made homes were to be eventually built in this wilderness, the struggle and suffering did not end.  Blights and epidemics were frequent in the 1830s, 40s and 50s.  Some of you here tonight may have read the book Scottish Exodus by James Hunter, which is an exposé of the Scottish Diaspora based on the story of Clan MacLeod.  I highly recommend it to you.  At one point, Hunter quotes a Cape Breton minister from 1833:  “I have baptised the child of a parent lying on a pallet of straw with five children in a state of nudity.  I have baptised where neither father,  mother nor children could venture out in their tattered rags.  I have seen dwellings where six or eight of a family lived for five weeks on the milk of a cow, without any other food.  I have endeavoured to afford the consolation of religion at a dying bed in a habitation where no food existed but was supplied by neighbours who could ill spare it.”

No, it was not all ceilidhs, milling frolics and dancing, although that was an eventual and intrinsic part of the larger cultural landscape that was to take root and flourish here.  Based on my limited research and knowledge, I believe that what preserved our ancestors in those early days was a belief in their God (be they of either the Presbyterian or Roman Catholic faiths), a belief in the land they now owned (from which they would never be cleared) and, yes, a belief in family.  They were sustained, comforted and nurtured by this fundamental tripartite belief system.   And it is my hope that, should you read A Stone on Their Cairn, you will see that this critical and complex foundation of beliefs weaves itself throughout the book – through all the joys and sorrows, the threats and promises, the piety and hypocrisy, the plaintiff strains of Psalms being presented in Kirk and, of course, the raucous sounds of joyous songs and dancing feet at ceilidhs and milling frolics in community halls.

Is the novel a realistic portrayal?  Does it accurately convey the “so much more” to which I referred earlier on?  These questions can only be answered by each reader as he or she undertakes the voyage through pages and time.  

Yet there is another question of equal importance that I would like to pose and, in terms of tonight’s celebration of heritage and identity, I do so advisedly even though I believe it to be a bit rhetorical.  Can or, indeed, should we draw on this story as a way to better reflect on our lives IMG_0016today – on those things that are truly of great value to us.  In essence, is there something to be learned from a piece of supposed fiction?   Does the belief system that sustained those who came before live on in us either on a conscious or sub-conscious level?  Is it, in fact, flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone?

In our fast-paced, disposable, and oftentimes self-centred society, I think we Scots are generally well positioned to undertake such reflection.  If there is no other redeeming quality about A Stone on Their Cairn, let it be this  –  that its real merit is found in the words of its title.   We still place a stone on their cairn; we still remember them and the legacy they have given us.  They will not be forgotten or forsaken.  By coming to a fuller knowledge and appreciation of our past and those who came before, we have the firm foundation – the markers - to send us on our way into the future with continued conviction about and pride in our heritage and identity.  

To put it in its most basic form, the lessons of the past - the lessons that are Loch Dubh - are transcendent.  They are before us – they are in us.  May we remain sufficiently wise to continue to embrace and use them in guiding our own journeys forward.

The final line of James Hunter’s book reads as follows: “Long may all the world’s MacLeods remember where they came from.”  To this I would add: And long may all the world’s MacLeods hold fast to not only sense of place (from where they came and where we now call home), but also to our rich heritage and proud identity as we go forward – contributing to the foundation for those still to come.

Robert Burns would indeed be pleased and I say to him tonight “we have well and truly placed a stone on your cairn.”

Ladies and gentlemen, in closing let me simply share my deepest hope that we will, God willing, continue to place a stone on their cairn.  

And for this honour you have given me tonight to speak before you – thank you / tapadh leibh. 

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