Both by way of introduction and background, I am a resident of Ottawa although born and raised in Nova Scotia. Over the past several years, I have been engaged in the writing of a work of fiction that focuses on turn of the nineteenth to twentieth century Cape Breton entitled A Stone on Their Cairn / Clach air An Càrn. I am a native of Cape Breton who grew up on a farm in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Even during those formative years, I was somewhat aware of the idiosyncratic ways of the Highland Scots who originally settled those shores in the early to mid years of the nineteenth century. I vividly recall observing and listening to my grandparents with the realization that theirs was a passing generation. Sadly, the intervening years have witnessed a passing of even greater proportions.
I felt compelled to write this novel as a testament to a unique wedge of Canadian history. Using stories from my youth blended with historical fact, I have attempted to relay a larger story of a specific people, in a specific time, in a specific place. Obviously, all three are intrinsic to the greater story line. It is not a romanticized account, but rather a realistic view of a society with its many strengths and weaknesses there for all the world to see. Beyond any sense of an historical account, I have endeavoured to give a very personal face to a culture that, for the most part, is only "understood" by the larger population through the music of a host of contemporary Celtic artists. My goal was to get close to the roots of these origins and to demonstrate, in ways subtle and not so — what the people are about and what makes them tick — in an engaging and entertaining manner.
If music and language are the mainstays of cultural retention, then they are also its most-visible face to the world. Still, they are only that — a face. To truly understand the Highland Scots and their legacy to the Canadian mosaic as well as their mind set, one must explore on a deeper level.
The book focuses on the people of Loch Dubh, a fictitious highland settlement on the North Shore of Cape Breton. The story line runs from spring 1896 to summer 1914 with each chapter a calendar year and containing 4 - 5 vignettes that weave the larger story together as the reader progresses through pages and time. I liken it to the reader undertaking an experience of witnesssing the pieces of a quilt being sewn together one by one to develop the larger whole.
In some respects, it is as much a sociological/psychological study as it is an interesting account of their lives, both individually and collectively. As one advances through the chapters, one experiences the blending together, not only of plot but also of lives, making a more complete and, hopefully, compelling portrait.
this regard, I cite a few examples:
• The language: While the manuscript is written in English, the majority of dialogue is in Scots Gaelic with English translation. Through chapter headings and the actual story line, one can glean a transformation in progress that has continued on to the present day. My grandparents themselves came from a generation when children were punished by teachers for speaking in "that" tongue. There is an abiding beauty to the syntax of the language that oftentimes conveys a poignant message that is not always given justice by the translation. This too speaks to cultural differences in numerous, interesting ways that are alluded to in the text. I do not believe that the presence of Gaelic will pose difficulties for the average reader given that it is offered in edible bites. On the contrary, its presence is absolutely essential in subtly portraying the decline of language and all the cultural richness that emanates therefrom.
• The sense of place: The relationship of the Highland Scots to land — mountains, sea and sky — permeates the culture. It too is reflected in the story line. A very unique facet of the Celtic mind set, based on the ancient belief of the Druids, is perhaps best exemplified by the detailed relationship of women to their flower gardens and how this speaks of their own particular lives as well as the larger collective view of life.
• The concept of family: There is an aspect of the Highland Scots' approach to family that goes far beyond any concept of clan. One can see it in the coming together at church, at céilidhs or at drink over the kitchen table. It is simple and yet complex, pious and irreverent, honest and hypocritical, joyous and profoundly melancholy. In part, it explains a great deal of so much of our musical culture — gladsome and yet so lamentable, based on a desire for something that has been taken away, something never to be recaptured except in music and dreams. If one looks carefully, all these and more can be found in the pages.
To say this work has been a labour of love would not be an overstatement. It has also been a voyage of self-exploration in that I have come to a greater appreciation of myself through the process of committing pen to paper. I have been most gratified when readers of the book, be they young or old, have "recognized" a grandparent, an uncle/aunt or another family member or simply an acquaintance. However, when all is said and done, most have commented on the visual pictures and emotions that are conjured up. If a chord has been struck then that in itself is incredibly honouring. A Stone on Their Cairn/ Clach air An Càrn is not a sad story nor is it a joyful one. Rather, it is a story of a people whose beauty is found both in the complexity and simplicity of their lives and their intrinsic concept of life, all at the same time.
As a general point of reference, the Gaelic editing was undertaken by the late the Reverend Murdo MacKay (Presbyterian minister in Millerton, New Brunswick) and subsequently by Professor Catriona Parsons (St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish). Both are natives of Lewis, Scotland.