A Stone on Their Cairn / Clach air An Càrn 


October 2, 2007

1. What prompted you to write this book?

The answer to this question must be given in two different yet parallel ways: one specific and personal and the other more general and overarching.

Even as a young person growing up in rural Cape Breton in the 1960s, I was conscious of the fact that my grandparents were “from another era”.   Beyond the fact that they were the last generation in our particular area of Cape Breton to have been born and raised with Gaelic as the mother tongue, my grandparents always seemed so terribly old to me - something not uncommon to the carefree nature of youth.   And of course as fate normally dictates, now that they are departed, I have come to a greater appreciation of the fact that I should have gotten to know them better – to speak to them of their youth, of the environment in which they lived and, of equal importance,  the goals and dreams they had for the future.

With the years upon one, it becomes more apparent that we become our parents in so many ways.   Indeed, I have no doubt but that we also become our grandparents.   I am who I am because of the nurture and guidance that they gave me (please see the book’s dedication).    Consequently, I wanted to better understand who I am by taking my grandparents “back in time” to a point when they would have been born – to observe them being nurtured and guided as they came forward in time, becoming the people they were destined to become as individuals, parents and grandparents.

The second and more general motivator for writing the book is more a factor of establishing a counterbalance to a misconceived notion of the Highland Scots of Nova Scotia, and Cape Breton in particular.   Many individuals from other parts (be it Upper Canada or the Boston States) looking in on the Celtic culture that is so robust here in this province have, by and large, developed a notional opinion of the Highland Scots based on the artistry of numerous Celtic performers, be they individuals or groups.   One could not fault these individuals for believing that the Scots were “party animals” who revelled in ceilidhs, milling frolics and any other festivity that came along.  While there was indeed frivolity, there is so much more that must be added to the mix.  What is missing is the fuller picture of what made our ancestors (including my grandparents) the people they were:  their intrinsic sense of  family and community, the sanctity of their relationship to land, sea and sky, the broad range of emotions ranging from birth to death, from joy to sorrow, and everything in between.  A Stone on Their Cairn is an attempt to offer a better understanding of these people as they lived life day-by-day and to the best of their abilities in forging a new life for themselves and their families while, in the process, contributing to this fascinating wedge of Canada and Canadian identity.

2. What do you want to accomplish?

The objective of the book is to provide a realistic portrayal of a specific people in a specific place and at a specific point in time.   It is most emphatically not a Harlequin romance or a Stephen King / Tom Clancy thriller.  It is meant to be a recounting of “the way it was” – an exclusive pass into the minds and hearts of this selective group of people.  The intent was to offer this portrayal as a testament to lives lived and, of equal importance, heritage bequeathed as a legacy.  

The formatting of the book, made up as it is of a series of interconnecting vignettes or mini stories, is absolutely key in painting this larger picture.   The vignettes are not unlike quilting blocks with each one being as colourful and rich as the next. However, it is only when one stands back and from a distance views the quilt taking form that you come to see not only a multitude of mini portrayals but the totality of what they form.   In A Stone on Their Cairn, this totality is the community of Loch Dubh with all its good and bad, its strengths and frailties, its piety and hypocrisy, its joys and sorrows.  The book is meant to be a ticket back to a place in time; it is also meant to be an invitation to a very special and intimate family gathering.   It is hoped that the reader will feel at home and perhaps even come to recognize some of their own family members in the story.

3. Did the writing come quickly or did you really need to work on it?

The answer is quite simply yes to both.  I had been contemplating the book and the plot for several years before I actually committed fingers to keyboard.  In fact, the first three chapters remained mental drafts that rattled around in my brain for the better part of two years.  During this time, my forty-five minute walk to work at 5:45 a.m. each day afforded a tranquil setting for me to actually refine the opening to the point that I realized that I had to move on – literally.   Ironically enough, the day I started to write was August 31, 1997 – the day The Princess of Wales was to die in Paris.   I had worked with her and the two boys during the 1991 Royal Visit and, to some extent, I like to believe that the essence of motherhood that is in the book is a tribute to her and the love she had for her two sons.

The initial draft of the entire book was written over a period of nine months and it was “laborious” at times.  It was during that period that the infamous ice storm struck Ottawa and many government employees were ordered to stay home for safety reasons for almost a full week.   I used that time to maximum advantage and ensconced myself at the kitchen table with my lap top and pot of tea.  Sometimes it was like turning on a tap – the story simply poured out almost effortlessly.   I would often go the computer “for a few minutes” just before the 9:00 p.m. news and after a bit come to realize that the big hand of the clock was on twelve and the small one on three.  Conversely, there were times when I would find myself stuck on one word and simply could not get past it.   Staring endlessly at a computer screen does nothing to clear the mind; it does wonders for crossing the eyes!

What is most fascinating to me now as I look back at the actual writing experience and reread the final work is the fact that I cannot recall where some of the plot lines came from.  I cannot call it inspiration.   It might be more appropriate to credit the bòcain (hobgoblins- ghosts / spirits) for perhaps casting a spell over me.   Regardless, I was simply pleased to see the project come to fruition.

tartanpoem4. What was the most challenging aspect of putting the book together?

I wanted the book to be a realistic portrayal of highland life in Cape Breton during this particular period of time.   As already referenced, A Stone on Their Cairn is not a Harlequin romance as it is not a Stephen King or Tom Clancy thriller.  It was crucial for me to ensure that the characters I created were totally real, believable and honest.   Having said this, it was also important to have a balance between the various personalities – the interconnectedness between them that would reflect the many facets of society (piety / hypocrisy, sternness / joie de vivre, joy / sorrow, etc.).   Therefore, the most challenging aspect of putting the book together was ensuring that I was “getting it right” in terms of delineating the frame (requirement to be inclusive and comprehensive) before I actually painted the characters and events on the canvas that was to become Loch Dubh.

5. How does dedicating a chapter to each year between 1896 and 1914 develop the larger story?

I intentionally chose a brief period of time – the eighteen years from 1986 to 1914 – for very specific reasons.   First of all, one cannot hope to truly come to know these people, to get into their heads and share their deepest thoughts and emotions if the approach taken is a superficial or general overview.   For example, to recount two hundred years of story in four hundred pages of text would only create the most general of accounts.  Whereas, I want the reader to develop a very personal relationship with and understanding of the characters.  The frame of eighteen years, wedged between the excitement of a Royal Jubilee (1897) and the trepidations of a world war (1914), allows a detailed and quite intimate story to flow over the canvas that is Loch Dubh.  

Life is episodic.  There are key moments that each of us commit to memory, moments that define and enrich us as individuals.    Each chapter of the book contains a series of vignettes (mini-stories) or episodes that, as the pages are turned, slowly weave themselves into this larger tapestry.  In many respects, the individual personalities and events offer a gentile psychological / sociological glimpse into this highland society.   By having each chapter dedicated to a year between the positive and negative bookends of 1897 and 1914, the book simply carries the reader on a journey that ebbs and flows involving a myriad of episodes that disappear as quickly as they arose.  Yet it is only in the eventual coming together of these many episodes (nearing the end of the journey) that the larger realistic portrayal of these peoples and their lives, individual and collective, can be appreciated.

6. Why did you write the dialogue in Gaelic?  How important was including this language to telling the story and how did you do this?

The time period in which the book is set was a pivotal time for Gaelic in Cape Breton.  The language was both denigrated by some of its very own speakers as a symbol of the past and still others who regarded it as an essential and valued aspect of their heritage, worthy of preservation.   It would be patently dishonest to offer up a work purported to be  a realistic account of  a Highland Scots community  without Gaelic.   It was a cornerstone of society and, beyond the richness and beautiful cadence of the language, a living symbol of a connectedness to something much greater than simply the past.   As characters slip from the English tongue into their own, there is a definite soothing comfort, much like relieving one’s feet of tight-fitting shoes.  

In this context, the story could not be told without the use of the Gaelic language.   I would be the first to admit that there is probably an “inconvenience” for non-Gaelic speakers in having to pass over the Gaelic text in search of the translations.  However, I would be the last to admit that the story could be properly told without the use of Gaelic.   It is hoped that, as with life, some inconveniences will be worth it. 

The initial rough-cut of the Gaelic text was undertaken by me.   I was enrolled in Gaelic classes for a brief time in 1999 that enabled me to establish some basic fundamentals of the language.  The text was edited during a two stage process: the initial edit was undertaken by the late Reverend Murdo MacKay (Presbyterian minister, Millerton, New Brunswick) and the final edit by Professor Catriona Parsons (Department of Celtic Studies, St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia).   Both are natives of the island of Lewis.

7. What’s the importance of the Highland Scots to the land?  And what significance did they put on family?

The ancient believe system that existed in Scotland long before the advent of Christianity was Druidism, a system that regarded nature as a living breathing divinity.   Babbling brooks were speaking, scented towering tree were comforting, field stones were telling stories and so forth.   It is for this reason that so much of Scottish folklore has retained such stories down through the ages..   This link to the sanctity of the land was evident with the clansmen in Scotland who lived on the land, never owning it.  It was only following the clearances and exile to Nova Scotia that the Scots fully embraced land ownership, almost with a vengeance (never to be cleared again!).   The relationship to land, sea and sky is extremely important and permeates Highland culture.  As stated in the book, gazing across the sloping of the land, up the towering walls of mountains and over the sweep of water combine to remind you of where you stand – on the edge of infinity.   It provides perspective.      

The sense of family, or clan, is set deeply into the psyche of the Highland Scots.   The essence of loyalty to kin is a key component of Scottish life.  This reality can be seen within the family or clan unit as well as across others of Highland descent (witness the play of the “we and they” when the book deals with the Scottish community of Loch Dubh and the English village of New Carlisle.).  It is no wonder that highland units such as the Cape Breton Highlanders were ferocious in their loyalty to the Crown and to each other.   The link between immediate and extended family and identity is in the blood.  And, as stated in the poem The Canadian Boat Song, the blood is strong.    

8. What does the story of the Highland Scots mean to you personally?   Do you identify yourself with being a Cape Bretoner?

 The story of the Highland Scots is my family’s story; it is my story.   There is much sadness in the story of the Scots who settled Cape Breton – cleared from the land they loved and forced to a land that they did not know and could not recognize.   From the almost treeless Scottish isles to the tree-cloaked mountains of Cape Breton that cascaded to the waters edge, they moved forward with their lives, adapted and built something new on Canadian soil with foundations firmly embedded in the old sod.   In this context then, the story of the Highland Scots is one of a proud people who embraced life, sometimes with a swig of rum at a milling frolic in the community hall and sometimes with a biblical reading at evening worship in the front parlour.  It is this and so much more and it is precisely the “so much more” that A Stone on Their Cairn attempts to capture.   It is my hope that I have, at least in part, made a valiant effort to paint the broader canvas.

Each time I cross the Canso Causeway driving from the mainland onto Cape Breton, I wonder why the canal bridge does not bear an appropriate Gaelic greeting such as “Eilean Mo Chridhe – Failte” (Island of My Heart – Welcome).  Perhaps one day it will happen.  Do I identify with being a Cape Bretoner?  To answer this question, I quote the last line of the acknowledgement page of my book: “And to the people of Cape Breton, I give you thanks for being part of my family and providing me with the stories, heritage and pride that makes us who we are.  Suas Ceap Breatuinn.” (Long live Cape Breton).  Question answered.

tartan:cross9.  What is the significance of the title A Stone on Their Cairn / Clach air An Càrn?

The wide use of cairns in Scotland, and indeed many other countries in various parts of the world, goes back as far as the Bronze Age.   They were used as markers, oftentimes commemorating the significance of a particular location such as a mountain summit or simply offering direction.  Over the past several hundred years, cairns were often erected in Scotland as memorials or resting places for remains of the deceased en route to their final resting place.

It is an old tradition that when approach a cairn, especially if it is located on a hill top, to add a small stone to the top – a practical way of ensuring the integrity of the monument against the ravages of the often fierce elements.  This action assumes a much greater significance if the small stone is placed on a memorial cairn (e.g. marking a grave).   The well-known Gaelic blessing – Cuiridh mi clach air do chàrn  (I will put a stone on your cairn) carries the meaning “I will remember you” / “You will not be forgotten.”  Beyond the building of Andrew MacDonald’s cairn and Duncan MacDonald’s promise to his departed grandfather (see page 340 of the book), this title beautifully encapsulates the author’s larger objective in writing the book in the first place – to make an attempt in ensuring that the rich and colourful story of the Highland Scots of Cape Breton will indeed be remembered and never forgotten.

10. What was the most rewarding part of the experience?

It was shortly after completion of the initial draft that I began to share segments of the rough cut of “my hobby” with colleagues at work.   My boss at the time was the most wonderful woman from Trois-Rivieres, Quebec who was married to a man who I have admired for years.   His qualifications are many: CEO of several international corporations, Deputy Minister in the Government of Canada, to name but a few.   With all this incredible knowledge and experience that clearly puts me to shame many times over, he is one of the most decent and down-to-earth persons I have ever known.  “His people” came originally from Nova Scotia and, as a result, he asked me if he could read the entire manuscript.   I did indeed give it to him with a certain degree of trepidation and fear knowing that it was like having student Pee Wee Herman submitting an essay to teacher Albert Einstein.   

Several weeks had passed before I heard back.  I will never forget the telephone call.  He began by thanking me for having shared the manuscript with him.   And then he said something incredibly powerful.  He thanked me for including his grandmother whom he recognized.   There was a faint tear in his voice as if he had been taken back and had the privilege of having one final strùpag (a cup of tea and snack) with her.   Even though I still had many months of polishing and editing ahead of me, I approached the work knowing that something positive might come out of this.

11. What did you learn during the process?

Writing is no different from any other craft: one has to approach it knowing that the first try could be sheer perfection or, conversely, a horrid mess.  The writing experience was extremely therapeutic for me in many ways; it allowed me to escape to another place far away from any daily concerns.   However, it also taught me two things: patience and the need to be well grounded.   When a roadblock presented it self in the form of a mental block, I finally came to understand that I could hit my head against a wall but clearly only the wall would suffer.   I also realized that stepping back, even for a brief time, and reconnecting with other aspects of my life was like recharging a battery.  It was in this context that I came to appreciate that, if the book was destined to be published, it would happen regardless of my own misconceived notion of time.  Perhaps what I have really learned is that I am an even great Calvinistic fatalist than I had originally believed.  Who would have thought?

12. Looking back, what would you change about the book if you could?

From the very outset, I was somewhat concerned about the sheer number of characters who occupied key roles in the book.  I had been warned that:  there were too many characters; it would confuse people; the plot line would suffer; that less is more.  I had taken these comments to heart and had briefly flirted with the idea of a complete rewrite and restructuring.   Something inside finally told me not to.   How could I properly reflect the diverse reality of this society with only two or three principal characters?  Of equal importance, how could I possibly stay faithful to my objective of writing a realistic portrayal if the largest of doors closed and only the smallest of windows was to be opened?   This is a long about way of saying that I would not make major structural changes;   I am content with the novel as it stands.    Should there be less-than-positive reviews, I may have cause to reconsider the wisdom of my decision.  However, for the moment, I am standing by the motto of Clan MacLeod: Hold Fast.

13. What has the response to the work been like so far (critical, public, community)?

The book has only been on the shelves of bookstores in Atlantic Canada for a month so it is a bit premature to expect a great deal of reaction.   I know that people are buying it and in the process of reading it.  I await the first published reviews with some interest and a bit of fearful anticipation.   My family and friends who have read it and reported back absolutely love it.   What choice do they have if they want to stay in my will?  

There will also be an event in Ottawa once the novel has been launched in Nova Scotia during Celtic Colours, which is most appropriate.   Whether there will be a different appreciation and acceptance of the story between an Atlantic vs. an Upper Canadian audience will be interesting to see.   I can only hope for the best.   The story is what it is and I am simply pleased, regardless of what the reviews might say, that I have shared something that I feel deeply about.    I feel privileged to have been given this opportunity.

14. Do these opinions matter to you?

Of course, what other people think of you or your work matters.   I would be kidding myself to say otherwise.   However, be they good, bad or indifferent, all reviews are noting more than snapshots taken by individuals.  Perhaps their greater importance is the fact that they oftentimes are determinants in encouraging others to go out and buy the book or, conversely, avoid it like the plague.   I hope for good reviews but will not be left as a puddle of water on the floor if they appear otherwise.  As already mentioned, the true joy and reward was in the creation, the writing, the polishing and the final printing – to say nothing of the wonderful professionals with whom I had the privilege of working throughout.  Should there be even more joy and reward in the retail world of book selling, so much the better.  My retirement does not necessarily hang in the balance!

15. What happens now?  Are you working on something new?

Actually, I have been working on another book for the past year.   This one is work related.   I am finalizing a book for the Department of Canadian Heritage in my capacity as Chief of Protocol.   Nothing could be further removed from A Stone on Their Cairn.

However, should the novel be well received, I would like to consider bringing the story forward, perhaps from 1914 to 1929.   If others were to agree with me that there is a richness and a wealth in telling this story, why confine it to its current time parameters (1896 – 1914)?   Part of the rationale for writing the book in the first instance was to explain how my grandparents came to be who they were when I knew them as a child growing up in rural Cape Breton in the 1960s.   Who knows?   Perhaps in an ideal world and over time, A Stone on Their Cairn / Clach air An Cârn – A Cape Breton Saga will truly become a Cape Breton saga.

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