Inverness Miners' Museum
Inverness, Nova Scotia

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The Broken Ground: A History of a Cape Breton Coal Mining Community




The Ships Are Waiting, the saga of an emigrating family. Cha till mi tuitte. We shall return no more.

As the Highlanders made then* way to the ships memories of betrayal and defeat were forever etched on their minds. They were a proud people leaving the land of their birth. Debate among historians continues to the present as to whether the emigration was forced or voluntary. There is truth in both arguments, but it is obvious that the lives of the Scots were to be drastically altered. Their land was seized, they were exiled, and they were about to influence and impact their new lands. They would face a difficult life, overcome a harsh land, establish settlements, and build a nation.

In order to gain some insight into the plight of the immigrant the following first person account (author's words; not an actual historical account) may put the experience in perspective.

The scene is a port on the western coast of Scotland circa 1791. Families of crofters are making their way to the harbour carrying their most treasured possessions on their backs. John Macdonald, a tenant farmer, is one of the emigrants. He tells his story.

When the Duke of Cumberland's English troops came to burn us out my first reaction was for the safety of my family. I was willing to defend my small plot of land, but could not risk the lives of my -wife and children. We were now homeless. Our neighbours' left for Inverness to meet with emigration agents at the Customs House and we intend to do the same. The agents spoke of a land that would provide us with all our needs. A fertile land where we could live in peace and harmony. We would be together with our former neighbours', families, and relatives.

Most of our community boarded the ship that would take us to a new land. On the day of our departure the sun shone and those who remained gathered on the dock to bid us our last farewell Men and women were weeping without restraint. We waved. Leaving the land of your birth for a new beginning with a wife and five young children is worrisome. We are hopeful of a better life but are fearful of what is on the far shore. The sorrow and alienation is marked on the faces of the passengers as we sail away from the port. The 350 souls aboard the Sarah settle in for a long voyage.

Our first day at sea is an indicator of another phase of harsh conditions. On the first night we slept or tried to sleep on a plank of about six by two feet wide. This was our bed for a six to eight week voyage. The water was barely drinkable and the food was not in abundance or tasty. Our immediate goal was to survive the voyage. Some have died already and were buried at sea. Combined with our cramped quarters was the daily contact with foul air, filth, sickness, and death. Too many are dying. Burials at sea are difficult to take for people rooted to the land. We have been informed by the Captain that the ship will be docking in a few days. Cheers were heard throughout the ship. Our supplies are few and we are not prepared to face the ordeals ahead. We are dependent on help from government authorities to get us through the first few weeks. We need tools, supplies, and other equipment. One of the passengers heard a rumour that the government in South Carolina was willing to provide all we needed if we re-located. Some plan to do just that. We will soon find out what our life will be like. We pray for strength and courage to help us adjust to this new and wild land.


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