We climbed the hill against the strong wind to visit the woman who lived in the stone hut with a grass covered roof. She was showing us what it was like to be living in Barra Lake in the Hebrides Islands, Scotland, in the 1700’s.
It felt like we were deep in the heart of Scotland, but I was visiting the Highland Village in Iona, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. The village is a living museum that portrays the life of the Scottish and follows the immigrants journey across the ocean to Cape Breton Island. As many as 30,000 settlers left Scotland for a better life in the new world in the late 1700 and early 1800’s. The early Scottish settlers struggled to make their way in the new world, but rather than continue their lives as slaves to their landlords in Scotland, they sailed to Cape Breton and were gifted parcels of land. When they first came their lives were very difficult. They lived on fish, ice fishing in the winter. Gathering berries and wild plants helped them to survive until their gardens produced. Eventually, they became established farmers and are now part of the fabric of Cape Breton Island, with their Gaelic traditions still very much a part of the culture.
“What do you eat?” I asked the ancient woman in the stone hut representing life in the Hebrides Islands off the coast of Scotland.
“Potatoes,” she replied, “potatoes and more potatoes.”
She told us that sometimes they also had smoked fish, bannock (bread made of flour and water), oats and any berries they could find.
Nettle roots were mixed with water and eaten. She told us that she couldn’t afford salt to preserve the fish, so the fish was eaten smoked, fresh or not at all.
“Belly’s pretty empty,” she said, “shallow whiskey will make an empty belly feel full.”
She went on to complain about mistreatment from the landlord.
We walked on to visit a frame house, representing the life of Cape Breton Scottish settlers later on in the 1800’s we could see a happier, more prosperous way of life.
The house was simply furnished but with enough rooms for comfort. The farming family had a cozy kitchen with a fireplace. Time slowed as we entered the kitchen for a visit and a feeling of nostalgia took us back to life in the 1800’s.
Tea was poured and we helped ourselves to a plate of oatcakes (see recipe at the end of the article,) and a seat in front of the blazing open hearth fire. Soon we heard a story about a “goings on” in the village. Then a young woman grabbed her fiddle and played a mournful gaelic tune, while we looked out the window to the sun shining on the lake beyond. A bare footed girl stood and began a step dance.
It was a taste of life in times when there was less noise. I could hear the slow ticking of the clock and the birds singing through the open window. A time when people entertained themselves with a cleilidh (a social visit, often involving music.)
The Scottish spoke Gaelic, a lyrical language that seemed to blend well with the music. It was a language with a long history. At school, the children were taught English and punished for speaking their mother tongue causing the language faded.
Food was simple in the time of the early settlers. Oatmeal had been an important part of their diet in Scotland and they missed oats when they first arrived. They were forced to use rough flours ground with stones. When they began to grow and grind oats they could return to baking their beloved oatcakes. The tradition of cooking White Pudding was continued in Cape Breton. It originally consisted of suet meat and oatmeal cooked in a cow’s stomach.
Other homes in The Highland Village portray a time when life was more prosperous and settled. Hot tea biscuits were on the kitchen table of a home with a wood stove, an invention that made life easier. Spruce buds sat waiting to be turned into a home brew made by boiling the buds with sugar, molasses and raisins. Toasted bread or yeast might be added.
The Highland Village (www.highlandvillage.novascotia.ca )is situated on the hillsides of Cape Breton overlooking the Bra d’or Lakes. Eleven buildings represent different aspects of Scottish life from the 1700 to 1900’s. In each home a costumed character tells us a story as if we had just dropped in for a chat giving us a peek into their lives.
“Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens” is a book written by Marie Nightingale that tells us of the roots of food in this province. She shared history and recipes that were brought with the Scottish.
On page 159, she writes about how the Scottish used “real” oatmeal and no sweetening. This old recipe from Pictou County used oatmeal ground at the Balmoral Grist Mill still grinds oatmeal today.
Pictou County Oatcakes (courtesy of Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens) by Marie Nightingale
- 2 cups oatmeal ¾ cup shortening
- 1 cup flour ¼ teaspoon baking soda
- 1 cup brown sugar ¼ cup boiling water
- 1 teaspoon salt
Combine dry ingredients and cut in shortening. Dissolve baking soda in the boiling water and add, continuing to mix with a knife. Mold with the hands into a long wedge. Slice off and bake in a 400 degree oven for 10 minutes.