Did you ever stop to think about how the communities and landscape features of Cape Breton got their names?
In most cases, it was probably the early explorers, mapmakers, and settlers who gave them their names. The names often reflect the traditions, religion, culture, language, occupations, or exploratory interests of those who first came to our area.
Beginning with those people who were the first inhabitants of Cape Breton, the Mi’kmaq, we have some place names that reflect their language. Whycocomagh (the head of the waters) and Malagawatch are a few examples that have managed to survive the advent of the European settlers. Some place names of other cultures and languages have also survived. Kenloch (ceann a loch—head of the lake) from Scottish Gaelic and Belle Cote (beautiful side—probably of the Margaree River) from the Acadian French are just a few examples. In recent years, the original Gaelic name for each community has been posted, such as Baile beag na aibhne (Brook Village). We often forget that names have changed over the years and the new translated name is not the same as the original one. Many community names reveal the ancestry of the settling people. Dunvegan, Inverness, and Boisdale are just a few communities whose names recall their Highland Heritage. Louisbourg, Cape Dauphin, and D’Escousse give us a glimpse into the French history of these communities. Jerseyman’s Island off Arichat reminds of the early merchant settlers who played an important role in the economic affairs of the island. Murphy’s Pond, Kelly’s Cove, Corbett’s Cove, and Handley’s Island all speak to us of the original Irish settlers who dotted Cape Breton.
We must never forget that visitors to our island very much enjoy those little facets that make us different from the rest of the North American culture, whether it be our language, music, or way of life.
Some place names illustrate the occupations of the people or past industry of the community. Glendyer (the dyer’s glen) from the fulling and dying mills that were set up on a small brook just outside of Mabou, as well as Marble Mountain from the presence and mining of marble (dolomite) on the north side of West Bay and Sydney Mines from the coal mines that were mined for years. Blacksmith’s Point and Doctor’s Island are a few others.
People marvel at the many variations that there are in some large districts. Take the Margarees for example! There is South West Margaree, North East Margaree, Margaree Valley, Margaree Centre. Upper Margaree, Margaree Forks, Margaree Harbour, even Margaree Ford (now called Fordview), and of course the Margaree Rivers flows through all of them.
Sometimes places are named after patron saints or historical religious sites. Ste. Joseph du Moine, St. Peter’s, Main a Dieu, St. George’s Channel, St. Patrick’s Channel, Christmas Island, and Iona are all interesting examples of religion playing a significant role in the naming of the community.
Other communities have been named after important explorers or politicians or maybe even a very ordinary member of the community. River Denys (named after Nicolas Denys, an explorer and merchant ), Sydney (named after Viscount Sydney) and Port Hood (named after Viscount Samuel Hood). But who was Hector from Hector’s Point (near Iona) or the Finlay from Finlay’s Point (near Mabou Coal Mines)?
Many place names and landscape features reflect the geographical features of our island. Cranberry Head, White Point, Coal Mine Point, Grand Narrows, Pleasant Bay, Big Harbour Island, East and West Bay, Middle River, White Capes, South Bar, and Pondville are interesting examples of where a prominent geographical feature ends up in the actual place name.
There is no end to the variety of names that have been bestowed on the communities and landscape features throughout the island of Cape Breton. It would be interesting to travel back through the pages of time when a group of people were trying to decide what to name their community.
I am sure that the origin and importance of some of our place names have been completely lost. But still the great variety of them just adds to the rich history of Cape Breton Island.