On July 8, 1773, a rickety 20-year-old Dutch ship left Loch Broom on the west coast of Scotland with 189 displaced Highland Scots on board seeking a new life in the wilderness of eastern Canada.
Like some of the vessels that preceded it, and many others to follow, it wasn’t much more than a rotting hulk of a vessel with its passengers crammed into its dark, damp hold and a small living space in its upper deck.
The Hector was one of the first with a cargo of immigrants to land in Nova Scotia. With its two masts, a fresh paint job, and a new name, it wasn’t much more than 85-feet long and 24-feet wide. The stuffy, damp hold would become the emigrants’ home for the next two months of a hazardous sea voyage. Within a short time at sea, many of the emigrant ships became dirty, stinking puke-buckets.
With the exception of the ship’s crew, none of the passengers had ever been to sea. The Hector was the first of many ships to bring tens of thousands of Highlanders to the shores of Nova Scotia and Cape Breton. Before the Hector landed, emigrant ships brought settlers to the Carolinas and Prince Edward Island.
The first boatload of immigrants to land in Cape Breton arrived in Sydney in 1802. Many boatloads were to follow. The Hope and the William Tell arrived in Sydney in 1817 with 382 emigrants from Barra. The St. Lawrence disembarked 208 passengers in Port Hawkesbury in 1828. By 1840, 20,000 Gaelic speaking Highlanders had emigrated to Cape Breton. A lot of immigration was coming indirectly from Prince Edward Island.
After 1820, immigrants were landing faster than the receiving towns and villages could handle. Many were arriving in the fall of the year with no time to plant crops or to build shelters for the coming winter. Many arrived in pitiful health as a result of the squalid conditions aboard the ships. Many died on board, many children were born, many sentiments were held back, and many tears were shed.
Immigration probably reached its peak in Cape Breton in the late 1820s and steadily continued for another 10 years. The Frances Ann brought Rev. Norman MacLeod and his 400 followers from Assynt, Scotland and eventually settled in the St. Ann’s Bay area of Cape Breton in 1840.
Many of the emigrants were escaping the tyranny of cruel landlords who were letting their land to sheep farmers. The sheep came by the thousands. In fact, there were so many sheep coming into the Highlands that 1792 was known as the Year of the Sheep (Bliadna na Caoraich).
They were driven off their small crofts and down to the seacoasts. Eventually their only recourse was to seek a new life in the “new land” far across the sea.
I was sitting on the rocks at the edge of the launching dock at Pictou Harbour when the signal was given for the launch to begin. The official launch of the replica of the Hector was to take place. The sun was shining and everything was ready. The sledge hammers swung into action. The rhythmic thuds of 20 or so sledges slowly removed the wedges and other supports that kept the ship in place. Quickly she slipped down the greased slipway to an uproar of guns and the crowd saluting her. The splash was nowhere as big as I expected. She rolled a bit and then proudly uprighted herself.
What a day for the people of Pictou and descendants of Highlanders all over Nova Scotia who could trace their history back to tough living conditions, the tyranny of evicting landlords, a frightful sea voyage, and an unknown life ahead of them in the “land of the trees.”