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COMMENTARY: Two highland hikes offer poignant perspective on Canada’s birth pains

As I tried to visualize how these families survived their first winters on this beautiful but harsh coastal region, an intense pride washed over me. In these coves of Cape Breton was established a significant part of the cradle for the birthing of a new nation we proudly call Canada.
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Keith Burton-MacLeod walked the Cabot Trail last June in honour of his mother, who died of kidney failure. He was also raising money for kidney research and the Cape Breton Regional Hospital's dialysis unit. (ANDREW RANKIN / Local Xpress)

Editor's note: Cape Breton native Rev. Dr. Keith W. Burton-MacLeod chose to honour Canada’s 150th birthday by walking the Cabot Trail and the West Highland Way of Scotland. His pilgrimage was a personal journey, a return to his Cape Breton and Scottish roots. It is one Canadian’s story of gratitude and pride of place.


Although the Kidney Foundation of Canada was the impetus for me to take on the challenge of a dual Highland hike, it also afforded me fresh insight on Canada’s birth into nationhood.

As well, it enabled me to have an intensely satisfying reconnection to my Scottish roots. All my ancestors came from the Western Isles of Scotland to settle in the Highlands of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia (New Scotland). Although their hasty  departures throughout the 1830s and 1840s created a dark period in Scottish history, they would positively impact the annals of Canadian history forever. This, after all, was the period of the Highland Clearances.

SEE ALSO: A Cabot Trail pilgrimage of love, faith and memories

This historic truth was made painfully apparent to me on the third day of my Scottish Highland hike, the West Highland Way. On the sunny afternoon of May 26, I stood before an historic plaque titled Telford’s Parliamentary Roads. The British Parliament had commissioned the Scottish civil engineer Thomas Telford in 1803 to reconstruct the old military road for “commercial purposes.”

Beneath the large coloured portrait of a well-dressed Telford is recorded a chilling foreshadowing of a historic change that would impact the Highland way of life. He declares “the new roads I have designed have gentler gradients. Being lower on the hillsides, they require larger bridges to cross the burns. Box culverts are used instead of cobbled fords to reduce the drainage to carriage springs.”

With chilling truth, he continues: “For the general well-being and value of cattle and sheep being driven to market I insisted that the roads be constructed with good depth of gravel to prevent damage to their hooves.”

Though he may have instituted a great, early animal-rights statement, no human rights were attached. This was to become the Drovers Road, which would give rise to the Clearances. Animals would become the new, preferred currency, while the people were to be cleared from the lands.

This sobering truth was made the more tangible for me by early June after I had walked across the Highlands and on to Glasgow. On the afternoon of June 5, I visited the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, where I stood before The Last of the Clan, a large Scottish painting by Thomas Faed that depicts a scene of aggrieved  Highlanders left behind, those too old or too young to leave, the last of the clan, foreshadowing  another shipload of families about to depart the Highlands: the mooring rope is about to be lifted.

Two years prior to Confederation, then, the clan system was effectively ended.

On June 19, with this haunting portrait still fresh in my mind, I was standing in the Highlands of Cape Breton on top of MacKenzie Mountain, looking down on Fishing Cove. On this spot is a well-placed Parks Canada monument that commemorates the landing site of Scottish settlers bearing the clan names of MacKinnon, MacRae, Fraser and Mackenzie. From the same vantage point can be seen Pollots Cove, where the MacLeans settled. In between lies the stunning village of Pleasant Bay, where Highland families like the MacIntoshes made their new start.

As I tried to visualize how these families survived their first winters on this beautiful but harsh coastal region, an intense pride washed over me. In these coves was established a significant part of the cradle for the birthing of a new nation we proudly call Canada. These determined Scots would soon turn their energy to found New Scotland or Nova Scotia. In turn, this province  would  become the seedbed for democracy in the new Dominion of Canada.

In 1758, Nova Scotia would be the first province in what would become Canada to adopt representative government.  In January 1848, Nova Scotia would be the first to adopt responsible government, the idea that a ministry would be drawn from the victorious party. The precedent was shortly extended to other provinces: in Canada, after the election of March 1848, a reform cabinet under Baldwin and Lafontaine was appointed. This theory of government would soon be accepted in other British domains — Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

John Alexander Macdonald, born in Glasgow, Scotland, only 12 years after the completion of the Drovers Road, seemed predestined to become Canada’s first prime minister. He would oversee the creation and development of Canada by serving six significant terms in office: 1867 to 1873, and 1878 to 1891.

Macdonald’s achievements are significant in the establishment of a vital country situated to the north of the United States. The building of the Canadian Pacific Railway would unite the country from east to west, eventually allowing the west to be settled by immigrants. Three new provinces would be created under his jurisdiction: Manitoba (1870), British Columbia (1871) and Prince Edward Island (1873).

The national policy of tariff protection introduced in the election of 1878 would begin a policy accepted by succeeding governments. The gap years would be filled by another Highlander, Alexander Mackenzie, a Reformer, the name given to pre-Confederation Liberals.

Realizing that the end of the clans helped give rise to the birth of our nation, I offered a prayer of gratitude, then donned my backpack to continue my trek through the Highlands of New Scotland. All the while, of course, I felt fine, pleased to be a Highland lad myself!

I express my gratitude for the two amazing Highland treks and the donors who contributed to the cause of raising funds for the Kidney Foundation of Canada. Thank you and double blessings be upon you all!

Keith W. Burton-MacLeod is a retired United Church of Canada and Church of Scotland minister who was raised in Cape Breton and now resides in Toronto.


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