Time travelling in Nova Scotia
Garry Shaw discovers that the past is very much alive in this eastern Canadian province
The year is 1744, and I arrive at the gates of the fortified town of Louisbourg a little apprehensive – would the French sentry, dressed in his blue military uniform, and – a little more worryingly – holding a long rifle, let me, a Brit – the enemy – into the fortress I’d read that the garrison allowed local people in and out of the fort during daylight hours (with the gates sealed at night), but the guards were always on the lookout for British spies. Their test, so I’d read, was simple: if you spoke French, then you were ok. If not, then you were a spy and imprisoned. Luckily, the sentries were also known for taking bribes, but what if I met one of those pesky rule-abiding ones
The walk to this point had been remarkably desolate. A simple path, with an expanse of grass to one side and the oceanfront on the other. In the distance, as I followed the path, keeping one eye on the approaching gateway and its potentially troublesome guard, the upper storeys of colonial houses – all grey rubble-stone and wood – peeked at me over the fort’s walls, revealing a taste of the hidden world beyond. Directly ahead stood the fort’s main entrance, the Dauphin Gate, surmounted and dominated by a coat of arms: a crown above three fleur-de-lis, arranged like two eyes and a mouth, an emotionless face, with the entire ensemble resting upon two startled
In this land of heritage, traditions were not past, but still very much present. History was not something to just read about, but to be lived in the here and now
stone fish. The sentry looked me up and down. My French was rusty, but a few hasty ‘saluts’ and a ‘ a va bien’ later, followed by a quick march past the guardrooms and their toilets (emptying directly into the ocean), and I was in. I had successfully left the 21st century and travelled back to the 18th. Time travel isn’t as hard as people say.
Ok, so it wasn’t 1744, and I wasn’t anxious about my prospects of getting into the fort because I’d bought an admission ticket. Still, I was meant to think it was 1744 and so far Louisbourg was doing a great job. My sense of immersion in the past was startling, a feeling magnified by the lack of modern technology in view (cars are banned from coming near the site, for example, hence the long walk). As I’d quickly learned after my arrival in Nova Scotia, living history museums and accurately reconstructed historic sites are a sp cialit of this eastern Canadian province, and incredibly popular among both locals and tourists. As a fan of immersive historical experiences myself, I couldn’t help but dive into the area’s rich, varied, and often tragic colonial past (though admittedly, many of the people living in these past times probably didn’t find it that entertaining). And of the peninsula’s various immersive offerings, Louisbourg provided the pièce de r sistance.
Leaving the Dauphin Gate behind, I could see that the town covered a wide area, stretching back from the oceanfront, with its wood-framed and rubble-stone buildings, each with their own land, separated and marked by wooden fences. Soldiers, with black tricorne-hats and stockings pulled high over their trousers, marched past me, carrying their rifles and chatting. Some were banging drums. Groups of women strolled along the streets too, wearing chequered aprons, loose dresses, white bonnets and neckerchiefs. Pigs, sheep and chickens, oinked, baaed and clucked away in their pens at one point, I watched a man herd a sounder of pigs along a street.
As I explored my old/new environment, I passed the home of the town magistrate, named Joseph Lartigue it was now a boutique, selling replicas of 18th-century items. Next came a bakery, which had retained its original flooring and offered bread made to an authentic period recipe. Other buildings, spread out across the town, contained displays about the history of the site and the people who had lived there.
Located in Cape Breton, an island immediately to the north of Nova Scotia, Louisbourg (named after King Louis XIV) was settled by the French in 1713, with construction on the fortified town starting in 1719, a process that took 25 years. It had been founded at a complex time in Canadian history, when Nova Scotia had been handed from the French to the British, but rather oddly without Cape Breton being included in the deal. Taking advantage of this curious omission, the new French settlers used Louisbourg as a base for cod fishing – the fish being dried and exported – and as a trade hub between the Old and New Worlds it quickly became New France’s main east coast trading centre. But in 1745, when war once again broke out between the French and British, Louisbourg became a target. Over the next 20 years, the town repeatedly changed hands between the two sides, until the British, deciding enough was enough, dismantled its fortified walls. In 1763, they abandoned Louisbourg completely, leaving it to fall into a pile of romantic ruins. Not that you’d notice today.
The decision to reconstruct 25 of Louisbourg, including about 50 buildings at a cost of 25 million, was taken in 1961, with the idea of fixing the site as it appeared in 1744 – a Groundhog Year rather than a Groundhog Day. It became the largest reconstruction project in North America, and created work for local residents, left unemployed since the collapse of Cape Breton’s coal and steel mining industries. And this was not an attempt at ‘Disneyfying’ the past. Rather than splicing together the town’s most dramatic/dazzling architectural features, like Victor Frankenstein stitching together his monster, heritage experts extensively consulted both archaeological and historical records in order to faithfully recreate the town the only concessions made were for health and safety reasons, and to aid visitor movement (apparently, so I read, some of the closed buildings hide fire trucks and modern equipment). Interestingly, with Louisbourg only operational from 1719 to the 1760s, a period of roughly 40 years,
Previous pages: The tall ship Hector at Pictou (Image: © Garry Shaw)
Right, top: Reconstructed Louisbourg (Image: © Garry Shaw)
Right, middle: A demonstration of making lace at Louisbourg (Image © Canadian Tourism Commission)
Right, bottom: Lunenburg County (Image © Canadian Tourism Commission)
the replica town has now existed, locked in 1744, for 55 years, much longer than its original life as a functional space, the replica now has a longer active history than the original.
Before leaving the 18th century, I decided to stop for a drink and a bite to eat, so I headed to the Grandchamp Tavern, an inn aimed at the ‘common’ people, both then and now. Sat at a long wooden table, enclosed by whitewashed walls and a wooden ceiling, my server handed me a spoon, which, given the lack of knives or forks at this time, I had to keep for each course, whether I was eating soup or chicken. I washed it all down with a beer, described only as ‘brown.’ While I failed to slurp my chicken from my spoon, two kids, sat at the table beside me, began to fidget excitedly.
Listening in, they seemed to think that a public execution was about to be held, and rushed off, leaving their parents and meal behind. They returned a few minutes later, still giddy. Now, I’m not sure if Louisbourg does hold mock executions, but whatever the kids saw, it certainly made them happy. History had come alive (well, except for the person that had potentially been ‘executed’), and they’d experienced heritage in a way that they’d never forget. These are the memories that forge the historians of the future. They are why such living history experiences are so important, and why they are a clever use of the archaeological record.
The Acadians and the ‘Great Upheaval’
About a week before my visit to Louisbourg, one of my first stops in Nova Scotia had been Annapolis Royal. It was near there, in 1605, that French explorer Samuel de Champlain founded the first European settlement north of Florida (he also founded uebec City on 3rd July 1608 – there’s a reason he’s known as the ‘Father of New France’). He humbly called this settlement Port-Royal, and intended it to be a fur trading centre, but it only lasted from 1605 to 1613 (although it did rise from the dead, Lazarus like, in 1939, reconstructed from the original plans and populated by costumed interpreters interestingly, like Louisbourg, it’s another replica attraction that has far outlived the original’s lifespan). Subsequent French settlers built a new Port-Royal a short distance away on
Left, top: Lunenburg County (Image © Tourism Nova Scotia)
Left, middle right: Adopt a lobster? Lobster Kettle Restaurant, Louisbourg, Cape Breton Island (Image © Canadian Tourism Commission)
Left, bottom right: Mar II Tall Ship, with Halifax skyline (Image © Destination Halifax/J. Ingram)
Left, bottom: This memorial church at Grand Pré is thought to stand close to the spot where the Church of Saint-Charles-desMines once stood (Image © Garry Shaw)
Right: The Acadian cemetery at Major’s Point (Image © Garry Shaw)