Prince Edward Island’s Celtic heritage is still very much alive, in the early nineteenth century, people of Scottish origin comprised the vast majority of the colony’s population. They
eventually settled across the Island, but were concentrated primarily along
the north shore from Malpeque Bay to East Point and throughout Kings County and Eastern Queens County. Most of Prince Edward Island’s
Scottish population came from the Highlands, Gaelic speakers who spoke little English.
The Highlands were in a state of economic and social upheaval after the Battle of Culloden at the turn of the nineteenth century. These hardships, together with the highland “clearances,” religious discrimination against Catholics, a general population increase, and the exciting tales of life in America were more than sufficient to motivate Highland Scots to emigrate to the New World.
Upon arriving on the Island, the Highlanders had no capital with which to buy land and found themselves entangled in “the land question” that has marked Island history. While under British rule, the Island was divided into lots owned primarily by absentee landlords who, in the majority of cases, made no effort to develop their land or foster decent and just relations with their tenant-farmers. On the other hand, the Lowland Scots, relatively few in number, enjoyed a more favorable fate than their Highland cousins did. Coming to the Island primarily from Glasgow or Greenock, they benefited from an economic and social status on par with the “English.”
Thomas Douglas, Fifth Lord of Selkirk, bought the 80,000-acre Lot 57 and financed three ships—the Polly, Dykes and Oughton to carry settlers to his estate. The Selkirk followers left their Highland homes and, in 1803, established themselves in an area that was to become the community of Belfast—from the French “la Belle Face” (the beautiful place).
Captain John MacDonald, Eighth Earl of Glenaladale, purchased Lot 36 (south of Tracadie Harbour) from James Montgomery in 1770. MacDonald was to become one of the Island’s most influential and embittered proprietors. To his new estate he brought persecuted emigrants from South Uist along with other Catholics from Arisaig and Moydart. These new settlers traveled aboard the Alexander, landing at Scotchfort in 1772.
By and large, the Scottish settlers found the Island well suited to traditional Highland agricultural practices—after they cleared away the forests that covered the fertile soil. They cut down trees and planted potatoes among the stumps, tilled small plots with hand implements and allowed their cattle to graze all over their lands. Their livelihoods were supplemented by timber, which was sold as a cash crop.
Today, Scottish-Prince Edward Island history and culture are preserved and promoted by numerous localized and clan organizations across the Island. The Belfast Historical Society concerns itself primarily with the Selkirk settlers and the Clan MacLeod association with Caledonian Protestant Scots. Somewhat broader in scope, the Scottish Settlers Historical Society promotes Scottish culture in general—music, song, and dance—keeping the ceilidh popular for many years to come.