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PAST TIMES: New Glasgow riverbanks covered with heather plants!

Area beside the Windsor House and bridge, in photo from early 1900s, where the heather was planted in 1949.
Area beside the Windsor House and bridge, in photo from early 1900s, where the heather was planted in 1949. - Submitted

Fraoch air Bràigh na h-Aibhne anns a' Bhaile Bheag

Well almost! Our roots with old Scotland run very deep in Pictou County, Nova Scotia and Canada. There are many cultural and customary connections that are still carried out to this day in our region and across this nation: wearing of the kilt, kirking of the tartan and, heaven forbid, eating of the haggis (the real pudding was made of sheep’s entrails, minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices and simmered in the poor mutton’s stomach).

Another is the rugged heather, plant symbolic of all things Scottish. Although not a native plant species to the area, a determined effort by a New Glasgow community leader in the 1940s almost turned the gardening world upside down.

Arthur Hambleton, the 1930s chief architect of the original New Glasgow Horticulture Society, conceived an idea in 1948 to “import some cultivated heather from Scotland, to be planted on the banks of the East River.” Contact was made with the Sir Hector MacNeil Lord Provost (Mayor) of Glasgow, Scotland who stated, “they would be quite happy to send a consignment as a gift to the society.”

Arrangements were made immediately with the City of Glasgow Parks and Gardens Department. In the spring of 1949 a large parcel of hybrid heather plants was shipped from Scotland “free of charge” via Trans-Canada Airlines to New Glasgow. Public relations photos were taken of the Lord Provost sending off the plants to our province.

In return the New Glasgow Horticulture Society agreed to send over a 1,000 maple seeds. Once germinated at the “Glasgow arboretum and when grown to a suitable height they will be transplanted around the parks of the city and various areas of Scotland.” In April 2018 a query was sent to the Glasgow City Archives asking about information pertaining to the exchange and stated that many of the “maple seedlings grew to become prominent trees within the their Parks system.”

Great heather planting celebrations were proposed in the Town of New Glasgow. A local newspaper reported that following “its arrival in Nova Scotia heather will be planted with a fitting ceremony near the bridge with Mayor Roy. J. Bennett turning the ground and planting the first bush while the skirl of the pipes sounds up and down the valley.” The occasion turned out to be royal celebration, dignitaries from the leading town organizations and clubs were present, the high school pipe band attended and the area’s civic minded gathered.

The festivity began “with a parade, headed by a fire-engine, from the fire station to the river-bank bedside the Windsor House.” Arthur Hambleton was hoisted up onto the fire truck where he gave a “speech on the history of the gift.” Mayor Roy Bennett accepted the plants on behalf of the town and he and Arthur “planted the first root.”

Photos, films and fanfare abounded at the planting ceremony with just about everybody taking a turn at imbedding the precious plant along the riverbank.” News stories were “carried by many newspapers in various sections of the world.” A report was given in the Aberdeen, Scotland’s Evening Express, with the headline “Scots of New Glasgow will soon have Scottish heather.” And “New Glasgwegians have always lamenated the absence of heather in their district where the first settlers landed from the Ship Hector, the Mayflower of Canada. The only known patch of heather which has flourished in Nova Scotia is in the park at Halifax where they were sown accidently by Scottish troops emptying their heather-filled palliasses (straw mattresses) after the Transatlantic journey two centuries ago.” The northeastern Nova Scotia Scottish connections in New Glasgow were attempting to change this natural provincial injustice.

The Scottish heather along the riverbank was left to Mother Nature and a few helping hands, hands that helped themselves. During the summer of 1949 the society reported, “Upper Canadians and American visitors in town, who had read of the gifts in their papers, came to see where we had planted the heather, and pieces were taken away as souvenirs. Soon all the plants were stripped.”

Disappointment prevailed, but New Glasgow was undaunted. Arthur Hambleton again contacted the City of Glasgow’s Lord Provost, Sir Hector MacNeil, and spouted his displeasure of the town’s “heather heist,” especially losing the plants to “many exiled Scotsmen” living abroad. The Lord Provost graciously sent another collection of heather plants. This shipment arrived “quietly and were distributed amongst members of the New Glasgow Horticultural Society for planting in their own gardens, some of which have survived to the present time” (1975).

Contact was made with the local horticulture society, plant experts and interested individuals and all state there are some heather plants growing in areas of Pictou County, but not many. Although a hale and hardy plant, it requires some well thought-out planning and ideal conditions and when the settings are favourable the plant will last for approximately 20 years or more.

Not surprisingly this enduring little plant has come to symbolize independence, fortune and luck. From the rocky hills and moors of Scotland, it has developed into a self-sufficient flower worthy of all of it’s accolades. A worthy plant to be grown throughout our Pictou County.

Special thanks to:

Barbara McMullen

Robert Sutherland

Debbi Sobey

Councillor Clyde Fraser

Mayor Nancy Dicks

Adam Langille

Warden Bob Parker

Kelly Sloan

Maren Fassnacht

Historical Research

Barbara Neilson | Archivist | Glasgow Life Glasgow City Archives | Mitchell Library

Pictou Antigonish Regional Library – New Glasgow

Newspapers – The Evening News, Eastern Chronicle, Freelance

Glasgow Tree Lovers Society

Memoirs of Arthur Hambleton

Nova Scotia Archives

flowermeaning.com

John Ashton is a self-employed historical author and visual/graphic artist who lives in Bridgeville, Pictou County. He may be reached at ashtondesign@seasidehighspeed.com.

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