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Battle of Culloden commemoration set for April 21

Bill McVicar, one of the organizers, speaks during the 2017 Battle of Culloden commemoration ceremony at the Culloden Memorial Cairn in Knoydart, Pictou County. The 37th annual ceremony will take place Saturday, April 21, beginning with the traditional march from the highway to the cairn, beginning at 11 a.m.
Bill McVicar, one of the organizers, speaks during the 2017 Battle of Culloden commemoration ceremony at the Culloden Memorial Cairn in Knoydart, Pictou County. The 37th annual ceremony will take place Saturday, April 21, beginning with the traditional march from the highway to the cairn, beginning at 11 a.m. - file photo

The 37th annual Battle of Culloden commemoration ceremony will take place Saturday, April 21, at the Culloden Memorial Cairn in Knoydart, Pictou County.

The celebration, which attracts visitors from across Nova Scotia, will begin with the traditional march from the highway to the cairn at 11 a.m.

“It is that time of year,” Bill McVicar, one of the organizers, said with a wide smile.

It is 272 years since the Jacobites (followers of Charles Edward Stuart) rose up in an attempt to return the Stuart dynasty to the throne of England at Culloden Moor in southern Scotland.

  1. annual ceremony honours that battle – and the subsequent migration of Scots to the shores of Nova Scotia, including along the Northumberland Strait – where the Culloden Memorial Cairn, built in 1938, is located.

“It is always a great celebration,” McVicar said.

It continues to grow – consistently attracting more than 300 visitors.

The almost four-decade tradition started with two, including McVicar’s uncle Johnny Joe MacDonald, who was instrumental in the restoration of the cairn and the revival of the Culloden gathering.

In 1982, with help of Californian Seamus Taylor, a then student in the StFX Celtic Studies program, MacDonald resuscitated the celebration.

On that day – much like what will happen this weekend in larger numbers, of course – the pair marched from the highway to the cairn, while battling biting winds and heavy brush; not to mention tackling a detour to the nearby beach.

Sandwiched between a prayer and the sprinkling of ‘visce beatha’ (waters of life) on the cairn, Taylor provided laments on the bagpipes.

MacDonald died in 1983, after the second commemoration ceremony, but McVicar and others worked to ensure the tradition continued.


Changes made

Since that reincarnation, although the focus for the celebration remains the same, there has been change.

For one, the path to the cairn now trodden is much more smooth – and straight.

In recent years, there has been extensive stone restoration and foundation revitalization made to the cairn – the centrepiece for the annual celebration – which is dedicated to Angus and Hugh MacDonald, and John MacPherson, who fought in the battle for Scotland with the Clan Ranald Regiment.

Dr. Ronald St. John MacDonald of Baileys Brook, with assistance from many local men, fashioned the cairn – the only one of its kind outside Scotland – which includes stones from the Culloden battlefield.

Nestled along the Pictou County roadway, a sign – in both English and Gaelic – welcomes visitors to the historic site.

Signatures and comments from visitors continue to fill the pages of a guest book found at the entrance.

“We get hundreds – people who stop from all over the world,” McVicar said, noting the welcome signage has been integral to the increase in visitors.

The beautifully groomed property also includes a bench, one that not only allows visitors to admire the cairn, but also enjoy the breathtaking view of the Northumberland Strait.

The stone for the handiwork, fashioned by artisan Joe Arsenault, dates back to 1828. It came from a North Grant, Antigonish County, farmhouse, while a Port Hood, Inverness County, farmhouse, circa 1850, provided material for the legs.

The most recent addition is a stone – once again, an Arsenault creation – which marks the location for the Mill Brook Pioneer Cemetery, the spot where the three men who fought in the Culloden battle are buried.

“It is another important piece to the puzzle,” McVicar said.

The stone, which also came from the same North Grant farmhouse, has a nameplate dedicated to Katherine Anderson and Margaret MacDonald.


Everyone welcome

McVicar noted everyone is welcome to the commemoration ceremony, one that celebrates the rich history of our entire province.

“You don’t have to be a descendant,” he said.

“This is a piece of history, I think, that symbolizes the hard work of many people who came here.”

Noting participants in the ceremony are all ages, McVicar said “youth involvement, spearheaded by Gaelic students under the tutelage of teacher Brian MacDonald, continues to increase.

“It has become such a special part of the day,” he added.

After the April 21 ceremony, a meal (donation accepted) and reception will take place at neighbouring Lismore Hall.

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