Natural Dyes


Have you ever wondered what materials were used to produce the wide range of hues that can be seen in traditional 19th century cloth and dress?


Using natural dyes to add colour to the homespun materials and yarns was an important aspect of life for pioneer women. After wool was taken from the sheep, washed and carded with wooden brushes to remove dirt and debris, the wool was spun on a cuibhle-shnìomh (spinning wheel) to make the yarn. The next step was to dye the yarn. The process of dyeing wool was passed from generation to the next and begins with the gathering of plants and flowers from around the farm. Dyes were created from roots, flowers, lichens and barks that were boiled in an iron pot. As the plants simmered yarn is added to the water until the desired colour was absorbed.

Dark and light browns are created with càirt a’ spruis (spruce tree bark) or crottal, a lichen found on hardwood trees. If left with the crottal long enough, the yarn takes on a dark reddish brown colour. Fearna (Alder) will create a dark brown or black colour. Plants for making yellow to olive green are popular in this area and include luibh an òir (golden rod) and tì bhàn (pearly everlasting). Some people were able to buy indigo by the ounce from travelling salesmen who imported it from further south.

Join us for an afternoon of wool dying on October 14th from 1-3pm for a workshop called Am Breacan Bòidheach Fasanta: Mary’s Bonny Plaid. This title is taken from a Gaelic song praising a tartan cloth woven and hand-dyed by a woman named Mary. The workshop offers a glimpse at the ingenuity, artistry and dye-making talents of poineer women. Vicky Quimby will demonstrate the skills described in this post, and more. Participants will learn about various dyeing techniques and will be able to dip a few skeins of their own. Pre-registration required. Admission is $20.


For further information, contact the Highland Village Museum at 902-725-2272 or by email at:



Field Crops – Harvest

Harvest time was a family and community effort, everyone pitching in to make the hay and harvest the crops. Often times families would help their neighbours, exchanging their time for help on their farm in return. Men, women and children alike took part in the work.

Read about preparation of field crops here.

When hay was ready it was cut using either a hand scythe or a horse pulled hay mower. A scythe was most commonly used on small farms or those with hilly terrain. In later years a tractor replaced the horses that pulled the mowers. We have three mowers on display at our site.

If the weather was good and the hay was dry then it could be cut and collected for storage that afternoon or the next morning. Having cut hay get rained on was to be avoided because it reduces the quality of the hay and creates more work. After the hay was cut it was raked into windrows using either a hand rake or a tractor driven rake. We have a rake on display here at the Highland Village.



Once the hay was dry it was forked into a wagon or cart by hand and taken to the barn. Some farms used a hay stacker to load the hay onto the wagon.


The wagon would be driven to the barn, to the threshing floor, and a large fork on a pulley system would be driven into the hay and lifted up into the upper levels (the mow) of the barn. People had to distribute the hay evenly around the storage area and stamp it down. The pulley system was all operated by horses and people.

Some larger farms and communities had access to a hay press. The hay is operated by horse or a team of horses while some presses were later adapted for use with a locomotive engine. The press would have been transported to the field, the wheels removed and it set on the ground.

Loose hay gathered from the field would have been forked from the wagon to the open box on the right hand side.   On the left hand side there is a large wooden boom that the horses would have pulled around in a circle (driven by a person). Each time the horses made a complete circle, the press would compress the hay together and push it down towards the end of the press where it would be bound together with wire. These bales would be about 100lbs and compact but would save space in the barn or shipped on a boat and is essentially how we store hay now.


Hay Press


The hay press displayed on site is from the Middle River area circa 1890 and a fairly unusual artifact. This would have been a large purchase and is likely that it was bought by a local agricultural society for the use of its members.

Our site is also home to a potato digger circa 1930 from Loch Lomond which, like the hay press, was a community shared implement. It went from farm to farm during potato harvest.


Potato Digger

The small forks at the back would fling the potatoes into the side row where they could be picked up. A net would be strung along the side to prevent the potatoes from being flung too far. The bar at the bottom of the forks would lift under the drill.   Someone would walk along side and operate the lever or sit on top (seat missing). This one is for use with a tractor.

Visit Baile nan Gàidheal | Highland Village Museum any day between 10 am & 5 pm to see our barn, gardens and farm equipment (This season, we’re open until October 16).

On September 17th, 2016 join us for Pioneer Day – This afternoon festival of rural life is for the entire family. Join us for a corn boil, square dance, milling frolic, traditional cooking, natural dye displays, traditional woodworking and iron work demonstrations. Watch the Cash Carding Mill demonstrations, and a spinning frolic, a céilidh, and a whole lot more. Regular admission rates apply. 


Anniversary Church Service – Malagawatch Church

On Tuesday, November 25, 2003 the Malagawatch United Church, built in 1874 began a spectacular and much watched journey by road and water from the community of Malagawatch, on the shores of the River Denys Basin, to its new home overlooking the Bras d’Or Lakes, high atop the Highland Village Museum in Iona. The church was moved 1.5 km by land down the Marble Mountain road followed by 15 nautical miles to the Barra Strait. It was then hauled up the Village hill to its new home, where it greets visitors today. The Church underwent some major construction in repair during the 2015 season and is now looking its best and ready for your visit!


The River & Lakeside Pastoral Charge of the United Church of Canada hosts their annual Anniversary Church Service in the Malagawatch Church July 31st at 3 pm. Free admission to service. Voluntary collection taken up by the Pastoral Charge.


Donald Òg Day – Louisbourg & Eskasoni visit the Highland Village

Dòmhall Òg MacNìll means the Donald “The Younger” MacNeil

h2013-24-68.jpgJoin us on August 4th 2016 as we commemorate the Donald Òg legend and the early days of Cape Breton’s European history.

On board a British man of war patrolling the Bras d’Or Lake following the 1758 Seige of Louisbourg, Domhnall Òg MacNìll  brought news of the lake’s natural wonders home to his native Isle of Barra.

Years later, when many Gaels emmigrated from Scotland to North America, the descendants of Donald Òg remembered the stories he had told them. They remembered the place he described where they could farm and fish and be free to own their own land.

MacNeils and other Gaelic families chose to make Cape Breton their home during this time and their culture and traditions lives on through the generations to this day.

Join us as we commemorate the Donald Òg legend and the early days of Cape Breton’s European history.

Traditional food, natural dye, barvas ware and other demonstra- tions will take place throughout the day, along with a special running of Cash’s Carding Mill.

We will also be joined by our friends from Fortress of Louisbourg as well as, Eskasoni Cultural Journey, who will animate throughout the day. The afternoon will feature a céilidh.

Regular admission applies. 10:00am – 3:00pm.

Là Mór a’Bhaile | 55th Annual Highland Village Day Concert

The countdown is on! On August 6th,  you can join us for a fun afternoon of Gaelic arts. Fiddlers, step-dancers, pipers and more come together to treat visitors to traditional Nova Scotia Gaelic culture in this outdoor concert overlooking the Bras d’Or Lakes.

This year’s performers include Mary Jane Lamond & Wendy MacIsaac, Kyle, Stewart & Sheumas MacNeil, Kenneth MacKenzie & Keith MacDonald, Shelly Campbell & Alan Dewar, Donnie Campbell & Jinks O’Neill, Stephanie MacDonald and many more.

See how many familiar faces you can spot in these photos from Highland Village Days past:

This year marks the 55th Annual Highland Village Day Concert, one of Cape Breton Island’s original Outdoor Scotch Concerts. 2-6 pm. $15 per person, children 12 and under free.

Field Crops – Preparation

Togaidh an obair an fhianuis | The work will bear witness.

Matt Farming_1 copy copy.jpg

Gaels in Nova Scotia grew large quantities of hay, oats, potatoes and spring wheat as well as smaller amounts of buckwheat, barley and turnip. Occasionally they would grow field peas, beans and rye. They grew very little winter wheat and corn because these crops were difficult to grow in the local climate.

Farm implements varied considerably from farm to farm depending on location and budget. Large, prosperous farms, located along a river valley for example, might have been able to afford a wider range of equipment and more than one horse, or more farm help. A backland farm that was rockier, had poorer soil and was less established may only plant potatoes and some hay and would therefore require fewer pieces of equipment or more tasks were done by hand.

If a crop was to be planted in a field, the soil needed to be prepared, often beginning with a plow. There are two types of plow on site: the American plow, and the Scotch plow. The American plow is made of steel and has shorter handles and is lighter than Scotch plow designs. The American plow has a coulter knife in front which cuts the soil off from the furrow-slice. This plow also has a land wheel which helps to regulate the depth of the furrow slice. Scotch plows, which were popular, have longer handles and are made of iron. This scotch plow has wooden handles.

Plows are used to turn over nutrients, break new ground and to reduce weed growth in the soil. They can also be used for planting. Plows would have been pulled either by horse, oxen, mules or in some cases, people. Later on, some plows were adapted to be pulled behind tractors.

The next step was to harrow the ground. The harrow was used as another form of tillage to prepare the soil for planting. It levels the ground and breaks up the soil to have a better seed bed. There are also two types of harrow on site: the spiring tooth harrow and the spike tooth harrow. They would have been pulled similarly to the plow. The spiring tooth harrow is more suited to loosening the soil before planting while the spike tooth harrow was used to aerate hay fields, mix in manure and break up clods of earth.

Cultivators can also be used to prepare the soil for planting and to aerate the soil. They are most commonly used to keep weeds clear by disturbing the soil without hurting the crop, such as clearing between potato rows, for example.

All plants require nitrogen and the best source of fertilizer for the settlers was manure. The manure spreader at our site is from the 1940s and would have been pulled around the field by horses to distribute the manure. Many farmers would have spread manure with shovels from a dump cart. Other supplements added to the soil may have included lime, gypsum, wood ash, compost and maple. Seaweed and waste fish were also used extensively.



Biadh is Baile | Highland Fare


Join us on Saturday, June 4th for Biadh is Baile | Highland Fare Day as we celebrate Highland Fare! Tour throughout the site as we prepare traditional meals and you can even help us as we prepare to plant our gardens! Sarah Nettleton will be on hand to demonstrate sheep shearing while members of the Cash family (of Cash’s Carding Mill) will be around to speak with you while the Mill is running – processing raw wool.

Throughout the day you will be invited to taste traditionally prepared food such as bonnach, sgadan `s buntata (Herring & potatoes), biscuits, and more! Demonstrations of gardening, rug hooking, Gaelic songs and stories, iron working sheep shearing, carding, spinning weaving weacing and sewing will be happening all day! You might even be able to join in and give us a hand preparing our Highland Fare! See you Saturday!

Remembering Three Generations of Military Service

As Remembrance Day approaches, we begin to reflect on the men and women who served overseas during the World Wars. Over the past few years we have shared snippets from a scrapbook in our collection. This great piece was donated to the Highland Village archives by David MacNeil, a descendant of a very active military family from the Iona & Grand Narrows area. The large scrapbook contains photos, newspaper clippings, certificates and letters of three men, John P. MacNeil, his son, Gordon Michael MacNeil and his grandson, Gordon Leo French MacNeil.

This post will give you some insight into the three men during their active military service. Follow along over the coming days, leading up to Remembrance Day, as we post excerpts from the scrapbook to Facebook.

Capt. John P. MacNeil

Caption John P

We have limited information about Capt. John P. MacNeil in the scrapbook but we do know that he served in the 94th Victoria Regiment “Argyll Highlanders”. He was the son of John (Eoin, Rory, Rory) MacNeil and Mary (MacDonald) MacNeil, who lived in Iona. After John P. ’s military service he worked 32 years as a section foreman for C.N.R.

Major Gordon Michael MacNeil

Major Gordon M

John. P.’s son followed in his father’s foot steps joining the military with the outbreak of WW1. Major Gordon Michael MacNeil, enlisted in the 25th Nova Scotia Battalion, Canadian Infantry where he would head for the Western Front in France. He would later see himself in action at Vimy Ridge.

The Chronicle, Halifax, Decemeber 1918:

“He is the only one of the original officers who left Halifax on May 20th, 1915 with the 25th Nova Scotia Battalion who is still with the famous fighting battalion of which all Nova Scotia is proud.”

During duty he was wounded twice and later decorated with the Military Cross.

His citation reads in part as follows:

“…for marked gallantry and good work during an attack on the enemy outpost line southeast of Inchy-en-Artois on the night of September 23-24 and during the September 25th, 1918. He was in command of a company ordered to establish a post in the enemy outpost line. The post was entered, all the enemy killed, and a machine gun captured, without casualty. By skilful consolidation this post was held against seven counter-attacks during thirty six hours. He personally killed seven of the enemy.”

Major Gordon Michael MacNeil would once again see action when WWII was declared. He would head overseas in November 1941 as Second in Command of the the Cape Breton Highlanders.

Major Gordon Michael MacNeil leading men from the Iona wharf as they leave for WWII.

Gordon married Annie L. MacNeil a school teacher, from Mabou. They lived in Grand Narrows and had a son, Gordon Leo French MacNeil.

Gordon Leo French MacNeil

Major Gordon LF

Gordon Leo French, like his father and grandfather, enlisted in military service, serving with the Cape Breton Highlanders and the West Nova Scotia Regiment during WWII. He saw duty in the UK and Italy. While in Italy he was promoted in the field from Captain to Major.

“By July 30, the Canadians were attacking the town of Catenanuova. Captain MacNeil, while on a reconnaissance in a platoon area during the daylight attack on Catenanuova, was informed of a strong enemy patrol which had been apparently dispersed in confusion by our artillery fire and had taken cover in an area of cactus scrub.

MacNeil, commanding “C” Company of the West Nova Scotia Regiment, realizing the value of prompt and vigourous offensive action at the right time, immediately organized the platoon and led them in a bayonet charge over a 100 yard stretch of fire swept ground, routed the Germans and took 25 prisoners.”

Major Gordon Leo French was, like his father, awarded the Military Cross which was presented to him at Buckingham Palace from His Majesty King George VI on May 22, 1946. Gordon married Mary “Toni” Wiles from England.

For more information on the MacNeil Family you can search “All Call Iona Home” and “Mabou Pioneers Vol.1 “.

Addition information was sourced and quoted from “In the Morning – Veterans of Victoria County, Cape Breton”  as well as, “The Canada Veterans Hall of Valour Official Site”

Beaton Institution Citation: FT-212 Leaving for World War II, Grand Narrows and Iona. Malcolm F. MacNeil fonds. September 4, 1939. Beaton Institute, Cape Breton University.

Là Fhèill Mìcheil

Là Fhèill Mìcheil | St. Michael’s Day

“Là Fhèill Mìcheil nì sinn sruthan,
Gabhaidh sinn dha gu cridheil càirdeil
Mar bu chòir a bhith”

“On St. Michael’s day we will make a cake, we will partake of it in a joyful, friendly manner, as is proper”

Folk Songs & Folklore of South Uist and Eriskay – Margret Fay Shaw

Celebrating St. Michael’s Day with the Sruthan


St. Michael was the Scottish and Irish patron saint of horses, travel, sea and seafarers. A prominent saint in all the countries speaking Celtic languages, his calendar day was observed in the Hebrides by horse racing, dancing, singing and the eating of a multigrain bonnach called sruthan, (pronounced stroo-uhn).

Struthan Fhéill Micheil | Michaelmas cake, is a cross between what we know today as a cake and biscuit. In honor of St. Micheal, grains from the season’s harvest, such as oats, barley, and rye, were mixed in equal parts. Occasionally, berries and fruits were added, along with wild honey. The sruthan was prepared the night before the St. Michael’s Day celebration might be taken to be blessed by a priest the next morning.The blessed cakes, named after the departed and missing family and friends were then given to the poor.

Baile nan Gàidheal |Highland Village will prepare a special sruthan on site to celebrate Là Fhéill Mhìcheil, along with a St. Michaels’s Day, along with a milling frolic demonstration.

Join us as we celebrate this feast day every September 29th.


With much appreciation, the Village is grateful to Katie MacDonald for her good works and excellent contributions to the Baile nan Gàidheal mission and initiatives. Tha sinn a’ guidhe gach piseach `s buaidh ort `san tìm ri teachd. (Best regards for the future).

Is fheàrr na `n t-òr sgeul innis air chòir. | Better than gold is a tale well told


Stòiridhean (the stories), they are the heart of Gaelic culture. For Gaels the well-known art of storytelling is used as the means of passing down the traditions from one generation to the next.

In the past it was a common occurrence for families, friends and neighbours to be gathered in the kitchen for a cèilidh (visit). During these visits tales were told and songs were sung. These stories offered tales of travel and triumph, heroes, fools, and sometimes loss or tragedy. They were often composed, rarely written down, and retold endlessly by their descendants from memory.


Sgeulaiche (the storyteller), was often renowned for vast number of stories they were able to tell. You could tell a great story by the number of times it was requested and the large crowds who gathered to here it.

P2010.46.200 - SER_5409

Many of these stories have stood test of time, having been brought with them from their homes in Gaelic Scotland and continue to be told here in Nova Scotia today.

This form of oral transmission of the culture has seen a decline with influence of the modern world. However today there is some resurgence of the storytelling tradition as young learners try to preserve and promote Gaelic culture.

P2010.46.051 - DSC_0640

These year Baile nan Gàidheal | Highland Village presents the Annual Joe Neil MacNeil Lecture on Wednesday, July 29th from 7-8pm. The presentation this year is titled “Restoring Nova Scotia’s Gaelic Identity: Planning a Cultural Nation”, given by Seumas Watson, Highland Village Manager of Interpretation and Marlene Ivey, Associate Professor of Design, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

Joe Neil MacNeil of Middle Cape, was well-known as a Gaelic tradition bearer and for contributing the stories to the book Sguel gu Latha | Tales Until Dawn, with over 50 stories recorded just from him.

Joe Neil MacNeil (2)