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.


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.



Oidhche nam Bòcan |Night of the Spooks


Observing Samhainn (sow-win), or Halloween as we know it in English, marked the onset of the dark months, following harvest time in the old Celtic world. The origins for Samhainn go back to pre-Christian times. It was widely believed in Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, and other countries where Celtic languages are spoken, that Samhainn was a liminal time, meaning a brief period when the souls of the dead could wander among their mortal counterparts in an earthly presence. People’s concerns that capricious spirits would remain among the living inspired carving turnips with dreadful faces, for placing in window and doorways, to frighten malevolent souls back to their own place in the world beyond at the conclusion of Halloween. Youth dressed in ugly costumes and visited among village houses for a bit of cheese, or some other treat. Purification rituals also took place by way of bonfires intended to ensure that evils and ill luck associated with the winter months would be symbolically burnt away.


Gaelic custom in Nova Scotia has retained aspects of these historic agricultural times to the present. Turnips have been replaced by pumpkins and school children dress in costume to seek candy from nearby houses. Samhainn divination remains an evident tradition with the continuing practice of placing a ring (fainne), thimble (meuran), button (putan) and coin (bonn airgid) in a bowl of raw oatmeal mixed with cream and sugar. Partakers at the fuarag (foo-ar-ak) bowl delve with spoons for their share of the treat. One’s future is supposedly determined by the object found in the individual’s portion: a ring means marriage, the coin riches and the button bachelorhood. The thimble foretells the likelihood of being an old maid. Marriages were also divined in older times, with customs such as taking a mouthful of water from alt na crìche, the boundary brook between two farms. Should the unmarried be able to hold the water in his, or her, mouth while returning home, their future spouse would appear on the path way.


For a look at the fuarag tradition taking place in a contemporary setting go to An Drochaid Eadarainn (The Bridge Between Us), a Highland Village hosted website for Nova Scotia’s Gaelic language, culture and heritage:

Fuarag recipe:

Mix together:

  • 1 cup rolled oats (toasted oats optional)
  • 3/4 cup sugar (or to taste)
  • 2 cups whipping cream
  • Combine whipping cream and sugar in a chilled bowl, whip together until soft peaks form
  • Fold in oats
  • Serve topped with brown sugar

Here’s a skit from one of our Oidhche nam Bòcan nights:

Mairead ni´n Thomais Iain

Over the past few years, Highland Village animation staff have been transitioning interpretation from 3rd person to 1st person (or role playing). Through this process, staff have developed their own personas each with their own stories and experiences. In this blog, we meet Mairead ni’n Thomais Iain she has made a new home in Alba Nuadh / Nova Scotia. 


Mairead ni’n Tomais Iain left Buaile Dubh, Iochdar, Uibhist a Deas (South Uist) with her parents, four brothers and her father’s brother’s family when she was just a young girl. They arrived in Nova Scotia in 1841 and settled in Upper Grand Mira. Years later, she has married fear do chloinn ‘ic ‘ille Leathain, Uilleam (a MacLean man, William) and they have three children Màili, Mórag, and Iain.

 They make their home in Baghasdal, Ceap Breatainn (Boisdale, Cape Breton). This evening they are preparing for a luadhadh (milling frolic) to take place. Mairead’s homespun wool has been woven and the cloth taken off the beart (loom). It is ready now for the final stage of processing. She has also made a mulachag do chaise (a cake of cheese), a bonnach and Iain churned the cream into butter for the occasion. A person may also have a chance to sample Uilleam’s pòit-dhubh (moonshine) before the night is out.


 After shearing the sheep, Màili and Mórag use the feàrsaid (drop spindle) to spin the carded rolagan (rolls of wool ready to be spun) into yarn. Mairead then dresses the beart (loom) and does all the weaving in the home. The rich brown coloured cloth they will mill this evening, dyed with crotal (lichen), will be used to make trousers for Iain and Uilleam.

 After soaking the cloth in maistir (stale urine), it will be pounded and passed deiseil (sunwise) around a makeshift table while singing milling songs. Uilleam‘s mother, Seònaid, over sees the work ensuring it is shrunk evenly and appropriately for the garments which will be made.


 Mairead’s neighbours will gather and bring their own homespun wool to taigh Mairead (Margaret’s house) for the luadhadh (milling) to share in the work, sing together and enjoy fearas-chuideachd (good times/ company together). The children are looking forward to the festivities of the evening which will surely include dancing, family histories, music, stories, and even match making.

Mairead learned her songs from Peigi Bheag (Little Peggy), her mother’s mother, whom she was named after.  Peigi Bheag lived in Mairead’s home as she was growing up.  She was wonderful to sing.  She’d be singing while spinning, weaving, churning, milking, at taighean céilidh (in the céilidh houses) and of course at milling frolics. Mairead is very happy to be passing these songs on today to her own children.


 – Mairead nin Tomais Iain is portrayed by Séidheag Aonghais Iain Pheadair (Shay MacMullin) originally from, Upper Grand Mira, currently residing at A Rids (Mabou Ridge).   She has been with the Highland Village Museum for the past 2 seasons and has attended Stòras a Bhaile for the past 5 years.

Isbeal ni’n Dòmhnaill Eachainn Iain Dòmhnaill

Over the past few years, Highland Village animation staff have been transitioning interpretation from 3rd person to 1st person (or role playing). Through this process, staff have developed their own personas each with their own stories and experiences. In this blog, we meet Isbeal n’in Dòmhnaill Eachainn Iain Dòmhnaill she has made a new home in Alba Nuadh |Nova Scotia. 


Isbeal and her family live in Alba Nuadh (Nova Scotia). They came here from the Isle of Skye when she was just a young girl. She has married a widower and helped raise his children here. She is known for being able to make beautiful colours of yarns from her own sheep’s wool. Isbeal’s farm has a flock of sheep that will supply her family with wool. Isbeal and her family will shear the sheep for their wool, wash and card it with wooden brushes to remove dirt and debris. The brushed wool will be spun on a cuibhle-shnìomh (spinning wheel) to make the yarn. She is able to colour the yarn with a natural dye she can make herself.


For Isbeal, the process of using natural dyes has been passed down from one generation to the next. After gathering different plants and flowers that she has found around her farm, she will boil them in a pòit thrì chasach (iron pot). As the plants simmer Isbeal will place yarn in the water until the colours are absorbed.


She is able to make the dyes from roots, flowers, lichens, and barks. Fearna (Alder), will create the colours brown to black, càirt a’ spruis (spruce bark) will create brown, luibh an òir (golden rod) plants for making yellow to olive green and tì bhàn (pearly everlasting) can be used to make yellow.

Isbeal takes the yarn she has dyed and uses it for making her family’s sweaters, socks, hats and other clothes.


Isbeal ni’n Dòmhnaill Eachainn Iain Dòmhnaill is portrayed by Colleen Beaton from Little Narrows, Cape Breton. She has been with the Highland Village Museum for the past 18 seasons.




Anna Nìll Mhurchaidh

Over the past few years, Highland Village animation staff have been transitioning interpretation from 3rd person to 1st person (or role playing). Through this process, staff have developed their own personas each with their own stories and experiences. In this blog, we meet Anna Nìll Mhurchaidh (Anna MacLean), she has made a new home in Alba Nuadh | Nova Scotia. 


Anna and her family live in a Taigh-logaichean (log house), a small one-room house built from logs with a loft for sleeping and a fireplace for cooking. Outside they have a garden for their crops, and a pasture for the farm animals to graze.


Anna must daily tend to the crops in the field. Her crop of lìon (flax) is particularly vital for her to be able to make linen.

Flax Update

After she has harvested the lìon (flax) and removes the seeds, it will go through the method of retting, lìon (flax) being soaked then left to dry. Dry lìon (flax) will be crushed and scraped (called scutching) to reveal softer fibers. Lastly the process of hackling is where she will pull the softened fibers through a series of metal combs from coarse to fine, leaving long fibers which are used for spinning into thread and can be used to weave clothing and blankets for her family.


Carding Mill Day 2013

Anna and her family pass many traditions down verbally. Part of her Gaelic culture involves sharing their history and rituals through songs, poems, and story telling.


– Anna MacLean is portrayed by Vicki Quimby from, Orangedale, Cape Breton. She has been with the Highland Village Museum for the past 24 seasons.



Catrìona bean Sheòrais `ic Alasdair


Over the past few years, Highland Village animation staff have been transitioning interpretation from 3rd person to 1st person (or role playing). Through this process, staff have developed their own personas, each with their own stories and experiences. In this blog, we travel to Scotland to meet Catrìona bean Sheòrais`ic Alasdair, who will soon immigrate to Nova Scotia. 


Catrìona lives on the Isle of Barra in Scotland with her family.

Her days are spent planting and weeding the crops. The staples in her diet are the potatoes, barley, and oats they grow in their field. They have sheep and cattle they care for as well.

Catrìona’s home consists of stonewalls with grassy thatched roofs known as Taigh Dubh (Black House). In the winter the family and animals will live together under the one roof for warmth. During the summer months the animals will be out grazing in the pasture.



Catrìona’s family are tenants on the land. The wealthy landowners lease plots to families who put everything they have into farming the land to pay their rent. Landowners are raising the rents and evicting those who cannot pay. With the tenants evicted, they can replace them with large sheep farms, which will make greater profits.

 She is waiting for a ship to arrive that will take them to the “New World”.

Some of her neighbours have already chosen to leave, while others have been forced out of their homes. Many are struggling to find a way to afford passage on the ship.

In Catrìona’s case her husband has sold their cattle to be able to afford the cost of passage.

Catrìona and her family won’t be able to bring much with them on the ship; some fishing line, tuadh (axe), feàrsaid (drop spindle) for making wool. They will have to leave their animals behind. Many have left with little but the clothes on their backs.


They, like many others from the Highlands and Islands Catrìona, will leave Scotland to immigrate to Alba Nuadh |Nova Scotia.

 Not only is Catrìona leaving her house and lifestyle but she will leave her family. She will bring with her to the new world her strong Gaelic language and her culture she holds near and dear to heart. When Catrìona arrives  she will speak little Beurla (English) and will have no means of communicating with her family back home. However, she will seek out kin who have already arrived in Nova Scotia and settled on land in Cape Breton.


– Catrìona bean Sheòrais ’ ic Alasdair is portrayed by Catherine Gillis, from North Sydney, Cape Breton. She has been with the Highland Village Museum for the past 9 seasons.





The Legend of Donald Òg MacNìll & The Settling of Iona



Dòmhall Òg MacNìll meaning Donald “The Younger” MacNeil, was a young man from the Isle of Barra, Scotland. Like many men his age he was enlisted into the British Army during the 1700’s.

At this time England and France were at war again. Donald Og was sent to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia during the siege of Louisbourg in 1758.

While patrolling on the British war ship through the Bras d’ Or Lake, he came upon the area that is today known as the Barra Strait.

He noted the areas natural beauty, fresh water with abundance of fish, fertile soil, and countless trees that could be used for fire wood and building shelters.

When he returned to Barra on leave from the army, he told his family stories of this wondrous place.

Years later, when many Gaels immigrated from Scotland to North America, the descendants of Donald Og 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.

Donald Og returned to fight for the British on the Plains of Abraham. Sadly, he would not live to see his home, or Cape Breton again.

However, 200 years later the Barra traditions are evident throughout the Cape Breton community.


Join us while we commemorate the Donald Og legend and the early days of Cape Breton’s European history here at The Highland Village on Thursday, July 31st.

Meet with a direct descendent of Donald Og, Rod C. MacNeil, who will share the story.

Traditional food, natural dye, barvas ware and other demonstrations will take place throughout the day. Also visiting animators from Fortress of Louisbourg and Eskasoni Cultural Journeys will be on site.

A Céilidh and Milling Frolic will be held, along with a special running of Cash’s Carding Mill.

The day runs from 10:00am- 3:00pm. Regular admission applies.