Thirty-seven years ago Johnny Joe MacDonald had a dream.
And, with help from a young Californian studying Celtic studies at St. F.X. in Antigonish, he made an annual commemoration of the Battle of Culloden a reality, one that continues – and thrives – almost four decades later.
On a blustery early spring day in April 1982, MacDonald and Seamus Taylor navigated heavy brush – not to mention a detour to the nearby beach – in making their way to the Culloden Memorial Cairn in Knoydart, Pictou County.
When they made it to that historic spot, the men offered a prayer and sprinkled visce beatha (waters of life) on the cairn, while Taylor provided laments on the bagpipes.
And now there, every year hundreds of people visit the cairn to remember the Battle of Culloden which happened in Scotland on April 16, 1745.
“He would be so proud,” Bill McVicar, said of his uncle, who died in 1983.
MacDonald planted the seed for what is now an annual tradition that attracts hundreds of people to that same historic site.
This year, the 38th annual Battle of Culloden commemoration ceremony will take place Saturday, April 27, at the cairn.
It is 274 years since the Jacobites (followers of Charles Edward Stuart) rose up to return the Stuart dynasty to the throne of England. Their efforts ended on Culloden Moor in southern Scotland.
The annual ceremony honours that battle and the subsequent migration of Scots to the shores of Nova Scotia.
“It is always a great day – it continues to grow and grow – and we are really happy with what it has become,” McVicar said.
With the help of many volunteers, he has not only continued the annual April celebration (one that takes place as close to the battle date as possible) but also restored the cairn and property, while creating a tourist site that attracts people from around the world.
The commemoration ceremony begins at 11 a.m. April 27, with the traditional parade – one led by pipers, drummers and a colour party – making its way from the highway to the cairn.
Because of the efforts of McVicar and his supporters, that path to the cairn is much smoother and straighter than it was in 1982.
Once everyone arrives at the cairn, there will be words offered from special guests, along with the traditional prayers, visce beatha and laments on the bagpipes.
“It is about continuing that tradition,” McVicar said, noting everyone is welcome to share in the special day.
That tradition is not just one solely for Scottish descendants – it is also a celebration of the rich history of the province.
After the commemoration ceremony, everyone is invited to neighbouring Lismore Hall for a hot meal (donation accepted) and reception.
Although that special each April continues to serve as the signature moment for the Culloden Memorial Cairn, it doesn’t mean it is forgotten for the rest of the year.
More and more, the site is becoming a tourist attraction, evidenced by the increasing number of signatures penned in a guest book placed at the entrance each year.
Nestled along the Pictou County roadway, a sign (in both English and Gaelic) welcomes visitors. It is one of the countless additions and improvements made in recent years.
There has also been extensive work on the cairn including stone restoration and foundation revitalization which honours Angus and Hugh MacDonald, and John MacPherson, who fought in the battle for Scotland with the Clan Ranald Regiment.
Ronald St. John MacDonald of Baileys Brook, with assistance from many local men, fashioned the cairn. It is the only one of its kind outside Scotland and includes stones from the Culloden battlefield.
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, which was fashioned by artisan Joe Arsenault, dates to 1828. It came from a North Grant, Antigonish County farmhouse. A Port Hood, Inverness County farmhouse, circa 1850, provided material for the legs.
There is another stone – another 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.
The stone, which also came from the same North Grant farmhouse, has a nameplate dedicated to Katherine Anderson and Margaret MacDonald.
This year, visitors will notice more land has been groomed and cleared by community volunteers.
There will also be a picnic table added, one fashioned from hemlock that came from Newfoundland, a sitting spot shaded with a steel canopy, another contribution from a community supporter.
“People continue to be so supportive – it is amazing,” McVicar said.
One of his next projects is having the Culloden Memorial Cairn recognized as a National Historic Site.
“We think it is something that should happen,” McVicar added.