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One of the principal motivations for Roman Catholics Highland Scots to immigrate to the new world was to ensure that they could practice their faith. In Scotland Roman Catholics were obligated to abide by the Penal Laws. They were without rights and privileges that were commonplace to members of other denominations. Roman Catholic priests were not permitted to wear clerical garb, Masses and the education of children were routinely held in secret. Emigration offered the opportunity to escape various other types persecution as well. When the Highland Scots arrived in Nova Scotia, however, they soon found that life as a Roman Catholic would not be as comfortable as they had anticipated. The Penal Laws had been enacted in Nova Scotia in 1758. This legislation curtailed a Roman Catholic's ability to hold office, to vote, own land or even own a good horse. In 1786 Roman Catholics won some concessions which allowed them to establish their own schools but were not permitted to teach youths under the age of 14 who were brought up in the Protestant religion. Eventually the laws were repealed in 1827 and Roman Catholics gained more civil liberties and rights than their confreres in Britain and the United Kingdom.

Prior to the establishment of permanent parishes in the Diocese of Antigonish the people were served by French and Irish itinerant missionaries. Prior to 1844 the diocese was under the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Quebec. The early priests and people faced great difficulties due to the harshness of the climate and early immigrant life in general. The missionaries were shocked as to the Gael s lack of understanding of Roman Catholic doctrines as well as to their general ignorance of their religion. The strongest impediment to both groups was the inability of these priests to speak the Gaelic language and the immense struggle for them to learn it. Due to the language barrier the missionaries could not adequately instruct the people and often felt ineffective and hopeless in their endeavours. Scottish priests stationed in other missions, such as in New Brunswick or Prince Edward Island, would often hear confessions in Gaelic when traveling through the diocese. French speaking priests were often forced to employ interpreters when hearing confessions. It was not uncommon for Roman Catholic Gaels to not have their confession heard for more than two years because there was no Gaelic speaking priest at their disposal. What was even more of a concern to all the priests in general was that these Roman Catholic Scots were often married by either magistrates or Protestant ministers. Loss of Roman Catholics to other denominations was a constant threat and mixed marriages were greatly frowned upon by the priests and Church hierarchy. In order to adequately practice their faith the Gaels were very anxious to obtain their own priests and made petitions to the bishops of Quebec for such. It was not until the arrival from Scotland of Father William Fraser (later the first Bishop of Arichat; 1844-1851) to Nova Scotia in 1822 that the Highland Scots obtained their wish. It is said that the people were so happy to have him amongst them that even Protestants noted that they would convert to Roman Catholicism to retain him. By the 1850's English had replaced Gaelic in the preaching of sermons in Roman Catholic churches. Latin remained the official language of The Church. Masses, and other public expressions of the faith, were held in that language. Private and individual prayers were spoken in Gaelic.

As a reaction to the diminishment of its secular influence in Europe the Vatican strove for more authority and control over Roman Catholics after 1850. This expressed itself as a centralization of power in the person of the Pope. The institution imposed many new limitations and responsibilities upon Roman Catholics. In return, it promised unlimited spiritual blessings to the faithful. Public ornate and elaborate ceremonies became more prevalent. There was a large increase in the number and variety of devotions, pious associations, and Roman Catholic literature. It was important for the Gaels to learn and practice their faith in Latin, English, and their traditional language, Gaelic. In September of 1863 The Casket, published in Antigonish, N.S., was promoting and selling a Gaelic manual. It was a new edition of Rev. Ronald Rankin's (of Scotland) prayer book. By 1879 the ultramontanistic Bishop of Antigonish, John Cameron, wrote to a friend noting "the Gaelic is fast dying out.


Rev. A.A. Johnston, A History of the Catholic Church in Eastern Nova Scotia, Antigonish: St. F.X. Press, 2 volumes, 1960, 1971

Rev. A.A. Johnston, Antigonish Diocese Priests & Bishops, 1786-1925, edited by Kathleen MacKenzie, Antigonish: The Casket Printing & Publishing Co. Ltd., 1994

The Casket; 1852-1890

by Kathleen MacKenzie, 15 March 2006

Presbyterianism in Nova Scotia

After the Reformation in Scotland in the 16th century, Presbyterianism became the official state religion. A few pockets of Catholicism still remained, especially in the possessions of the MacDonalds of Clanranald, Glengarry, and Keppoch, the MacNeils of Barra, and the Chisholms and MacGillivrays of Inverness-shire. The majority of Highlanders became Protestants, however.

The Presbyterian form of church government was very democratic, with the church congregations electing elders who in turn governed the church. Presbyterian ministers were chosen by the congregation, rather than appointed to a church, as in the Catholic tradition. In 1712, however, the Parliament passed the Patronage Act, whereby rich landlords would be able to name ministers to a church contrary to the wishes of the congregation. This caused much contention in the church and led to eventual splits.

The first great schism in the Church of Scotland due to the patronage question occurred in 1733, when Ebenezer Erskine led a number of ministers out of the Church of Scotland to found the Secession Church. The ministers who adhered to Erskine’s beliefs were known as The Seceders. The Seceders eventually split into the Burghers and Anti-burghers and then these groups split into the Old Lights and the New Lights.

In 1843, the most significant split in the Church of Scotland occurred when half of the ministers walked out under the leadership of Thomas Chalmers to create the Free Church of Scotland. Once again, the question of patronage was at the forefront of their complaints. A majority of the Free Church congregations were in the Highlands of Scotland.

Presbyterianism first came to Nova Scotia with the Scotch-Irish New Englanders to settlements like Truro and Onslow, but after 1773, Gaelic speaking Highland Presbyterians were flooding into eastern Nova Scotia and parts of Cape Breton. The ministers that served the Highland Presbyterian settlements where from all three sects of Presbyterianism: the Church of Scotland, the Secession Church, and eventually the Free Church of Scotland.

The Presbyterians and Catholics in Nova Scotia were on friendly terms with each other, but they tended to settle in separate areas. The Presbyterians predominated in Pictou County, while the Catholics were drawn to Antigonish County. In Cape Breton, the same type of separation was seen. While Catholics were in the majority in Inverness County, Victoria County saw a much greater number of Presbyterians.

The Presbyterians in Nova Scotia followed the time honoured practices of the Church from the home country. They were strict Sabbitarians and did not allow any type of labour on Sunday except for “works of necessity and mercy.” Family worship sessions at least once or twice a day were followed, known in Gaelic as “taking the book”. Communion Week was another Presbyterian practice that was very important. The sacraments were only administered to church members once or twice a year, at a time known as Communion Week. The week ran from Thursday to the next Monday, with the actual partaking of the sacraments on Sunday. Presbyterians did not sing hymns in church, but preferred the unaccompanied singing of the Psalms which had been translated into Gaelic in rhymed metre. The Psalm singing was led by a precentor, who lined out the words for the congregation. This Psalm singing was accomplished with much individual creative embellishment of the tunes.

Two of the most famous Highland Presbyterian ministers in Nova Scotia were the Rev. Dr. James MacGregor and the Rev. Norman MacLeod. In 1786, Dr. James MacGregor, from Comrie in Perthshire, became the first Gaelic speaking Presbyterian minister in Nova Scotia. MacGregor was a Seceder and his career in Pictou, Nova Scotia spanned forty-six years. MacGregor was not content to stay in Pictou, however. In 1798, he became the first Presbyterian minister to visit Cape Breton Island, where most of the Scots were Gaelic speaking. In addition to Cape Breton, he also did missionary work in PEI and New Brunswick.

The Rev. Norman MacLeod, from Assynt in Sutherland, came to Pictou in 1817. Although he had studied for the ministry at Edinburgh University, MacLeod became disillusioned with the Church of Scotland and discontinued his studies before finishing. Regardless of the fact that he was not ordained, Norman MacLeod ministered to an ever-growing congregation in Nova Scotia. After three years in Pictou, however, MacLeod decided that it was not a very Godly place, and he moved his flock to St. Ann’s, on the North Shore of Cape Breton, in 1820. After many years in Cape Breton, during which time he was finally ordained, MacLeod decided to relocate to Australia in 1851. When MacLeod and his followers arrived in Australia, however, it was not to their liking and they did not remain long. Hearing of much better land to be had in New Zealand, MacLeod and his followers finally settled in Waipu, New Zealand in 1854, where he passed away in 1866.


Campbell, D. and R. A. MacLean. Beyond the Atlantic Roar: A Study of Nova Scotia Scots. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Ltd, 1975.

Domhnallach, E�in. Leabhar Aithghearr nan Ceist (The Shorter Catechism). Glasgow: MacLabhruinn agus a Mhic, 1921.

Dunn, Charles W. The Highland Settler. Wreck Cove, Cape Breton: Breton Books, 1953.

Hunter, James. Last of the Free: A History of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 1999.

Kennedy, Michael. Gaelic Nova Scotia: an economic, cultural, and social impact study. Halifax, NS: Nova Scotia Museum, 2002.

MacDonald, James. �Presbyterianism.� Britain and the Americas. Ed. Will Kaufman. Denver: ABC Clio, 2005. 747-749.

MacDonald, James R. Cultural Retention and Adaptation Among the Highland Scots of Carolina. diss., University of Edinburgh, 1992.

Moir, John. Enduring Witness: A History of the Presbyterian Church of Canada. Hamilton, Ontario: Presbyterian Church in Canada, 1974.

Murray, Rev. John. History of the Presbyterian Church in Cape Breton - 1921. Manotick, Ontario: Archive CD Books Canada, 2004.

Patterson, George. The History of the County of Pictou, Nova Scotia. Montreal: Dawson Brothers, 1877.

Sherwood, Roland. Pictou Pioneers. Windsor, NS: Lancelot Press, 1973.

Smout, T. C. The History of the Scottish People 1560-1830. 1969. London: Fontana Press, 1985.

Stanley, Laurie. The Well Watered Garden: The Presbyterian Church in Cape Breton, 1789-1860. Sydney, NS: University College of Cape Breton Press, 1983.

by Jamie MacDonald, Nov. 17, 2005

About the photo

The photo in the Religion / Creideamh icon is the Malagawatch United Church built in 1874 and moved to the Nova Scotia Highland Village Museum An Clachan Gàidealach, Iona in 2003. History of the Malagawatch church and a journal detailing the move is on the Nova Scotia Highland Village Museum website.

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