‘Seann Taigh Mo Shìnnsir’: This ancestral Cape Breton stone cottage has survived more than 200 years

Across more than 200 years, you can see what might have drawn Iain Ruadh MacMaster to this spot on the slope in Creignish, on Cape Breton Island. A few hundred feet below, the whitecaps paint the waves in St. Georges Bay; the forested hills on the mainland side of the bay stretch out of view across the restless water. In fact, the bay fills your view in three directions: to the north, west, and south. Turn to the east, and you’re looking up Creignish Mountain, its face steep and woods-covered. 

Iain arrived here from Moidart, Scotland, in 1801, a pre–Highland Clearances economic immigrant. That year, at least five ships—the Sarah, the Pigeon, the Aurora, the Dove, and the Golden Text—carried people from his home country across the North Atlantic to new homes in Nova Scotia. Compare this spot to photos of Moidart, and you can understand why Iain might have felt at home here: the landscape tumbling down towards the sea, the salt water dancing along the coast. Iain climbed the slope of his land grant—approximately 200 acres from the shoreline up and over the rise—and built his house on the hillside. The winds of Creignish must have laughed: legend has it that a driving rainstorm washed that first house down the hill. Legend also has it that Iain vowed that his next home would outlast the winds. And so he set to building a small stone house, with walls two feet thick, a kitchen and a parlour below, and lofts for sleeping above. Dropped on a hillside in Scotland, among the crofters’ cottages, it wouldn’t have looked out of place. Iain named it Moidart, for the place he’d left behind. Here, in this new country, above the waves of St. Georges Bay, he and his wife raised 12 children within the walls that now held the wind at bay.

Lorrie MacKinnon laughs as she pushes the wooden screen door open against the wind to welcome me into her stone cottage. “It’s always windy in Creignish,” she says. And today it is: the gusts scented with salt water and autumn grasses rush past the cottage step towards the driveway and an ancient apple tree blown almost bare, its shiny red fruit still on offer for those who care to reach up into its twisted branches. 

It’s been two centuries since Iain Ruadh (“Red John”) MacMaster vowed that his house would withstand Creignish’s fierce winds, and it has. Perhaps more surprisingly, it has also found its way back into the hands of one of his direct descendants. After the property passed out of the family in the 1930s, Iain’s great-great-great-granddaughter, Lorrie, purchased the cottage in December 2012. In the four years since, she and some talented local craftspeople have worked to restore the stone building to something close to its original beauty. In 2014, Lorrie received Nova Scotia’s most prestigious heritage preservation award for the restoration.

While the cottage now anchors Lorrie to this spot, her connection to Cape Breton Island is a rope woven of the strands of family history and wrapped in her passion for the Gaelic language and culture. You might expect that of someone born and bred on the island, but it was her father’s mother—and her namesake—Lorrie (MacMaster) MacKinnon who was the last of her direct family to have been born a Cape Bretoner. She too, like Iain Ruadh more than a century before her, left her home as an economic migrant, departing the island in 1910 and travelling to Regina for work. There she met Lorrie’s grandfather, another economic migrant, from Antigonish County, N.S. 

Grandmother Lorrie had visited the cottage in the 1920s, to see her aunt and uncle who lived there. Granddaughter Lorrie first saw the stone house in 1987, the year her grandmother died, at age 95. She had been raised all over Canada, but now her father wanted Lorrie and her brother to see the East Coast and his mother’s home island. The family toured the four Atlantic provinces in three weeks. They stopped at Creignish and visited the stone house, by then occupied by a woman named Nellie MacKillop and her son. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, Lorrie’s father said, to bring Moidart back into the family? Still, it wasn’t until a few months later, when a trunk of her grandmother’s belongings arrived at the family home in Ontario, that Lorrie felt a stirring interest in the island of her forebears. Inside the trunk was The Highland Heart in Nova Scotia, a book written by the newspaperman Neil MacNeil in 1948, filled with nostalgic tales of the inhabitants of the island, including stories of the Gaelic-speaking Barra Scots, “who feared neither man nor the devil.” Before long, she was searching out music from the area—the Barra MacNeils, the Rankin Family—and, in 1991, on a summer trip to Cape Breton, she took a language course at the Gaelic College. 

She’s been back every summer since, first as a visitor at local Gaelic cultural celebrations and then as an organizer and contributor to the Christmas Island Féis (pronounced “faysh”), a summer festival of Gaelic songs, stories, and culture. “I’ve been to every one but the first one, 25 so far,” Lorrie says with a wry smile. “I’m a Gaelic keener.” She’s the hostess—in Gaelic, that’s bean-an-taighe—and organizer of the féis’s Wednesday night cultural symposium and the Saturday Gaelic song circle.

Her love of the language has been the glue that has connected her to a wide circle of Cape Breton Island native Gaelic speakers. Many are elderly: Lorrie has more friends in their eighties and nineties than most people not actually of that vintage, and she spends days happily in their company, speaking Gaelic and listening to their songs and stories. “The songs are often so specific to a community, sometimes even to a particular family,” says Lorrie. “It’s sad to think that most communities have no singers left.” Communities like Creignish, she says. “The songs from Creignish are gone, just gone.” 

But the evidence of Creignish’s past is still here, including Lorrie’s family’s cottage. While her father had dreamed of bringing it back into their family, neither he nor Lorrie had held out much hope. The MacKillops, who’d bought the place in the 1930s, were devoted to the community and to the cottage itself. But when the last surviving family member passed away, Lorrie jumped at the opportunity to buy it. 

Over months following that purchase, Lorrie and her craftspeople peeled back two centuries of “improvements” from her cottage’s structure. The stone walls of the kitchen and the wooden-beamed ceiling had been covered with drywall, the ceiling height reduced to under seven feet. The wooden floors of the kitchen had been hidden with then-fashionable linoleum sometime in the mid-20th century; the parlour floor and stairs “upgraded” with orange shag carpet, and in places underneath, the spruce wood had been painted brown, no doubt an ancestor’s proud effort at keeping the home fresh and tidy. An unused cellar crawl space under the kitchen had been packed with insulation, which was soggy and useless by the time Lorrie took possession.

It took three months of deconstruction before Lorrie could decide where to start with restoration. She pitched in where she could, making 10 trips over 20 months from her home in Oakville, Ont. “I didn’t want to outsource everything and just arrive and look at things. I had to have some skin in the game,” she says. “I found a fishing gaff upstairs, put on a haz-mat suit, and pulled the insulation out of the cellar.” She hired Blaise Sampson, a contractor from nearby St. Peter’s, to remove the drywall, the carpet, and the linoleum, taking everything back to the stone walls and wooden beams. Lorrie’s cousin Aneas Gillis and friend Sandra MacPherson helped peel off flowered wallpaper backed with still-legible early-1900s newspapers. The parlour walls and the two-foot-deep window wells were faced with hemlock boards, probably original to the structure. Sampson fastidiously numbered each board so that it could go back in its original spot.

The considerations weren’t simply cosmetic, and the job might have daunted someone without a connection to the property. There was a crack in the back stone wall large enough to put your hand through, and that wall bulged out, its structure—and the building’s, as a result—compromised. The wiring needed to be replaced. The roof needed redoing. Almost all the windows needed replacing. A new septic system and well were required. The heat sources—an oil heater in the parlour and a wood-coal stove in the kitchen—had to go. How much did it cost? “Let’s just say it’ll be an extra 10 years before I retire,” says Lorrie with a laugh.

But there was beauty too. The wooden ceiling beams—likely cut from wood on the property—were rounded, a flourish not often seen in the area’s original humble homes, and bore the distinctive marks of an adze. The stone wall of the perimeter was actually two stone walls, one set inside the other with the gap between filled with rubble, in what Lorrie thinks was an early technique for boosting the warmth of the house. The wooden floor in the parlour was a later addition, purchased from a lumberyard, the yard’s stamp still visible on one of the planks. Upstairs, the roof beams were held in place by wooden pegs. The two dormer windows facing St. Georges Bay had been added almost 100 years after the cottage’s construction and were supported with tree branches, the bark still intact. Next to one dormer, someone had carved the initials AMM; on a wall in the other bedroom, the letters AT were cut into a beam. 

Lorrie’s goal was to honour the cottage’s past while creating a retreat comfortable enough for the present. On the main floor, that meant opening up a tiny bedroom that had been enclosed at the back of the house and sharing that floor space with the parlour. Upstairs, two small bedrooms on the north side became one, that large space mirrored on the other side of the centre stairs, so that the second floor now consists of two large bedrooms, each with a dormer window facing the bay. Throughout, Lorrie left the ceilings exposed to the beams, so that the bedrooms now enjoy cathedral ceilings, while the main floor rooms feel airier. 

And, of course, there was the structural work. Local stonemasons Jerry Burke and Stefan Cernjak spent hours removing silicone and broken mortar, repairing cracks in the walls, and fixing the bulge in the back wall. One side and the front of the cottage had been whitewashed from the 1930s on, with the other walls left bare. The beautiful purple, brown, green, and grey of that bare stone—granite, sandstone, and whatever else its first builders found in the area—convinced Lorrie to have the other exterior walls cleaned back to their natural surfaces. The porch had been sided in aluminum and was structurally sound; inspired by a shingled lean-to in an early photo of the cottage, Lorrie decided to keep the porch but to replace the siding with wood shingles. The original roof had also been shingled in wood, “but the budget had to give somewhere,” says Lorrie, so she decided to use asphalt shingles instead. 

Inside, carpenter David Howe sanded and restored floors and stairs by hand, taking the wood back to its original finish. He recreated a trap door in the parlour to allow access to a second cellar found under the floor. (It was connected to the main cellar, under the kitchen, by a narrow tunnel that Lorrie discovered when she first cleared out the kitchen cellar. “I thought it must lead to another cellar, but was surprised by how much deeper, drier, and tidier the second cellar turned out to be,” she says.) In the bedrooms, Howe suggested enclosing the tops of the stone walls—where they meet a slanted roof, about two feet up from the floor—with hemlock boards rescued from the parlour so that each room’s exterior walls became edged in a wide ledge. The bonus? Wiring that would otherwise be a challenge to place along the stone walls could be hidden beneath the wood. Howe’s contributions didn’t end there: he framed and installed windows and doors, built the kitchen cupboards, did all of the exterior shingling, installed new support beams, replaced flooring, stripped generations of paint from exterior doors, built new screen doors, did all of the interior and exterior painting and varnishing, and more. “Everything he did was done with care, craftsmanship, and excellence,” says Lorrie. “It would have been a completely different outcome without him.” 

Mark Boudreau, a carpenter from nearby Port Hawkesbury, rescued a banister from an old home in Guysborough (across the causeway, on the mainland) and reproduced a missing spindle. He turned his skill to other projects as well: crafting a door from the kitchen to the porch, building a base for a bookshelf, and restoring a wool winder and spinning wheel that Lorrie thinks might have travelled to the cottage from Scotland. 

While Lorrie hoped their work would reveal a working fireplace in the parlour, in fact it revealed simply a hole from the wall into the chimney, probably for a woodstove pipe, with a wooden mantel above it. Rather than install a fireplace, she opted instead to face the wall with stone and put in a woodstove. On the kitchen side, she installed an ancient woodstove once owned by an old friend, Peter MacLean. (David Howe’s wife, Rose, “polished it to perfection,” says Lorrie.) MacLean, a native Gaelic speaker, had died, at age 99, just a month after Lorrie bought the cottage. “He was so excited that I bought it. I’d shown him the surveys of the property that December,” she says. The six-burner stove has a water heater and a warming oven. The handle for lifting the burner covers had been handcrafted by MacLean’s cousin Joe Allan, a blacksmith. “Anything we could reuse, we did,” says Lorrie. Even Mrs. MacKillop’s old upright piano was given a second life: though it was in too poor a shape to rescue as an instrument, they managed to salvage the front of it and repurpose that as a bed headboard. Still, “it felt like murder to dismember it,” says Lorrie, who also saved the ivory keys as keepsakes and replaced the instrument with another she found on Kijiji. 

By October 2014, almost two years after she’d taken possession, Lorrie finally had her first night in the cottage. Since then, she’s been able to return every three months or so—for extended weekends or stays of several weeks, in all seasons and weather. 

While her father passed away before she purchased the property, her mother joins her on some visits. Lorrie’s time there is spent visiting extended family and friends, hiking the local trails and walking the nearby beaches, visiting the farmers’ market in Mabou, and taking in local dances and festivals. A garden she’s added in the last year also occupies her summertime. She’s happy now to have both a home base in Cape Breton and, with the restoration done, the free time to practise the language that once filled the tiny rooms of her ancestral home—and whispers on Creignish’s wind.

Kim Pittaway wrote about strategies for building a dream cottage in the Fall ’15 issue. She lives in Dartmouth, N.S. 

This story initially appeared in our Spring 2017 issue.

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