This small East Coast community is the whirligig capital of Canada

A lobster whirligig in a backyard garden Photo by Vanessa Chiasson

The rural community of Shelburne, N.S., is famed for its dories—flat-bottom wooden fishing boats that revolutionized the fishing industry. However, these handcrafted vessels aren’t the only woodworking project in town. Shelburne is also Canada’s whirligig capital!

Whirligigs are colourful garden accessories with spinning components. The word “whirligig” is a funny one, and it brings to mind other charming sounds, such as “thingamabob” and “doohickey,” but these silly creations are taken very seriously in Shelburne. If you buy one in Nova Scotia, there’s an excellent chance that it comes from master dory builder Milford Buchanan and the team at the Dory Shop Museum.

The Dory Shop Museum honours Shelburne’s seafaring heritage. While the modern fishing industry has little demand for dory boats, the museum keeps busy making for collectors and cottagers who want a pleasure boat and tourists eager to see a demonstration of the area’s famed woodworking. But even in the hands of a frugal craftsman like Buchanan, there are ample wood scraps to use up, and, in Shelburne, they become whirligigs.

Nautical themes are common among whirligig designs, and you’ll see depictions of tiny dory boats where the whirling component is the oars or ducks with spinning wings. During my last visit to the beautiful gift shop at the Shelburne County Museum, I picked up a bright red lobster whirligig, a gentle means of trolling my husband, who is allergic to Nova Scotia’s favourite food.

So do whirligigs serve any practical purpose? Well, that depends on who you ask. There’s some thought that the spinning arms might deter some garden pests, but the evidence for that is shaky at best. Others say that the whirligigs transmit vibrations into the ground to repel burrowing rodents. However, if the joyful family of voles that inhabit my garden is any indication, they love whirligigs as much as I do. I think we can safely conclude that the main job of the whirligig is to add whimsy to a garden. It’s not hard to imagine how early fishermen, whose houses were economical and whose finances were tight, used these inexpensive pieces of folk art to bring beauty and personality to their homes.

At Shelburne’s annual Whirligig and Weathervane festival, you can enjoy whirligigs in all their colourful glory. While you’re there, pop over to the Dory Shop Museum to take in a boat building demonstration. Taking place this year on September 16th and 17th, the festival is two days of creative fun filled with gorgeous carvings and the chance to explore other art forms. Perhaps you’ll be inspired to design a whirligig for your own garden!

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