“Do you want a feed of Smelts?” is still commonly heard in many areas of Atlantic Canada and it is usually closely followed by the question “are they cleaned”? Mum did not enjoy cleaning fish and wild game. Knowing the cooking would fall to her, she was quick to quashed the idea that she would be cleaning it too. Most of what needed cleaning, gutting and trimming was fish. In summer salmon and trout, during winter and early spring smelts1, followed by shad and other migratory fish.
The rhythm of life in rural communities of the North east is dictated in part by weather, and by the seasons, although not as much as in the past… For Early European settlers, the line between success and failure was narrow and the stakes high. Access to food, year round access was a primary driver of where people settled, timber played its part, ship building too, but fish, access to it, represented both food and income.
Britain’s settlement of Canada came after a protracted period of conflict and war, which in its own way proved beneficial to early Scottish settlers. Military service with the British was a practical reality for many poor young men from across the United Kingdom including from Ireland and Scotland during the 18th and early 19th century. Despite the apparent contradiction of loyalty, economic and social reality saw large numbers of Lowland and Highland Scots serving with British units overseas including in North America. Many of those who settled in the colonies after their service remained loyal during the American Revolutionary war, eventually taking land grants in Atlantic Canada and elsewhere.
It is hardly surprising that young men, motivated by the real possibility they would be granted land for their service, were thrilled to find terrain and waterways strikingly similar to home. The timber covered hillsides, lush river valley’s, sheltered bays and inlets, lakes and sea lochs with plenty of fish and game of Atlantic Canada inspired many. What is surprising, is not that information was gathered, but that it was sufficiently detailed, despite the absence of written descriptions or maps to direct the movement and settlement of early settlers.
Margaret McDougall Currie was born in Isle St Jean (Prince Edward Island) about 1778. Margaret’s husband Duncan Currie’s family, originally of South Uist, Scotland, like the McDougalls were among the passengers of the Brig Alexander who landed on John MacDonald’s property Lot 36, Isle St. Jean in July of 1772.
When the entire Currie family, including Margaret and Duncan relocated to Isle Royale (Cape Breton) about 1812, it is entirely likely they had some prior knowledge of where they were heading. The sheltered, fertile and accessible land they choose to settle might well have been ‘picked out’ years earlier as a good place to live by someone connected to the family. It is possible one of the Currie family might themselves, have visited the island while in service of the crown.
The property, located at the Eastern end of Grand Bra D’or, had everything a good Scottish family could need, arable land for crops and livestock, access to fish and game, and waterways for transportation and access to family and friends. Most importantly, the land was freehold, and they would own it. Soon they would be joined by friends and family from Isle St John, and Pictou but also from Scotland.
Anna Annie Brown McDonald was born about 1777, after her parents William Brown and Agnes Taylor Brown moved to New Brunswick from Scotland via Dorset. The Brown’s, along with most of Agnes’ siblings, the Taylor family were among the settlers to the lands of William Davidson on Miramichi bay and the Miramichi river system. Annie grew up near what would become the shipbuilding center of Chatham, NB, at the mouth of the Miramichi River. When she married Alexander McDonald she moved to Point Aux Carr further down on Miramichi Bay, where Alexander had been granted land.
The 42nd Highland Regiment of Foot (The Blackwatch), one of three British Highland regiments2 which served during the Revolutionary war, was first deployed to North America during the French Indian Wars. The Blackwatch saw service in many of the major battles of French Indian War, Seven years War and the American Revolutionary War including in Atlantic Canada.
Anne’s husband Alexander McDonald Jr. was born in Staten Island, NY while his father Alexander Sr. (wife and family) served with the 42nd. At the end of the Revolutionary War Alexander Sr. along with other members of his unit were granted land in the Nashwaak river valley in New Brunswick. The decision by many of the 42nd Highlander veterans to relocate to land grants elsewhere was driven by several factors, better lots with water access and a desire to locate near kin included. Many of the 42nd highlanders relocated to new grants on the Miramichi, some immediately, other families made the move later.
For early settlers, a community of others could mean the difference between life and death. The struggle and hardship of clearing land, building shelter and cultivating crops from dense forest, stretching from beach to hill top was made easier and possible by sharing resources and working together.
When Margaret and Duncan moved their family to East Bay, Cape Breton it is likely the move was made over time. During summer the hard work of clearing land, building shelter, cultivating the first crop of potatoes and laying the ground work for other crops was carried out. Being able to retreat to established communities with kin for the winter months made settlements of new areas possible.
It is possible Margaret and Duncan enjoyed the benefit of much shorter trip to over winter with Margaret’s sister Mary and Hugh McEachern in Inverness. It is certainly true that settlement of areas of Cape Breton more distant from the established communities in Isle St Jean and Pictou took longer to be settled. The first wave beginning as early as the mid 1770, settlers to East Bay on the Bra D’Or lakes arriving 30 or so years later.
Despite the bounty of food Miramichi Bay and the Bra D’Or Lakes provided in summer, despite settlers efforts to preserve their summers harvest, and with a supportive community, winter was difficult for early settlers. Ice and snow effectively shuts down harvest of wild fish and game for much of the winter season. In late winter and early spring Miramichi bay and areas of the Bra D’Or lakes begin to team with schools of fish preparing for a run up their fresh water spawning grounds. One species in particular could be depended upon to congregate and run… the earliest fish to arrive, is a family of small fish which are familiar to most in North Atlantic region, Smelt. During spawning season they make their way from the ocean into most fresh water systems, lakes and rivers in both Europe and North America… and are welcomed by the winter weary.
The My Mother’s Cookbooks recipe for a Feed of Smelts…
Whole smelts, cleaned with head removed.
Salt and Pepper
Butter and oil
1. Combine flour, and seasonings together in a wide shallow bowl;
2. Dust each smelt in flour, shake well to remove excess flour;
3. Heat butter and oil in a large frying pan, over medium high heat until butter and oil shimmers in the pan;
4. Place smelts in pan and fry until light brown and crispy, turning half way thru; until flesh is no longer translucent (internal temperature of 140-145 F).
5. Serve with boiled potatoes and other root vegetables. Garnished with a bit of Green Tomato Chow chow and enjoy.
1. Smelts – Are a family of small fish which are native to both the North Atlantic and North Pacific Oceans and in fresh water rivers and lakes in North America, Northern Asia and Europe. The specific species common to the waters of North America is Rainbow smelt.
2. Highland Regiments serving during the American Revolutionary War: The 42nd Royal Highland Regiment; 71st Regiment of Foot (Frasers Highlanders); 76th Reginment of Foot (MacDonalds Highlanders) were the 3 Highland units to serve in North America during the Revolutionary war, they were joined by Highland units raised in America including the North Carolina Highlanders and the Royal Highland Emigrants (the 84th Highland) Regiment. There were Scottish Regiments comprised primarily of Lowland Scots, which served during the war as well.
3. Green Tomato Chow chow is a pickled relish made of green tomatoes, onions and spices. It is not entirely clear how Chow Chow came to be, one of the first printed recipes appeared in the Harriet Pinckney Horry cookbook of 1770 in South Carolina. Tomatoes were largely unknown to Scottish, Irish and English settlers who were at suspicious of unfamiliar fruit and its rumoured poisonious nature. It would take time for it to become popular with folks in Atlantic Canada, probably encouraged by the region’s trade with the West Indies.
Acknowledgement: I acknowledge that the land on which I live and write about is the traditional unceded territory of the Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) and Mi’kmaq Peoples. This territory is covered by the “Treaties of Peace and Friendship” which Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) and Mi’kmaq Peoples first signed with the British Crown in 1725. The treaties did not deal with surrender of lands and resources but in fact recognized Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) title and established the rules for what was to be an ongoing relationship between nations.