In May 2011, after four years of life on McNutt's Island, we moved to Montreal. This blog remains, though, as a (sort of) daily record of our time on the island, and a winding path for anyone who would like to meander about among its magical places. For additional perspectives and insights I recommend Greg's book, Island Year: Finding Nova Scotia (2010), and my Bowl of Light (2012). I'll continue to post once in a while. If you do want to read this blog, one option would be to begin at the beginning of it (which is, as we all know, in blog-world, at the end), and read forward, concluding with the most recent entry. It's a journal, really, so it does makes more sense if you read it that way. But, you know, read it any way you like.

Friday, October 29, 2010

first day of the season

It's a tranquil scene today. The fierce winds have vanished and the island is surrounded by a serene and peaceful sea.
But from within the forest echo the ominous sounds of gun shots.
Today is the first day of deer hunting season.
Danger lurks deep in these dark woods.
The hens confer. Well, three of the hens confer. The topic of today's conference: do hunters shoot chickens?
Their brave commander flies to her battlement, from whence she will keep watch. Though she might do better to look in the direction of the forest. Behind her.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

cranberry walkabout

On the south side of the island, hoping for cranberries, I picked up the ghostly track of an ATV. Maybe it was our own from this time last year. I doubt if anyone has come there since. I followed it, walking through a low scrum of bayberry and juniper and cotton grass and dried fern, around stands of spruce and up a gentle crest. Surrounded by the forest and the sea and hidden in a low place, the bog becomes visible only when you are upon it. Like so much on the island, if you don't know where to look you will only discover it by accident. And if, having found it, you fail to take sufficient note of where you are, you may not find it again.

Once I was in the bog I tiptoed about in my rubber boots, a curious giantess, and bent down and squatted so I could peer closely at this world. Everywhere I looked I saw the basal leaves of the pitcher plant, plump veined red teacups. Each one now held a thimble-full of some dark shining brew. The pitcher plant seems to have had a very good year in this bog. I might have come upon the last touches for an end-of-season tea-party about to be tossed by the local fairies for a few invited flies. While I admired the cunning place-settings, the guests, abuzz, were at home donning their iridescent wings and polishing their heads.

Even though it is a small enough place -- maybe four or five acres altogether -- and even though you can see all the way across it no matter where you are standing, still, it's easy to lose your way in the bog. Somehow you are never quite where you had thought you were. You look up from peering into its watery pathways and glinty pools and rumpled velvet moss to find yourself somewhere else entirely. How did I get over here when I was just over there, you wonder. I think there may be some shape-shifting that befalls the bog visitor, which can be disconcerting unless you begin to go with it.

It is easy to forget that, like a reasonable person, I have come here for a reason. I remember from last year's search that to see these cranberries I will need to adjust my expectations. I won't be looking for the colour we call cranberry. Instead, I'm after a glimpse of dull purplish bloom only a few shades darker than the pitcher plant's teacups. I remember Peter's rule for seeing whales in the summer. "Go up to the lighthouse four or five times in July," he said, "and look out to sea, and I guarantee you, if you do that four or five times, on one of those trips you'll see a whale."

Peter's rule applies to cranberries too (and maybe to other things as well). I spied one, then another, then another, until I had gathered a handful in my cupped palm. If I bent down to look four or five times, on one of those times I'd begin to find them lying quietly about here and there, attached to a delicate green thread, a dark jewel set on a bracelet of tiny green leaves, bog treasure.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

wanted: fifty hogsheads of lime

An announcement in the local newspaper at the beginning of 1787 requests bids to build the lightkeeper's dwelling house at Cape Roseway. There's also a request for proposals for fifty hogsheads of lime delivered to the Landing-place on McNutt's Island. I think that this is the same landing place that would come to be called Ross's Landing. Shelburne merchant George Ross bought Lot No. 1 from Loyalist grantee Moses Pitcher a few months later, as the work on the lighthouse was gearing up. The provincially funded lighthouse project would have been a boon to Shelburne's economy at a time when the fortunes of the town were already receding.

This image is courtesy of Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management. To read more, visit NSARM's virtual exhibit of Nova Scotia Historical Newspapers.

Monday, October 25, 2010

pale grey day

The sky is pale grey today. The lighthouse almost vanishes,
as if it were only a ghost of a lighthouse now

instead of the real thing.

Friday, October 22, 2010

a burial ground in the back orchard

Myrtle Goulden Demings, who lives directly across the western channel in Carleton Village, grew up in this house and has so many interesting memories about the island. She could write a book! Her parents bought this property around 1910 and her family lived here until the 1950s. Myrtle married a young soldier who was stationed at Fort McNutt, George Gribble. After the war, George became the assistant lightkeeper at Cape Roseway, and Myrtle and George and their infant daughter Bernice lived at the lighthouse.

Myrtle told me that there are some old graves here, where we now live. Her father always told the children not to play in the southeastern corner of the back orchard, because people were buried there. But even back when Myrtle was a child, there were no obvious markings for any graves, she told me. They had been worn away long before that, I guess.
It helps to date the graves that they are inside the boundary of the stone wall. Moses Pitcher was granted this land in 1785, and when he sold it to George Ross in 1787, for nineteen pounds and eight shillings and four pence, it was sold with improvements and the buildings erected thereon. In those days anyone who was granted land was expected to make improvements within a specified amount of time, or else they could lose their grant. One of the main improvements would have been clearing stones, and one way you cleared stones was to build walls out of them. (Another way was just to throw them into piles off to the side of a field for the time being. We have some of those, too.)

It was not uncommon in the Shelburne area to bury the dead on the land where they died. Cemeteries were few and far between in those days. And people were not so squeamish about death. It was more an integrated part of life back then than it is today.

So this small burial ground -- maybe containing one or two people -- is likely to date from sometime after Moses Pitcher made improvements to his fifty acres. After George Ross bought the property in 1787 this place was called Ross's Landing. Ross may have used it as a staging and storage place for supplies that were brought onto the island, and maybe as a fish-drying place. Ross was a Shelburne merchant and one of the few who stayed in business after the town went downhill. Just before his death in 1816 he sold this property to Dorcas Thomson, the wife of his business partner.

Neither George Ross nor Dorcas Thomson would have lived on McNutt's. Their business was conducted from town. But Andrew Lightbody did live here, from the late 1780s probably until his death in 1816. An 1823 deed says that Andrew Lightbody was "in possession" of the property before Thomas and Mary Barrow owned it.

Andrew may have been a disbanded soldier of the 42nd Highland Regiment of Foot, a Scot like Ross. It may have been Andrew and his wife Mary and young daughter Margaret who settled here in 1787 or thereabouts, to oversee the Ross concerns on the island and to continue to clear and improve this property as tenant farmers.

The building of the lighthouse began in 1788, a few months after Ross bought this property. The lighthouse was completed in late 1790. Andrew could well have been the man who made sure that supplies reached the lighthouse site from Ross's Landing. He received a substantial payment of over fifteen pounds on January 7, 1790 from its builders for having taken care of the lighthouse "to this day."

Andrew died in 1816, and sometime soon afterward Thomas and Mary Barrow became the property owners. They lived here as farmers until the early 1830s when Jonathan and Martha Perry came to live and raise their brood of children.
Until I'm able to do more research I can only guess that someone from the Lightbody or Barrow households is buried in that corner of the back orchard. I'm certain there will be another chapter to this story as I find out more. But for now, I'm so grateful to Myrtle for sharing this amazing piece of knowledge, which I never could have known about otherwise.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

autumn landscape

There were twenty contented sheep in the lower orchard on Monday.The bog, meanwhile, is showing off its prettiest colours.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

road crew reinforcements

McNutt's Island does have a road crew. It's an assortment of people, mostly Lyndon or Skipper or Mark or Cliff and since we moved here, Greg, who go out with a chainsaw and open up the road again whenever a tree falls across it, which happens now and then, especially after a high wind. The road crew is not the least bit organized and maybe because of that it does excellent work.

But sometimes even the most dedicated road crew needs reinforcements. There are places where huge crowds of alders jump up off the side of the road when they see you coming and wave their branches in your face and generally act all wild and crazy. They have gotten out of hand. They had to be cut down to size.
Ken Taylor, captain of Browneyed Girl, got the ball rolling when he brought his bush cutter to the island and spent days and days clearing the road's edges, starting at the government wharf.
Then Randy VanBuskirk brought his dad's big rig over
with the help of his friends Wade Pennell (right) and and Lee Rodgerson (left).
I can't imagine what it took to put this scary monster on Randy's boat and then get it off again, twice. Its fearsome blade does a terrific job of cutting back whatever is in its path, and Randy is constantly adjusting its angle so it misses nothing.
After these big-time reinforcements the road will be back in the hands of the sturdy regulars and their simple tool of choice.

Friday, October 15, 2010

looking for a place in Halifax for January to March

Dear Reader,
Greg and I are hoping we can find some sort of house-sitting situation in Halifax for January to March, or some part of that time. Maybe you might know of a place.

I would use that time at the Public Archives to work on a history of the lighthouse. Being in Halifax for an extended time is really necessary for this project, which I am passionate about. Greg would probably spend the time writing and revising his manuscript for a next book about our island life. So you see we would be very quiet and well-behaved house-sitters. We can also walk dogs and care for cats and water plants and forward mail, and we are, for the most part, fairly responsible people. Although we are island hermits we are able to clean ourselves up sufficiently to pass muster in the big city.
I would love to find something near enough to the Archives (at University and Robie) to be able to walk there. But really we would be delighted with any situation in town, since I'm sure there's a bus.

If you can think of any leads I hope you'll let me know, at


Monday, October 11, 2010

a day of gratitude

Today is Thanksgiving Day in Canada, even though it seems like people actually celebrate by getting together for a big meal on the Sunday before it -- yesterday. Maybe that's only true of the little slice of Canada we know anything about, which would be Carleton Village and Gunning Cove.

Among many, many other things, today we are thankful that our boat, Chopper I, wasn't more seriously damaged when she grounded in the cove on the rocks in high winds on Saturday.
Skipper says we can be grateful that she is a Rosborough hull, renowned for its strength. In which case we are grateful to Skipper for finding Chopper I for us in the first place. We are also grateful that our neighbours Skipper and Jim both came racing over in their skiffs to Greg's rescue, and that our neighbour Robin helped later that night-- in darkness and continued strong winds -- when the tide was high enough for Chopper to get towed over to Skipper's dock.
Then grateful to Skipper for looking her over yesterday and working out the slight propeller damage. And for dropping off sea trout he pulled out of the gill net. Those high winds did bring some good things into the cove after all.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Greg has been very industrious in the department of canning.
He has made apple butter, three kinds of apple sauce, pear chutney, apple chutney, grape jam, strawberry preserves, apple jelly, and pickled peppers. I love to stand in the breezeway and admire it all. I'm especially entranced by four quart jars of brandied whole pears.

We picked the pears two weeks ago and they are gradually becoming ripe enough to use. After they are off the tree, they take a while to ripen and you just have to guess how they are doing since they keep it under their hats. Then they are perfect for a day or two, but secretly, then they descend into mealy blandness followed quickly by mushy rottenness. Also they are individualists and do not do any of this evolving as a group. So if you have, say, two or three hundred pears you will have two or three hundred different schedules for becoming mush.
But this year, for the first time, we have finally begun to outsmart the pears. So now besides the brandied pears and the pear chutney there are pear tarts in the freezer and fresh pears to eat and soon pear cider, which is called perry, which is so clever since this house was built by Perrys.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

the black pilots who went to Sierra Leone from Birchtown

In late 1791, John Clarkson arrived in Birchtown from London to tell that community -- then the largest community of free blacks in North America -- about the prospect of resettlement in Sierra Leone. The response was enormous. Life in Nova Scotia had not been kind for these former slaves who had already overcome such extraordinary barriers in their quest for freedom. Perhaps what the Sierra Leone Company was offering them would, at last, be the realization of that goal they had already risked everything to gain. To many people of Birchtown, Clarkson's offer was worth making another huge leap of faith, leaving behind again anything they had so labouriously put together for themselves over nearly a decade of back breaking work and sailing again across the sea, this time for the west coast of Africa.
The names of the heads of household are inscribed in a document entitled "List of the blacks in Birch Town who gave in their names for Sierra Leone in November, 1791."
The name of well-known religious leader David George heads the list. It's likely that the following names are in some order of precedence or association. David George was the leader of the Baptist congregation in Shelburne, and it is possible that those households listed beneath his are also members of that congregation.

James Robertson, one of the four black pilots who had been granted Lot 23 on McNutt's Island, is listed as number seventeen. Here he describes himself as being 52 years old, born in Virginia, and travelling to Sierra Leone with his wife. But although James and Betsey had traveled to Nova Scotia in 1783 with a son, James Robertson, age two and a half, described in The Book of Negroes as a "small boy," no children are going with them to Sierra Leone. It's most likely that in November 1791 young James lies in the common burying ground at Birchtown.

When asked his occupation, James the elder describes himself as both a pilot and a farmer. It's possible that he has continued to work as a pilot in Shelburne Harbour. None of the pilots was listed in the 1784 Muster Book of Free Blacks in Birchtown, a list intended to provide accurate information for the distribution of the King's Bounty at a time when widespread hardship required the material support of basic food supplies for both black and white. That the pilots were not listed in the muster roll suggests that they were not in need then. Remember that the four pilots and their families had arrived in Shelburne in May of 1783, in one of the first ships, under the wing of the influential and powerful Captain Henry Mowat.

In November 1791 James is the owner of a fifty acre lot, well improved, with a house. He will need to sell this property before he and Betsey leave Shelburne, though the price of such property will be depressed by the number of people who are in the same situation. It will be a buyer's market. James will have little room to negotiate, and likely it will be Stephen Skinner (or some other astute local businessman) who picks up the property for a very good price.
On the last of the five pages we find Richard Leach, age 38, born in Virginia, travelling with his wife and three children. Dick/Richard Leich/Leach was another of the four pilots who traveled together to Shelburne with their extended families, all under the patronage of Captain Mowat, and who were granted a share in Lot 23 on McNutt's Island.

Richard Leach here gives his occupation as farmer. He owns no land, though, so he was probably working as a tenant farmer for some large landowner such as Gideon White. A few months after the exodus White complained that eight black tenant families have left him to go to Sierra Leone.

It's an extraordinarily moving experience to look at the names of these two pilots as they prepare to seize this unexpected chance at a better life for themselves and their families, in Africa. I still don't know whether they ever lived on McNutt's Island. But I imagine they did, at least, come over to walk the bounds of Lot 23, and to look out at the sea from that great height along the island's southeastern edge, that small slice of rocky Nova Scotia ground which was, for a little while anyway, their own.

"List of the blacks in Birch Town who gave in their names for Sierra Leone in November 1791" can be viewed along with other documents at the website of Cassandra Pybus, author of Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Global Quest for Liberty. The Pybus website does not give basic resource information about the document. It looks as if it is to be found at CO 217/63, f.361 ff.

For more on the black pilots and their historical context, you can go to the label "black pilots" and read through.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

a most bountiful bounty

Eleanor and Ira, who have a camp on the eastern side of the island near the lighthouse, came by for a visit this week. Ira brought me some scarlet runner beans from his garden at home on Cape Sable Island. They are for planting in my garden next summer. What an inspiration! These beans make me want to pay more attention to all the seeds I plant next year. I think as I'm narrowing down what I want to plant I'll be able to get everything I need from Nova Scotia seed companies. That would be another step toward local eating.
I haven't finished putting this year's garden to bed yet. There are still tomatoes ripening out there, potatoes to be dug, red kale, dill, a late harvest of mesclun (and -- oh, no! more beans) and even a bit of summer squash.

Our freezer is packed with squash soup and various other delicious meals already made, and swiss chard and collards and kale and of course serious amounts of beans, as well as island foods that came from beyond the garden:
applesauce, dehydrated apples, apple tarts, apple bread, fresh apple cider, wild raspberries, chanterelles, mackerel and mutton.
And, from off the island, these fabulous wild blueberries Skipper brought back all the way from Advocate Harbour. It's almost ridiculous how well we eat. We do spend a lot of time growing, foraging, harvesting and processing. But that's all part of the interest and fun.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

low tide in the cove

Yesterday afternoon was good for rowing in the cove. For a little while, anyway. Low tide reveals the intertidal rockweed that frames the shore in gold and bronze and jade. This view takes in some of the land next to ours. It's now woods and an old field where the hotel once stood. The trees near the water are filled with warblers and chickadees, though we can't see them from out here in the cove.
Our flag pole is a former wooden mast from Skipper's boat. At the end of the summer Greg reluctantly takes down our flag, which constant wind has reduced to half its original size. Here's a good view of the crib dock at low tide. Way off in the distance on the left you can see the tiny blotch of white that is Sandy Point Lighthouse, guarding the entrance to Shelburne's inner harbour. It looks like it's sitting on The Horseshoe. But it's really far beyond it.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

harvest and culling

The shepherds arrived on Saturday to gather the sheep into the pens. That's really an all day job, walking from one end of this two thousand acre island to the other, sometimes more than once. They returned on Sunday to walk from the lighthouse to the sheep pen again with the stragglers they had missed the day before, to collect the few northern sheep who had remained at large on Saturday, and then to take the designated ewes and lambs off the island.

When I walked down to the sheep pens to take pictures I just missed Leroy, his nephew Taylor, and their neighbour Parker. They had gone off in the skiff with the dogs to pick up a couple of lambs they had spotted near the Horseshoe. But I didn't know that until later. I thought Greg had taken pictures but he was busy with provisioning the crew and trying to get various recalcitrant vehicles to start up. So I don't have any pictures of the shepherds actually doing their work. You can see the pictures from last year here, though. But Taylor and Parker are such adorable guys (and of course Leroy, too) that I'm sorry I don't have pictures of them.
Last year Leroy explained to me that I had used the word culling too broadly. "We harvest the lambs," he said, "and we cull the ewes." He and Mary were pleased that their more extensive culling and harvesting a year ago seemed to bear fruit this year. It was a smaller flock that overwintered, and so the new lambs are bigger. (There are other factors to consider too, like the weather and how devoted the rams are to their purpose in life, which is not after all to laze about and eat birdseed. The size of the flock is the easiest factor to control, though. A smaller flock will have more to graze on.)
The d'Entremonts continued to winnow down the flock this fall.
The goal is gradually to increase the overall size and condition of the fall harvest lambs by leaving only the healthiest and most productive ewes on the island and by continuing to introduce Scottish Blackface traits.
Yes, the lambs are adorable. Especially when they look at you in that soulful way of theirs.
But sheep raising is a business, and raising wild sheep on the islands is a particularly traditional form of it.
It's hard work, and it involves a lot of risk, and many years of patient investment.
I don't know if anybody else is doing it on these offshore islands except Leroy and Mary. It's an important and endangered part of Nova Scotia's heritage and culture, and so the flock of wild sheep on McNutt's is really a benefit to the whole province.

I have written quite a lot about the island's sheep over the past two years. If you'd like to have look at the whole story thus far, you can go to the label "wild island sheep." Some of the entries are brief and others try to add some history or context.