Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada: The Highland Heart

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The Highland Heart. A large part of the Scottish soul and Celtic heritage of the Maritime Provinces is fostered here.

And it is where my grandmother, affectionately known as my grammy, was born and raised. This happening little college town still manages to capture the quiet, bucolic solitude of an old farming village by the sea. Antigonish, Nova Scotia is billed as Canada’s “Highland Heart”, and you can feel the Scottish history thrumming through the veins of the place. It is a beautiful study in natural contrasts. In Antigonish–pronounced ANT-ig-on-ish–you can travel in moments from the dark rocky beaches of the Northumberland Strait to green, rolling cow pastures to the foothills of the Antigonish Highlands. What can you find here, in this amalgamation of Canadian heritage and Scottish charm? Let’s find out, as we discuss three of the must-see attractions in Antigonish.

1. North America’s Oldest Highland Games

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Antigonish Pipers, Drummers and Bagpipers in competition. Image (c) Wikimedia Commons and the Antigonish 2005 78th Citadel Bagpipers.

Antigonish is home to the oldest continuous Highland Games in North America. This Celtic tradition spans back centuries in Scotland, and traces its Canadian roots to 1863, when funds were being raised for the local St. Ninian’s Cathedral in Antigonish. Each July, thousands visit Antigonish for this tradition steeped in rich Celtic history. Games events include bagpiping, Celtic dancing, biking and foot racing, and other cultural events. My personal favorite is the long list of heavy lifting events, including the caber toss, or “big stick” toss. Competitors must throw a giant log that is up to 150 lbs. in weight, and spear the tall end of it into the ground with precision and accuracy. Yeah, people got bored in Scotland, but it is a tradition that continues today and I’ll be damned if I could even think of lifting and throwing such a thing!

That's right, Scottish men can sure as heck throw a caber. Image (c) Antigonish Highland Games.
That’s right, Scottish men can sure as heck throw a caber. Image (c) Antigonish Highland Games.

 2. St. Francis Xavier University (St. FX)

This world-renowned university was voted several years in a row as Canada’s #1 Undergraduate University. The homey spirit of Antigonish’s scenery and culture combines with unparalleled research and a dedicated undergraduate faculty to provide an awesome college experience. As if that wasn’t good enough, their mascot is the “X-Men” and all graduating seniors receive a respected X-Ring as a part of their culminating university experience. It’s a beautiful residential campus with close proximity to Antigonish’s growing hip culture and downtown eateries.

Lower campus at St. FX. Image (c) Wikimedia Commons. Brendan Riley.
Lower campus at St. FX. Image (c) Wikimedia Commons. Brendan Riley.

A special shout-out to my cousins who call this university their alma mater! And if you are on campus, check out The Wheel, a local pizza place and sub shop that serves its pizza with donair sauce–a kind of Mediterranean cucumber sauce that ¬†also goes fantastic with The Wheel’s actual donairs–or Turkish kebab sandwiches.

3. The natural beauty of the countryside, including Cape George and Arisaig Provincial Fossil Park

My grammy grew up in Big Marsh, a rural spot on the map in Cape George, just north of Antigonish town proper. There are so many nooks of natural splendor to explore along the cape, both coastal and inland. My favorite is Arisaig Provincial Park, where ancient fossil trilobites and other extinct sea creatures are prolific. Please be aware that the fossils here are protected under Provincial and National laws, and removal of any fossils is prohibited. But it is still a great opportunity to explore what used to be an ancient Silurian sea, 435 million years ago–that’s 200 million years before the first dinosaurs!

Tara, true to her nature, seeking fossils to inspect at Arisaig. Image (c) Outbound Adventurer
Tara, true to her nature, seeking fossils to inspect at Arisaig. Image (c) Outbound Adventurer
Driftwood at Arisaig, juxtaposed against the dark mudstones of the ancient warm seas of the Ordovician and Silurian Periods, and a backdrop of the Northumberland Strait. Image (c) Outbound Adventurer
Driftwood at Arisaig, juxtaposed against the dark mudstones of the ancient warm seas of the Ordovician and Silurian Periods, and a backdrop of the Northumberland Strait. Image (c) Outbound Adventurer
A closer look at Arisaig's position within Cape George. Image (c) Outbound Adventurer
A closer look at Arisaig’s position within Cape George. Image (c) Outbound Adventurer
The geological formations of Nova Scotia. Arisaig is well within the Ordovician- and Silurian-aged strata that was once an ancient sea. Image (c) Outbound Adventurer
The geological formations of Nova Scotia. Arisaig is well within the Ordovician- and Silurian-aged strata that was once an ancient sea. Image (c) Outbound Adventurer

Do you have a special travel destination that evokes nostalgia? Family living afar? Tell us about your favorite family homesteads and vacation places below!

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