There is no direct evidence of Mi’kmaq settlements in Lochaber, but they were certainly well aware of Lochaber and undoubtedly took advantage of the abundant fish, game and other available resources. The first known European to visit Lochaber was a Pictou area hunter who spent time living with the Mi’kmaq, and who in 1795, while on a hunting expedition, was introduced to the area. However, it was not until 1810 that the first Europeans settled in Lochaber. They were from the Lochaber (Loch Abar in gaelic) area of Highland Scotland and named their new community for the area that they had called home before coming to Nova Scotia. They were followed by other Scots, predominantly Highlanders along with a few Lowlanders, most of whom settled around the intervales and lower hills toward the north end of the lake. The next influx of settlers were Irish Catholics from Kerry & Kilkenny, who centered their community along the east side about one half the way down the lake.
The Lochaber area of Nova Scotia has always possessed a certain magical beauty that has never failed to entrance residents and visitors alike. In June of 1830 Joseph Howe first visited the area and immediately fell in love with what he described as “…ancient woods were scarcely broken upon on either margin, and the whole scene was a beautifully wild as it had been a thousand years before.” In July of 1832 he started writing his poem Acadia which captured much of the magic he first saw on his initial visit.
A return visit in September of 1833 brought with it dismay at the encroachment of civilization with Howe noting that “…clearings are making and log houses are building in every direction”. By this time the beginnings of what was to become a flourishing farm district were obvious and Howe finished the verses of Acadia that dwelt largely on the magnificent beauty of Lochaber that stayed with him even three years after his first visit.
Lake of the woods, the forest’s gentle bride —
It is thy lot to be; Life’s bubbling stream
Must cease ere I forget the vivid dream
Of olden time, that tranced me as I stood,
Beneath the shadow of thine ancient wood.
Fresh is the vision—yes I see thee yet,
A sparkling Diamond in an Emerald set.
The morning’s sun illumes thy placid wave
Where chaste Diana might her beauties lave,
Nor fear to be observed—so deep—profound
The lulling stillness that prevails around.
Winding, in graceful folds, ’twixt hills that rise
On either side, the fair Lochaber lies.
Now to the eye its glowing charms revealed,
Now, like a bashful Beauty, half concealed
Beneath the robe of spotless green she wears,
The rich profusion of a thousand years.
No axe profane has touched a single bough,
No sod has yet been broken by the plough;
Far down the ancient trees reflected lie
Stem, branch, and leaf, like fairy tracery
Wove round the homes of some enchanting race,
The guardian nymphs of this delightful place.
It is hard to imagine what life must have been like for those first settlers. They arrived in Nova Scotia with only what they could carry with them, and had to somehow prepare themselves to make it through their first winter here. They would have had to clear a patch of land to grow perhaps a few potatoes and a little wheat among the stumps, plus build themselves a home. If they did manage to acquire some livestock, how did they feed and house it? There are many stories about the hardships they faced, but if one tries to put oneself in their situation, it’s difficult to envisage how they managed to survive.
Those people were, if nothing else, industrious, God-fearing and persevering. After what had to have been a few hardscrabble years, they were able to move from survival mode toward improving the quality of their lives. Two very important aspects of their lives were religion and education. It wasn’t long until establishing churches and schools became a priority.
The Scottish settlers were generally Presbyterians, but they belonged to two factions known as the “Kirk” and the “Free Church”. Each group built a chuch, with the buildings across the road from each other, roughly mid way between Lochaber and Loch Katrine. Services at one church were subject to acrimonious interruptions from the other church as each tried to outpreach or outsing the other. Then in 1867 Rev. J. F. Forbes arrived in Lochaber. Under his leadership the Presbyterians built two new “twin” churches, one in Lochaber, the other in Loch Katrine. These two churches, completed in 1869, served the reunited Presbyterians. The Lochaber church was known as Chalmers Presbyterian Church. The 1925 union of the Presbyterian, Congregational and Methodist Churches to form the United Church of Canada was not welcomed by the Chalmers congregation. Those wishing to join the United Church built their own church, Lochaber United Church, and the two protestant congregations co-existed until Chalmers chuch was destroyed by fire on May 31, 1950 at which time the congregations reunited for a second time. Lochaber United continues to operate to this day.
Originally, the nucleus of the Roman Catholic parish was formed by those immigrants from Ireland who settled on farms near the chapel. The first Roman Catholic chapel at Lochaber was built about 1830 and, although it has not been officially documented, it is believed that it blew down. It was replaced by a second smaller church in 1857. In 1878 this chapel was renovated and enlarged and, on September of that year St. Patrick’s Church was dedicated by Bishop Camerom. Part of the 1857 chapel was preserved and serves as the vestry of St. Patrick’s. Alignment of the parish at Lochaber has changed over the years. It began as a part of the Antigonish parish. In 1820 it was assigned to St. Andrews. Then from 1843 to 1853 it was under the West River, Ohio pastor. Except for a brief period (1853 – 1857) when it reverted to St. Andrews, it remained under Ohio until 1896 when Lochaber got its first resident pastor.
Lochaber began as a predominantly mixed farming and forestry community, with the products consumed within the community but, over time, small family industries sprang up to supply the needs of the farmers and foresters and process their products. By the second half of the nineteenth century there were several blacksmith shops, grist mills, and saw mills as well as carriage shops, a shingle mill, a tannery and a lime kiln. Also trades people such as carpenters, cobblers, coopers, tailors and seamstresses could be found scattered throughout the community. Although most of the farms were mixed, some farmers began to specialize to a degree. For example, one farmer operated a large orchard which supplied fruit to a large area beyond the confines of Lochaber. There were general stores, several post offices and ferries to transport passengers back and forth across the lake.
Because of Lochaber’s location, roughly half way between Antigonish and Sherbrooke, it became a stop along the way for stage coaches making the trip between the two towns. A hotel and associated livery provided meals and overnight accomodations for travelers and a change of horses for the coaches. In addition to passengers, the coaches also carried mail and small cargo items.
With the advent of motor vehicles in the early 1900s, the complexion of the community changed significantly. The family businesses gave way to larger ones in Antigonish and the community reverted to its farming and forestry based roots. The locally owned South Lochaber Mutual Telephone Company introduced telephone service. All but one of the post offices closed, and it was eventually replaced by rural mail delivery. By the 1950s electricity was available throughout the community. The Sylvan Hall Company was establihed and in the twenties built Sylvan Hall which, to this day, serves as our community centre. It was during this time that Lochaber became a centre for strawberry production. The local strawberry industry began small. However, the combination of the micro climate produced by the lake which provided frost protection for the crop, and the excellent soil characteristics meant that strawberries soon became the dominent cash crop around the lake, to the point that the Lochaber farmers created their own marketing organization, “the strawberry exchange”, which sold strawberries throughout the eastern Nova Scotia mainland and a large part of Cape Breton Island. The exchange operated out of Sylvan Hall for some time until the exchange built its own climate controlled facility.
During the second half of the twentieth century, more and more of the residents of Lochaber found employment outside of their community. People from Antigonish and other areas decided to take advantage of the location to make their homes here. Lochaber began to morph into a bedroom community. People, particularly from the urban areas of Pictou county, “discovered” what an ideal area Lochaber is for seasonal cottages and there has been a huge influx of cottagers, especially along the west side of the lake. Retirees are moving here to enjoy the beauty and laid back life style that Lochaber offers. Farming and forestry have declined and, within those industries, the emphasis has swung toward low bush blueberries and christmas trees.
“If you’ve ever been a resident or visitor at Lochaber, you appreciate the peaceful setting of the scenic hills, the lake, the forests, and the smiles of those who live here.”-Lori Van de Sande (Feltmate)