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Journey into New Scotland's past

Heritage sites trade on the past, but in Nova Scotia they’re helping secure and inspire the future.

  • Apr 30, 2013
  • 1,871 words
  • 8 minutes
The vibrant buildings of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia Expand Image

Draw a line north from Lunenburg, bend it slightly to the east when you near Wolfville, then continue on to Joggins. It’s a simple path, but along it is an extraordinary trio of Nova Scotian attractions. We can say that now. We’ve been there.

We were planning a family road trip to the province — thinking only of beaches, fruit stands, fresh seafood and wineries — when we realized that it also holds three of Canada’s 16 UNESCO World Heritage sites: Old Town Lunenburg, the Landscape of Grand Pré and the Joggins Fossil Cliffs. These gems span a timeline from the prehistoric Coal Age to life after cod. But that’s only part of the story. Along the way are towns born of toilsome occupations that fuelled the province’s traditional economy and continue to stoke its indefatigable spirit: fisher, farmer, logger, miner. So, still craving the salty sea, but wanting to see all these places for ourselves, we began a journey into New Scotland’s past. Or was it?

Adventures around our house usually involve camping and camping means bug bites, tents, tarps and dirty feet. But it can rain hard in Nova Scotia, and we felt like living large, so we swallowed our beatnik pride and opted for a motorhome. After picking up our eight-metre rental from Fraserway RV outside of Halifax, we batten the hatches, buckle up our eightyear- old twin daughters, pop in a Phish CD for irony and make for Lunenburg, on Nova Scotia’s South Shore.

After founding Halifax as a military post, the British established Lunenburg in 1753 as a civilian settlement, populating it with mostly German-speaking Protestants and naming it after the Duke of Braunschweig-Lunebürg, who became King of England in 1727. The old town still retains its original grid layout and its 2,300 inhabitants have lovingly preserved the wooden homes, shops and churches erected in the 18th and 19th centuries. After the fishery declined in the late 20th century, Lunenburg’s economy shifted to tourism. A full 48 municipal blocks laid upon 33 hectares are included in UNESCO’s historical designation, granted in 1995.

The best way to experience the town’s colours and textures is on foot, so I climb the hill to Lunenburg Academy to meet Shelah Allen, a seventh-generation Lunenburger and owner of Lunenburg Town Walking Tours. The school, completed in 1895 and built near the former site of the town’s gallows, is a breathtaking introduction to local architecture with its red mansard roof, offset towers and whitewashed wood siding trimmed in black.

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(Maps: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic)

We walk into the old town where cafés, curio shops and other businesses occupy gorgeous old buildings. Each scalloped gable and dormered mansion seems to have a story. The “wedding cake house,” for instance, is a four-storey pink-and-white Victorian home that looks the same in front and back, “because the devil only comes in the back door,” says Allen, “and if he can’t figure out which one’s which, he’ll go to your neighbour.”

The tour ends on the waterfront, where sailboats, fishing vessels and pleasure craft slip in and out of the picturesque port. From this vantage point, it’s easy to imagine the bustle and clamour of two centuries ago. Lunenburg, however, can’t live off past glory alone: more than half of its residents are over 50 and the population is in decline. But by blending modern technology with maritime cachet, the town is trying to attract new residents, investment and a new breed of tourist. A virtual tour of the waterfront, for instance, highlights nine locations of interest where visitors can scan QR codes — using free wi-fi — with their smartphone to access historical information about the likes of the Bluenose, the Fishermen’s Memorial and the Dory Shop.

Pierre Guevremont and Lynne MacKay, who own the Ironworks Distillery on the waterfront, are typical of a swelling wave of entrepreneurs choosing Lunenburg for the lifestyle. MacKay, a Nova Scotia native and costume designer, and Guevremont, who owns a stock photography business, decided to leave their Toronto home of three decades to return to MacKay’s roots and look for something different, which turned out to be stoking a giant wood-fired copper still. The two run the artisan distillery out of an 1893 blacksmith’s shop, where they produce exquisite vodka, rum, brandy and liqueur flavoured with locally sourced fruit. After a few samples, I leave with a grin and a bottle under my arm.

A few days later we head north, and further back in time, to Canada’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Site, Grand Pré. Just east of Wolfville, Grand Pré was a centre of Acadian settlement from 1682 to 1755 when, refusing to swear loyalty to the British Crown, roughly 6,000 Acadians were forcibly deported and dispersed to British colonies around the world. The expulsion, during which families were separated and thousands of people died, is vividly rendered in a film re-enactment at the Grand Pré interpretive centre. Behind the centre, visitors can take self-guided tours through historical monuments that commemorate what the Acadians call “le lieu de memoire.”

“It’s not unusual to see people crying and expressing emotions here,” says Christophe Rivet, a Parks Canada project manager who worked extensively to manage the UNESCO project until its official designation in 2012. “This place triggers conversations and obviously you discover Acadian culture. But it’s the pride, the vibrancy of the community, the peacefulness and their vision — it’s quite inspiring.”

The enduring legacy of the Acadians and their labour and innovation is what mattered to UNESCO. The heritage designation covers a 13-square-kilometre landscape that, until the 17th century, was twice-daily covered by the world’s highest tides. Using an ingenious system of earthen dykes and wooden sluices called aboiteaux, Acadian farmers eventually coaxed more than 12 square kilometres of arable farmland from the sea.

Rivet and I drive up Old Post Road to a hillside location above the visitor centre. Spread out below is an enormous peninsula textured in a patchwork of green squares, red mud and indigo water. Only from above can you appreciate the scope of the transformation. The area teems with vineyards, apple orchards and fields of corn and soy. Although some locals worry about the impact of increased tourism brought on by the World Heritage Site designation (93 percent of the land within the UNESCO boundary is privately owned), most agree that Grand Pré now has a sustainable future, according to Rivet.

The next day we head back to Halifax, bid farewell to the RV and reacquaint ourselves with our minivan. We drive northwest and set our time machine further back, to an era before dinosaurs, when the continents were clumped together in a mass called Pangaea and tiny Joggins, lush with prehistoric greenery, sat near the equator.

What’s most astonishing about this place is not that the world’s highest, and frequently tumultuous, tides pull 300-million- year-old fossils from the crumbling cliffs nearly every day — it’s how those cliffs came to be. Tectonic forces pushed the land upward, exposing 23 metres of layered sediment usually buried underground, and that sediment is full of fossils. Waves hitting the shore loosen the sediment and leave a new batch of fossils on the beach every low tide. What’s more, the cliffs simply look unusual: the layers are angled, like fallen dominoes. If you walk the entire site from south to north, deeper, older layers get exposed, with each kilometre representing about a million years, spanning from 310 to 325 million BC.

Joggins, a variation of the Mi’kmaq word chicogins, or “place of the fishing weir,” exists because of coal, and the coal exists because of the area’s prehistoric past. Three hundred million years ago, the earth was covered in primitive plant life that flourished, decomposed and accumulated beneath tropical swamps, and later turned into coal. John Calder, in Coal Age Galápagos, explains how 13 million tonnes of it was extracted from Joggins between 1848 and 1980, when the last of the mines were shut down. Since then, the population of Joggins has dwindled to about 500 souls, but the UNESCO designation, granted in 2008, will ensure it never disappears.

“It’s these cliffs that will keep Joggins on the map,” says Dana Brown, our guide, who grew up here and now spends his days teaching visitors about the fossils that so fascinated him as a child. “They will keep us from going extinct.”

The beach below the Joggins Fossil Cliffs interpretive centre, museum and café is a captivating classroom. “It’s just incredible,” says Brown. “You can walk along and there are fossils everywhere.” He shows us coprolites (ancient animal poop), some fossilized tracks made from arthropleura (a nightmarish, two-metre-long millipede-type creature) and evidence of calamites (a now-extinct tree-like plant related to modern day horsetails). He points to an ancient lycopsid tree trunk a metreand- a-half long, embedded in the cliffs, just waiting for a storm surge to pull it free.

During the 19th century, when science and religion fought to define Earth’s origins, these mysterious clues from the past lured paleontologists across the Atlantic Ocean. It was Joggins that helped Charles Darwin prove his theory of evolution by suggesting that the world was indeed millions of years old. Though he never came here, Darwin mentions Joggins twice in On the Origin of Species.

“The puzzle of Joggins is still coming together,” says Brown, the latest in a long line of humans mesmerized by this smorgasbord of prehistory that we casually traverse. “These cliffs contain all the discoveries of the past and all those of the future.”

Future, indeed.

I was born in the Maritimes and my heart will always remain here, but every time I pass a weather-beaten church or vacant storefront on the East Coast, I can’t help feeling forlorn: how will these communities survive when all the young people, myself included, leave to work in Iqaluit and Saskatoon, and urban monoculture renders small-town life obsolete? But this trip changed my mind. Oddly, we found a sustainable future — in things past. As our desire for instant gratification grows and our ability to commit anything to memory wanes, preserving history is no longer a quaint pastime: it’s an investment.

Nova Scotia World Heritage sites photo gallery

Writer Lisa Gregoire took an RV road trip with her family to Nova Scotia’s three UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Normally a household of campers, Gregoire and her family opted for a motorhome this road trip.
The Joggins Fossil Cliffs, a UNESCO World Heritage site, once sat near the equator as part of Pangaea.
Pierre Guevremont and Lynne MacKay decided to leave their Toronto home of three decades to return to MacKay’s roots and establish an artisan distillery.
The Ironworks Distillery sits on Lunenburg’s waterfront in an 1893 blacksmith’s shop.
The Ironworks Distillery produces vodka, rum, brandy and liqueur flavoured with locally sourced fruit.
The beaches south of Lunenburg and in the Minas Basin provide a break from Nova Scotia’s historic sites.

View more photos of Nova Scotia on the Canadian Geographic Photo Club.


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