"One often reads of the majesty of the earth -- we who have driven along the shaded driveway and then emerged into the bright sunlight at the very old MacKenzie cemetery where the original settlers now rest, and climbed the hills to the Pipers' Picnic on one of the most glorious days of our summer season, readily appreciate such a phrase.
"As we cross the large green open fields and look back over even more and more hills, a sense of tranquillity pervades. And then the sight of numerous vehicles and hundreds of people enjoying fellowship together completes the picture!
"The clan tents are visible with the array of tartans. The MacKays, MacBains, Murrays, Rosses and Sutherlands have been joined in recent years by the Baillies, the Mathesons, the Bairds and the Campbells. Friendships are renewed and new faces become friends. During the afternoon pipe bands perform to the delight of all -- and then the lilt of the fiddle music brings many to the platform for a step or two!
"Again, each year, it is a delightful picnic and we hope the tradition will continue for years and years as a MacKay clan event."
Thus writes Marie MacKay, regional representative and founding member of The Clan MacKay Society of Nova Scotia, of the annual Pipers' Picnic in Earltown. For the MacKays and other clansfolk who have been involved with the Pipers Picnic since its beginning in 1965, it is a significant event of the year. 1990 marks its 25th anniversary.
The Pipers Picnic began as a gathering of descendants of the Highlanders in the MacKenzie Pioneer Cemetery in Earltown, who pooled their labour and resources to reclaim the graves of their ancestors from the advancing forest. Each family brought food and shared an afternoon of piping and fellowship. Donations were received to offset the expenses of logging and landscaping the cemetery, repairing of headstones, etc. These descendants also donated hours of volunteer labour, using their own equipment to restore the cemetery to dignity and honour. Alex Sutherland (Earltown's answer to Willie Cochrane, the Dewar Piper, and a founding member of The Clan MacKay Society of Nova Scotia) instigated and organized the efforts. Among the many pipers in this dedicated group was the late Doug MacKay of Earltown, the first official Clan MacKay Society piper. They welcomed the gathering as a time to share tunes and demonstrate their skills on the bagpipes. Bernie LeBlanc, grandson and student of Alex Sutherland, at age seven was the first piper to play at these gatherings.
Others joined the picnics, some travelling great distances, and the ladies of Earltown served suppers. Despite cooking marathons in Earltown kitchens, they performed miracles of the order of "five loaves and two fishes" as attendance rose to more than 3,000 people. The proceeds are sufficient to also restore and maintain the Knox Presbyterian and Earltown Village Cemeteries where other Earltown pioneers rest.
When clan societies began to form in Nova Scotia in the late 1970s, the Pipers Picnic became the location of choice for meetings. The blue canopies of clan tents rose against the forest -- clans MacKay, MacBain, Sutherland and Murray being the first. In 1984, Mary MacKenzie of Scotland visited the MacKay tent to bring special greetings from Margaret MacKay and Hon. Elizabeth Fairbairn, past and present seanachaidhs of the Clan MacKay Society in Scotland. Hon. Fairbairn is sister of the Lord Reay, the Chief of Clan MacKay and the fourteenth Baronet of Nova Scotia. During the 1987 International Gathering of the Clans, the MacKays hosted Malcolm Mackay, brother of the official piper of The Clan MacKay Society in Scotland and an accomplished piper in his own right. In 1988 Clan Matheson brought their Chief from Scotland, and escorted he and his wife in ceremonial procession to the Matheson tent.
Laurie and Isobel Matheson graciously provide a small valley in a remote field on their farm, where a circular sloping hill faces the Earltown forest to form a natural amphitheatre for the day's activities. All who can offer entertainment -- highland dancing, piping, etc. -- are welcomed to the small stage. Ralph McKay, former Clan MacKay representative in Cumberland County, delights the audience by supervising clever tricks his dog performs. Throughout the afternoon the Heatherbell Girls Pipe Band march through the field, playing their majestic pipe tunes.
The Pipers Picnic is a family day. Children are delighted by wagon rides behind horses in their dress harness and enjoy the spacious field for their games. Children of all ages often challenge each other in tug-of-war.
It is a "quiet spirit of clan fellowship", a unique and refreshing change of pace from fierce competitions and commercial endeavours of Highland Festivals and Games in Nova Scotia. There is no admission fee. For many descendants of the Highlanders who emigrated to Earltown, it is an annual homecoming for which they schedule their vacation. In the register are names from every state in the United States and every province in Canada, as well as England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and other countries.
Many of the Highlanders who emigrated to Earltown in the early 1800s came from Rogart, Dornoch, Golspie, Clyne, Kildonan, Lairg and other parishes in Sutherland. The rugged hills of Earltown reminded them of the highlands in Scotland. Earltown was a Gaelic speaking community, where people understood the importance of sharing the hardships of establishing a new life in Nova Scotia. Noting the great number of descendants of the pioneers who attend the Pipers Picnic, Glen Matheson -- renown genealogist of the area -- describes the picnic as a "Sutherland reunion".
The Matheson farm is reached by a network of winding and narrow lanes which are reminiscent of the single track roads in Sutherland, Scotland, but without designated "passing places". These narrow roads have a different beauty than their Highland counterparts, provided by the rich canopy of foliage overhead and the changing shades of green as one drives by the variety of trees in the Earltown forest.
At the picnic site the panoramic view of rolling hills and distant forest against the sky is much the same as is found in Scotland but seldom in this country. The scenery is uniquely highland in character. Without the kindness and generosity of Laurie and Isobel Matheson in providing use of their private property, the Pipers Picnic could not take place. The Mathesons also host the executive meetings in their home, and serve as treasurer. It is their tireless and dedicated efforts which enabled the Pipers Picnic to grow far beyond the expectations of all the founding members.
The weather usually smiles kindly on the Earltown Pipers Picnic. It has been rained out only once in the first 25 years. On two other years, heavy rain passed all around the area but the picnic did not get any rain.
It could not last. The summers of 1992 brought torrential rain on the day of the Picnic, but still the people came. There was shelter in the woods, and in their cars. The ladies continued to serve suppers, and the people continued to enjoy them. Torrential rain threatened to drown out the Pipers Picnic on two subsequent years, but still did not succeed. The people still came, going back and forth between their cars to visit with one another and to enjoy the food. Rain can do little to discourage a hardy descendant of the Highlanders.
In the summer of 1996, we had all weather ... hot sunshine, the aura of impending thunder storm that never came, and the old tradition I have noticed on most Pipers Picnics. Suddenly, there comes a torrential shower, out of nowhere. Just as soon as the folks have scurried under the clan tents, into the woods, or into their cars, it stops and the sun is out again. "The Guy Upstairs" seems to have a bit of merry fun here? It happened again in 1996. It's a trademark.
From the small dedicated group endeavouring to honour their ancestors, the Pipers Picnic has grown to a worldwide homecoming of their descendants and friends. The friendships made and renewed among cousins span miles, often continents and oceans, nurturing the "extended family ties" as a fitting tribute to their common forebears.
The Pipers Picnic takes place annually on the first Saturday in August -- in 1996, on August 3rd. Visitors begin to gather in the late morning and many linger until dusk. All are welcome.
Proceeds of the Pipers Picnic are derived solely from the sale of home-cooked suppers and are used for the beautification and maintenance of the three pioneer cemeteries in Earltown. Donations are gratefully accepted and, if desired, can be designated for one cemetery.
Appreciation gratefully acknowledged to the following who have supplied and verified information in this article: Marie MacKay, Alex Sutherland, Helen Sutherland, Mary Murray.