THE mist rolls in over the Bay of Fundy, reducing the vast expanse of its 180-mile stretch to a ribbon of still water beneath a suffocating, glowering cloak of cloud. It is difficult to see ahead. This matters little when one is consuming lobster in a delightful bayside inn. The mist is merely an innocuous act of nature in a 2016 summer. But there is moment of reflection when one realises that this enduring, eternal landscape, this fog that rolls in almost daily, was once fresh to some and capable of causing the sort of angst that is prompted by exile, that is provoked by staring into a vast reservoir of unknowing.

This is New Brunswick, Canada. This bay is one of the natural wonders of the world. This scene that changes in kaleidoscope fashion because of the vagaries of tide and mist can be almost absurdly beautiful. It was also once the route to a new life, one that offered opportunity but promised hardship, anguish and the possibility of early death. There was brutal reality amid the natural beauty.

This fog, timeless and dense, once confronted John Mann. It once offered its grim greeting to William Davidson. It wrapped itself like a premature shroud around tens of thousands of Scottish immigrants who sailed in hope, perhaps desperation, to a new land. Davidson was the first European to arrive in New Brunswick, settling in 1765 with a mission to populate land around the Miramichi River with fellow Scots. Mann came later. In November, 1816, he was one of 136 Scots to arrive at Saint John, at the head of the Bay of Fundy. He had sailed in The Favourite in an era when immigrants were not to be feared, despised or abused but to be welcomed, even lured.

On the 200th anniversary of Mann’s arrival, this alone is enough to cause a pause for consideration.

He came as part of a plan. The New Brunswick government and a businessman, James Taylor, had entered into an agreement to supply a ship, The Favourite, to bring settlers from Scotland to invigorate a deserted land. All were to be under the age of 40. All were to have certificates of good character. One was John Mann, an 18-year-old from Kenmore, Perthshire.

If Davidson was the first, Mann was typical of the mass in background yet removed from them in that he committed his experience to a book. He shared the experience of immigration not only with his fellow travellers down the centuries but also with those of us who, by grace and fortune, have felt no need to uproot a life and plant it elsewhere. In Travels of North America, Mann stripped his travel to Canada and his treks on foot of any frivolity, any sense of childish adventure. “This is a most excellent place of banishment,” he writes. This land is of “a dismal and wretched appearance”.

His attitude softened even as his body hardened under the tests and trials of primitive New Brunswick. He returned briefly to Scotland before settling finally in Canada in 1828. He had found his new life, even though the reality owed little to romance. He wrote to his father about the chances of his brother tolerating Canada: “After one minute he would not live in it even if he was fed in a king’s fashion.”

These words lie in New Brunswick historical records. But they resonate down the ages. Mann is speaking of the immigrant experience. It is as true today for Syrians or Somalians entering Scotland as it was for those generations of Scots entering Canada. It is a story of what a people did for a country and what a country did for a people.

On November 20, 1816, Mann was on the threshold of his new life. He sat in the gloom of the Bay of Fundy. “A thick fog came on then which compelled us to remain there during two days, for fear of being cast on some rocks.” That mist cleared and Mann was to see a future clearly. But it is the immigrant’s fate to be taunted by anxiety then tested by hardship.

THE sun shines bright on the good and the kilted and the merry and the be-tartaned. It is Fredericton 2016. The 35th New Brunswick Highland Games has colonised Government House. There are more pipe bands than one could shake a swagger stick at in the capital of New Brunswick. Tents are filled with those investing in a Scottish heritage, either in whisky tasting, investigating genealogy or just enjoying the craic.

New Brunswick, technically known as the daud in Canada just across and down from Nova Scotia, was once part of the royal French colony of Acadia. The French settlers stayed close to the coast line and the interior was not populated until the advent of William Davidson, a Scot from Moray, and his ilk. It was officially named New Brunswick, in deference to King George III and his Brauchstein connection in 1784, almost two decades after Davidson had found a clearing near the Miramichi River and set up business as a lumber merchant.

The immigration experience is thus viewed at a distance of centuries for many on the grass outside Government House. But this concentrates the focus. The Highland Games are a communal celebration but they have an individual significance. This patch of Fredericton is a Highland zone and one where people walk with a sense of pride, belonging and inquiry.

Chris Robbins, chair of the New Brunswick Scottish Cultural Association, sits in the shade in his tent on "Clan Alley", a map of Scotland is marked by names of clans and there is a regular stream of visitors. Robbins, who grew up in Nova Scotia, has always been tugged back to Scotland. He tells me his mother was a McPherson, points out the importance of censuses in tracing lineage and is quietly but eloquently forceful on the significance of heritage.

“It is a beautiful thing,” he murmurs at one point while reflecting on ancestry. He is keen to share it with others. He spends the afternoon at the games fielding questions and guiding others towards the past. “I help people with tricks I have learned along the way,” he says simply. He is in awe of the immigrant experience. “The McPhersons on my mother’s side left Scotland in the 1790s, probably because of what motivates most immigrants, the belief that the system is no longer working for them.”

He believes his investigations of the past have informed his present. “First, there are so many good stories that you learn. But it also gives you a depth to your understanding of yourself,” he says.

But how does this manifest itself?

He pauses. “I think it is important to realise what your people went through. I think it is important to know where you come from. We need a story. It helps us understand ourselves,” he says. He knows this is not a complete answer and is one that will not satisfy some. When he first visited Eigg, the land of his forefathers and foremothers in 2009, he was asked by a Scot why he made the journey. His response was met by an exasperated Caledonian retort of “Ach, why bother?”

Robbins could not quite answer that question then but does so now. “Approaching the island was such an exhilarating feeling. It was the culmination of something. A great feeling just welled up in me. There was a sense of coming home,” he says.

It is an experience shared by many descendants of immigrants. There is a desire, almost a need not only to look at the past but also to travel back into it to make something of substance for the present and the future. Such is the experience of Helen McKinnon-Bagnell and her sister Catherine Mhairi Homer. Their childhood was extraordinary.

Their father was a Canadian serviceman who found a war bride in Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. “He could speak eight languages fluently. He had a smattering of many more. His favourite was the language of our heritage, Gaelic. Our mother was a Gaelic speaker, born and bred, but when she arrived here she believed very strongly that Gaelic was the language of the uneducated and the poor because that had been drilled into her. But my father’s view prevailed and we spoke Gaelic in the home.

“Our father said that when the language went, the culture would die with it. We were brought up to believe it was very important to keep this language alive. I still teach it. We both have bilingual dogs. We speak Gaelic to our dogs but our husbands speak to them in English.”

But the bond with culture goes beyond the gently humorous. Both sisters made a visit to Lewis in 1997 that was profound, spiritual and ultimately crucial to their understanding of Scotland and themselves. A relative, the last of a generation, was dying. A decision was made that Aunt Chrissie must be seen.

“It was extremely emotional,” says Helen. “I cannot describe to you the feelings I had that I was coming home. I could not talk to anybody about it, it was so overwhelming. We arrived four days before she died so the timing was incredible. We thought we were saying goodbye to a shared past but we met all our cousins so the link continues. We have family in Lewis. We have our roots there."

Sandy Gordon, in contrast, seems to find his bond in music. A member of the Fredericton Society of St Andrew Pipe Band for more than 40 years, he stands in the shade of a tree and nods towards the stands where bagpipes play. “When you put so much of your life into piping and then 14 pipe bands come to your hometown … Well, that is very exciting. It is like Christmas. This Highland Games has been going since 1991 and the Christmas analogy holds true in that you look forward to it every year, it is very similar ever year but it is always one of the greatest days of the year.”

Born and brought up in Nova Scotia, he moved to northern Brunswick, heard a pipe band and quickly acquired a chanter and a College of Piping tuition book. “It was one of the happiest days of my life when that book came in the post,” he says. “I was about 13. Piping almost immediately became the biggest thing in my life.”

He has travelled all over the world with the pipe band. “The first time we booked a ticket to Paris, France, I could not believe we were doing this. We did a Mardi Gras in Nice too. And there were the world championships at Glasgow Green.”

He learned a bit of Gaelic while studying piping in Cape Breton and is aware that his existence in New Brunswick is far removed from the experience of his ancestors. “I have not gone too far into the ancestry,” he says. “Piping has been my passion rather than tracing ancestors.”

But he is aware of the depth of winters in Canada, knows the landscape and respects the fortitude of those who forged a way for him and the others who are gathered around a spectacular celebration on a beautiful summer’s day. “It must have been so tough for them,” he says. “But they had to get on with it. You didn’t have much choice.”

DOWNTOWN Fredericton nods to the past in a genteel manner. The old barracks form a row of shops, the green at the centre of the town hosts a spirited changing of the guard. There is an air of troubles survived and prosperity gained. Bradley Sturgeon, high school principal, is almost a human emblem of this theme of endurance becoming something more amenable. He is the great-great-great-great-grandson of William Davidson, the first Scot to settle in New Brunswick, whose immigrant experience was wonderful, draining, exciting, testing, adventurous and ultimately tragic.

“William died when he was 50, with five children under the age of 12. He caught a chill when snow-shoeing. It is almost unfathomable how his wife and children survived. She was left with the debts, businesses to run and a life to lead in a log cabin where winter temperatures would drop to minus 30,” says Bradley.

Davidson was energetic if regularly unfortunate in business. He was given huge tracts of land to disperse but found it difficult to populate them. This was forbidding territory. He immersed himself in the business of shipping, furs and timber, then in building masts and ships. He was regularly beset by ill fortune but doggedly persevered until his untimely death. His descendants in New Brunswick have memories of him that are both fresh and physical even at a distance of approaching 300 years.

“My grandfather still has 300 acres of that Elm Tree tract that William Davidson divided. My father has 100 acres. I grew up with William Davidson history. If I was not at my place I was at my grandfather’s place. My grandmother would show us the old coins from the 1700s that were found on the property and the First Nation axes too. We grew up with the stories.

“They had a neighbour who was a descendant of Davidson too and when I was 10 and he was 98 he remembered stories that his great-grandfather told him and his great-grandfather knew William’s son.

“This neighbour was legendary. He was 6ft 8in, weighed 280 pounds. There was no fat on him. He worked the boons where they would wrap logs. He worked 10 kilometres away from his home and every day he brought a coil of rope weighing 200 pounds draped over him.

“It is incredible how they survived. My father worked in the wood industry and he was always shocked at how his forefathers had done all the work by hand. The life had a simple theme. From the time you got up on the morning until you went to bed at night it was all about survival. Good times had to be used to guard against the bad times.”

The depredations of fate, illness and the weather were not the only difficulties. The Davidson settlement was once besieged by a ship of privateers from the US. “They had raided several settlements and then anchored off William’s property. They were yelling they were coming ashore to take what they wanted. William and his wife took two muskets and ran up the hill to shoot at them but the ship replied with a small cannon. A musket shot hit the ship, however, and it sailed off.

“Anyway, that was the story we heard as kids. But one summer my grandfather cleared a small section of the field at that hill and he found three cannon balls. We used to play with them in my grandfather’s barn. There’s no proof they came from a ship of privateers but …”

The cannon balls have become lost in history, possibly lying in the back of a barn on the Miramichi. But the stories live on. And so do the descendants of those who became immigrants through choice, need or desperation. On a sunny day in Fredricton, the fog of the mind clears to reveal a substantial truth. These exiles did not just come to a country. They made it. n

Hugh MacDonald travelled as a guest of New Brunswick Tourism. He stayed at the Parkland Village Inn, Alma and the Delta, Fredricton. He is grateful for the wonderful assistance provided by the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick and the hospitality at the New Brunswick Highland Games Festival. Visit