The Ships of 1801

All sails are hoisted for The Ships of 1801, a dramatic musical tribute to early Scottish pioneers in Antigonish, Inverness and Pictou Counties, to be staged in conjunction with the 149th Antigonish Highland Games.

Producer Duncan MacDonald, who came up with the idea of a thematic concert of story, song and verse, marvels at the response.

“I fell in with good company,” he laughs, referring to director Rob Wolf and musical director Katie Jamieson. “For every idea, we have found someone to make it happen and happen beautifully.”

With all original music, except for a sprinkling of old Gaelic pieces, the concert at the Keating Millenium Centre July 14 will be narrated by British actor Jeremy Webb, known for his Neptune Theatre performances.

The show is a kaleidoscope of the experiences of hundreds of passengers who boarded five ships – The Dove, The Sarah, The Nora, The Good Intent and The Hope – that sailed from the west coast of Scotland to Pictou, NS, in the summer of 1801. An undercurrent flowing beneath the story line asks the question, “Who will remember?”

“It is not the story of any one ship or any one family. Every passenger on each of the ships had a story and we’ll be presenting a collection of quite different pieces,” said MacDonald.

The sad goodbyes, the children’s excitement of journey, the trepidation of a new beginning, the mocking of the chiefs and landowners, the fury of a storm-savaged ocean, the grief of so many children lost and the enduring determination to succeed are all captured in song and verse with Webb, as The Bard, providing narration to anchor the story.

ECMA and Nova Scotia Music Award winner Kim Wempe, with her powerfully resonating vocals is the voice of courage, urging the highlanders onward in the face of mounting adversity. Among other vocalists are fisherman and Celtic tenor Tom MacDonald, popular alto Janice Alcorn, young song-writer and singer Haley MacDonald and Sheumais MacLeod who has opened for Natalie MacMaster. John Spyder MacDonald and his brother Al, who collaborated on an anthem for the Ship Hector, will be contributing to The Ships of 1801.

Christine Campbell of Mabou who sings in Gaelic with her three daughters, Mairinn, Eilidh and Seonaid and a Gaelic choir under the direction of Stephanie Johnston are also among the two dozen performers, as are dancer Jenny Cluett and piper Francis Beaton.

A startling number of performers, like MacDonald himself, are descendents of passengers on the ships that sailed in 1801

“It was music and story-telling that sustained these pioneers individually and as a culture so it is fitting that we remember them this way,” said MacDonald. ~ By Rosalie MacEachern

More information on The Ships of 1801 is available at

Reprinted from the Summer 2012 edition of Celtic Life International Magazine