Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia place names

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article on “where the counties in Nova Scotia got their names” first appeared in the Amherst Daily News on April 27, 1932.

     Investigations under direction of the Department of Education, the results of which have been published in the Journal of Education, show that Nova Scotia place names form important links in the history of the province. Included in one issue of the Journal is a chart showing how the present eighteen counties evolved from the original five which were designated, and events leading up to the naming of the counties provided material for an article.

     The ancient name of the province itself, Acadia, or Acadie, is supposed to be derived from the Micmac word which can be loosely translated by field, place, ground, the place of, site of land. When joined to an adjective its means that the place referred to is an appropriate or special place for the object described by the noun or noun adjective.

     The derivation of Shubenacadie, for example, is as follows: Segubbun, the Micmac word for ground nut becomes an adjective, by the addition of a final “a” thus segubbuna – of or relating to ground nuts. Segubbunacadie means the place of ground nuts, and the Micmac form Segubbunacadie has been altered slightly to the present form Shubenacadie.

     Other place names containing ‘cadie’ or ‘acadie’ or similar forms are quite common, as example Tracadie, Shenacadie.

     “Nova Scotia” was first used to describe the territory of which this province was a part in 1621. Land comprising the present provinces of New Brunswick Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia and portions of Quebec and the State of Maine were granted by James I to Sir William Alexander of Monstrie, later Lord Stirling.

     Alexander made one or two unsuccessful efforts to colonize his new possessions but the name Nova Scotia, and the arms of the province were all that survived of his attempts to establish a New Scotland, for this is what Nova Scotia means in Latin, in this Annapolis, Lunenburg, Kings and Cumberland.

     Halifax County was given the same name as the city, which was founded in 1749 and was called Halifax in honor of George Dunk Montague, Earl of Halifax, who was president of the side of the Atlantic.

     The five original counties established in 1759, were Halifax, Board of Trade and Plantations under the auspices of which the city was founded. This nobleman’s title was, of course, derived from the city of Halifax in Yorkshire. Halifax, Yorkshire, is said to have been given the name which means “holy hair” because the head of a murdered girl was suspended by the hair from a tree in the neighborhood of the town.

     Annapolis County took its name of course from the name of the town, Annapolis Royal, which means the “royal city of Anne” and was thus named by the English forces under Nicholson who captured it from the French in 1710.

     Lunenburg County was named after the town of Lunenburg, which, in turn, is supposed to have been named after the town of Luneburg in Hanover. Some of the early settlers of Lunenburg came from this part of the Electorate of Brunswick and was, therefore, a possession of George I when he ascended the English throne in 1714. An alternative spelling for Luneburg appears to be “Lunenburg” and the Luneburg Haide or Lunenburg Heath which covers a large part of Hanover also takes its name from the old Hanoverian town.

     Kings County and, later Queens County were thus named as an expression of loyalty to the monarchy.

     Cumberland County got its name from Fort Cumberland as Beausejour was called, after its capture in 1755, by Robert Monckton. At that time the Duke of Cumberland, son of George II, was commanding the British Army in Flanders, where he was badly defeated several times by the brilliant Marshal Saxe. Cumberland commanded the army which decisively defeated the Highlanders under the Young Pretender at Culloden in 1746.

     Shelburne town was so named by Governor Parr in 1783 in honour of the Earl of Shelburne, then Prime Minister of England. The county was named after the town.

     Yarmouth County also takes its name from the town. There is some doubt as to the origin of the name. Some authorities state that the settlement made in 1761 was named after Yarmouth, Mass., others that the river which flowed past the settlement was called the Yare after the Yare River in England and that the settlement got its name in that way.

     Hants County was named after the English county of Hampshire, the abbreviation of which is Hants from the old form Hanteshire. Just why this name was chosen is difficult to say.

     Colchester County is supposed to have been named after the town of Colchester in the county of Essex, England. The choice of this name is rather puzzling since the early settlers of the county, after the French, were from the North of Ireland, or Loyalists and Pre-Loyalists from what are now the United States.

     Guysborough County also takes its name from the “town” of Guysborough which is not legally a town at all but a village since it has never been incorporated. The name is derived from that of Sir Guy Carleton, later Lord Dorchester, who promoted the settlement of Loyalists in the Maritime Provinces and who was at one time Governor of Canada.

     Digby town and county are both named after Admiral Robert Digby who commanded a convoy bringing Loyalists to Nova Scotia in 1785. Admiral Digby commanded the North Atlantic fleet in 1781.

     Cape Breton is one of the oldest names in American geography. It is quite probably that Basque and Breton fishermen resorted to its coast to dry their catch very shortly after the voyage of Columbus, and some authorities believe that possibly these fishermen preceded Columbus. One of the early names for it was Bascalaes a Basque word meaning codfish. There is a Cape Breton in the Department of Lands in France in the Basque country, so that it is possible that the fishermen who made use of its shores also gave it the name of the place from which some of them came. At one time the entire island composed a single administrative district and as other counties were formed they were given new names and the remainder kept the name Cape Breton.

     Richmond County, formed in 1834-35 along with Inverness county, takes its name from the title of the Governor of Canada in 1818-19, Charles Lennox, fourth duke of Richmond, who was a direct descendant of Charles II.

     Inverness County was largely settled by Scots Highlanders, and was named Inverness at the request of Sir William Young who represented it in the Legislature and who was a native of Invernessshire, Scotland.

     Victoria County was named in honor of Queen Victoria, when the county was formed in 1851.

     There remain two counties bearing names derived from the Micmac language, the counties of Antigonish and Pictou. According to Dr. Rand, the great authority on Micmac language and customs. Antigonish is derived from the word “Nalegikooneech” meaning “the place where the bears tear the branches off the trees by trying to get beechnuts”. Other writers have said that Antigonish is from the Indian word meaning “river of fish”. On a map prepared by Nicholas Denys, Seiur de Fronsac, in 1672, there is marked a “River d’Anticonaiche”, which is, excepting for differences in spelling, practically the modern name of the county.

     The town of Pictou, from which the county takes its name, has at different times been called Coleraine, New Paisley, Alexandria, Donegal, Teigmouth, Southampton and Walmsley, and there are almost as many theories as to the derivation of the name Pictou. That given by Dr. Rand is probably more dependable than the others, however, and is as follows: The Indian word is “pictook”. “Pict” means “an explosion of gas” and the particle “ook” means “at” or “in”, being in fact the particle added to form a locative case. The explosion of gas referred to the escape of gases from coal seems lying below the surface of earth at East River, Dr. Patterson, in his history of the county of Pictou, has another explanation of the name. According to his account it was the common belief among the earlier settlers in Pictou that the name came from the Indian word “bucto” meaning fire. There was a tradition among the Indians that an encampment on the West River was mysteriously destroyed by fire, and the place was afterwards referred to by the Indians in connection with the “big fire” so that the settlers mistook it for the name of the whole north side of Pictou Harbor.

(Source: The Citizen, Saturday, February 27, 1993 – A Touch of Cumberland History – Nova Scotia place names)