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Sir William Alexander's Scottish colony of Nova Scotia

For the week of Monday September 6, 2010

On September 10, 1621, Sir William Alexander was granted permission to colonize much of the eastern coast of modern Canada, which was to be called Nova Scotia. Latin for “New Scotland,” Nova Scotia was meant to be a North American Scottish colony, rival to other European colonies already on the continent. After several attempts, the colony was established in 1629, with the construction of Charles Fort at present-day Annapolis Royal in the Province of Nova Scotia.

Sir William Alexander
© The Scotsman in Canada, Wilfred Campbell -- Toronto : Musson Book Co., [1911]. -- 2 v. Frontispiece

Sir William Alexander, Earl of Stirling (ca. 1577-1640), born in Scotland, began his life as a writer and a poet. His works not only won him praise from his contemporaries, they also brought him to the attention of King James I. During his time at court and as a member of the Scottish Privy Council, a body that advised the King on Scottish affairs, Sir William promoted Scottish participation in England’s expansion overseas, but also warned the King of the hesitation felt by Scots about immigrating to the British colonies in North America. Sir William believed that if land could be designated for a specifically Scottish colony, like New France and New England, then more Scots would immigrate. The King thus granted Sir William a large land mass encompassing the Maritime Provinces and the Gaspé Peninsula.

Ships were hired in 1622 but a lack of supplies and willing passengers, along with poor weather and insufficient funds, slowed colonization efforts considerably. It was only eight years after the grant had been signed the Scottish colony would become a reality. Sir Alexander’s son, William Alexander (the Younger), would finally bring over a group of about 70 Scottish settlers in 1629. They built Charles Fort and named it in honour of King Charles. Early in the settlement, good relations had been established between the settlers and the Aboriginal peoples of the area. Although almost half of the settlers died during the first winter, the remainder of the colonists thrived on agriculture, fishing, and trade with the Mi’kmaq.

The Nova Scotia Coat of Arms
© Province of Nova Scotia

Scottish occupation of Charles Fort, however, was short-lived. Much of the territory of New Scotland had already been claimed and occupied by the French and was known as Acadia. The colonial rivalries over North American territory were revived, but tough negotiations led to the signing of the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye in 1632. The disputed land, along with the rest of New France (Acadia and Canada), was officially returned to France. The Scottish settlers left for England.

As the site of Sir William Alexander's settlement, 1629-31, Charles Fort was designated a National Historic Site in 1951.

For more information, please see the Charles Fort National Historic Site of Canada webpage.

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