St. Ann’s, Nova Scotia

1819 – 1851
Associated name: the Normanite settlement
Location: on the northern coast of Cape Breton Island, approximately 30 kilometres west of the City of Sydney.  46.2 N, -60.6 W.

St. Ann’s was founded by Norman McLeod in order to create a community committed to a rigorous, somewhat “fire and brimstone” approach to religious practice. Besides being its religious leader, McLeod also became the community’s civilian leader, magistrate, and teacher. Born in 1780 in the Highlands of northern Scotland, Norman McLeod was educated at the University of Aberdeen and later studied for the ministry at the University of Edinburgh. However, he soon left, having become highly critical of the Church of Scotland for what he saw as a lack of discipline among the clergy and a softening of church doctrine. After teaching and preaching unofficially for a short period, McLeod decided to emigrate to North America in order to have greater religious freedom.

In 1817, he traveled to Pictou, Nova Scotia aboard the Frances Ann. In Pictou, his energetic sermons conducted in the old Highland style soon attracted a number of followers who were dubbed the “Normanites” by locals. By 1819, finding Pictou already quite developed and too similar to Scotland for his liking, McLeod decided to seek out new land where he could establish a more isolated community for his followers. McLeod had been in correspondence with Presbyterians in Ohio and it was there that he hoped to create his new community. In 1819, McLeod and a small group departed Pictou for Ohio on an exploratory journey aboard the schooner, The Ark. Their voyage was to have taken them via the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River. However, during a severe storm shortly after departure, the group was forced to take shelter in St. Ann’s Harbour on Cape Breton Island.

Sketch map: from Pictou to St. Ann’s NS. Source: Robinson 1974, 45.

In the morning the group discovered plentiful fish stocks and uninhabited land and quickly decided to proceed no further. After some preliminary work on the land, the group returned to Pictou for their families and possessions. McLeod petitioned the government for a 300- to 400-acre land grant for the new community and by 1820, some 700 followers had arrived in St. Ann’s.

The community of St. Ann’s was created on the slopes along the harbour. Settlers erected their own log cabins. A homestead for McLeod was also constructed by the settlers on a plot of land along the peninsula overlooking Black Cove. Within a few years, his original log cabin was replaced with a three-storey house. A school house was constructed east of the McLeod homestead and in 1822, the first Calvinist church on Cape Breton Island was built from logs. A larger church with seating for 1,000 was constructed years later.

McLeod’s Point, St Ann’s NS. Source: Photo by Jeanne M. Wolfe, circa 1985.

For 30 years, as magistrate, minister and teacher, McLeod influenced nearly every aspect of community life. He was perhaps best known for his religious zeal and fiery sermons which drew followers from St. Ann’s and beyond. It was McLeod’s belief that he had been chosen by God and his first concern was to ensure his followers’ moral and spiritual welfare. In exchange for his ministering, women were expected to provide domestic labour, while men were expected to help clear land and construct structures on his property.

Conditions at St. Ann’s were primitive. Winters were long and harsh, limiting the agricultural potential and predictability of the community. For example, in 1848, the community was affected by a particularly difficult winter resulting in famine because the potato crop failed.

Plaque commemorating Norman McLeod. Source: Photo by Jeanne M. Wolfe, circa 1985.

At about this time, McLeod received a letter from his eldest son, Donald, who had been living in Australia for some years. He wrote about the good soil and climate in Australia which seeded in Norman McLeod the idea of resettling in more hospitable conditions. In 1851, McLeod sailed with some of his followers first to Australia, and then to New Zealand. In all, about 800 settlers left St. Ann’s for New Zealand between 1851 and 1859, settling mainly in the Waipu River area north of Auckland.

Elements of the physical settlement and life within it are found in Choyce (2007); Lotz (1974); Lamb (1975); Robinson (1974). Norman McLeod, himself, is also described in those books, and a helpful summary biography of him by R. MacLean is found in the online Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

by Jennifer L. Wardle


  • Choyce, L. 2007. Nova Scotia: Shaped by the sea: A living history. East Lawrencetown, NS: Pottersfield Press.
  • Lotz, Jim and Pat. 1974. Cape Breton Island. Vancouver, BC: Douglas, David and Charles.
  • Lamb, James B. 1975. The hidden heritage: Buried romance at St. Ann’s, N.S.. Windsor, NS: Lancelot Press.
  • MacLean, R. 2003. “McLEOD, NORMAN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9. University of Toronto/Université Laval. Accessed April 7, 2016.
  • Robinson, Neil. (1974). Lion of Scotland, being an account of Norman McLeod’s forty years’ search for a land where he and his followers could live as they wished. Auckland, NZ: Hoddler & Stoughton.