In an isolated clearing in the forest, accessible only by rough logging roads from the TransCanada Highway or from Judique, is the small, white-painted church of St. Margaret of Scotland.
Thirty Gaelic-speaking families from the Scottish Highlands and islands established the community of River Denys Mountain in the early 1830s. They were led by Donald MacDonald and his family who, four years earlier, had come to Cape Breton from South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. While earlier immigrants found fertile farmland in the river valleys, later arrivals were forced to make a living from the mountainous “backlands” where subsistence farming was difficult, and forestry was the only available source of income.
Having failed to find land in the intervales, MacDonald and his compatriots made their way to River Denys Mountain where they proceeded to clear land and build log cabins. Life was hard for both men and women in isolated communities in pioneering days. Wood had to be cut and sawn by hand, and even when the land was cleared, winters were harsher than they had known in Scotland and the growing season was short. Their first harvest was typically potatoes followed later by cereal crops, and they kept sheep, cows, pigs, and chickens. The women ground grain with stone hand mills, and after the sheep were sheared, they washed, carded and spun the wool which they then wove for clothing. Despite these hardships, the River Denys Mountain community grew.
The Scottish settlers were Roman Catholics, and as they were a long way from the nearest church in Judique, Father Alexander MacDonnell encouraged them to build one in their own settlement. In 1841, the men of the community banded together to construct a small, gothic-style church and to clear land nearby for a graveyard. Father MacDonnell did not live to see the completion of the building; the first Mass in the church dedicated to St. Margaret of Scotland was celebrated by Father Michael McKeagny.
The pioneers were joined by more Scottish families, and by the mid-1880s, homes were scattered over a wide area of the mountain. The population reached its peak toward the end of the century, when lumber was in high demand and work was plentiful. Because of the community’s growth, the church was enlarged in 1899 by cutting it in half and inserting a new middle section. But after 1900, the population soon began to dwindle given a decline in shipbuilding, which reduced the market for lumber and meant less work in the forest. The young people of the community left to seek work in Cape Breton’s coal mines and other industries or moved “down the road” to Central or Western Canada.
When the last families left in the early 1950s, the abandoned homes soon deteriorated and collapsed, and their sites were lost to the forest. The church, however, remained in use from time to time. In 1964, the Second Vatican Council replaced Latin with the vernacular for the liturgy, and three years later, the first Gaelic Mass in North America was celebrated at the church of St. Margaret of Scotland on River Denys Mountain.
Today, Mass is still celebrated annually at the church, which is also used for special occasions such as weddings, funerals, and even concerts. Descendants of former families of River Denys Mountain are still buried in its graveyard.
The building has simple pews, a gallery running around three sides, a tower at the western end, and a small vestry at the eastern end. It has been well maintained and is recognised as the oldest surviving public building in Inverness County.