When you’re travelling, sometimes you get a lucky steer from a knowledgeable local. “I know it sounds tacky,” said our B&B host in Annapolis Royal, “but go on the ghost walk.”
The “ghost walk”, it turns out, was actually the Graveyard Candlelight Tour, where after dusk you are guided through the cemetery adjacent to Fort Anne in Nova Scotia, Canada’s first designated national historic site.
You carry lanterns lit by thick candles. And if you ignore the occasional distant sound of a car horn, you feel transported back through hundreds of years of tumultuous history.
The tour was created in 1991 by Alan Melanson, a resident of Annapolis Royal (population: 500), a historian, and a descendant of the Acadians expelled from this land in 1755. He dresses in 19th-century Victorian clothing to lead the tours and his knowledge of the stories behind each grave marker is encyclopedic.
This now-bucolic place, cradled by the Annapolis River to the west — which eventually empties into the Bay of Fundy — and a split of the river to the south, was the scene of the most see-saw battles among European colonizing forces in North America: Annapolis Royal was a battleground 13 times. Originally, a thriving community of indigenous Mi’kmaqs inhabited the region. French forces created the settlement of Charlesfort in 1605 (three years before Samuel de Champlain famously disembarked at what became Quebec City). British forces hammered away at it, mounting six attacks until, in 1710, the Brits took over and renamed it Annapolis Royal, to honour the current British monarch, Queen Anne, and established Fort Anne. In the next 50 years, the French and their allies launched another half-dozen battle campaigns to win back the settlement, but failed. Throw in another raid on this spot during the American Revolution, and you come up with the battle bakers’ dozen.
About 40 years into British rule in these parts, French settlers who used to be part of the French colony of Acadia in this Maritime region were treated with suspicion: so much so that more than 11,000 Acadians, nearly 2,000 from Nova Scotia, were expelled, ordered to find new homes elsewhere. Many made their way to French settlements in Louisiana, although it’s estimated one-third died before reaching their destination.
The Acadian story inspired American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to write Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie. It’s an artistic ode, not a historian’s essay: it imagines the parting of a young Acadian woman, Evangeline, from her love Gabriel during the “Great Upheaval”, as the expulsion is sometimes called. She is faithful to him throughout her life, trying to find him again, and at times her wandering path crosses his, without either knowing. Spoiler alert: they finally meet as he is dying and she is a nurse, in whose arms he expires.
Melanson’s family, and others, eventually made their way back to the Maritimes. When you go on his graveyard tour, there are no French names or stories. “That’s because those grave markers were made of wood, and are long gone,” Melanson tells you. “What’s here are stone markers, from the British times.”
Annapolis Royal is an incredibly charming spot. A Maclean’s magazine story from 2014 named it one of 10 “must-see” places to visit in Canada, pointing out there are 135 heritage properties within two square kilometres “to form the largest historical district in the country.” Many artists have settled there; on my one visit, there were whimsical sculptures made from bicycles placed throughout the community. The Annapolis Royal Historical Gardens, opened in 1981, add more beauty, developed among ancient trees that my friends Don Carrier and Anaya Farrell, who co-wrote a musical inspired by the Evangeline poem, dubbed “the forest primeval.”
I remember on my visit to Annapolis Royal, waiting for the graveyard tour to start, wandering to the river’s edge along the fort property. There’s little development along the river and the fort’s ramparts absorb the traffic and street noises of the modern town behind it. The peacefulness, and beauty, is stunning in such a place where for centuries conflict reigned.
Main photo of Fort Anne at dusk: John Lederman