Anchored to the Highlands: Highland Village Interpretive Centre, Iona, Cape Breton

A contemporary interpretive centre in Cape Breton is firmly tied to its cultural history and landscape.

PROJECT Highland Village Interpretive Centre, Iona, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

ARCHITECT Abbott Brown Architects 

TEXT Christine Macy

PHOTOS Maxime Brouillet

The interpretive centre is conceived as a village-like grouping of forms, each a contemporary interpretation of a historic dwelling. Together, the volumes frame a natural amphitheatre that hosts performances during the site’s annual music festival.

Steven Holl proposes the concept of “anchoring” to describe how a building’s concept and form can be intertwined with its setting. In this way, he says, “architecture serves to explain its site.” The threads that intertwine to anchor a building to its site have to do with the meaning of this place, the physical expression of the architecture, and one’s poetic experience of being there. 

A new maritime building by Abbott Brown Architects is anchored to a special place in Nova Scotia. Cape Breton island is a spectacular landscape of karst hills surrounding the Bras d’Or lakes, a pocket of the Atlantic Ocean connected by narrow straits to the sea. The Mi’kmaq call this island Unama’ki, and it is woven into their origin story, their myths, and legends. In the nineteenth century, thousands of Scottish farmers—who had been dispossessed of their ancestral lands by the Highland Clearances—settled here. They were allotted 200-acre parcels of land to farm, and they cleared forests, planted wheat and barley, and layered their own history and stories onto this territory.

Created over the past 70 years, the Highland Village in Iona commemorates the Gaelic experience in Nova Scotia. This living museum was inspired by a similar display at the 1938 Empire Exhibition in Glasgow, where cottages from the Highlands and Scottish Islands were assembled into a small village, complete with Gaelic-speaking Highlanders carrying out their daily tasks. The Nova Scotia Association of Scottish Societies wanted to recreate this experience in Canada. To launch the project, they started an annual music festival that attracted thousands to the site. Over several decades, historic buildings were transported to Iona from around the province, and scattered across a bluff overlooking the expanse of the Bras d’Or lakes. 

The latest addition to the campus is a strikingly contemporary building by Halifax-based Abbott Brown Architects. The Highland Village Interpretive Centre brackets the beginning and end of the living museum. It uses the language of architecture to represent Gaelic identity in the present era, re-interpreting the story of Gaelic settlement and generating new opportunities for learning about this heritage, as well as spaces for sharing stories, food, music, and dance. 

The exhibition area uses Corten dividers between display areas.

This starts with rhetorical references to the buildings of the Highland Village, and to the material culture of agricultural, industrial, and domestic Cape Breton. In concept, the Visitors’ Centre is itself a miniature hamlet, comprised of a cluster of three buildings. Two long gable-roofed volumes—one containing a reception area and offices, the other a gathering space and archives—are set parallel to each other. The forms evoke the nineteenth-century houses on the site, although the contemporary interpretations are much larger and longer, and have steeper roofs. This exaggeration transforms the house forms into icons of domestic settlement—a strategy further heightened by the lower point from which the roofs spring, making the volumes appear to be almost entirely roof. The shape of the eaves, which are carefully profiled in exposed metal roofing, suggests a sharp cut through thick thatch. The exteriors are clad with Eastern Cedar siding that will weather grey, its subdued palette fitting in with the relocated historic farm dwellings. 

The facility’s central volume is conceived as a stone-and-thatch dwelling turned inside out, with the wooden interior framing expressed on the outside using local spruce boards.

A third volume linking the two gable-roofed forms is the heart of the centre—the exhibition space from which visitors exit to explore the living museum, and to which they return. The architects conceived this element to refer to the “blackhouse,” the characteristic stone and thatch dwelling of tenant farmers in Scotland, but turned inside out, so that its wooden interior framing is expressed on the outside using local spruce boards, and its thatch or sod exterior is expressed on the inside, with fibrous wood panels on the ceilings that double as an acoustic treatment. Framed by the three volumes, an outdoor stage faces a hilly natural amphitheatre for the annual music festival.  

Corten steel is used to mark the entrance of the interpretive centre, which sits on a slight rise above the parking area.

Visitors arriving to the site step up a slight slope to the museum, and are invited through an entry portal made of Corten steel, a durable material that evokes Cape Breton’s industrial heritage of coal mining, iron, and steel fabrication, the latter still visible in nearby railroad trestle bridges. Similarly, Corten dormers project through the aluminum-hued roof, bringing light to the inner spaces of the complex. Inside, the visitor’s journey through displays explaining why the Highland Scots had to emigrate is punctuated by a series of thresholds, expressed with ramps and also marked with weathered Corten. 

After exiting the centre, visitors begin their tour of the heritage buildings on the hill: including a crofter’s “blackhouse,” a log cabin and wood farmhouse that adapted Scottish building traditions to use local materials, and a village-like formation of a church, a school, a dry goods store, and more houses. In each of these buildings, costumed animators recreate and interpret traditional homestead life of nineteenth-century Cape Breton.

After completing the outdoor loop of heritage buildings, the visitor is welcomed back to the centre, which appears from the village side as a series of house-like forms clustered around its wood-decked outdoor courtyard, and nestled against the backdrop of the Bras d’Or lakes. 

The interpretive centre acts as a gateway to the Living Village, which includes a variety of buildings linked to the Gaelic experience in Nova Scotia, and transported to the site from locations around the province.

Museum director Rodney Chaisson stresses that Highland Village is not only about Gaelic culture being transplanted to Nova Scotia, but about it setting roots here and transforming in the process. “The early stories and songs recounted tales from Scotland, but within two generations, they started to reflect what people were experiencing here,” says Chaisson. He sees Highland Village as an anchor for Nova Scotia’s Gaelic culture, situated in a landscape populated with the descendants of these Gaelic immigrants.

Highland Village is different from Nova Scotia’s other heritage sites like Grand Pré, Birchtown, and Louisbourg, all of which retain the aura of being the place where historical events occurred. Instead, the museum in Iona presents a heritage story, told through a collection of buildings gathered from different places, enlivened by interpreters, and experienced in the annual music festival. 

In that spirit, the Visitor’s Centre is also part of a living tradition. In the best sense of architectural placemaking, it is firmly of its site and history, but also of the present moment. In this way, the new building becomes rooted in a place—like the Gaels rooted themselves in Nova Scotia—and, over time, it will change that place and people’s experiences of it.

Christine Macy is a professor and former dean of the Faculty of Architecture and Planning at Dalhousie University.

CLIENT Nova Scotia Department of Public Works | ARCHITECT TEAM Jane Abbott, Alec Brown, Katelyn Latham, Karen Mills, Kim Chayer, Asma Ali, Nick Glover | STRUCTURAL Campbell Comeau Engineering | MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL Dillon Consulting | LANDSCAPE Gordon Ratcliffe Landscape Architects | INTERIORS Abbott Brown Architects | CONTRACTOR Brilun Construction Ltd. | PASSIVE HOUSE Habit Studio | AREA 728 m2 | BUDGET $4.6 M | COMPLETION August 2022