A trip to McNabs Island this past summer inspired me to revisit Thomas Raddall’s descriptions of the island in his novel Hangman’s Beach (1966). Although I’ve lived in Halifax (off and on) for many years, this was only my second visit to the largest of the islands in Halifax Harbour. The first was on a school field trip when I was eleven, and this second trip was prompted by the picnic hosted by the Friends of McNabs Island Society as a celebration of their 25th anniversary.
It was a cool grey Saturday in July, and hundreds of people gathered to make the trip, learn more about the Island, share a picnic lunch—plus cookies and watermelon provided by the Society—and hike or bike the old roads and trails. My family and I had a wonderful time, and I’m keen to go back again.
I’ve read Hangman’s Beach a couple of times, and I enjoyed rereading what Raddall says about the Peter McNab who bought the island in 1782 (that date comes from the guidebook I bought at the picnic; in the novel, Raddall gives the date for his fictional Peter McNab’s purchase as 1783): “When Peter McNab—Peter the First, as some called him afterwards—came to Halifax, the island lay in the harbor entrance like a green cork in the neck of a green bottle; a cork twisted in a crude 8 and somewhat shrunken in width, so that it did not pretend to stop the mouth of the bottle but left passage for a stream of salt water on both sides.”
Raddall goes on to describe the “stony spit” that “ran out from the island like a lean grey finger pointed at the steep bluff across the water,” “stretched a good half-mile, and made a natural breakwater for the outer anchorage, except in hurricane weather when a wild surf dashed over it and tossed driftwood and tangles of kelp and wrack into McNab’s Cove.” This spit comes to be known as Hangman’s Beach, but at first is known simply as “The Beach.”
The town of Halifax, Raddall says, “was four miles up the harbor from The Beach. When Peter came, Halifax was just five years old, a small huddle of crude wooden hovels, stores and barracks on part of the harbor slope, shut in by dark green woods that came down to the shore as far as the eye could scan. Gradually as the years went by he watched the hill behind the town become a citadel whose guns looked over the town and anchorage, with other batteries on the little hump in the harbor called George’s Island, and at wooded Point Pleasant, and far out on the step bluff called York Redoubt, directly opposite The Beach.”
McNab visits the island in the summers with his children to dig clams and gather lobsters, and “As the summers went by, the short Nova Scotia summers, McNab had a growing itch to own this pleasant retreat in the harbor mouth. Not just the beach or the cove. The whole island.”
Imagine buying a whole island—Peter McNab certainly has grand plans for his business and for his legacy to his son and heir, “young Peter,” and after years of saving and negotiating, he eventually realizes his dream. The novel focuses on this second Peter McNab’s family, his young ward Ellen Dewar, and the tutor he hires to educate his children, Michel Cascamond, during the years of the Napoleonic Wars.
I might write more about the rest of the story sometime, but I’ll stop here for now, and leave you with a few more pictures of this extraordinarily beautiful island.
Here’s a link to a map provided by the Friends of McNabs. The guidebook (which has a great aerial photo of the island on the cover) is also available on their website.