Nova Scotia - Background information


Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Nova Scotia: the Bradt Travel Guide

The first inhabitants

The earliest evidence of human habitation found in Nova Scotia was discovered in 1948 at Debert, near Truro. Thousands of Paleo-Indian artefacts were later unearthed, and some were radiocarbon-dated to 8,600bc. Paleo-Indians are believed to have crossed to the North American continent from Siberia. Over the years, as temperatures in the region waxed and waned, the inhabitants of the area are likely to have retreated south, returning perhaps a few centuries later: this cycle was probably repeated a few times. The native people living in Nova Scotia were the Mi’kmaq, members of the Algonquian-speaking Abenaki Confederacy. 

Mi'kmaq traditional dancing, © Nova Scotia Tourism AgencyMi'kmaq traditional dancing © Nova Scotia Tourism Agency

Natural history


The province offers a range of habitats from the Atlantic Coastal Plain to the high plateaux of Cape Breton’s northern highlands, and these support a wide variety of flora – including more than 1,650 vascular plants. Trees cover close to 80% of Nova Scotia, but aren’t just evergreen conifers, something that becomes even more apparent if you visit in the autumn. At this time, hardwoods such as maple, birch, oak, aspen and mountain ash burst into an explosion of brilliant colour. It is a conifer, however, the red spruce (Picea rubens), which has been designated Nova Scotia’s provincial tree.

In exposed coastal areas, stunted trees such as black spruce, often bent by the wind, are common as are shrubs like creeping juniper, common juniper and black crowberry. Sand dunes are usually covered with marram grass (also known as American beach grass). You’re also likely to see seaside plantain, beach pea, sea rocket and seaside goldenrod: look out too for the aromatic northern bayberry and beautiful wild roses.

Nova Scotia’s provincial flower is the mayflower, or trailing arbutus, which blooms (with delicately scented pink flowers) in the forest glades in early spring, often amid the last remaining snows of winter. From then until early autumn a range of species will be in bloom – the visitor will often see carpets of colour by the roadside. Stands of lupins, for example, are stunning in June. Some of the more common summer-flowering species include Queen Anne’s lace, ox-eye daisy, pearly everlasting and yarrow. Purple loosestrife may be an aggressive weed, but still contributes to the floral colour show.

Bog plants typically include various mosses, cranberries and liverwort. Many types of orchid can also be seen. Some bogs are also home to insectivorous plants such as sundew, butterwort, pitcher plant and bladderwort.


You’re too late for the woodland caribou (hunted to extinction here by the 1920s), but Nova Scotia is home to almost 70 different land mammals. The most common large mammal is the white-tailed deer, which, when disturbed, will ‘flash’ the white underside of its distinctive tail. The deer are often seen prancing across the road in wooded rural areas, particularly early or late in the day. Other species include mink, river otter, red fox, coyote (similar to a large, grey-brown fox), red squirrel, seven types of bat, eastern chipmunk (reddish-brown in colour with five distinct black stripes down its back and a member of the squirrel family), and various members of the weasel family including the American marten.

Mammals with which visitors from the UK may be less familiar include the porcupine, common on the mainland. The porcupine – the province’s second largest rodent after the beaver – is an excellent climber. It has strong, short legs with powerful claws and is covered with thousands of sharp quills. Porcupines feed on twigs, leaves, buds and the inner bark of trees and are nocturnal (so I was surprised to find two up one of my apple trees recently). If you travel off the major highways, you’re likely to see porcupines, but sadly they will almost always be roadkill (killed by traffic). Kejimkujik National Park is a good place to try and spot a live one.

Another common species is the eastern striped skunk, easily recognised by its long, black fur, long, bushy tail, and two white stripes that run along its back. It can grow up to 1m in length. If a skunk turns its back on you and raises its tail, run – or at least cover your eyes: it is about to squirt from its anal glands a particularly malodorous and long-lasting spray. Racoons are found throughout the province: excellent climbers and generally nocturnal, they have small pointed ears, greyish fur, a black mask around the eyes and black rings around a long, bushy tail.

Also known as a groundhog, the woodchuck is the largest member of the squirrel family and grows up to 40–50cm in length. It has a stocky build with a flattened head and short tail. The muskrat is a large (40–50cm) rodent with brown to black fur, webbed feet and a long, scaly tail flattened on both sides. It is an excellent swimmer. The northern flying squirrel is common throughout the forests of Nova Scotia; the smaller and much rarer southern flying squirrel is thought to be limited to parts of the Gaspereau Valley and Kejimkujik National Park. The squirrels have a pair of skin membranes which enable them to glide (rather than fly) up to 35m.


Nova Scotia is a superb birdwatching (we call it ‘birding’) destination. Despite being the second-smallest province in Canada, it boasts the country’s third highest bird species’ total; only British Columbia and Ontario, Canada’s largest provinces, have more.

The province is well situated in all seasons. The surrounding ocean moderates the climate, and the cooler summers mean that northern species can breed – among the 150-plus breeding species are 22 warblers, nine flycatchers and 20 sparrows and finches. The ocean also moderates the winter, with nearly 200 species sighted each year between December and February. And because Nova Scotia lies at the eastern end of the continent, halfway between the Pole and the Equator, many waifs and rarities have visited, comprising more than 35% of the province’s impressive total of 486 species plus several subspecies (as stated in McLaren, I All the Birds of Nova Scotia Gaspereau Press, 2012). A notable subspecies, the Ipswich sparrow breeds only on Sable Island, but is frequently found during migration on coastal beaches.

People and culture

Nova Scotia is home to approximately 943,000 people: the majority live in urban centres, with approximately 40% living in the Halifax Regional Municipality. This means the province’s population density is 17.4 people/km² (England’s is approx 413 people/km²). Official figures released early in 2016 showed deaths outnumbering births.

Almost 80% of the population can trace their ancestry to Scotland, England or Ireland; France and Germany are next on the list. Although the highest number of immigrants continue to arrive from the UK and Ireland, arrival numbers from eastern Europe, the Middle East, and southeast Asia and the Far East are not insignificant. By March 2016, the province had taken in more than 1,000 refugees from Syria. Having said that, Nova Scotia still has one of the smallest percentages of ‘visible minorities’ of any Canadian province/territory. Recent years have also seen many Canadians move here from the provinces of Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia: many sold their homes and realised that – in terms of buying property – their dollars will go much further in Nova Scotia.


As one of the oldest Canadian provinces, Nova Scotia enjoys a rich and varied literary heritage beginning with the ancient oral storytelling traditions of its First Nations peoples. The first written accounts of Mi’kmaq literature in Nova Scotia are credited to French missionary Pierre Maillard (1710 –62), and Mi’kmaq Glooscap legends were retold by acclaimed Nova Scotian author Alden Nowlan (1933–83). Cape Breton poet Rita Joe (1932–2007) is known as the Poet Laureate of the Mi’kmaq and was awarded the Order of Canada in 1989. If you’re interested in reading more about the Mi’kmaq, anthropologist Ruth Holmes Whitehead researched and compiled Mi’kmaq mythology in Six Mi’kmaq Stories and The Old Man Told Us; and journalist and activist Daniel Paul offers a Mi’kmaq perspective on Nova Scotian history in his book We Were Not the Savages. Bear River author Shalan Joudry’s Generations Re-merging is a collection of poems exploring cultural issues encountered by Mi’kmaq women in a modern context.


Nova Scotia has a vibrant artistic community with artists and creators of fine art, folk art, and crafts to be found in countless nooks and crannies.

The province has been home to some impressive fine artists such as Helsinkiborn William deGarthe (1907–83) who lived in Peggys Cove for almost 30 years: much of his work had a marine theme. His home is now a gallery. Willard M Mitchell (1881–1955) lived in Amherst for about 20 years and is best known for his miniature landscape watercolours. Much of the work by Robert Pope (1956–92) who died aged just 35 was inspired by his experience of healthcare and life as a cancer patient. One of Canada’s greatest contemporary artists, Alex Colville (b1920) has spent most of his life in Nova Scotia and has lived in Wolfville for the last three decades.


Music has always been an important part of life in Nova Scotia, particularly since the Scots began to pour into Pictou in the 1770s (page 298). Whilst a wide variety of musical genres has begun to take off, this has not been at the expense of the popularity of Celtic music: whether traditional or fused with other styles, Celtic music is very much alive, well, and thriving in 21st-century Nova Scotia. Some visitors come primarily for the music; others look back on their time in Nova Scotia and realise what a highlight the music was.


Long before the Europeans arrived, the Mi’kmaq had their customs, tales – most of which involved Glooscap (sometimes written as ‘Kluscap’), a mythical demi-god who slept using Nova Scotia as a bed and Prince Edward Island as a pillow – beliefs and sayings. As a consequence of the trials and tribulations of having to share their land for more than four centuries, some of their folklore was lost forever. The work of people such as Silas Tertius Rand has helped to stop even more being forgotten.

The Europeans – particularly those of Celtic origin – brought their own folklore with them, and over time this has been shaped by their lives and surroundings in Nova Scotia, with the sea perhaps the biggest infl uence. Most early immigrants from Scotland and Ireland in particular arrived with a belief in God and the supernatural: they were no strangers to stories of mysterious unworldly creatures inhabiting hills, valleys and dark forests (of which Nova Scotia has many). Sprinkle into the mix the (supposedly hostile) local people who lived in tepees, spoke a strange language and had strange customs. Then add the sea: fog and sea mists, huge tides, howling wind, pirates. The result is an incredibly rich folklore of sea shanties, songs and ballads, proverbs, tales of buried treasure, witches, all manner of superstitions – and so much more.

Many of her books are collections of tales of ghostly (or at least unexplained) happenings. These tell of ‘forerunners’, phantom ships, ghosts guarding buried treasure, and non-threatening spectres who just pass by. And her material didn’t just come from the Scots and Irish: she collected many stories from those of German, Acadian (in the 1830s, a French missionary recorded that some of the Acadians in Yarmouth County used books of spells regularly), Mi’kmaq and English origin.

Back to the top

Nova Scotia articles

View all

Our favourite alternative ski bases

Forget the Alps – here are some of our favourite lesser-known ski resorts from around the world. 


The best places for stargazing

Look at the stars, look how they shine for you.


Forests of the world

Covering even more of the world than our guidebooks, forests are ubiquitous but almost always different. We take a look at some of our favourites from across the continents.


Related books

View all