Highland Scots first came to what is now called Antigonish County in 1785, with larger numbers arriving after 1800. For most of the next couple of generations, these Highlanders would continue in their traditional occupations of farming and, to a lesser extent, fishing. During the early decades of the 19th century, they would be inclined to keep to themselves in their Gaelic-speaking communities.
By the middle of the 1800s, however, this began to change. Duncan Grant (1807- 1858) of Lower South River began in business in 1831 and in time became one of the region's leading merchants. Alexander MacDonald, whose people had settled in the Arisaig area, became the foremost builder and architect in Antigonish before his untimely death in 1861. John Boyd of Fraser's Mills sounded in 1852 the Antigonish Casket, which has become today the oldest weekly newspaper in Canada.
Determined efforts were being made to provide for the education of the people of the region. In 1838 Rev. Colin Francis MacKinnon started St.Andrew's Grammar School, and in 1853, as Bishop of Arichat, he founded St. Francis Xavier University. Education opened doors to the professions. Hugh MacDonald of Fraser's Mills was admitted to the bar in 1855. Alexander MacIntosh of Lower South River began his practice of medicine in 1860.
These and other people of vision at the time recognized that life was changing for the inhabitants of the region, and they sought away to preserve the language and customs of their fore fathers. After a series of informal discussions, they met at the store of Duncan Chisholm on August 22, 1861 to formally establish the Antigonish Highland Society.
The Society would endeavor to protect and perpetuate the language, customs, music, and games of the Highlands. It would be non-denominational and would attempt to provide hospitality for Highlanders away from home and support for its members who had fallen on hard times.
The Society's first president was Dr. Alexander MacDonald (1782-1871), who was approaching his 80th year of age at the time. Dr.MacDonald, a highly-regarded Presbyterian physician, had provided unfailing medical service to the people of the district for decades. Other early officers were Roderick MacDonald (1826-1886), known as 'Rory Denoon', professor of mathematics at St. F.X.; Duncan Chisholm(1817-1866), an Antigonish merchant; Donald MacKenzie (1830-1879), born in Malignant Cove and also a merchant; and Hon. Dan MacDonald, a lawyer and the son of Dr. Alexander MacDonald.