I first heard of the Halifax Citadel soldier for a day experience on the BBC program, Great Canadian Railway Journeys hosted by the always-colourful Michael Portillo. I thought this looked like great fun and an experience not to be missed.
And, since I’m originally from Scotland, the idea of re-enacting a soldier’s life in a Highland regiment for a day seemed kind of patriotic, so it immediately went on my bucket list.
This summer, I got to cross it off the list 🙂
About the Halifax Citadel, aka the Halifax fort or Fort George
The star-shaped Citadel, as I write about in Nova Scotia’s best day trips, sits atop the highest hill in Halifax overlooking the great harbour, a place that gave it’s powerful cannons advantage over any attacking ships and armies.
The first version was built in 1749 and named Fort George after the reigning British king at the time. It was there to help defend British territory in the maritimes and protect the Halifax naval station primarily from the French who built their own fort at Louisbourg in Cape Breton. The Citadel was formidable enough that it was never attacked.
The current Citadel is the fourth version to be built and was completed in 1856. British military units were generally posted to the Citadel for a two-year period. In the late 1800s, these included the 78th Highland Regiment of Foot and the 3rd Brigade, Royal Artillery. Rank-and-file soldiers lived on 12 cents a day and a diet of boiled beef and bread (yum!).
The Citadel is currently operated by Parks Canada and every year thousands visit to see their portrayal of life the late 1800s. From May to October each year, characters in historically-accurate period dress re-enact life in the fort and visitors can join them through several programs, including the one I was interested in: the Halifax Citadel soldier for a day program.
My Halifax Citadel soldier for a day experience
You can book your experience either by email or phone (contact detail on their site). I ended up using both: email for first contact and then the phone to settle on a date. The folks at the Citadel ask that you book at least two days in advance. I was apparently over-achieving that day — I booked about a month-and-a-half out.
Just to be clear, although its called the Halifax Citadel soldier for a day program, it actually lasts between two and three hours. It’s available twice a day (morning and afternoon) and, of course, you can choose the day and time that suits you best.
The very personable lady on the other side of the phone explained that the Halifax Citadel soldier for a day booking could be postponed or cancelled if there weren’t enough people signed up — an important point to know if you’re on a tight vacation schedule. She helped me find a date for which other people had already booked.
In my case, the other family that had booked for my date never turned up! So I got a very personal tour for the entire day.
They emailed the invoice and I paid online — which is convenient and means that on the day, you don’t have to worry about carrying money or credit cards – even the entry-to-the-Citadel ticket is covered in the price so the fellow at the gate just waves you through — easy-peasy!
On the big day, I woke up to rain (groan!). But we made the 90-minute trek to Halifax anyway, hoping that it would clear before my tour started — and it did, mostly.
We arrived at the Citadel under grey skies and damp humidity, but no rain. This turned out to be a good thing since the nineteenth-century uniforms are true to the original materials (linen, wool) and can get quite hot as you parade around.
Jackie (my better half) tagged along for the experience and took most of the photos for this post and the Citadel staff graciously hosted her as if she was part of the tour group
Finding the parking lot took a minute or two — the twisty roads aren’t necessarily intuitive but they’re well signposted and we eventually found our way. Then it was fun trying to figure out which door took us to the Citadel grounds. We spied someone else finding the door and followed them in.
Emerging in the vast main courtyard, was a WOW moment — its magnificent. The grounds are huge and the high gray fort ramparts and buildings are as close to the 1800s-era originals as Parks Canada can make them.
The staff explained that they try to keep it true to what it was then (other than the addition of electricity and lighting).
When you arrive, go to the information centre and grab yourself a tour brochure. It’s got some great information and a map of the grounds.
There’s no particular place in the fort for Halifax Citadel soldier for a day participants to meet up, so we just said “hello, where do we go?” to the nearest soldier. They quickly introduced us to the young Lance-Corporal who’d be our guide. All the soldiers (both male and female) were dressed in authentic uniforms, each with their own rank, and many wore backpacks and held authentic Enfield rifle replicas.
While we waited for the rest of our tour to turn up (they didn’t), we watched the changing of the guard at the main arched entryway. It’s a very ceremonial process with orders being shouted and several soldiers participating. The funniest part was the order to remove their bayonets before marching single file into the guard station, lest the soldier behind accidentally stab the kilt in front. Ouch…!
Realizing that I would be the lone Halifax Citadel soldier for a day, our guide marched me off to sign my life away as a new conscript. Again, this was all true to the original: I had to fill out the form with a “dip pen” — an older-style pen with a nib and requires you to dip it in a bottle of ink fairly often to make your mark. My “dip” penmanship was atrocious…
Just like the soldiers of the day, my signing bonus was a shilling, albeit a facsimile of the coin. My sign-up form with my nasty, scratchy dip-pen writing and the faux-shilling were mine to keep as souvenirs.
Our young Lance-Corporal guide explained that new British soldier recruits also got a penny a day to be used for their allotment of beer, similar to the “tot of rum” that used to be handed out each day to sailors in the British Navy. The infantry’s beer was a watered-down swill of about two percent alcohol and even the children at the fort were allowed to drink it as it was likely cleaner than the water.
After watching the fort’s soldiers demonstrate musket fire (see the main picture above) it was time to get me outfitted with my Halifax Citadel soldier for a day uniform.
It’s a complicated affair with several layers. The materials are exactly the same as the 1869 uniform — it’s no wonder that you can get hot on a warm day…
By the time I was dressed, I felt impressive in my linen shirt, MacKenzie tartan kilt, bright red doublet, Glengarry bonnet, highland socks, flashes, and spats — although a friend who’s a former Canadian Armed Forces veteran agreed with me that I’d never pass inspection…
The clothier’s offices are as impressive as the rest of the Citadel.
The racks of authentic uniforms and costumes for both men and women come from many periods, from the 1800s through to the first and second world war. All the Citadel folks, men and women, dress in period clothing to make the entire experience as authentic as possible.
The two ladies in the clothier’s offices couldn’t have been more helpful getting me all fitted out and gussied up. As 20-year veterans of the Citadel, they knew all the history of the clothing including how they were made. For example, the regimental crest on the bonnet is one that you can’t buy privately – it’s owned specifically by and for the regiment.
Presently, I emerged from the clothiers’ as a fully dressed Halifax Citadel soldier for a day facsimile of a 78th Highland Regiment soldier.
Our guide told us that, because the uniform is exactly the same as those worn by the Citadel staff, soldier for a day participants are often mistaken for the regulars and have their pictures taken by tourists. Given that I am visibly older than the mostly-university-aged regular soldiers, that wasn’t something I had to deal with…
Still, walking around the fort in my stiff heavy uniform that encouraged me to stand straight and tall (my Mom would have been proud) and looking at the well-restored ramparts, I couldn’t help but feel a connection to the Halifax Citadel soldiers of past days. Is this how they felt in uniform and is this what my fellow Scots saw every day in the fort 150 years ago? It was easy to get a bit lost and imagine myself in the past.
We peppered our poor Lance-Corporal guide with question after question — but she was amazingly knowledgeable and answered every one of them completely and just off the top of her head.
She told us about a special program for kids: they’re charged with finding the spy that dwells within the fort. They sleuth that out by asking random targets questions about late-1800s life to see who knows the correct answers. You don’t know the correct answers? Then, you must be the spy…
She said there have been occasions when the kids have asked soldier for a day participants who, of course, answer the question incorrectly and become immediate suspects in the spy caper!
She also showed extreme patience as I tried to learn simple foot drills and how to handle the authentic breech-loading Enfield infantry rifle (they don’t risk giving us new recruits the bayonet!). I can only imagine what it’s like with a full tour of Halifax Citadel soldier for a day participants…
The Enfield is not a “muzzle-loader” (in which you load the ball from the front of the barrel and add the gun powder separately). By 1869, the cartridge had been invented and these are loaded one-at-a-time in the top of the rifle. Our Lance-Corporal handed a cartridge to me for each of the four firings of the rifle.
Again, she showed extreme patience as we ran through the firing drill: she barked each order, commanding me to hoist the rifle from my side, to my shoulder, forward to my hip and then to a firing position, to pull on the hammer, to aim the rifle, and finally to fire it.
Then I’d pop the expended cartridge out of the breech and hand it back to my guide. Each action was the result of an order and the precision of movement that it required eluded me most of the time. However I wasn’t far off and she kindly didn’t offer any detailed critique of my attempts, only encouragement.
On my third shot, the cartridge actually fractured in the rifle’s barrel and it was only through the knowledge of our Lance-Corporal and a bit of body language she was able to get it out to let me take the fourth shot.
The only thing not terribly authentic was the safety glasses and earplugs I wore. Given the level of noise the rifle makes, I’m sure my nineteenth-century counterparts would have welcomed ear protection!
And I suppose the fact that there is not much of a kick when the rifle fires is not terribly authentic either — this is because the cartridge is a blank and there’s no bullet coming out of the muzzle. But I could see the wad in the blank bullet shoot out… which is one reason we were firing towards the safety of a stone wall some metres (yards) away.
Next, we got a private in-depth tour of the Citadel, including many of the areas we might have missed if we looked around on our own. There was the schoolhouse classroom in which soldier’s families were educated. And they had a special D-Day exhibit that mirrored the Normandy beaches and defenses allied soldiers encountered on that terrible day.
Then it was time to relax with a spot of tea and some biscuits in the painstakingly-restored officer’s mess and reflect on what we’d seen and done so far. In spite of the periodic drizzle outside, I was having a great time and Jackie persevered in the rain to take most of the pictures for this post.
After our tea and biscuits, we climbed the stairs to the upper level of the main building to watch the cannon firing at noon.
This is a daily tradition in Halifax, and if you didn’t know about it (as Jackie didn’t the first time she was in the city at noon), it can be a bit heart stopping. But for the locals, it’s just a regular part of the day: the 12-inch 5600-lb cannon has been fired at noon most days continually since 1857.
Once the cannon had boomed it was time to go back to the clothiers and give back the uniform. But not before I was distracted by a piper and his bagpipes. I had to be dragged away…
On the way out, we had a good look in the gift shop and came out with several books and some historical pieces like a facsimile newspaper from the day the Titanic went down (Halifax played a big role in recovering many of the dead and there is a burial ground in Halifax for many of them).
As I left the fort, I was thoroughly content about my day as a Halifax Citadel soldier for a day. As Michael Portillo asked in his BBC program, would I have made my Scottish mother proud? Well, proud might have been stretching it a bit, but she’d have certainly had a good laugh. 🙂
Other things to do while you’re at the Halifax Citadel
Historic guided tour
You can take a tour, guided by one of the period-costumed staff, around the Halifax Citadel site to learn all about fort life in the 1800s. Offered in both English and French, these are run from May to October and start at the Citadel’s information centre. You’ll see the musketry gallery, clothier shop, the gun battery and a much more.
The ghost tour
This tour is in the evening as it starts to get darker. You start at the drawbridge at the main gate, and are led by candlelight through tunnels, prison cells, and dimly-lit passages. Your 1800s-costumed guide will regale you with true stories of unexplained events in the fort in the actual locations they occurred. These tours are offered on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings as long as the weather permits.
Coffee bar and gift shop
The coffee bar is in the original soldiers library and it serves coffee, a snack, or lunch (and from our experience, we know they have tea and biscuits!). Next door, the gift shop, formally called the Halifax Citadel Regimental Shop, has lots of souvenirs to remember your day by. We bought postcards and several books about the Citadel and one that claimed that the Scots invented Canada!
None of your two-percent beer here
As I mentioned above, soldiers were allotted a penny-a-day for their ration of two-percent beer. Today, things are a little more potent — Halifax distiller Compass Distillers has partnered with the Citadel to offer three different tours in which you see where the spirits are aged in oak barrels inside the fort, hear about the history of spirits at the Citadel, and taste samples of Compass’s Citadel-related products: Noon Gun Gin, Fort George Genever, and Daily Ration Rum.
Limited time? Take a guided historic tour of Halifax and Peggy’s Cove
If your schedule is just too tight to squeeze in the Halifax Citadel soldier for a day experience, take advantage of this four-hour guided tour to see many of the historic sites in Halifax/ Peggy’s Cove, including Citadel Hill.
The tour includes a scenic drive up to Peggy’s Cove, a tour of the Citadel, and a detailed driving tour of downtown Halifax — a quick and convenient way to take in all the historic sights when your time is limited.
Pickup and drop-off is available from any hotel in the downtown Halifax area.
Follow this link to book your historic Halifax tour.
The Halifax Citadel soldier for a day experience: unique and unforgettable
From the time I first learned about this experience on the BBC program, Great Canadian Railway Journeys, I was looking forward to being a Halifax Citadel soldier for a day.
The experience lasted about 2-3 hours and was thoroughly enjoyable and very educational. If you’ve got any interest at all in how people lived in days gone by, you’ll love this program and all the activities and historical detail you’ll experience.