PICTOU, N.S. -- Standing in the bowels of the Ship Hector, it's hard to believe that nearly 200 people crammed into the rows of bunks for a trying 11-week voyage from Scotland to Nova Scotia more than two centuries ago.

An exact replica of the 37-metre wood vessel is berthed in Pictou, N.S. -- a floating museum that recounts the journey of the 189 men, women and children who left Scotland in 1773 in search of a new life.

The excursion would prompt a wave of Scottish immigration to Nova Scotia that helped shape North America.

"This is our Mayflower. This is as important to us as the Mayflower is to the United States," said John Meir, vice-chairman of the Hector Quay Society. "It set off a huge wave of immigration and Pictou became one of the centres of immigration for North America."

After several years of construction using the original designs, traditional building methods and mostly the same materials, the replica Ship Hector was launched in 2000.

The colourful vessel floating in Pictou Harbour is part of Hector Heritage Quay, which includes a three-storey interpretive centre as well as brightly painted outbuildings that house blacksmith, carpentry and rigger shops.

The site -- visited by Prince Charles and his wife Camilla in 2014 -- offers various options: a self-directed tour with or without an audio guide as well as guided tours.

In the main lobby of the interpretive centre, dozens of tartan banners bearing the family names of Ship Hector passengers -- Innes, Sutherland and MacKay, to name a few -- hang from the wood-panelled walls.

The faint sound of bagpipes can be heard as large wall displays and exhibitions recount the history of the Hector, beginning with the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

"The British wanted to drive out the clans from Scotland," said Meir in a charming English accent, explaining that the British handily won that battle and eventually ended up forbidding Scots to wear kilts or play bagpipes.

"Their way of life was basically destroyed by the British."

John Witherspoon, a Scottish man who fled Culloden to the United States, had purchased thousands of acres of land in Nova Scotia and decided to sell it to families in Scotland who wanted to leave.

He converted the Hector from a three-masted cargo ship meant for short hauls to a passenger vessel bound for New Scotland -- but the rotting ship was never built to withstand a trans-Atlantic sail.

The journey to Brown's Point in Pictou Harbour took about 11 weeks, with a hurricane off the coast of Newfoundland causing a two-week delay. Smallpox claimed 18 lives during the voyage, many of them children.

It is dark, cold and damp in the belly of the Hector, where there are rows of bunks four beds high.

But on the deck visitors drink in the ocean air.

Peering out of the captain's cabin, one can imagine waves crashing over the sides of the ship as the crew wards off hurricane conditions while bagpipes play beneath the deck, trying to lift the spirits of weary passengers.

Meir said the hope is that within the next five years the Hector will become a sailing museum.

The society bought the boat in 2010 for a few dollars because the town, which built the ship, couldn't afford to keep running it. Efforts are now underway to fundraise the roughly $1.5 million needed to get the vessel sailing.

"Everyone who comes, they're blown away by the story of the Hector," said Meir, standing under cloudy skies on the deck of the vessel.

"The Hector played a part in the whole formation of North America."


If You Go...

The Hector Heritage Quay will open for the season on May 30 and close in mid-October.

Admission costs $8 for adults, $6 for seniors, $3 for students and $20 for a family. Admission for children is free.

To book tickets, call 902-485-4371 or email hectorquaysociety"gmail.com; email shiphectortoursandevents"gmail.com for group bookings.