On July 2nd, 1937, after school had finished for the summer, Susan MacLeod put her two eldest sons, nine-year-old Duncan and eight-year-old Hughie, on a train bound for Boisdale. The arrangement went something like this: they would spend a night with the Boisdale stationmaster, who lived above the station; the next day they would get back on the train and go to River Denys, where a man named Dan MacInnis would pick them up and take them to the home of their uncle, Donald Ignecious MacLeod — also known as Dan — on River Denys Road. Unfortunately for the MacLeod boys, things didn’t exactly go according to plan. I’m glad they didn’t, though, because what happened next is probably my favourite of all my grandfather’s stories.
Duncan and Hughie got off the train at Boisdale with a giant leather suitcase containing all their belongings, and slept above the station at the home of the stationmaster, as arranged by their mother and Uncle Dan. The next morning they got on another train and rode to River Denys Station. When they got off the train, there was no one there to meet them. They waited a while, then got hungry. So they went over to the local general store and bought orange pop and donuts. While they were outside enjoying their snack, an old man with a horse and wagon came by. Duncan asked him, “If someone was coming from River Denys Mountain, which way would they come from?” The old man told them the road up the mountain was just down the road and across the highway, near Melford.
“Come on,” said Duncan to his little brother. “I don’t want to wait here all day. Let’s start heading that way. Whoever’s coming to get us will see us on the road.” Reluctantly, Hughie agreed, and the boys started walking.
It was slow going with the big suitcase, which was not only heavy but very awkward because the handle was only big enough for one boy to grip at a time. The boys tried various ways of carrying the suitcase, but no matter what they did, it was cumbersome. And the journey was about to get even more difficult: after they crossed the main road at Melford and got onto River Denys Road, they began the ascent up River Denys Mountain.
It didn’t take long for the boys to get frustrated with the big suitcase. They couldn’t just leave it, since it contained pretty much everything they owned. But they couldn’t keep carrying it the way they were. That’s when Duncan got an idea. He found a large stick and put it through the handle, and he and Hughie each held one end. Now the going was much easier. But the road was getting steeper.
After some time they finally saw a house. Hughie was afraid to go near it, so Duncan walked up to the front door alone. The lady who answered the door was surprised to see a little boy standing there, especially one she didn’t recognize. Duncan introduced himself and pointed out Hughie, still standing next to the big suitcase down by the road. The lady said her husband, Mr. MacPhail, was the mail driver; when he returned home from his mail run, he could take the boys to their uncle’s house. Duncan went out to tell his little brother, but Hughie was still too afraid to go into the house. When Duncan told the lady they just wanted to continue on, she gave him some water, and some to give to Hughie. The boys had a drink and set out again.
Following directions the mail driver’s wife had given them, when they had reached a hairpin turn they left the main road. The road to Uncle Dan’s place was barely a road, just wagon ruts with a hump in the middle. To make matters worse, it was getting dark, and Hughie was getting scared. This was just the perfect time for the handle to break off the suitcase, sending the heavy bag to the ground with a thud. The boys jerked and teetered and then stayed very still. Duncan wouldn’t admit it to his little brother, but he was a little scared too.
In those moments of silence, their ears probing the woods for any sound that might signal the approach of friend or foe or ferocious animal, they heard a dog barking. That made Hughie even more afraid, but to Duncan it meant there might be a house nearby. Sure enough, off in the distance ahead of them, somewhere through the trees, there was a light. As the boys continued their climb and went around bends in the road, the light would blink out of view, then reappear. They were practically pushing the bag now instead of carrying it; in fact, they left the bag behind three times, thinking they’d go back for it later, only to change their minds and get it right away when they remembered it contained all their earthly possessions.
Finally they got close enough to the light that they could see a house. It was a small house, on a small hill. The dog was still barking, like it wanted to eat the boys whole. Hughie was terrified, but not Duncan. No, Duncan had been putting on a brave face for his brother, but he was more afraid of what might have been out in those ink-black woods than he was of a barking dog. Duncan walked right up to the dog, reached out a hand, and patted the dog on the head. The animal immediately stopped barking and followed Duncan to the steps of the house, and watched in silence as the little boy knocked on the door.
Dan MacLeod was a little worried. Why hadn’t Dan MacInnis brought the boys over yet? He would have picked them up hours ago, and should have brought them right up. Were they going to spend the night at the MacInnis farm? That seemed like the most logical explanation. Anyway, Dan MacLeod had bigger things to worry about. One of his cows had just given birth to a calf, and he was afraid bears might come after it. The woods in that area were full of bears. Sure enough the dog, Tupper, had started barking late in the evening. So Dan had put a light on outside, hoping he’d be able to catch any predators that might decide to make a try for the calf. Tupper had barked for hours, but nothing had come into the yard, so Dan figured maybe the dog was doing a good job. Still, he couldn’t go to bed as long as Tupper was still barking. So he sat awake in his kitchen. Then he heard a knock at the side door.
When Dan opened the door, there was his nephew, Duncan MacLeod, standing out on the steps, with Tupper sitting next to him, and little Hughie standing at the edge of the yard, behind a big leather suitcase. It was quarter to two in the morning.
“Ios’, Ios’!” yelled Dan. (The boys would soon learn that Jesus in Gaelic was called Iosa.) “Maggie!” he bellowed, “Come quick!”
Soon the whole family was up and standing at the little side door. Dan’s sons, John Duncan and Angus, who were about the same ages as Duncan and Hughie, helped their city cousins lift the big suitcase into the small house. The MacLeod family stayed up until the wee hours of the morning, marveling at the fact that those two little boys had just walked up over River Denys Mountain. It’s not really much of a mountain, at only 200 metres high, but for two small children, dragging a huge suitcase, in the middle of the night no less, it was quite a feat. They had passed several houses, but because it was dark they hadn’t seen them. If not for the light Dan had left on to protect his calf from bears, they probably wouldn’t have seen his house, either.
The next day they learned that the Ford Model A belonging to Dan MacInnis had broken down. Somewhere along the line there had been a communication breakdown as well, and each Dan had ended up thinking the other Dan was going to pick the boys up at River Denys Station.
Thus began Duncan MacLeod’s summer on River Denys Mountain, just down the road from his grandfather’s house at MacLeod Settlement and the community of Glencoe. The people there would never forget the story of the two MacLeod boys who had walked up over the mountain. Duncan MacLeod would never forget it either, nor would he forget the experiences he had and the interesting characters he got to know during that first summer and the one after it.
But those are stories for another day.
Chronicles of Duncan MacLeod is a series of posts on my MacLeod ancestors, based on a combination of research and stories told to me by my grandfather, Duncan MacLeod. To read other posts in the series, click here.