While I don’t know for sure if Alistair MacLeod’s mention of “our relatives back in the hills” in his story The Closing Down of Summer really does refer to his own MacLeod relatives in Glencoe, I’m certain that those same relatives appear as characters in a story written by MacLeod’s female counterpart. That woman was Tessie Gillis, the “Godmother of Cape Breton Fiction”; the story is her novel, Stories from the Woman from Away.
Gillis was an American who moved to the Glencoe area with her Cape Breton-born husband. Her stories, written late in her life and published after her death, paint a striking picture of her new home, which she referred to simply as ‘the Glen’. The characters in her stories were based on the area’s inhabitants. Gillis didn’t pull any punches in the way her neighbours were depicted, their flaws and dirty secrets laid bare for all to see. She did, however, change their names. In Stories from the Woman from Away, there are several mentions of a family called the MacTavishes. Their real name was MacLeod.
I’m not sure how accurately the MacTavishes mirror their real-world counterparts, as there are characers and events in there that don’t quite fit what I know about the MacLeods (which could simply be because there are things about this family I don’t know). But the MacTavishes were definitely based on the MacLeods, with several pages in the novel devoted to how they made moonshine. And then there was The Dummy.
The Dummy’s name, in the novel, is Dave MacTavish. He was deaf and dumb, hence the nickname. Gillis devoted an entire chapter to Dave, and her fictional self’s encounters with him:
Mary couldn’t believe how anybody could think that Dave wasn’t an intelligent human being. His own brother, Lauchie, always spoke of him as being stupid and senseless but Mary had noticed, on many occasions when there was a problem to be solved on the farm and neighbours came to offer their experience, that it would be Dave’s ingenuity and energy that found a solution. To put a man such as Dave “a-hide” as if he were some penance cast upon his parents and family seemed inuman to Mary. She knew that there was nothing wrong with Dave’s hearing. She had heard him tap his toes rhythmically to the radio or scamper to a window minutes before anyone else heard a sound, sometimes to identify a rig going along the road and find out whether it was going up to his place or turning into the yard. He would utter ugly little sounds but Mary reasoned that since he could hear so well he could also be taught to speak.
I only recently got my hands on a copy of Stories from the Woman from Away, a decade after being informed of its existence by my grandfather’s cousin John Duncan MacLeod. I love the descriptions of Dave, not just because he’s one of the most interesting characters in the book, but because he was one of the most interesting characters in the stories my grandfather told me about his relatives in Glencoe. His real name was John Hughie MacLeod. Everyone called him Hughie. Some people called him The Dummy.
Hughie was born in September 1907, the seventh son of Angus and Jessie MacLeod, and the tenth of their 13 children. He was deaf and mute, which is how he got his nickname. It sounds somewhat cruel, and even Papa sometimes calls him The Dummy. But Papa is quick to point out that, despite the nickname, Hughie MacLeod was no dummy.
Hughie never went to school, but he was smart, and could read lips in both English and Gaelic. He also had an amazing ability to put animals at ease. He could walk right up to a deer and pet it; blue jays would eat out of his hand. The family’s old horse was considered hard to work with, but she would always go to Hughie and do whatever he asked. The others would whip her, but not Hughie. One day the family’s old Pontiac wouldn’t go, so Hughie’s brother Ronald hooked the horse up to it and made her pull the car. Hughie, who was about 30 years old, cried like a baby, big fat tears rolling down his cheeks.
Hughie’s abilities seemed to more than make up for his disabilities. He knew the woods around Upper South West Mabou better than anyone. One day he led Papa and his brother into the woods behind their grandparents’ house and they walked for what seemed like miles and miles until the boys were sure they were lost. But then before they knew it they came out right at their uncle Dan’s house, quite a distance away. Hughie also seemed to be able to ‘hear’ things somehow, in spite of his deafness. Papa remembers sitting outside his grandparents’ house on evenings when his uncle Ronald (who despite being one of the youngest children was the man of the house at the time because everyone else was either dead or away) was out. When Ronald was walking along those country roads at night he would bang rocks together, to keep bears away. Back at the house, Hughie would tap Papa on the shoulder and point down the road; sure enough, a few minutes later, Ronald would emerge from the darkness. Ronald told the boys that somehow, Hughie always knew when he was coming home. He heard him, somehow. It seems he could ‘feel’ sounds, giving some people — including Tessie Gillis — the impression that he wasn’t really deaf at all
Hughie was skinny but strong — strong as a bull, my grandfather told me. He could even lift the rock that everyone said no one except his late brother Duncan could lift. Occasionally, in spite of his gentle nature, Hughie would use that strength to assert himself. Ronald was going to shoot a big owl out of a tree one evening but Hughie ripped the rifle from his hands with the strength of a madman. Then there was the time one of the MacGillivray boys was teasing Hughie, calling him a stupid dummy, making fun of him. Hughie picked him up and slammed him through a window, leaving the stunned MacGillivray lad — along with glass and even the entire window casing — on the ground outside.
That wasn’t the only time Hughie did damage to the MacLeod house. One day when the MacLeod boys were all loaded drunk off a fresh batch of moonshine, they put Hughie behind the wheel of a car and laughed as he drove around in circles. The laughter only stopped when the car hit the house, though knowing the MacLeods there was probably some laughter after that as well.
Except for a couple of very brief stays in Antigonish and Port Hood near the end of his life, Hughie never left the Glencoe area. His tale is entertaining but also sad, especially since he was destined to bear silent witness to the end of the MacLeods of Upper South West Mabou.
But that’s a story 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.