Chronicles of Duncan MacLeod: Down by the Brook

When compiling a family history, one basically has two sources of information: documents and oral history. They complement each other quite nicely, in most cases. Sometimes they contradict each other. Sometimes they do both.

Some of the things I’ve learned while researching the history of my mother’s family have contradicted what Papa told me. As impressive as Papa’s memory is, he’s human; he gets things wrong. But I wouldn’t trade his contributions to my knowledge of our family’s history for anything.

Duncan MacLeod’s grandparents, Angus and Jessie MacLeod, were still living when he and his brother Hughie spent their first summer up on River Denys Mountain, back in 1937. Papa and I were talking the other day and when I mentioned his grandparents, he said he was sure they were long dead by the time he and Hughie went up there. He said his uncle Dan would have taken him and Hughie up to see their grandparents. They would have wanted to see their grandchildren, he told me.

I don’t know why Papa doesn’t remember meeting his grandparents, and I feel bad that I annoyed him by telling him they were alive during the summer he spent with his uncle Dan. I know they were definitely alive during the summer of 1937. They wouldn’t stay alive for long though: official government records show Angus and Jessie both died in early 1938. But while Papa doesn’t remember meeting them, his memory of the story of their passing complements what the official records say.

Papa once told me that William MacLeod, also known as Wild Bill, was his grandfather, but I later discovered through my research that it was in fact his older brother Angus. William remained single and died in 1932 at the age of 70; it was Angus who married Jessie MacInnis and had 13 children, including my great-grandfather, John Rory Macleod.

According to the official record of Angus MacLeod’s death, he died at home on January 30th 1938. The official cause of death was ‘Apoplexy’, a term that was often used when someone had died suddenly, most likely of heart attack or stroke. His wife Jessie died just a few days later, on February 5th 1938. Her official cause of death was lobar pneumonia. The physician who’d attended to her, Dr. Kennedy from Mabou, reported that he’d begun treating her on January 27th, which was also the last day he’d seen her alive.

The official records yield other little bits of information that are quite useful as far as my research is concerned. You might say the records tell a story. All records do, if you know how to read them. Official records have told me a lot about my MacLeod ancestors, things even Papa didn’t know. But they still can’t tell the story like Papa can.

Angus was about 20 years older than his wife. (It was either Angus or Wild Bill who, when asked as a young man why he hadn’t married yet, replied, “Because she hasn’t been born yet.”) It must have been difficult for Angus, who was around 90, to see his relatively young wife suffering terribly from pneumonia. He had probably always assumed (though this is just conjecture on my part) that he would die long before she did. Now he was faced with something that must have been unthinkable: life without her.

Maybe Angus thought that just couldn’t happen. I’m not sure, but I know it didn’t happen. On January 30th, Angus went out to get some water from the brook. It was the dead of winter; I’m not sure why his children let him go out there. Maybe they knew. Maybe everyone just knew. Angus went out to get some water from the brook and never came back. He was found down by the brook, dead.

Just a few days after her husband’s death, Jessie succumbed to pneumonia. That’s what the official records tell me. What the records don’t say, though, is what Papa told me: that for years to come, the people of Glencoe would say that Jessie had really died of a broken heart.


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.