Chronicles of Duncan MacLeod: The Man Who Moved Rocks

After the death of my great-great-great-grandfather Duncan MacLeod in 1872, his wife Annie remained on the family farm at Upper South West Mabou. Except for her son Duncan, who lived in Judique with his family, the rest of Annie’s children — Euphemia, John, Angus, Mary, Flora, Jessie, Flora Ann, Hugh, and William — stayed with her at the MacLeod settlement, which she had built with her late husband.

Duncan and Annie’s son Angus, who had been born around 1848, married Jessie MacInnis, daughter of John MacInnis and Mary Ann MacDougall of Judique Intervale. Angus and Jessie had 13 children that I know of: John (John Mor), John Rory, Duncan, Donald Ignecious (Dan), Annie, Flora Ann, Mary Sarah, Neil Duncan, Hector, John Hugh (Hughie), John Alexander (Alec), Ronald, and Robert.

Angus and Jessie’s son Duncan was born on June 21st, 1890 and grew up at the MacLeod settlement, where the language of everyday communication was Gaelic. In fact, Gaelic culture was thriving throughout Inverness County and over much of the island. Music was — and still is — a big part of that culture. Like the long-established Gaelic storytelling tradition, Gaelic songs and fiddle tunes that had been passed down through the generations provided welcome respite from the often harsh realities of farming life. Duncan, like some of his siblings and many of his ancestors, carried on that musical tradition. A talented fiddler, he was a regular fixture at ceilidhs and dances.

Besides his musical talent, Duncan MacLeod was strong. Visitors who never witnessed his feats of strength were informed by his siblings that there was a rock near their home that only he could move. During Duncan’s lifetime that rock held fast against the exertions of young men from all over the district, yielding only to the touch of young Duncan MacLeod.

Once Duncan was old enough to do more than farm work he put his strength to good use, going to work in the coal mines along the island’s west coast. Inverness, Mabou, and Port Hood were all small towns but were all, at various times, thriving due to coal. For a few years, at least, there were plenty of rocks for Duncan MacLeod to move.

In 1918, Duncan took a break from mining when he was conscripted into the army to fight in World War I. He went to Sydney, where he underwent a medical exam and was described as five feet eleven inches tall, with a fair complexion, blue eyes and fair hair, and fit for military service. He signed the enlistment form with an X because he couldn’t read or write. He was then sent to Halifax to join the 1st Depot Battalion, Nova Scotia Regiment. Soon he sailed for England, where the 1st Depot Battalion would supply reinforcements for the 13th Reserve Battalion, which would in turn provide reinforcements to the 26th and 44th battalions fighting the Germans in France and Belgium.

Like his years in the mines of Inverness County, Duncan likely spent much of his time in England moving rocks and dirt, as he practised digging trenches. It seems he didn’t do much more than that: according to my grandfather, Duncan MacLeod, the war ended before his uncle Duncan even finished his training. My grandfather once joked to me that the war had ended as his uncle was stepping off the ship in England, so he turned around and sailed right back home.

Duncan MacLeod wouldn’t remain in his island home for very long, though.

Cape Breton had seen several waves of immigrants over the years, mostly Scots. But in the early 20th century, long after the last ships full of Highland settlers had arrived on its shores, the island began to see more and more outmigration, as its men went off in search of work elsewhere.Some only went as far as the island’s industrial eastern edge, to work at the newly-built steel mill in Sydney or in the coal mines in nearby towns like New Waterford, Glace Bay and Sydney Mines. Some went down to what they called “the Boston states”, like Duncan’s uncle Hugh Duncan MacLeod, who got married in Massachusetts in 1903 and later settled down in Maine with his family. Duncan’s younger brother Neil Duncan also went down to the US. Others went to work as lumbermen in New Brunswick, like Duncan’s brother John Rory. Duncan, who married Jessie MacDonald from Glencoe, followed in the footsteps of his older brother John Mor (Big John) and went where many, many other Cape Bretoners ended up: the mines of Ontario. There he would move rocks of all sizes in search of a certain type of rock that was more precious than most others: gold.

Mining is and was dangerous work, but Duncan’s job, setting explosive charges to clear large rocks that wouldn’t yield to drills, was especially perilous. When things went according to plan, Duncan could move more rocks than most men could ever imagine; certainly more than he had ever moved on the family farm. Then, on September 26th, 1928, in the Hollinger mine, while working in a ten-man drilling party in a horizontal shaft called the Schumacher drift that followed the golden vein, he laid an explosive charge that for some reason failed to detonate. Since he was the expert in moving rocks, he went back down the shaft alone to see what the problem was. As he was working to reset the charge, it blew, killing 37-year-old Duncan MacLeod and injuring three other miners in his drilling party further up the shaft. Those were the last rocks Duncan MacLeod would ever move.

My grandfather was named after him. Papa told me his father had named him after his uncle Duncan to honour his memory, but my grandfather had already been born when Duncan died. Still, it’s easy to see the connection between my grandfather and the earliest known Duncan MacLeod in our family: Papa was named after his uncle, who was probably named after his grandfather, the Duncan MacLeod who migrated to Cape Breton, who was probably named after his grandfather, Duncan MacLeod of Skye, who fought at the Battle of Culloden.

Duncan MacLeod, the fiddler and miner, was not the first member of the MacLeod family to die tragically, nor would he be the last. Nor would his nephew, my grandfather, be the last Duncan MacLeod.

But those are stories for another day.

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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.