Chronicles of Duncan MacLeod: The Gardener’s Crossing

My great-great-great-great-grandfather, John MacLeod, son of Duncan MacLeod and Catherine (or Catriona) MacLellan, was born sometime between 1762 and 1770 in the village of Laig on the isle of Eigg and married a woman named Effy, who was born in 1771 in nearby Grulin (on an island that small, I suppose everything is nearby). John and Effy had seven children that I know of: Mary, Catherine, George, John, Donald, and a set of twins named Flora and Duncan who were born sometime between 1807 and 1811. Duncan was my great-great-great-grandfather.

Duncan MacLeod worked as a crofter (a tenant farmer) in Lower Grulin, a small village at the base of An Sgurr, and married Annie MacIsaac, daughter of Hugh MacIsaac and Effy MacDonald of Cleadale. Besides being a farmer, Duncan was also an avid gardener, and was apparently skilled enough at gardening that he was eventually able to make a living from it. That is, until the MacLeods were forced to leave the island.

The hardships faced by Highland Gaels after the Battle of Culloden, which resulted in their culture being severely repressed, were compounded by another scourge that would displace many Gaels from Scotland: the Highland Clearances. As the clan system eroded, clan chiefs became landlords and their clansmen became little more than slaves. The situation was made worse by the landowners’ realisation that using their land for grazing sheep would be more profitable than having it worked by tenant farmers. The absentee owner of Eigg (a MacPherson, if I’m not mistaken) began to force the island’s inhabitants from their homes. Among the hundreds of people who left Eigg in 1843 alone — 140 families, with most of the remaining inhabitants cleared out by a decade later — were Duncan and Annie and their nine-month-old son, Duncan. They and the other families joined many, many more who left Scotland to pick up the pieces of their lives in new lands. Today there are still people living on Eigg, but there’s nothing left in the villages of Upper and Lower Grulin but the stone foundations of the houses vacated by the MacLeods and their neighbours.

Sir Walter Scott said of the Clearances:

“In too many instances the Highlands have been drained, not of their superfluity of population, but of the whole mass of the inhabitants, dispossessed by an unrelenting avarice, which will be one day found to have been as shortsighted as it is unjust and selfish. Meantime, the Highlands may become the fairy ground for romance and poetry, or the subject of experiment for the professors of speculation, political and economical. But if the hour of need should come–and it may not, perhaps, be far distant–the pibroch may sound through the deserted region, but the summons will remain unanswered.”

The MacLeods sailed from Tobermorey on 13 July 1843 as steerage passengers on a 448-ton ship called the Catherine. The book Mabou Pioneers, an invaluable guide for anyone doing genealogical research on the families of Inverness County, Cape Breton, lists Duncan and Annie and their infant son Duncan among the passengers, along with Duncan’s twin sister Flora, her husband Alex Morrison, and their children. What the book doesn’t say, however, is that the Catherine never actually made it to Cape Breton.

A couple of weeks into its journey across the Atlantic, the Catherine began to take on water. Rather than risk the possibility of sinking in the middle of the ocean, the captain turned the ship around. On or just before 23 August, the Catherine limped into Belfast harbour, her home port. The passengers, who were all poor and had already paid a lot of money for the passage, were starving because the ship’s master had made them pay for their own bread, pretty much the only food they got for the whole trip, which was supposed to be included in the price of the passage itself. Because the passengers were all destitute, many only got a half-pound of bread each day, half the amount they were supposed to get. Some were so poor they couldn’t afford bread at all and had to rely on help from their fellow passengers.

An officer of the Government Emigration office in Belfast, Lieutenant Peter Stark, was unsuccessful in his attempts to force the ship’s masters to refund some of the passengers’ money, but he did manage to arrange for sufficient food and water to be supplied to them until another ship arrived to replace the very-leaky Catherine. On 1st September, almost two months after they had left Tobermorey, Duncan MacLeod and his family left Belfast on the 501-ton John and Robert, bound once again for Cape Breton. (An account of the incident, including correspondence between Peter Stark and his superiors at Westminster, can be found here.)

Sometime in early October 1843, Duncan MacLeod and his family were among 200 people who disembarked from the John and Robert at Ship Harbour (now called Port Hawkesbury) on the Gut of Canso (now called the Strait of Canso). Duncan and Annie settled on land near Creignish; Duncan worked as a gardener for the Honourable William MacKeen in nearby Mabou. Duncan and Annie had nine more children in Creignish:
Angus, Flora Ann, Jessie (Janet), Effie, John, Hugh, William (Wild Bill), Mary, and Flora. Yes, they had two daughters named Flora, which is nothing really, compared to how many families in the area had several sons named John. I think Flora Ann was probably just called Ann.

Duncan’s siblings from Eigg — George, John, Donald, Mary, and Catherine — also moved to Cape Breton Island in 1843, settling in a place called Egypt Road near Broad Cove Marsh. Except for Mary and Catherine, they all married. I don’t know much about them but would love to.

When the MacLeods arrived on Cape Breton Island in 1843, Scottish settlers had been arriving in the area for several decades, so all of the good land — the land in low-lying areas and on hillsides near the sea along the west end of Cape Breton — had already been taken up. The land Duncan MacLeod and his family lived on in Creignish may have been rented from someone else, or maybe the junior Duncan, now almost 30, was farming the land and the family had grown too large for it. Whatever the case, the senior Duncan MacLeod decided to go for a bigger plot of land. In order to get one, he and his family and other latecomers had no choice but to walk up into the highlands and pick a plot in the less-hospitable inland areas known in Gaelic as an Cul — the Rear. Duncan moved inland with his wife and most of his children in 1871, to a plot of land that would be called MacLeod Settlement, in Upper Southwest Mabou, in the district of Glencoe (where Annie’s parents, Hugh and Effy MacIsaac, who had also left Eigg in 1843, also settled). I’m not sure if they had already cleared most of the land and built a house by the time they moved there, or if they only set about doing that when the family got to their plot. But I do know Duncan MacLeod died of cancer just a year later, on 29 September 1872, leaving the new family farm to his children, one of whom was my great-great-grandfather, Angus MacLeod.

What happened after that? 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.

Chronicles of Duncan MacLeod: The Swans of Eigg

My maternal grandfather, Duncan MacLeod — I call him Papa — once told me we were kicked off the Isle of Skye for stealing sheep. He told me this early in our talks about the family history a few years back, which weren’t really talks as much as they were storytelling sessions, an important part of our culture. I sat in rapt attention as he told me stories of his youth and his family — our family.

I’m not sure if the story about our sheep-stealing ancestor is true. In fact, it turns out Papa was wrong about a few details of our family’s past, and there were plenty of details he never knew at all. Still, his stories form the backbone of what I know about the MacLeods. The rest — things that happened before he was born — I discovered through my own research, and the research of others. It was through this research that I learned of the story of the MacLeods who came before us, the ones who endured hardship and worked to build new lives in other lands.

The historical record of Clan MacLeod goes way back, but the trail of my MacLeod ancestors only goes as far back as 16 April 1746. On that fateful day, two armies met on Culloden moor near Inverness, Scotland: the supporters of Charles Edward Stuart (also known as Bonnie Prince Charlie) on one side, and a force led by William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, on the other. The supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie were fighting to remove the House of Hanover from the British throne and restore the House of Stuart. Known as Jacobites, the prince’s supporters had marched into England but stopped short of London to go back to Scotland to strengthen their ranks, and to wait for ships to arrive from France in support of their cause. The Jacobites were mostly Gaelic-speaking Roman Catholic Highlanders. Some clans, notably the MacDonalds, came out in force to fight for Charles. The chiefs of some other clans, however, would not commit their men. Clan MacLeod was one of those, but the chief decided he wouldn’t stop his clansmen from going off to support the Jacobite cause if they wished to do so on their own. And so a young Highlander named Duncan MacLeod stood among the troops on Culloden Moor that morning. He was my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, and the man whose name would eventually make its way down through the generations to my grandfather and beyond.

Battle of Culloden (1746), a painting by David Morier (taken from Wikipedia).
Battle of Culloden (1746), a painting by David Morier (taken from Wikipedia).

The Battle of Culloden did not go well for the Jacobites. To make a long story short: They lost. The ships from France never came, the Jacobite army was routed, and Bonnie Prince Charlie escaped to live out the rest of his life in Rome. The Duke of Cumberland, who would later earn the nickname ‘Butcher’, ordered Jacobites who were found injured on the battlefield to be killed on the spot. Duncan MacLeod was said to have been among the wounded, but somehow he escaped and probably fled towards Inverness with other surviving Highlanders and continued to Fort Augustus. It was there that on 18 April the Jacobite army was disbanded and the remaining soldiers dispersed, with some fleeing the country and others attempting to resume their lives at home.

According to a book called Fair is the Place, Duncan MacLeod returned to Skye, then later moved to the small isle of Eigg, where he would spend the rest of his life. I’m not sure why Duncan left Skye, but my grandfather may have been right; maybe Duncan fled (or was kicked off) after being caught stealing sheep. Whatever the case, it seems Duncan was a fugitive while he lived on Eigg. A few months after Culloden, men from Eigg who had fought in the battle were rounded up by a Captain Ferguson and sent to the West Indies as slaves. I don’t know if Duncan was even living on Eigg at that time, but it seems for some time while he lived on that island he was a wanted man, because instead of using his own name he went by the name Duncan Swan. Swan appears to have been the surname of a nearby family who were most likely in on the ruse—or maybe there wasn’t anyone on the island whose real name was Swan, all such people being fugitives. Duncan and his family used the name Swan until at least 1764/65, when a religious census was carried out in the Small Isles (like other Catholics, the ‘Swans’ were listed as ‘Papists’). At that time, Duncan was living with his wife, Catherine MacLellan, and their three sons, Donald, Malcolm and John. (These were all just their English names, of course. As Gaelic speakers they would have gone by different names: Donnchadh for Duncan, Iain for John, Catriona for Catherine, etc.)

After Culloden- Rebel Hunting, an 1884 painting by John Seymour Lucas (taken from Wikipedia).
After Culloden- Rebel Hunting, an 1884 painting by John Seymour Lucas (taken from Wikipedia).

Duncan’s son Donald is sometimes referred to as Pioneer Donald. He was born on Eigg in 1752 and married Jessie MacPherson (also of Eigg) when he was a young man. They went to Nova Scotia in 1791 and settled in the Cape D’Or, Horseshoe Bay area, near Parrsboro. In 1808 Donald and Jessie and their seven daughters and two sons moved to the area now known as St. Rose on Cape Breton Island. He was granted some land at Broad Cove Marsh, an area henceforth known as Dunvegan in memory of the MacLeods’ ancestral home. Through their son Duncan, Donald and Jessie had many descendants in that area. Their most famous descendant is the author Alistair MacLeod, one of Canada’s greatest writers, who wrote the novel No Great Mischief. In that novel, one character laments, “If only the ships had come from France.”

Malcolm, another son of Duncan ‘Swan’, moved to Garrick (near Glasgow) and was married to a woman from the Isle of Mull. I’ve read that some of Malcolm MacLeod’s descendants left Scotland and settled in Ontario.

Duncan and Catherine also had three daughters that I know of: Mary, Effy and Ann. Unfortunately I don’t have information about whether they married or had children. I’m sure there are interesting stories in there somewhere.

Donald was the only one of Duncan MacLeod’s sons to settle on Cape Breton Island, my home. However, it was not Donald who would pass on genes that eventually led to me and beyond. Instead, it was his brother John, who married a woman named Effie and died on Eigg.

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.