Chronicles of Duncan MacLeod: The Blind Man’s Biscuits

For Duncan and Hughie MacLeod, summers in Glencoe weren’t all about play. One day they were sent to help old Mr. MacDonald down the road. The old man was part of a large family known locally as the Bornish MacDonalds, to distinguish them from all the other MacDonalds, who were (and still are) legion in Cape Breton. (There are lots of MacDonalds in my family tree. When I was a kid, there were 12 pages of MacDonalds in the phone book, and that was just my town.) The boys thought they were in for a fun day, because the old man was blind.

“Watch out!” said the MacGillivray boys, John and Hughie, as Duncan and Hughie were walking to the old man’s place. “Whatever you do, don’t eat his biscuits.”

“Why not?” asked Duncan.

“Because the old man chews tobacco all day,” said one of them, “and he spits it in his hands because he can’t see the pot. Those are the hands he makes the biscuits with. I’m telling you, don’t eat them!”

Duncan and Hughie were thoroughly disgusted by the very thought of biscuits mixed with spit and chewing tobacco. Their faces were still all knotted up when they arrived at the old man’s house.

“Co thusa?” asked the old man in Gaelic in response to Duncan’s knocking. He was looking out over their heads, until Duncan spoke.

“Duncan and Hughie MacLeod, sir. We’re…”

“Ah yes, yes. The MacLeod boys. You’re the ones who walked up the mountain at night. Hah! Isn’t that something? Come in!”

The boys weren’t surprised that the old man already knew about them. Not just because everyone in the area had already heard the story of their arrival, but also because the old man had what people called the second sight. People often went to him for advice on various matters. He was also the local authority on the genealogies of the various families in the area. When young couples wanted to marry, they’d go to him first, to see if they were related and, if they were, how closely.

The old man’s sons, Angus and Colin, weren’t around that day. My grandfather remembers Angus for his giant eyebrows, and Colin for the fact that he was constantly clearing his throat really loudly but never spit anything out. On this particular day, it was just Duncan, Hughie, and the old man.

The boys did some work out in the yard for the old man, and had a little fun with him too. “Oh, look at that beautiful buck out in the yard,” they said to him, describing in great detail a majestic animal that was in fact not there. The old man loved the boys’ description of the buck, and seemed to be buying it, even though they came close to cracking up with every detail they added.

Finally, after the boys had completed their work out in the yard and around the house, the old man called them inside and had them sit at the table. “Now,” he said, “let me give you something to eat.”

Duncan and Hughie shot each other the same look. “Oh no,” Duncan said, “we’re fine. Really, we should be go—”

“Oh go on,” said the old man. “Just a little something. Here, have some biscuits.”

There they were. Before Duncan and Hughie could say another word, there was a tray of tea biscuits on the table before them. The old man gave each boy a small plate and put two or three of the biscuits on each plate.

Hughie was sitting close to an open window, so he quickly tossed his biscuits outside. Duncan, at the other side of the table, was about to do the same, when the old man grabbed his hand.

“Oh, having another one are you? That’s a good boy.” Then he felt his way over to Hughie and ran his hands over the empty plate, and Hughie’s empty hands. “Gone already! Oh, you like my biscuits, do you? I made them myself!” He took another biscuit from the tray and put it into Hughie’s hand. “Here you go, have one more.”

With the old man standing over him, breathing on him, those brown, knotted hands mere inches away from his face, Hughie had no choice: he ate the biscuit. Duncan grimaced and looked away. He didn’t want to be next, so he put one biscuit into his pocket, and left the other one on the plate. When the old man came back and felt the plate, Duncan said, “I’m quite full. But your biscuits are delicious.” By this time, Hughie’s face was a disturbing shade of green.

The boys had only managed to get a few steps out of the yard when Hughie threw up. He was still wiping strings of puke-coloured drool from his mouth when the boys came to the MacGillivrays’ house. The MacGillivray boys were out front, with their dog.

“Jesus, you ate the old man’s biscuits, didn’t you!”

“Hughie had to eat one,” Duncan laughed, “but not me.” With that, he pulled the biscuit out of his pocket and held it aloft. Hughie threw up again as Duncan examined the vile thing in his hand. Shaking his head, Duncan tossed the biscuit in the direction of the MacGillivray boys’ dog.

No sooner had the biscuit hit the ground than John MacGillivray lunged and kicked it away.

“Are you crazy?! he screamed. “Don’t give that to the dog!”

***

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: Black Bears & Blueberries

Not long after their walk up over River Denys Mountain, nine-year-old Duncan MacLeod and his eight-year-old brother Hughie went to church with their uncle Dan and the other MacLeods. Saint Margaret of Scotland Church had been completed in 1841 and had literally grown with the community: it had actually been split in half one year; the two halves had been pulled slightly apart, and a new section built in the middle. In 1937 the priest only came every two or three weeks, but the church was still the centre of a small but thriving Gaelic community. On Sunday mornings — especially when there was a priest in attendance — all the Catholics in Glencoe squeezed into the church.

Saint Margaret of Scotland Church on River Denys Mountain
Saint Margaret of Scotland Church on River Denys Mountain

On this particular Sunday, Duncan and Hughie MacLeod were celebrities. Everyone knew about their walk and their late-night arrival at Dan MacLeod’s house; those who hadn’t heard the story yet soon knew the details, as the priest made sure to tell the whole story to his flock. Children always sat in the small sections that served as a sort of upper floor, but Duncan and Hughie were allowed to sit on the ground floor with their aunts and uncles. They were the darlings of the district.

The interior of Saint Margaret of Scotland Church.
The interior of Saint Margaret of Scotland Church.

After the church service, as the boys stood outside listening to the strange, melodious Gaelic language being laughed into the light summer breeze, a lady turned to them and said in English, “Oh dear, what an adventure! Weren’t you afraid of all the bears?”

Duncan and Hughie looked at each other and the colour drained from their well-pinched cheeks. Bears?

The MacLeod boys were lucky they hadn’t encountered bears on their trek up the mountain, since the woods in that area were full of them. In fact, there were so many bears in the area, it was only a matter of time before they came across one.

Public-domain photo of an American black bear from Wikipedia.
Public-domain photo of an American black bear from Wikipedia.

One fine summer day — I don’t know if it was the first summer they spent up there or the second — Duncan and Hughie were sitting in a large blueberry barren that was practically right across the MacLeod Settlement Road from their grandparents’ house in Upper Southwest Mabou. They were happily stuffing themselves with blueberries when they looked up and saw a couple of black bears sitting at the opposite edge of the barren, also happily stuffing themselves with blueberries. The boys and the bears eyed one another for a few moments…then they all went back to happily stuffing themselves with blueberries, albeit with a cautious eye on the other diners.

On my first trip up to that area in 2001, I had reached a dead end and was slowly driving in reverse down a narrow, bumpy road near the brook just south of the old MacLeod homestead, when something black moved swiftly across the road behind me. I just managed to catch a glimpse of it, more a shadow than anything else, as it flitted out of my field of vision and disappeared into the dense forest. Leen saw the look on my face and asked what was wrong.

“I just saw something run into the woods,” I said.

“What was it? A deer?”

“No, it was black. I’m pretty sure it was a black bear. Papa told me these woods are full of bears.”

Leen’s face went ashen. Bears?

***

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: Up Over the Mountain

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.