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.


Shortly after I woke up Friday morning I called my grandparents to wish them a happy 63rd wedding anniversary. Papa told me that he had turned to Nana that morning and asked, “If you had known what the next 63 years would be like, would you have still made it to the church?”

When it was time for Wally Martell to walk his 16-year-old daughter Mary Theresa down the aisle on that day in 1946, father and daughter were nowhere to be seen. Each minute that passed struck like a thunderbolt. Papa was nervous but he was ready to wait an hour, the customary maximum. But then Nana arrived. It turned out her father’d had some car trouble. She was late, but she was at the church in time to become Mrs. Duncan MacLeod.

So would she have still rushed to the church, if she had known what she was in for?

“Of course,” she said to Papa, with a smile and not a hint of hesitation.

I suppose it’s true that a lot of old married couples don’t express their love the way younger couples do today, and my grandparents are pretty typical. Separate beds and all that. But as different from Nana and Papa as Leen and I may be, I really hope we can have a conversation like that in the winter of our life together, whenever that may be.

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.