Chronicles of Duncan MacLeod: Hold Fast

The death of her husband at noon on the 2nd of June 1937 was a harsh blow to my great-grandmother, Susan MacLeod. But if she thought that day couldn’t possibly get any worse, she was wrong. After the funeral, Father MacGillivray showed up at the door of her small apartment on Intercolonial Street with two nuns and several large paper bags.

“We’ve come for the children,” he said. “They belong to the Church.”

The death of John Rory MacLeod meant Susan was left to care for not only the several children they’d had together, but also John R’s two children from his first marriage (though the elder of the two, Donald, was in his teens and just about ready to fend for himself) and Big Jim, the mentally-challenged brother of John R’s late first wife. To top it off, Susan was heavily pregnant. Suddenly she was left to care for a double-digit family all by herself.

They belong to the Church. The words reverberated in Susan’s head like heavy rocks thrown down a dry stone well. As she stood there trying to come to terms with what was happening, the two nuns went around the apartment stuffing whatever items of children’s clothing they could find into the paper bags. Big grocery bags, with handles. They belong to the Church.

Susan, daughter of a fishing boat captain from Fogo Island, Newfoundland, was Anglican like her father, and had never become Catholic. The Church had permitted John R to marry her, but she’d had to sign papers guaranteeing their children would be raised Catholic. Now that John R was gone, the Church wasn’t going to leave anything to chance.

They belong to the Church. The echo in Susan’s head finally faded from a deafening roar to a faint whisper. Not one to yell or make a scene, she quietly walked to the door of the apartment, opened it, turned to father MacGillivray and said, “Get out. Now.”

Father MacGillivray was about to put up a fight. How could she possibly ensure the children would be brought up as good Catholics? Would she actually take them to church? How did she expect to care for such a large family by herself anyway? How could she? How could she? Those children belonged to the Church!

“These are my children,” she said, her eyes fixed on his. “Now get out.”

Maybe it was the look in her eye. Maybe it was her stance. Maybe Father MacGillivray knew the motto of Clan MacLeod was ‘Hold Fast’. Whatever it was, he could tell she was serious. He walked past her and out through the door, followed closely behind by the two nuns, who still hadn’t spoken a word. Their brown paper bags, the big ones with the handles, were empty again. Before Susan could close the door, Father MacGillivray turned to face her.

“We’ll be back,” he said. He pointed at her round belly. “And we’ll be coming for that one too.”

He made good on that promise. Father MacGillivray and the two nuns came back on more than one occasion. Each time, Susan would send the children running off in every direction. Father MacGillivray never got any of them. Susan MacLeod held fast.

When Susan MacLeod gave birth to her youngest child, Jackie, mere weeks after her husband’s death, she knew she was in real trouble. She had managed to prevent the Church from taking her children away, but knew she couldn’t keep that up for long. Her relatives could help out, but they could only do so much. She needed help.

Susan’s brother-in-law, Donald Ignecious MacLeod, known to all as Dan, stepped in to help. He and his wife Maggie agreed to take Susan’s two eldest boys, Duncan and Hughie, for the summer.

Susan MacLeod struggled and suffered great hardship, with the family never far from excruciating poverty, and sometimes neck-deep in it. But Susan raised her children. She held fast.
Susan MacLeod
My great-grandmother, Susan MacLeod

Ironically, years later, she became Catholic. She never wavered from her determination to protect her children, though, right till the end. For Susan MacLeod, the end came on Saint Patrick’s Day, 1968. She was crossing Prince Street when she was hit by a drunk driver. The force of the impact killed her instantly and threw her from one corner to another. The driver of the car, a prominent local politician, was never punished.

The end of her life was tragic, just like that of her husband. But while she was alive she was not only a great mother to her children, but a shining example of quiet determination, of tenacity in the face of adversity. I’m glad Susan MacLeod held fast. And I’m glad she sent her two eldest sons, Duncan and Hughie, up to Glencoe that summer after John R died. That was the start of an annual tradition of sorts, one which provided my grandfather — and me — with lots of great stories. In fact, the story of my grandfather’s first trip to that side of the island is one of my favourites.

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.

Chronicles of Duncan MacLeod: One Eye, Two Guns, Three Tunes & 25 Cents

My great-grandfather, John Rory MacLeod, was born in July 1889 in Upper South West Mabou, in the district of Glencoe, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Like his uncle Hugh Duncan and his brothers John ‘Mor’ and Duncan, John R left Cape Breton in search of a better life. He worked as a lumberjack in New Brunswick’s forests, then, like his brothers, worked the mines in Ontario. Later he ventured up into the Yukon. The great Klondike gold rush had long since ended, but there was still gold to be found and fortunes to be made, and the Yukon was still a very rough-and-tumble place. According to my grandfather, John R carried a revolver on each hip during his time up north.

Fortune eluded John R, however, and he returned to Cape Breton, where on 12 April 1915 he married Mary Gillis, daughter of farmers Archibald and Mary Ann Gillis of Grand Mira. John R and Mary had two children, a son named Donald and a daughter named Jessie, and John R did his best to make a living to support his small family. He briefly worked as a fireman, but he was fired when his superiors learned he was blind in one eye. I’m not sure if he was born that way, or if he was injured during his time working away from the island. I suppose the reason didn’t matter at the time. John R was out of a job. Lucky for him, the Dominion Iron and Steel Company was always looking for labourers.

Life had more tests for John R, though. Only a few years into his marriage, his wife Mary died of cancer, leaving him to care for his children and his mentally-challenged brother-in-law, Big Jim. John R soon married again, this time to Susan Powell, from the small island of Fogo, Newfoundland, daughter of Eliza Leyte and a fishing boat captain named Nathaniel Powell. John R and Susan welcomed their first child together on 22 November 1927 in the house they lived in on Townsend Street. It was a boy; they named him Duncan, after John R’s brother.

John Rory MacLeod
John Rory MacLeod

Duncan MacLeod, my grandfather, has happy memories of his father. He told me he had to read the Saturday morning paper to his father because John R was illiterate. Duncan — Papa — would even read the little speech balloons as he and his father looked at the comics. Papa told me his father had a fiddle and claimed to know three tunes, though he only ever played one, Red Wing (here’s a video of someone playing that tune).

Something else Papa remembers about John R is that he and Susan never fought, never argued at all. Papa only ever saw his mother, a very quiet person, get angry at his father once. It was just after a blizzard, and John R had left the house to make the long, difficult walk to the steel plant to shovel snow. He’d been gone a long time but suddenly reappeared at the door. When Susan asked him what he was doing home, he said he’d got halfway to work when a drunk asked him for money; he didn’t have any so he’d come home to get a quarter. That was the only time Duncan MacLeod ever saw his mother get angry at his father.

John R and Susan had several more children and, though every extra mouth to feed meant life would be more difficult, they were happy. But at the beginning of June, 1937, all that came to an end. John R was walking home from work on June 1st when a truck carrying a full load of hot slag (the stuff left over when coal is burnt) lost control and crashed, dumping its contents right on top of him. He suffered horrific burns from the waist down and was rushed to the hospital. His boss sent someone to his home (at the time the MacLeods were living in a 2nd-floor apartment on Intercolonial Street) to tell Susan that John R had had a “little accident”. Susan was told there was no need to go to the hospital. The next morning, however, Father MacGillivray came to see Susan and told her she needed to go to the hospital right away.

When Susan got to the hospital she was told she could talk to her husband but couldn’t look behind the curtain that was draped between them. So she sat and talked with John R, who asked her if the children were okay. “Make sure the boys are in by seven,” he said to her. Then he died, just as the church bells were ringing at noon. John Rory MacLeod was just shy of his 48th birthday.

Life was hard while John R was alive; now that he was gone, Susan and her children were about to find out just how hard it could be. 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.

East Malaysia Just Got a Lot More Bumiputeras

I guess the timing of all this talk about ancestry and Bumiputera status couldn’t have been better. In the comments to my recent post about ‘official’ ancestry and the new birth certificates, there was some mention of the differences between West Malaysia and East Malaysia, particularly with regards to Bumiputera status. Basically, while someone born in West Malaysia need only have one Bumiputera parent in order to enjoy Bumiputera satus, in Sabah and Sarawak things have been different. In Sabah, the Bumiputera had to specifically be the father of the child; in Sarawak, both parents had to be Bumiputera. The most obvious effect of this was to deny Bumiputera status to children of mixed marriages where the father was not Bumiputera, and in Sarawak’s case, any mixed Bumiputera/non-Bumiputera marriage.

Notice I switched to past tense there. That’s because the Government of Malaysia recently decided that children in Sabah and Sarawak with at least one Bumiputera parent (mother or father) will now enjoy Bumiputera status. A big hat tip to Bin Gregory, who alerted me to a memo from the Ministry of Higher Education to all institutions of higher education in Sabah and Sarawak, which basically says exactly what I’ve stated above.

This is definitely good news. I’m not sure whether they did it because it was the right thing to do, or because the bestowal of Bumiputera status on the mixed children of a certain East Malaysian politician with staggering wealth and power was seen as a way to keep him, his children, and the BN government firmly entrenched there. Whatever the government’s reason, this change to the rules is good for the people of Sabah and Sarawak, and for the country as a whole.

UPDATE: Following is the text of the memo, which can be downloaded here.

23 November 2009


Y.Bhg. Tan Sri/Datuk/Dato’/Prof.,


Dengan hormatnya, saya merujuk kepada perkara di atas.

Dimaklumkan bahawa Kerajaan telah bersetuju untuk mengiktiraf secara pentadbiran taraf Bumiputera kepada rakyat di Sabah dan Sarawak, iaitu bagi anak-anak yang salah seorang ibu atau bapanya adalah Bumiputera. Kerajaan juga memutuskan supaya semua kementerian, jabatan dan agensi Kerajaan melaksanakan keputusan tersebut.

Sekian, terima kasih.


Saya yang menurut perintah,


You can read more about this in Bin Gregory’s reaction to the news.