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: 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.

Mac or Mc?

Most people who know me (and probably most people who read my blog) know that it really annoys me when someone spells my last name wrong. Actually, it annoys me a little less these days, just because I’m so used to it. But it’s still annoying. No matter how many times I tell people it’s M-a-c-V-a-y, I still see all sorts of different spellings. Probably the most common misspelling is the use of Mc instead of Mac. But while I’ve always found it somewhat irritating to see my name spelled M-c-V-a-y, lately I’ve been thinking it might be just as correct — or at least almost as correct — as the way I currently spell my name.

First things first: Both Mac and Mc mean exactly the same thing. Mac means son in both Scottish Gaelic and Irish. Contrary to popular belief, it does not mean son of. Instead, the word mac before a name places that name in the genitive case, which in Gaelic necessitates what’s called lenition or aspiration. In plain terms, that means the first letter of the name changes a bit. Names beginning with B, for example, will become Bh, which sounds like V. Hence beatha, meaning life, becomes bheatha (which is, interestingly enough, very similar to words for life in Latin languages), so that the family name becomes MacBheatha, which is pretty much pronounced the same as MacVay.

Mc is simply a contraction of Mac. There are all sorts of theories out there about the difference between Mac and Mc, the most common being that Mac is used by Protestant and Mc by Catholics (and also that Mac is Scottish, Mc is Irish), but while that may be true in some cases (more on a possible example below), in most cases Mc is nothing more than a contraction of Mac. Here’s a better explanation than mine, an extract from a book called Tartan for Me! by Philip D. Smith, Jr. (which I found here):

Mac, Gaelic for “son”, is the most common element of Scottish and Irish surnames. In both countries, Mc is always an abbreviation of Mac. There is absolutely no truth to the American myth at Mac is Scottish and Mc is Irish. Mac used to be abbreviated M’ although this spelling is not common now. At times, all three versions can be seen. in an early book on Highland music, the author spelled his own family name three different ways on the first two pages — “MacDonald”, “McDonald”, and “M’Donald.”

Black’s The Surnames of Scotland and MacLysaght’s The Surnames of Ireland both treat Mac in the same way — as the only and original spelling. Persons seeking a name spelled “Mc” are expected to know that it is a conventional abbreviation for Mac. This same approach is used in Tartan For Me! To find “McDeal” look for “MacDeal.”

Mac is always considered an addition to a name. Before there was a “Donald’s Son” there was a “Donald”. In both Scotland and Nova Scotia, names beginning with Mac were traditionally alphabetized under the first letter of the second name — MacArthur under “A”, MacZeal under “Z”. Many Scots dropped “Mac” as they became Anglicized or emigrated, “Mac Wyeth” becoming simply “Wyeth”. “Kinzie” is from “MacKenzie”. The one notable exception is the Innes and MacInnes families, each quite distinct. The Innes family have Pictish roots and are from the east coast of Scotland with a red tartan. The MacInnes are of Gaelic origin from the west coast and wear a green tartan.

Mac takes a variety of pronunciations. In Islay Gaelic, Mac is pronounced like /mek/. In the United States one hears it as “mick”. Preceding a /k/ or /g/ sound, the final /k/ of Mac disappears. It became the practice in both the south of Scotland and in Ireland to write two words as one (MacGill to Magill; MacHale to Makale). In other names the /k/ sound of Mac is duplicated and attached to the front of a following word if it begins in a vowel (MacArter to MacCarter). The reverse also occurs. If the second name begins with a /k/ or /g/, producing two /k/ sounds together, one may disappear (MacGill to Magill; MacKenzie to MacEnzee). Mac is at times pronounced “muck” and written that way (Mac ‘il Roy to Muckleroy).

There’s also an interesting bit about the Anglicization of Gaelic names being helped along by the fact that a lot of Gaelic speakers could not read or write Gaelic (this one’s debatable) and would therefore just write names in English as they sounded in Gaelic.

Anyway, I’ve always taken it for granted that my family has used the MacVay spelling for a long time, beginning way back in Scotland, before my family moved to Ireland in the 17th century. Sure, the name was always recorded as McVay (or McVey, McVea, McVeigh, McVeagh, etc.) on old documents from Scotland, Ireland and Canada…but I know my MacVays have always spelled the name M-a-c-V-a-y, at least in Canada.

Or have they?

The grave of Alexander and Elizabeth MacVay
The grave of Alexander and Elizabeth MacVay

When I posted my family’s history a few months back, someone noticed the McVay spelling on my great-great-grandfather’s gravestone and asked in the comments if the family name had once been spelled that way. Here’s what I wrote in reply:

I’ve seen the name spelled McVay on documents, and of course on that gravestone. As far as I know, in my family it’s always been MacVay. Some members of the family got used to the McVay spelling and stuck with it, but most continued to use MacVay, even when they were still in NB. It would have been MacVay originally anyway, ‘Mc’ just being a contraction.

One interesting thing is the presence of the lines under the ‘c’ in ‘Mc’ on the gravestone. Alexander’s name was also spelled that way on the birth certificate of his daughter Isabella in Scotland in 1855. The clerk who copied down the name didn’t spell other ‘Mc’ names with the little lines. I know the lines were used to signify a raised ‘c’ (and therefore ‘Mc’ as a contraction of ‘Mac’); I suspect they were also used to show that a name spelled with the contraction ‘Mc’ was actually spelled ‘Mac’, whereas ‘Mc’ names without the little marks were always spelled ‘Mc’. That’s just a theory though. The short version of all this: I’m pretty sure we’ve always spelled it MacVay.

I now know that all of the descendants of my great-great-grandfather used the MacVay spelling, but in spite of that, I have to admit there’s another possibility besides what I wrote in that comment. That possibility is that my great-great-grandfather, Alexander MacVay, may have actually spelled his name Alexander McVay. The 1855 Scottish birth record of Isabella MacVay that I mentioned in that comment provides another clue: it appears to contain my great-great-grandfather’s signature, which reads Alex McVay. It looks like it may have actually been written by the clerk, because it looks suspiciously like the other signatures on the page. But if it is indeed my great-great-grandfather’s writing (the only example of it I have ever seen), then it appears the family name may have actually been McVay.

While the whole Scottish/Irish/Protestant/Catholic explanation of the difference between Mac and Mc may not be generally true, interestingly enough it may have been the reason behind the spelling change (if indeed there was one) in my family’s name. When my family arrived in St. Stephen, New Brunswick in the early 1860s, they found a number of McVays already living there, all Irish Catholics who had been in the area for many years. My family had lived in Ireland for several generations but didn’t consider themselves Irish. They were Ulster Scots who were fiercely proud of their Scottish roots; they were also staunch Presbyterians. Had my family settled in Cape Breton straight off the boat, I might just think they changed the spelling to fit in with their neighbours (who mostly used Mac). Instead, it seems like my family may have been trying to do the opposite.

Sure, it’s possible the spelling was MacVay all along. Like I said, maybe that signature wasn’t really written by my great-grandfather. And maybe the name was spelled wrong by whoever made that gravestone. All possible, but I’m not sure. After all, Alexander’s eldest son, my great-grandfather William MacVay, was an expert stonemason and may have made that gravestone himself, or at least had a hand in it.

Whatever the case, the name is MacVay now and my kids will be at least the fifth generation to spell it that way. But when I see our name as McVay (when, not if, because it’s pretty much inevitable), maybe I’ll be slightly less annoyed than before. Maybe. But only slightly.