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.

The MacVays, Part One

While I’d like to consider myself a fairly competent, experienced amateur genealogist, and have unearthed a great deal of information about my family history, I have to admit that it’s impossible to write a complete family history. The further back I go in time, the more ancestors I had: two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, 16 great-great-grandparents, and so on. The further back I dig, the bigger my family gets. Statistically, it seems, there’s a point somewhere in the past where most people alive in Europe at the time were my ancestors. If that’s the case, then writing about my family history seems like a pretty massive project. It would be a story of millions of individual lives and the ways they interacted with each other and the world around them. It would basically be a history of…everyone.

Still, it’s interesting to see how much we can discover about our ancestors. It may be near impossible to put together a truly comprehensive family history, but there are things we can know about our ancestors. I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned, beginning with the history of the people whose history could perhaps most accurately be described as my own family history. They were the people from whom I inherited not only some of my genes, but also my family name: the MacVays.

There are several variants of the name MacVay and several possible origins as well. One of the most interesting theories is that my family came from Ireland, where my ancestors were hereditary physicians named MacBheatha, an old Gaelic name which means ‘Son of Life’ (and is pronounced pretty much like MacVay). Around the year 1300, the king they were serving in northeast Ireland sent them to Scotland with his daughter as part of the dowry paid to her new husband, one of the Lords of the Isles. The MacBheatha family were inheritors of what was at the time advanced medical knowledge: the knowledge of the great Arab and Persian scholars Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd and Jabir, knowledge which reached Scotland and Ireland via the monasteries of France and Italy and the centres of learning of Muslim Spain. (There’s even a theory that the MacBheatha family’s knowledge of those scholars’ work led to the invention of whisky, which was called uisge-beatha — water of life). The MacBheathas prospered under the Lords of the Isles (who were later known as the MacDonalds) and later served several other prominent families, such as Clan MacLean. After a few hundred years in Scotland, the descendants of the original MacBheatha physicians bore many different variations of the MacBheatha name, including Beaton and several variants of the name MacVay. By the 1700s, my MacVay ancestors were probably either soldiers or farmers.

At some point, perhaps during the 1700s but most likely during the 1600s, one of my MacVay ancestors, whose own ancestors had gone to Scotland as Irishmen, returned to Ireland as a Scot. My MacVays became what are now known as Ulster Scots, Scottish settlers in what is now Northern Ireland. My MacVays ended up somewhere in County Antrim. I first knew of this around the time that I first got hooked on genealogy, when I found my great-grandfather’s obituary in a micro-film archive of my hometown’s library. As my quest deepened over the years, I found more and more references to Antrim.

Unfortunately, almost 20 years after I first discovered my family’s Irish connection, I still don’t know which part of Antrim my family lived in. I blame this gap in my records on an event seemingly unrelated to my family history, the shelling of the Four Courts building in Dublin in 1922, which resulted in the destruction of most of Ireland’s census returns and other records important to genealogists. Anyone whose ancestors came from Ireland faces a real uphill battle, if not a brick wall. Not one to let a brick wall stand in my way, I’ve done as much detective work as I could, using available census substitutes and what I already know about my family. Somehow I’ve been able to put together a hypothesis that my MacVay ancestors lived in the north of Antrim, specifically in and around the parishes of Billy and Derrykeighan. I might even go as far as to say they may have lived in or near the village of Lisnagunnogue (also spelled Lisnagunagh), not far from the Giant’s Causeway. A historian in Northern Ireland told me he thinks I’m right about that. I have other theories, though — backup theories, we might call them — such as the theory that the MacVays lived in Antrim town, or in its parish, also called Antrim. It’s also possible they came from the parish of Kirkinriola. Maybe someday I’ll find out if any of my theories are correct.

For years I didn’t know which part of Antrim my family came from, but I had a hunch it was Lisnagunogue in the parish of Billy. Turns out that’s exactly where they were from. Lisnagunogue (also spelled Lisnagunagh) is near the village of Bushmills and not far from the Giant’s Causeway.

Near Lisnagunagh, Co. Antrim, Ireland by W. Thornton

My great-great-grandfather, Alexander MacVay, was born in that area around the year 1812. Around 1835 he married another Ulster Scot, Elizabeth Armour, and they began having children. They had nine children in Ireland but four of them — all boys — died very young. The terrible tragedy of losing a child (let alone four) was something many others in Ireland would experience in those years because of the terrible famine that swept through the country. Among the many, many people who eventually left Ireland were the surviving members of my family: Alexander, Elizabeth, their sons William and Joseph, and their daughters Jane, Mary and Elizabeth, around the year 1854. Their destination was a place that was foreign to them but also a place they considered to be their true home: Scotland.

The MacVays spent a couple of years in Houston, a village near Johnstone just outside Glasgow (basically around where the airport is now), where Elizabeth gave birth to her tenth child, Isabella. Some members of the family may have been working at the Crosslee cotton mill, which would close in 1858 after a fire. At some point between 1855 and 1861 the MacVays moved into the south gate house of a mansion called Milliken House in nearby Kilbarchan. Alexander worked as a shoemaker; Elizabeth may have worked as a servant in Milliken House. Then, in the early 1860s, after just a few years in Scotland, the entire family (with the exception of eldest daughter Jane, who married Hugh Cairns and stayed in Renfrewshire) moved to Canada.

The MacVays arrived in St. Stephen, New Brunswick in 1864 and lived on Water Street near Milltown Road. Alexander worked as a shoemaker for a few years; his teenage sons William and Joseph worked as lumbermen. By 1870 the MacVays had saved up enough money to buy a plot of land; they settled on farmland in a place called Little Ridge in the neighbouring parish of St. James. Alexander MacVay was now a farmer, with a very different life from the one he had been born into.

William and Joseph MacVay, though a couple of years apart in age, looked very much alike and often passed for twins. They worked together in the lumber trade and later became skilled masons; Joseph eventually started his own construction company. The two brothers continued to work together; Joseph would also later work with his sons, William Alexander MacVay and Joseph Frank Lamont MacVay. Some of the buildings made by the MacVays still stand, notably the train station in McAdam, NB.

The five children who had journeyed to Canada with Alex and Eliza MacVay all married in New Brunswick. Joseph MacVay married Mary Elizabeth Hall, one of 13 children of Ebeneezer Hall; Elizabeth MacVay married Moses Tufts Pomeroy; Mary MacVay married James Hamilton Pomeroy; Isabella married Thomas Andrew Shirley. William, the eldest of the five children, was the last to marry. On 16 Sept. 1879, at the age of 35, William was married to 16-year-old Frances Amelia MacArtney. Fanny, as she was called, was born in New Brunswick but in 1872 she moved with her family to Grand Lake Stream, Maine, just across the St. Croix river from Little Ridge. Her parents were George Edward MacArtney and Mary Ann McBrine, who were both Irish with roots in County Fermanagh. The MacArtneys had a couple of businesses in New Brunswick and later Maine; Fanny’s brother Robert started a successful clothing store in Massachusetts that I believe is still in operation today.

Except for Elizabeth Pomeroy, who died childless at 36, the children of Alex and Eliza MacVay all went on to have children of their own, who in turn had children, and so on; now Alexander and Elizabeth MacVay have descendants with many different family names in New Brunswick and elsewhere. Of perhaps several hundred of that pioneering couple’s descendants, only a handful are actually MacVays: besides a grandson of Joseph MacVay (a nice man named William MacVay who lives in Florida), there’s my father, my brother, my sisters, my nephew, my son sons and me. Except for William MacVay in Florida, all of the MacVays in our family today are descended from Alexander’s son William, my great-grandfather.

Alexander & Elizabeth MacVay of Lisnagunogue & Little Ridge
My great-great-grandparents, Alexander and Elizabeth (Armour) MacVay in the late 1800s.

Alexander MacVay, who was known to locals as Sandy (they called Elizabeth Betty), fell down some stairs in his home at the beginning of 1892. It’s hard for an 80-year-old to recover from something like that, and it must have been even harder for an 80-year-old back then. He died at Little Ridge on 3 Feb 1896 at the age of 84. Eliza went to live with her daughter Isabella and son-in-law Tom Shirley in Milltown, where she passed away in 1902 at the age of 90.

The grave of Alexander MacVay of Lisnagunogue & Litte Ridge

I visited that part of New Brunswick a few years back and was able to see my great-great-grandparents’ grave. I even got to meet relatives, most notably a lovely man by the name of Joseph MacVay Flewelling, a grandson of Joseph MacVay. Joe shared my interest in our family’s history and passed a lot of information on to me. He remembered meeting my great-grandfather William several times when he was a boy and told me about conversations they’d had. To me that was amazing: hearing someone give a first-hand account of words spoken by a guy who was born in 1844 and died a long time ago. I know, for example, that William smoked one cigarette in his entire life. It was also Joe who gave me valuable leads on the family’s years in Scotland. It’s a shame Joe passed away several years ago, because every time I find new information on our family I think Joe would love this. And there is always something else to discover. The quest is never over; nor is this story.

Next time: Part two.