Today I am honored to have a guest blogger, my Uncle Ken. A graduate of Brown University and the Harvard Divinity School, Kenneth Torquil MacLean has served for over 50 years as a Unitarian minister, 20 of them at the Cedar Lane UU Church in Bethesda, Maryland. An inspired speaker, always fascinated with the human experience, Ken gave this sermon about our Nova Scotia roots on October 18, 2009.
WHERE WE CAME FROM
by Kenneth Torquil MacLean
I cannot claim that my people came from Scotland to Nova Scotia on the Hector, for I do not know that, and the Hector is like the Mayflower is for many Americans, a source of pride because their people got here first. The Hector sailed from Scotland to Pictou, Nova Scotia in 1773 with 189 passengers. Pictou is a small seaport on the north coast of Nova Scotia, and when I visited there in September with Terry and my brother and three members of his family, we were fascinated to see an accurate replica of the Hector there in the harbor and a museum which tells a great deal of what it was like to have been one of the passengers on that voyage.
Things were tough in Scotland in those days. Most people were tenants on the land of the great landowners, and very much at the mercy of those wealthy nobility. There were great changes in the economy of the country, there was the conversion from tenant farming to devoting the land to pasturage for sheep, and there was a great scarcity of food which amounted to famine in some areas. The prospect of a better life across the ocean led many families to scrape together the three pounds for their passage. They were told to bring a pound of oatmeal for each person, and some also brought some molasses or other condiment. For the first week or so, passengers were allowed on deck, and the weather was somewhat pleasant That soon switched to stormy seas, and all passengers were required to remain below deck for the remainder of the trip. Because they were blown off their course early on, they probably lost two weeks, and the whole voyage took twelve weeks. When we went below deck, the bunks, or shelves on which they were accommodated reminded me of the prison at Dachau. The captain provided them with water, but it was in very short supply, and the pound of oatmeal for each person had to be stretched pretty thin. There was no privacy, but they managed to subsist. Then it happened that some of the children contracted small pox. Most of the adults had already been through cow pox, and that left them immune to small pox, but the children were not so protected, and a number of them died, along with two adult women. The bodies were wrapped in sail cloth and sent to a watery grave.
These brave pioneers were the vanguard of perhaps 40 thousand Scots, mostly from the Highlands and the islands off northwest Scotland who made their way to Nova Scotia, especially to Cape Breton Island from the 1770’s to the 1830’s and ’40’s. It was pointed out over and over that there were better land and greater opportunities in Upper Canada, but it was clear that they wanted to be with their own people, people who shared their religion and culture. The settlements they founded were either Roman Catholic or Presbyterian. They had brought little or nothing with them, and they were poor to begin with. They had been promised land along the coast and provisions to tide them over until they could provide their own, but the land they got was back in the forest, not near the coast. There were no provisions for them, and they were destitute. They were also tough. Life in the remoteness and wintry weather of the Scottish Highlands and the island had made them resourceful survivors.
My people probably landed in Cape Breton in the 1820’s, and they came mostly from Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides off the Scottish mainland. Lewis is the northern part and Harris is the southern part of one island. Harris is famous for its tweeds. Both sides of my family, the MacLeans and the MacLeods, settled in the village of Englishtown, along St. Ann’s Bay. Across the bay from Englishtown there is a sand bar which curves out into the water, solid enough to have a road built on it. And the Englishtown Ferry runs over to the end of that sand bar. The gap is not very wide, but there are very swift currents in it with a tide change every six hours. And Donald MacLean, with a dory would row a buggy and passengers across. The horse would usually have to swim behind the ferry and the passenger would hold the rope attached to the horse or tie it to the rail. Donald’s son Torquil took over from his father on the ferry, and he operated it for fifty years. It has now been in operation for at least 175 years and is named for Torquil, my grandfather. It will take fifteen cars at a time.
Life in Cape Breton was not easy. The land was rocky for farming but not impossible, and the waters around them were full of fish and oysters and lobsters. Some of the early settlers had been given grants of land and others bought up pieces where they could.
In the 1840’s a Presbyterian minister came from Scotland, first to Pictou and then to Saint Ann’s and Englishtown. Norman MacLeod was a charismatic, narrow, opinionated, powerful man who served the community as minister, schoolmaster, and magistrate. He would criticize people from the pulpit, as he did to his wife when she went to Sydney and bought a hat with ribbons on it. But when things got tough, and the crops were poor and the weather was terrible, he made sure that no one in his church community lost their land. They shared and helped each other. In the late 1840’s he decided that the whole community should move—to Australia! They had six ships built and altogether about 800 of his followers embarked on their sailing ships around Cape Horn, across the Pacific to Adelaide. My great-grand mother’s brother went and she stayed. Australia was having its gold rush and Norman MacLeod did not approve of what he saw there, so after a year they all moved to the North Island of New Zealand. Back in Englishtown one family nailed shut the door through which Norman MacLeod had come to say Goodbye. He was seventy years old, and they knew they would never see him again, so they decided that no one else should ever go through that door.
Life went on in the very quiet community of Englishtown. Torquil and Sarah MacLean raised eleven children in the farmhouse near the ferry, and they all worked hard to store enough meat and vegetables to get them through the winter. They had five daughters in a row and then six sons in a row. My father used to tell of the man from the country who had to go to Sydney to see the eye doctor. When he returned, his friend asked him what the doctor had done. “He took my eyes out and polished them and put them back in,” he said. “He did not,” said his friend. “Sure and didn’t I see them sitting in the saucer looking at me?!” Life was hard in Englishtown, and a young man with any ambition would go away, to work in the mines, or sail on the Great Lakes, or join a steamship line on the Atlantic. Two of my uncles died in mining accidents, one was killed in England in the First World War, one drowned at sea, one disappeared from his ship in New York and was never heard from again. One stayed right there to become the captain of the Englishtown Ferry. My father became the youngest captain the United Fruit Company had ever had, but died young of an infection. My grandmother outlived five of her six sons.
So this is the family story that my brother and I went exploring in Cape Breton last month, and thank you for your patience in listening to it. We visited cemeteries where some of our people, including my mother, are buried. We met cousins who were warm and welcoming. We saw the great beauty of that land and realized why my mother kept going back to Englishtown until her 98th year. We found books and museum exhibits that helped us to understand what our people had gone through and how they clung to their Scottish and Presbyterian identity, though they did not want to live in Scotland. Above all, we got a glimpse of the courage and strength they demonstrated over and over, and we hoped that some of these qualities came down the line.
Tom Ahlburn, my poetic colleague who died two years ago, said that part of religion is knowing who we are. We can’t set out to become the people we want to be until we have some clear idea of who we are. And one way to begin to know who we are is to know who we came from, and what we are carrying with us from them. When my father died and I was the oldest of four children, my mother made the brave decision not to return to her family in Cape Breton. “The children were born here and they ought to grow up here,” she said. So we grew up a thousand miles from our roots, and we knew Cape Breton, “Down Home,” through my mother’s shared memories, and the letters and visit from family. Each of us had a trip to Nova Scotia when we were very young, and that gave us different images to keep and think about as we set about discovering who we were. I think of old Torquil, whose name I bear, rowing and pushing that heavy boat around, getting a horse into the boat and out the other end, or hanging on to the rope with the horse swimming at the other end. I think of my father, with eight years of a country school rising to be in command of a great ship at sea. I think of my grandmother, living almost all of her life in that house with a spinning wheel in the parlor but no indoor plumbing. I think of the cousins I never really got to know who had to face many of the same challenges that came in my life.
The groping for understanding goes on; it never ends. I always felt that I was different, but if I had known some of them, maybe I would have realized that in various ways they, too, were different. And what of your roots, the ones you knew at first hand and the ones you just heard about? Do they help you know who you are? Are there some wonderful people connected to you who have qualities you would like to have in equal measure? Are there some who help you by reminding you that you don’t want to be like them? We mostly grow up thinking that we ought to and will live forever. When you think about some of the people whom you have known well and who now are gone, does it bring you a sense of a complete life and a realization that one day our lives, too, will be complete? And is that scary or comforting, or both?
It is not just the people I am fortunate to feel a sense of connection with, it is the places. When I go to Englishtown or North Sydney, where my mother grew up, I feel that connection to my roots.
Seeing a beautiful seaside town in North Carolina or California may soothe the soul, but it is not connected; it is not my roots. In Englishtown, they may be in the cemeteries or on the ferry boat, but they are my roots, and they hold me close.
“Roots, hold me close, wings, set me free,
Spirit of life, come to me, come to me.”
The link to this post is: https://onerhodeislandfamily.com/2012/03/14/where-we-came-from/