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A Tribute to Clan MacKay Heritage

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What were great-great-grandmother Janet MacKay's thoughts that last week before her sons left Scotland forever? She was a widow then, bringing up a young family and continuing with her husband's grist mill on Rossal, in Rogart (Sutherland). John was a mainstay of the mill, but he was going to Nova Scotia and Neil with him.

James MacKay, her husband, died before he taught the finer techniques of grist mill operation to his eldest sons (perhaps still in their early teens). No one knew how to "pick the millstones" (clean the grooves). The community depended on the produce of the mill, but could not help. John, in his mid-teens, despaired of knowing. One morning he arrived at the breakfast table quite excited. His father, he said, came to him during the night and told him how to pick the stones.

[Millstone] Millstone where the Grist Mill once stood, Rossal Croft in Rogart:
Click to enlarge [jpeg:29K]
[Janet MacKay photo: 1983]

Did their mother go with them to Little Ferry at Golspie, ten miles away by modern roads, to see them off on their journey across the Atlantic? What worries did she have, for them? Neil was only 18, his older brother 25 years. Young men, her sons, were going to a strange new land which promised opportunities not available in Rogart.

What worries did she have for herself? She was not getting younger; even if they did return, would she be living then? Her younger children were in their early teens. What were her thoughts in the lonely weeks and months after John and Neil left? Were her own family, the Sutherlands, living nearby?

What were John and Neil McKay's thoughts as they walked for the last time over the (now) small river on Rossal croft onto the main road, and turned eastward to Golspie? They knew they might never walk that way again. They never did.

Were their hearts heavy as they left behind two young ladies, Arrabella MacKay and her sister Dolina MacKay, of Bratan Grudy? Or, had they fallen in love yet?

Arrabella and Dolina's parents, Alexander and Margaret MacKay of Bratan Grudy in Rogart, had already gone to Nova Scotia with their younger children in 1815. Alexander's older brother Angus, had gone out in 1803. Margaret is said to be daughter or grand-daugther of Alexander Davidson, Sheriff in Dornoch. Alexander and Margaret settled in the Mount Dalhousie area near Pictou. Arrabella and Dolina followed in 1822, with other family members. Another daughter, Johanna, had married John Campbell and was busy raising a young family. A year later (1823), they too went to Nova Scotia and settled near her parents.

It was the time of the Clearances. Though the MacKays at the croft of Rossal in Rogart do not appear to be affected, people in neighbouring parishes were being removed from their homes to make way for the grazing of sheep. Many relocated to Rogart; many also sought a new life beyond the Atlantic.

About the same time the Parish of Clyne was being cleared. Most of its inhabitants came to the Earltown area of Nova Scotia. Robert and Bella MacKay arrived in September 1821 bringing their 11-year-old grandson with them (Robert, son of their son George MacKay and wife Elizabeth Campbell). Their daughter Isabella MacKay and husband, Richard Daye from Northern Ireland, also came to Earltown. Other children may include Catherine and Hector MacKay. Their daughter Margaret and husband Robert Baillie were already in the colony; their son Robert MacKay and wife Isabella Macdonald followed in 1823, with two infant children.

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The Robert MacKays emerged in Earltown society as "Old Robert", "Black Robert" his son, and "Red Robert" his grandson (son of George MacKay). "Black Robert" and Isabella (Macdonald) MacKay settled first in The Falls area, then in Earltown where their descendants are still known as the "Black MacKays" (black hair). Isabella Macdonald was a cousin of Sir John A. Macdonald (first Prime Minister of Canada), whose grandfather was born in Dalmore, Rogart.

The MacKay brothers of Rossal, Neil and John, first settled in Middle River; but whether in Middle River in Cape Breton or Middle River in Pictou County, we know not. There is another plausable account, that they came first to Prince Edward Island. Other Highlanders from Rogart had settled in Earltown. When letters from Rogart revealed that John and Neil were in the colony, the Earltown people sent word to the brothers to make their homes among them and establish a grist mill there. Their invitation was accepted.

Neil and John walked to Earltown. Along the way, they stopped at Mount Dalhousie for a few days, visiting with the MacKays who had come out from Bratan Grudy in Rogart. Dolina MacKay looked at John, and her heart knew. "Where have you been all my life?" she asked.

The brothers successfully negotiated adjacent land grants in Earltown, and set about building homes. John and Dolina MacKay married in June, 1823. He was already busy setting up the grist mill that would serve the Earltown area for many years. In 1825, the settlers at Earltown put forth a petition seeking support for this mill, which was crucial in the development and survival of their community.

The growing romance between Neil MacKay and Dolina's sister Arrabella resulted in their marriage in 1826. Back in Rogart, John and Neil's sister Christine had married Nicolas Sutherland and went to live with him in Golspie. Their widowed mother, Janet Sutherland MacKay, was still living at Rossal in 1920, according to Sutherland Estate records acquired by my father in 1932.

In 1831 (1832?), Christine and Nicolas Sutherland came out to Earltown and settled across the road from her brothers. One thinks of the joy of their first reunion with family, after more than a decade.

Their brother Alexander MacKay and sister Annie MacKay went to Ontario (then "Upper Canada"), to the Zorra area near Woodstock which was opening up in the 1830s. Another brother Donald and sister Marion (Mrs. MacDonald) remained in Rogart. There may be others in this family of James MacKay, miller at Rossal in Rogart, and his wife Janet Sutherland.

Tragedy struck the family in 1836 with the childbed death of Arrabella. Neil was left with a young family, but his brother John and sister Christina were on neighbouring farms and helped with the children. Several years later, Neil married again, to Elizabeth MacDonald by whom he had a second family.

Other Highlanders from the various parishes of Sutherland emigrated to Earltown, also to other beginning communities in northern Colchester and Pictou Counties in Nova Scotia. Their surnames included MacKay, Douglas, MacDonald, Murray and Sutherland.

[St. Callans] St. Callans Church, Rogart:
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[Janet MacKay Photo: 1978]

Four of the seven sons of John and Dolina followed their father's footsteps as millers, two taking over the family mill. Another acquired McClure's Mills near Truro, and the fourth built the grist mill at Balmoral Mills, which continues as a working mill within the Nova Scotia Museum Complex. See Balmoral Grist Mill.

These MacKay and Sutherland families valued education highly. Several of their sons entered the ministry, others became physicians, teachers, etc., and many served as MLAs in the government. They were outstanding in their chosen professions.

Beginning in 1965, on the first Saturday of each August, descendants of these Highland pioneers gather in Earltown for the Pipers Picnic, to raise funding for maintenance of the four pioneer cemeteries in the area. Many schedule their summer vacations to include this picnic, often travelling from as far away as the west coast of Canada, California in the USA, or from beyond the "Great Atlantic Roar". Knowledgeable historians note that this is a "Sutherland(shire) Reunion".

In 1852, grandchildren of James and Janet MacKay of Rossal, left their homes in Pictou County to emigrate to Australia aboard the barque Aurora. They included:
{*} Angus MacKay and wife Janet Murray, their 3 month old son
{*} Angus Campbell and wife Jane MacKay, their infant daughter
Simon Fraser of Hopewell area of Pictou County was also on the Aurora, then only 20 years of age. His grandson was a recent Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Fraser.

With the passage of time, when young boys and girls grow up and fall in love, Neil & Arrabella MacKay's son John wooed and won Black Robert & Isabella MacKay's daughter Janet for his bride. They were married on July 1, 1860 and celebrated their seventh wedding anniversary on the day Nova Scotia joined with Upper and Lower Canada, and New Brunswick (formerly a part of Nova Scotia) to form Confederation, Canada, on July 1, 1867.

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Robert MacKay (my father) was the first of James and Janet MacKay's descendants to journey back to Rogart, and visit their croft of Rossal. In March 1932, he travelled to Halifax, spent a morning at the Nova Scotia Museum, and was onboard ship that afternoon when it rounded Chebucto Head and proceeded across the Atlantic to Scotland.

He spent a fortnight in Rogart, often visiting the MacKays who then lived on Rossal. They were distant cousins, then veterans of World War I. One (I think his name was Willie) was suffering from "shell shock". War takes a terrible tole on the people of a country, which does not end when peace is signed. Do we ever do enough for these veterans, who paid with their health and lives for our freedom?

Robert enjoyed long conversations at Inchoraig with his cousin Neil Mackay and his daughter Cathie. Cathie's mother had died when she was only 11 years old. She inherited her father's croft, and worked it until her retirement.

In a small notebook, Robert MacKay recorded that he went walking to visit relatives one day in Rogart and stopped at "High Croft" to ask directions. After giving those directions, the folks at High Croft asked if he were any relation to A. H. MacKay, who did much to establish the Educational system in Nova Scotia in the early years. There was a picture of A. H. MacKay on their table. "And so," Robert wrote in his diary, "We discovered we were cousins."

[High Croft] High Croft, Rogart
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[Janet MacKay photo: 1983]

In 1972, on my parents' wedding anniversary, I sat opposite Cathie Mackay by her open hearth on which she cooked all her meals. Forty years had passed since my father's visits to Inchoraig. "Then your father sat there, and my father sat here," Cathie told me. "Now, it is you and me."

I had arrived in Rogart two hours earlier, and found accommodation at the croft of Muie. One hour to settle into my room and recycle myself into a fresh outfit, and it was time to get directions to Inchoraig and Cathie. We had corresponded for several years. That night we would finally meet.

When I turned left into Dalmore area of Rogart, a sign said: "To cairn of Sir John A. Macdonald, Prime Minister of Canada." I stole ten minutes to stop by the cairn. It was Hon. John Diefenbaker who unveiled the cairn, in 1968 when he was Prime Minister of Canada.

During that first visit in Rogart, I watched sheep dog trials. That afternoon small rainbows began in one field, and arced down into the next. An omen of fortune for the future? If rich Scottish Heritage in Rogart is good fortune, and indeed it is, we and our kin have the pot of gold all our lives.

On my five trips to the Rogart area, I visited with my cousins at Smithy House in Pittentrail (Rogart), and cousins at Glenshee and Waverley in Golspie. I will never forget their kindness and graciousness to a relative stranger in their midst. In 1983, a mill stone (thought to be from the mill operated by James MacKay) was still beside the river on Rossal croft.

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Sutherland was in earlier times called "Sunderland", being the southern lands of (now) Caithness which was then called "Cat." Who chose who for friends and flatmates is a matter of opinion between myself and the cats who have come to live with me. My heritage, along human lines, does go back to Cat. Some might enjoy a merry twist of nomenclature, to include our meowing/purring four footed friends. Take it as you will, I don't care. But, I must have those of species Cat about me.

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In 1983, I joined the Clan MacKay Society of New Scotland in 1983, and now serve as President. A decade later, my online experiences revealed possibilities for the Nova Scotia Scots on the Internet. When I proposed a website for Scots in Nova Scotia at a general meeting of the Scottish Clans in Nova Scotia, held in October 1994 at Pictou, I obtained a "green light" to proceed. Come visit us at Scottish Heritage and Culture in New Scotland (Nova Scotia)

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Perhaps there is some reality to the romantic notion we have of wind on the moors of Scotland; perhaps a delight of experiences out in wild weather comes from our Scottish genes? Certainly, I have it. A soft autumn rain, a fierce driving rain, even a hurricane, and I am out in it. Softly falling snow is a delight, a howling blizzard is an adventure. My father was the same. I must hear the power of the wind in the trees, the soft rustle of the leaves and the sighing mystic language they speak with the wind. I must have wind and weather in my hair. There can be no other way. On my bookshelves are books of poetry by three poets, two of Scotland and the other of New England. They wrote of these experiences; each has the name Robert

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Nova Scotia is Jacobean Latin for New Scotland. It was founded in the early 1600s by Sir William Alexander, who translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek for King James of Scotland. Sir William was born in Menstrie, not far from Dunblane, Scotland. Alexander Graham Bell, whose inventions included the telephone, was born in nearby Edinburgh. The Internet, as you know, runs merrily along those telephone lines instigated by Bell.

What if Sir William Alexander and/or Alexander Graham Bell died tragically in early childhood, as did the young students in Dunblane Primary School? What if?

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{o}Christmas {o}New Years {o}Epiphany {o}
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This is the first Christmas the families of sixteen children of Dunblane and their courageous teacher of Bridge of Allan will spend without them. Let us keep them in our thoughts and prayers during the Christmas season. I close with our:

Nova Scotia Tribute to Dunblane.

[Memorial to Dunblane]


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Janet MacKay
Freelance Writer/Photographer
Principal, MacKay Research Associates
Halifax, Nova Scotia

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