Along the western shores of
Lake Ainslie on a cold, blustery day shortly before Christmas, a young
woman gave birth to her first child. The healthy baby boy was strong and
eager for life; but the mother was weak and without courage. Within hours
of the arrival of new life, the small strength of the mother waned until
there was no more.
Amidst the sadness of the end of the life of the young wife and mother was
the concern about how to find a woman who already was nursing a baby, for
in those days before formulas, mother's milk was the needed sustenance.
The child did draw some sustenance from a linen towel soaked in warm cow's
milk, but more food was needed.
A distant relative of the family lived in a remote glen on the other side
of the Mount Young. A small settlement of a half dozen houses lined a
track from Port Hood to Whycocomagh. In one of those houses, Mary MacLean
was nursing her month-old baby, and there was plenty of milk for two.
As the edge of night spread across the land and a strong northeast wind
brought heavy flurries, it was decided by the young bereaved father that
his newborn son should be brought to Mary Malcolm with all dispatch, for
the young boy was clearly very hungry.
In the company of two neighbours, the group set out for the rear of
Bridgend with all three men provided with lanterns. One of the party,
Samuel, went ahead on horseback to alert the houses along the way of the
travelling father and his young child.
Wrapped tightly in blankets with hot bricks placed in straw in several
corners of the sleigh, John and his son and Andrew, the neighbour, set out
in the face of a developing blizzard. The child's life was at stake, but
the danger was also great – heavy snow falling, a narrow road and
Samuel was able to find his way and stopped at every house, and people
began to carry lighted lanterns to the edge of the trail – and watched for
the arrival of the horse and sleigh with the two men and a baby making a
journey towards food and health in a fierce storm.
Each household, as it was able, provided warm bricks to replaced those
which had lost their warmth; and hot soup was ready at the roadside. Women
brought more blankets to ensure that the baby would be swaddled in as many
layers as possible. Up over Mount Young and down the other side and across
the small stream went the strange party – a man on horseback with a
lantern going on ahead, and then a horse and sleigh making slow progress
through the developing drifts of new snow – a conveyance carrying a young
father and newborn child and a driver.
Lanterns flickered in the night, showing the location of the road; the
baby cried, calling for food; and a father despaired that they would find
their way and that Mary Maclean would be able to suckle his newborn child.
Wind and whiteness and darkness of night; trees providing some shelter
from the worst of the gale as the strange procession found its way yard by
yard up a mountainside and down into a secluded glen.
As John and Andrew came over the brow of the hill, for a moment the storm
ceased – there below them was a series of lanterns outlining the path
descending the ridge; and there at the end of the valley a great bonfire
burned in the night. Samuel had reached the MacLean farmstead. The blaze
was a symbol and a goal.
The clouds seemed to part, and a star shone bright in the night as if to
mirror the lanterns along the snow-filled roadway. With his heart heavy
from grief, John felt a great surge of new hope. His son would survive – a
gift from his recently deceased wife.
Within the hour, they arrived in the dooryard of the MacLean; house and
Mary Maclean, wrapped in a warm cloak with a great fire to be seen behind
her in the large fireplace, stood in the doorway – her arms outstretched
to receive the precious bundle.
A new life would survive. Three men – no wiser than you and I – had made a
treacherous journey to bring a child to nourishment and care. For many
years, people recalled the event. The narrow path lined with lanterns was
an image that came down through generations.
And today, our highways and byways are lined with clusters of bright
lights, showing travellers the way and proclaiming that the darkness of
December will give way to longer daylight and new joy. But no illumination
is more welcome than those kerosene lanterns of long ago – as a baby
journeyed over mountain and valley in search of sustaining life. And the
child did survive and grew strong and lived a long life. And people did
what they could do to meet the needs of the weak and vulnerable – an
underlying and constant strength of Inverness County.