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A Sketch of the Life of the Hon. and Right Reverend Alexander MacDonell
Hon. and Right Reverend Alexander MacDonell


My friend, the Chevalier Macdonell, recently Vice-Consul of France at Toronto, states that this distinguished man was born in Glen Urquhart, on the borders of Loch Ness, Inverness-shire, Scotland, on the 17th July, 1762. As to the place of his birth, however, as not infrequently happens, some doubt exists. [A striking instance in point is that of the Duke of Wellington although the son of an Irish Peer, the Earl of Mornington, it is uncertain whether he was born in Dublin or at Dungan Castle, Meath, nor is the date of his birth certain. It was in the spring Of 1769, in the latter end of April or beginning of May.] Few men were in a better position to speak authoritatively on the subject than the Bishop's grand-nephew, Mr. John Allan Macdonell, J.P., of St. Raphael's, and in a memorandum given to me by him some years since, it is stated that the Bishop was born at Inchiaggan in Glengarry, Scotland, in 1760. I am now unable, owing to Mr. Macdonell's state of health, to obtain from him the source of his information. It may or may not be traditionary, but I am free to state that it accords with the views of most of the people in Glengarry to whom I have spoken on the subject.

Unfortunately, the greater portion of the Bishop's papers are lost, I fear irretrievably, and excepting what found its way into print from his own pen during his lifetime, facts concerning him especially personally, now largely rest on tradition. But the exact date and exact place of his birth are of no very great importance. It is of the great use he made of the life God gave him, of the talents and great parts with which he was so liberally endowed, of his usefulness to the Church of his forefathers, of his stalwart loyalty to his Sovereign, of his services to his adopted country, and of the all-abiding love he bore his Scottish fellow-countrymen—that we have to do.

His parents were respectable people of Glengarry's clan—of much the same class and walk in life as those of that other great Scottish-Canadian of his own time, his colleague in the Legislative Council and intimate friend of many years, Bishop Strachan, the head and front in this Province of the Anglican Church, as Bishop Macdondell was of that to which he belonged. They were people who were unable to give their children any great advantages in a worldly point of view, but who instilled into them from the cradle those great principles which became of themselves a heritage of inestimable value, and of which both so largely availed themselves to the benefit of the hock over which were respectively called upon in time to become the shepherds in a common and far distant country.

Being destined for the Church, and there being no Catholic Colleges in Scotland at the time, Mr. Macdonell was at an early age first sent to the Scottish College in Paris, and subsequently to the Scots' College at Valladolid in Spain. While in Paris, the students at his Seminary were on one occasion brought from their peaceful retreat by some revolutionary enthusiasts and forced to dance around a Liberty Pole. Mr. Macdonell, who in early life, as in more mature age, was an ardent Royalist, was much shocked at such an outrageous proceeding, and with a ready wit bound a handkerchief around his knee and feigning lameness, thus managed to escape the threatened indignity.

He was ordained Priest at Valladolid, in Spain, on February 16th, 1787 and on leaving there returned to Scotland, and was stationed as a Missionary Priest in the Braes of Lochaber, where he remained for several years.

Of the events of the following years in which he took an active part and until his arrival in Canada, we fortunately have his own account published in the Canadian Literary Magazine of April. 1833, Volume i, page 3. et seq. After explaining how, consequent upon the abolition of the feudal system of clanship which had obtained from time immemorial, and had been based upon the mutual interest of Chieftain and clansmen, by the influence and consequence in proportion to the number of his followers if afforded the former— and the protection and support it gave to the latter—the "bleak and barren mountains of the north," which had previously raised man, had been converted into sheep walks, and the suffering thus necessarily entailed upon the people—their utter misery in fact—he proceeds:—"It was in this conjuncture that the writer of these pages, then a missionary on the borders of the Counties of Inverness and Perth, in the highest inhabited parts of the Highlands of Scotland, affected by the distressed state of his countrymen, and hearing that an emigrant vessel which had sailed from the Island of Barra, one of the Hebrides, had been wrecked and had put into Greenock, where she landed her passengers in the most helpless and destitute situation—repaired in the spring of 1792 to Glasgow. Having secured an introduction to several of the professors of the University and to the principal manufacturers of that city, he proposed to the latter that he should induce the Highlanders who had been turned out of their farms, and those lately escaped from the shipwreck, to enter into their works if they (the manufacturers) would but encourage them, and this they readily promised to do upon very liberal terms. There were two serious obstacles, however, to the usefulness of the Highlanders: the one that they did not understand the English language, the other that a large portion of them were Roman Catholics. The excitement raised by Lord George Gordon about Catholics twelve years before- when the Catholic chapels of Edinburgh and Glasgow, and the clergymen's houses, were burned, had not yet subsided; and a strong and rancorous feeling against the professors of the Catholic religion still remained amongst the lower orders of the people of Glasgow; so much so. indeed, that no Catholic clergyman could with safety reside there from the time of the burning of the chapels to the period we are now speaking of. The manufacturers represented to the missionary that although perfectly willing themselves to afford the Catholics all the countenance and protection in their power, yet, as the Penal laws still remained in full force against them, they could not be answerable for the consequences in the event of evil-designed persons assailing or annoying them; and they represented that the danger was still greater to a Catholic clergyman, who was subject not only to the insult and abuse of the rabble, but to be arraigned before a Court of Justice. To this the missionary replied that although the letter of the law militated against Catholics, the spirit of it was greatly mitigated, and that if they would but assure the Highlanders of their protection, he himself would take his chance of the severity of the law and the fanaticism of the people, and accompany the Highlanders to the manufacturers, in order to serve them in the double capacity of interpreter and clergyman; for the missionary saw that it was a notorious fact that Catholics following the dictates of their religion and restrained by its morality made faithful and industrious servants; but discarding those ties and obligations, they became vicious and unprincipled.

"The manufacturers, appearing much pleased with this proposal, offered every protection and encouragement in their power to himself and followers. Accordingly, with the approbation of his Bishop, he took up his residence in Glasgow in June. 1792, and in the course of a few months procured employment for upwards of 600 Highlanders.

On the few occasions Previous to this, that a Priest had officiated in Glasgow. he was obliged to hold his meetings up two or three pairs of stairs, and to station at the door a sturdy Irishman or Highlander armed with a bludgeon to overawe the intruders who might attempt to disturb the service. But the missionary, by the advice of one of the most influential Presbyterians of the city, [Dr. Porteotis, a nephew. by marriage, of Sir John Moore.] opened his chapel to the street and did not close the door during the service. Two respectable members of the congregation attended to show any decent persons, attracted thither by curiosity, into a seat; and several who thus came were repeatedly heard to say that this was not Popery at all, although the principal tenets of the Catholic religion were taught and explained both in English and Gaelic; and because they saw neither pictures nor images, and the Mass was said early in the morning, before those who might be disposed to give annoyance were up, and who, being of the lower class of laborers and tradesmen, generally spent the Saturday evenings in a tavern and Sunday mornings in bed.

"For two years the manufacturers went on with astonishing prosperity and success, but in the year 1794 the principles of the French revolution spreading rapidly over Great Britain, and meeting with the warmest abettors in the manufacturing districts, the English Government found it necessary to adopt measures to check its progress and to prevent intercourse between the two countries.

"War was at length proclaimed between England and France. The export of British manufactures to the continent was stopped; the credit of the manufacturers was checked; their works were almost at a stand; frequent bankruptcies ensued; a general dismissal of laboring hands took place, and misery and distress overtook those thus suddenly thrown out of employ.

'Among the sufferers were the poor Highlanders above mentioned. Unaccustomed to hard labor and totally ignorant of the English language, they became more helpless and destitute than any other class of the whole community.


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