Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Skye Pioneers and "The Island"
Settlement of Orwell

It is believed that the first settlers on the Orwell River were the Macdougalls and John Currie, all of whom took up land on the north bank. They were soon followed, in 1818, by the Macdonalds from Scotchfort, who had received their grant several years earlier.

On their way to their new home they blazed a trail from Head of Vernon River through Uigg to Orwell cross-roads, thereby establishing the course of the present Uigg road. Others soon followed, and when in 1821 the whole territory from Orwell bridge to Kinross was taken up by the MacLeods, Macdonalds and Rosses, the district had definitely emerged from the forest stage.

The marsh lands along the river were of great value to the early settler for pasture. Farmers came from miles around and cut the rank marsh grass with scythes. They built a "stance" on upright posts above the high water mark, and there they built their stacks. In the winter, when the marsh was frozen over, they hauled these stacks to their barns, where it was, for the early years of the settlement, the chief winter food for their cattle.

Wild geese, ducks, brant, upland plover, curlews, yellow legs, snipe, sand pipers, and other forms of wild game birds abounded to an extent that seems incredible today. Sea trout were also in abundance, as well as other varieties of excellent fish. Altogether it was a delightful spot.

About the same time Donald Nicholson moved to Orwell from Orwell Cove, and took up the farm through which the Orwell River winds for over a mile.

In the primeval forest a clearing was soon made. Margaret MacLeod (Peggy Neil), recalls the original dwelling house then built near the river on the north bank. It was a long, low, comfortable house of several rooms. Between it and the river was planted an orchard of cherry, plum, and apple trees. Later, in this house, modern wall-paper was used for the first time in the district, being then a great curiosity. For many years the family lived on this site. After the milling business went down a home was built by a son, Peter, to the west of the road near the site of the present bridge, and beside a spring that still pours out its cooling waters.


About 1830 Donald Nicholson erected the first grist mill on this stream, near his dwelling house, about three or four hundred yards above the present Orwell bridge. It was built by William Harris, a skilled millwright from Devon, England, who later married the miller's daughter. A dwelling for the assistant miller was also built nearby. Today there is nothing to mark this scene of early activity, but the scarred hillside and the remains of the dam built to impound the waters. This grist mill was operated by him for many years, and for a few years by his son Peter, by his Highland neighbors commonly called "Patrick Stenscholl," from the locality in Skye where the family originated. Peter leased the mill to various tenants until it was finally abandoned.

William Gillis, aged 83, now living at Orwell bridge, worked in the mill as a young man with Mr. Maclean, a tenant. He recalls that large quantities of oatmeal were ground there at that time.

The flume was wide enough to permit vehicles to cross, and for many years it was used as the first public highway across Orwell River. Later, about 1840, a new bridge was built a few hundred yards farther down stream at the site of the present Orwell bridge.

A half mile above this mill was a saw-mill built and operated by George Gay from Lot 49, called by the Highland people "Gaieach Cam," variously interpreted as reflecting on the physical eye or moral character. He had taken up the adjoining farm before 1829. His son, John Gay, afterwards occupied the farm and sold it to John Fletcher, who married Caroline, sister of James "Yankee" Hayden, of Vernon River. He, about 1840 or 1845, built a grist mill a few hundred yards farther up the stream. This mill subsequently passed into the possession of John F. MacLeod of Strathalbyn, brother of D. J. MacLeod, Superintendent of Education, who added a saw mill and operated it until a few years before his death in 1915, at seventy years of age.

A son of said John Fletcher, named James H. Fletcher, whose wife was Miss Moar from New Perth, after leaving Uigg school attended the Central Academy in Charlottetown about 1868. In 1869 he was editor of the "Island Argus." From Charlottetown he moved to Pierre, South Dakota, of which State he was Lieutenant-Governor from 1889 to 1891. In the Western States he was recognized as an able orator, lecturer, and newspaper editor. From South Dakota he moved to Gresham, Oregon, where he lived for several years, until his death in 191,0, over eighty years of age. His funeral service was conducted in that town by Rev. Malcolm C. Martin, son of Samuel Martin of Uigg, one of the neighbors and school companions of his youth.

Owing to economic changes, and the deaths of the various owners, the lower mills had been abandoned and the dams swept away, leaving in operation, only the mill highest up the stream. This continued until about 1910, when it, too, was abandoned and finally swept away by spring floods.

Some of the stones of the Nicholson mill were donated by the owner, Peter Nicholson, for use in the imposing Roman Catholic church then being built in Vernon River. This exhibition of Christian charity and brotherhood on the part of a neighbor outside the pale of his church was a source of great satisfaction to the worthy parish priest, Father James Phalen.

At the noon hour the mill-stream was the favorite resort of the Uigg school children. There they tied, on overhanging root or branch, the well-filled flask of precious milk, and, freed at noon, to it they rushed with headlong speed. The quick lunch over, along the banks they wandered, in and out among the drooping alders, eager searchers after hidden mysteries.

The mill-pond was stocked with excellent trout. In the mind of every Uigg schoolboy of the 80's and 90's is the picture of the six-foot-two figure of the patriarchal John Roderick MacLeod, brother of the noted lawyer, Malcolm MacLeod. Each day, about the end of the noon recess, his tall form might be seen approaching the school from the north, red beard floating in the breeze and long fishing rod over his broad shoulder, as he proceeded to his fishing post above the dam. On their way home from school, the children saw the mighty fisherman poised on his favorite stump, so far from shore that no one ever understood how he got there-smoking his pipe, and seeming to enjoy the quiet repose of that idyllic retreat.

In sharp contrast with this picture of rural ease was the scene often enacted a little farther down the road, as the school children passed the mill surmounted by its challenging weathervane. There the genial owner, covered with flour, provoked beyond endurance by the patter of stones raining on the roof, was often compelled to rush from his work to drive off the mischievous school boys then competing to dethrone the saucy rooster that stood bravely defiant in the breeze.

This beautiful stream was at all times a favorite resort for those who loved the outdoor life, but particularly in summer time. The shady forest overhead, with here and there a spring of purest water issuing from the sandstone rock; the tipping sand piper, timorous crane, and occasional duck; the eager search under log or overhanging bank for the elusive and delectable sea trout, which at spring tides never failed to come, all added a charm and fascination to life that lifted the ardent dreams of youth from doubtful speculation to satisfied reality.

While wandering with rod and gun along this stream many a lesson was learned in hunting and fishing from a parent skilled in both.

Later, along these same haunting banks a youthful attraction ripened into unbroken friendship with those two genial and unfailing friends, John G. and William Matheson Macphail, whom The Ettrick Shepherd might well have had in mind when he wrote:

Where the pools are bright and deep,
Where the grey trout lies asleep,
Up the river and o'er the lea,
That's the way for Billy and me.

Where the blackbird sings the latest,
Where the hawthorn blooms the sweetest,
Where the nestlings chirp and flee,
That's the way for Billy and me.

Where the mowers mow the cleanest,
Where the hay lies thick and greenest,
There to track the homeward bee,
That's the way for Billy and me.

Where the hazel bank is steepest,
Where the shadows fall the deepest,
Where the clustering nuts fall free,
That's the way for Billy and me.

Each season had its own peculiar diversion for the young schoolboy. Fall and winter being the hunting season for fur bearing animals, the play of human wit against animal cunning added great zest to those dark and dreary days. The Orwell River always harbored a few mink. The simple box trap, baited with a freshly caught trout, first dragged along the ground to the trap, led many unwary animals to their doom. Their pelts generally sold for three dollars each, and, where tastes were simple and wants few, the prize was sufficient to give each member of the household a little token of the youthful hunter's affection.

Usually at least a dozen trips were made for each time the trap was sprung. When so found there instantly arose before the eye the image of a pelt, of size so great, and sheen so rare, that already in schoolboy fancy much of the fantastic price realized was spent in additions to the indulgent mother's and beloved sister's all too meagre wardrobe. But sometimes the quickly formed dreams of youth came to an equally sudden end. From the momentary, if high, pedestal of delight, the fall was crushing when, on cautiously peering through the partly opened door, there was descried two glistening terror-stricken eyes. What could it be? Surely no mink had eyes like these. With trembling hand the door was opened wider yet. Then, and not till then, did the friendly meow issuing from the dark recesses of that evil house dispel all fear, and reveal a marauding neighbor cat. The disappointment was only surpassed when, on a subsequent occasion, the same animal was convicted of a similar, but final, offence.

The joy at capturing a mink was measured to a certain extent by the price received for its pelt. In the case of the captured fox it was different. The thrill experienced by one who for days and weeks has matched his wit, and won, against the craft and cunning of the red fox cannot be imagined. The woods at the back of the old farm extended for several miles in an unbroken crescent from Orwell North to Uigg and Dundee. This stretch of heavy woods harbored many of the most cunning members of the fox family. They preyed on the neighbors poultry and were outlawed by everyone. Those who were not interested in the chase looked upon those who captured them as public benefactors. Fox pelts, if taken in season, were generally sold for about five dollars each. On one occasion an eager hunter was following hard on one of these raiders when the track led into a hollow tree lying on the ground. Immediately blocking one end of the log with his coat, he filled the other end with snow. Cutting a hole in the centre Reynard was soon a prisoner. Nor was the joy confined to the human family. There was much competition for the privilege of gun bearer on these expeditions. The moment the chosen one sprang on the table to reach the old gun, Husk was seen to tremble and his sleepy eyes to open. When the outstretched arm had seized the gun his quivering form and frenzied bark argued trouble for the nimble red squirrel and fleet rabbit, game in which the woods abounded.

The Nicholson home was a noted stopping place. The genial host and hostess made everyone welcome. Among those who frequently slept under its hospitable roof was George Munro Grant, later the illustrious Principal of Queen's University, then a missionary in Alberry Plains and adjoining districts.
Angus A. MacLean, K.C., ex-M.P., of Charlottetown, recently told of how as a little boy he used to see Peter Nicholson, elder, in his pew in church every Sunday, rain or shine. Six miles of miserable roads had no terrors for these early churchmen. He recalls also that Mr. Edward Robinson, of Newtown, came to church with the first wagon (as the buggy was then called) in the district. Peter Nicholson had the second. Up to that time people either walked, or drove in carts or gigs. After the introduction of this new type of vehicle few, if any, had the moral courage to use the farm dump cart or two-wheeled truck on Sunday. Their proud Highland nature would not admit poverty, and rather than have their possessions seem mean by comparison they walked.

Beloved by all for his genial good nature, Peter Nicholson left this charming estate of 250 acres to his widow, Marion Munro, and three daughters. Marching for over a mile along both banks of the river from the Murray Harbor road westerly towards the sea, this tract of land was then, as it is today, a spot unsurpassed for quiet natural beauty. A few years ago it was purchased by Sir Andrew Macphail, who, using it as a summer retreat, indulges his poetic fancy along its shady banks in pursuit of the delectable sea trout for which, from time immemorial, it has ever been famed.

La Grande Ascension was the' name of the abandoned French settlement of about eighteen families, near the mouth of Orwell river. The Scottish settlers corrupted this into Sentie or Sengie. On the point was a shipyard owned by Benjamin Davies of Charlottetown, a Welsh shipowner, who there built many barques, brigs and smaller craft. Around this shipyard, as a boy, played his son Louis, who later, as Sir Louis Henry Davies, was for many years Chief Justice of Canada. He was born in 1845. His interest in the scenes of his boyhood escapades never abated, and a few years before his death in 1924, on his annual summer visit to Orwell, which he had not missed in forty years, he recalled with great amusement an occasion when his brother, in a fit of youthful rage, foiled in his attempt to catch him, threw a hatchet at his head. Had the missile found its mark Canada might have lost the services of a gentleman who, throughout his whole career, gave the best efforts of which he was capable to the public service of his country. He was always distinguished for his gracious manner, polished speech, and loyalty to friendships. These qualities contributed greatly to advance his career.

Farther up the river at the mouth of Currie's Creek as late as the early sixties John MacQueen and Donald Shaw built a schooner, and within the memory of several now living Donald "Stonehouse" MacLeod, of Orwell, launched several schooners and brigs on the shore of the Stewart farm at Orwell bridge, where schoolboys now wade across the stream. These ships were built for sale. Many of them were loaded with the famed black oats or with potatoes, and sold with their cargoes to English and American investors.

Since those days the rivers have diminished in volume. The snows which formerly lay deep in the woods fed the streams for months, whereas today it is carried off by warm winds in a few hours, sweeping away bridges and mill dams in its mad course to the open sea.


The first school in the Orwell district was built of logs about 1825. It stood on the south side of the river, a few hundred yards below the site of the present bridge.

The first teacher in it may have been Samuel Martin, from Orwell Cove, or Donald Graham. The teacher boarded for a week at a time in each family, going through the settlement in this way. In 1839 or 1840 it is known that William Ross, from Pictou, N.S., was teaching in the log school on Murdoch McLeod's farm, a little west of Orwell cross-roads. This school site was later abandoned for the present site of the church at Orwell cross-roads. This was about 1850. The first teacher in the school at this location was Alexander Maclean, who was born in 1831, and had attended the old log school while living with his sister Catherine, wife of John McQueen, in Orwell North. He was later graduated in Medicine from McGill University, and practiced in Montague. The second teacher in this school was probably Allan McDougall.

After a few years this building was moved to a point in Orwell North, on the farm later owned by Alexander MacKinnon.

The first teacher in this location was John Brooks from Murray Harbor, who taught in the years 1855 and 1856. The next building was of frame construction, on the same site.

When the boundaries of the Vernon River and Orwell districts were rearranged, the school site was again changed back to Orwell cross-roads, and here in 1895 a new one-room frame building was erected where it now stands, on the south-east corner opposite the Orwell church, where an earlier one had been built half a century before.

About 1850, when some of the oldest residents now living in the district attended school, the subjects taught were, Reading in English, Arithmetic, Geography, Spelling and Writing. No instruction was given in History.

When Mrs. Alexander Gillis, now living at Kinross, went to the Back Settlement (Lyndale) school about seventy years ago the master was Ewen Lamont, a worthy member of a talented family. The above subjects were the only ones taught then. The master lined the copy books in Gaelic, and also in an English translation of the Gaelic.

Each morning the New Testament was read, and one short period each week was spent on the Shorter Catechism, and on the rudiments of singing.

Mrs. Norman Samuel MacLeod of Uigg, now ninety-two years of age, recalls that in her youth the New Testament was the Reader used in the school she attended.


At Orwell and Murray Harbour Road

The population of Orwell had increased so much that the Presbyterians in that district decided to build a church at Orwell cross-roads on land donated to them by Peter Nicholson. Accordingly, in 1861, they erected the frame building which stands today. It was forty feet long by twenty-six feet wide, plastered throughout. The tower was ten and one-half feet square. It was surmounted by a low spire, on which stood a weather vane, unadorned by crowing cock. The parishioners supplied all the material, and most of the labor, free. In August, 1891, a frame structure twenty by forty feet was added. One-third the cost was paid by that good citizen, Alexander MacLeod, commonly called the Old Captain. The builder was Donald Martin of Uigg, brother of Martin Martin, Grandview, who built the first church.

For the first few years after the church was built, until permanent seats were installed, the congregation sat on planks placed for seats. Whatever these planks may have been they could not be more uncomfortable than the narrow straight-backed seats that were substituted for them. But this was not all. The painter, whoever he was, so mixed his materials that the worshippers stuck fast to the seat. Especially embarrassing was it for the ladies, who never knew whether their more delicate apparel would remain on themselves or adhere to the seat.

Margaret Neil MacLeod recalls, but cannot say that it was at the formal opening of the church, that the minister, Rev. Alexander Maclean, called on her brother James to lead the singing. He demurred. Mr. Maclean urged him, saying "It will be easier next time." The pastor's importunity prevailed and Mr. MacLeod led, and for some time thereafter was "precentor" in that church.

The writer recalls a few occasions in youth, watching with admiring eye, this same gentleman (then an aged man) feeling for the note, when yielding to the call of necessity he filled the absent precentor's place. If, late in life, Mr. MacLeod opposed the introduction of an organ into the same church, it was with the same gentle urbanity that ever characterized his life and marked him as one of nature's gentlemen. Beloved by all who knew him Mr. MacLeod passed to his reward two or three years ago, at ninety-two years of age.

The Orwell church was known to some as "Findlay's" church. Robert Findlay preached there occasionally. The Belfast minister used to conduct services in the church on every third Sunday. The Church Minute Book of 1872 occasionally mentions "Sermon read today." Mr. Findlay, on the occasions referred to, read a sermon and expounded the Scripture, sometimes to the amusement of the bashful, if irreverent, youths who clung to the back seats near the door, where they might not be denied the soporific pleasure of their favorite nicotine.

In the Minute Book of the congregation for 1872 Hugh Findlay is described as secretary of the Orwell section of the Belfast congregation.

The list of ratepayers with amounts agreed to be paid is set out. The first half dozen are as follows:

Peter Nicholson 1 0 0
Capt. A. McLeod  12s 6
Mal. & John McQueen 6s 3
John McLeod (Sentie) 7s 6
John McQueen 12s 6
Angus McQueen 12s 6

The first interment in the Orwell churchyard was that of Dr. Archibald McLeod, son of the Old Captain, in October, 1884.

A few years subsequent to 1829 the followers of Rev. Donald McDonald erected a log church at Murray Harbor Road, now known as Orwell Head. About 1840 or 1842 this building was replaced on the same site by a large frame structure, plastered within. There was no tower. It was later found inadequate to accommodate the vast throngs that gathered there to hear their beloved pastor, so the building was sold to Duncan McDonald, son of Findlay, the minister's brother, who lived and died, unmarried, on the farm beside the church, formerly occupied by Murdo McKenzie, the schoolmaster. The said building is now used as a barn on said farm.

In or about 1864 the present imposing, but inartistic, frame church, was erected where the last one stood. It is sixty-two feet long by forty-two feet wide, with tall tower and taller spire, which was built on the ground and hoisted to position on the tower. There is a gallery at both ends and at one side.

Although a few members remained out, this congregation was received into the Presbyterian Church in Canada on July 7, 1886.

The minister's stipend for the first year was $600.00.

At the annual meeting held on December 12th, 1891, it was decided to buy an organ. This was installed in the church in the following spring, but not without opposition. At this time John S. Martin, later Speaker of the local legislature, was official precentor.

At the annual meeting held on December 12th, 1892, a letter was read from a member asking the meeting to vote the Presbyterian Hymnal into the church, but so great was the opposition that a vote was not taken. A year or two later it was introduced without opposition.

In June, 1928, the Orwell section of the congregation united with the Methodist churches at Vernon River and Cherry Valley, and the Orwell Head section united with the Valleyfield congregation, both in the United Church of Canada.

The following is a list of ministers of the Orwell Congregation:

Donald Ban McLeod (M.A. Park, Mo.; Lane Theo. Sem.) July 28, 1887, to April 11, 1899.
Alexander J. MacNeill (B.A. Queen's), November 21, 1899, to January 27, 1906; born in Whycogamah, Cape Breton.
H. M. Michael (Glas. Univ.) December 23, 1906, to September 15, 1907; born in Scotland.
Donald Ban McLeod (M.A. Park; Lane), June 20, 1908 to November 2, 1913.
W. H. MacEwen (Dal. B.A. Omaha Univ.; D.D. Buena Vista, Iowa), October 1, 1914, to March 25, 1923. Born in St. Peters, P.E.I.
G. A. Grant (M.A. Dal.; B.D. Pine Hill), April 2, 1924, to June 1, 1928; born in Pictou Co., N.S.
Henry Pierce (B.A. Mt. Allison) October, 1928; born in Winsloe, P.E.I.

Donald Macdonald, Thomas Boston Munro, Malcolm MacLeod, and their respective families, left Murray Harbor Road in 1874, and settled in Schuyler, Kansas. Here they took up land and became valuable citizens in inculcating a respect for law and order, and in exercising a restraining influence on the turbulent spirit then dominating the opening of that State. Among the flood of immigrants then pouring into Nebraska, they played an honorable part, and many churches and schools in that state are living monuments to the unselfish labor, timely interest, and zeal of the two well educated Skye men, Donald MacDonald and Thomas Boston Munro, and of their respective wives and families.

One of the nine sons of said Malcolm MacLeod was Donald Ban, who later returned to Orwell and was minister of united Orwell and Orwell Head congregation from 1887 to 1899.

He was graduated M.A. from Park College, Missouri, in 1881, and in 1883 from Lane Theological Seminary, Cincinnati, first honor man of his class. The same year he married Miss Stella Dyer, of Columbia, Missouri, a charming Southern lady. Their daughter, Elizabeth, is wife of Rev. William C. Wauchope, now of Buford, Georgia.

His first charge was at Nortonville, Kansas. From there he moved to Water Street Presbyterian church, Quincy, Massachusetts, and while there in 1886 his devoted and much beloved wife died. From 1887 to 1899 he was minister of the Orwell congregation: from 1899 to 1903 of Zion church, Charlottetown; from 1903 to 1908 of Union Square church, Somerville, Massachusetts, and again from 1908 to 1913 minister in Orwell. From 1913 to 1915 he was back in Quincy, Massachusetts, and from 1915 to 1918 he was pastor of his last charge-Upper Stewiacke, Nova Scotia-when failing health compelled him to retire from active work.

He started for Orwell, the place he loved so well, but his strength declined so rapidly that he was unable to continue the journey, and on May 23, 1918, while in Charlottetown, he passed away before he could reach the beloved district where he spent so many years of unselfish and devoted labor. Few clergymen have held the affection and esteem of their congregation in as high degree as did Mr. MacLeod. His influence on the youth of the community for a generation was profound. Urbane and cultured, he was at all times the most agreeable of companions. To Youth he was a companion, to Age a mentor. A man of broad tolerance, not too censorious of human frailties, he was not of that narrow and all too common class of churchmen who "attack prevailing fashions without any sense of proportion, treating follies on the same footing as scandalous vices."

A bronze tablet on the wall of the Orwell church, records the death in the Great War of the following members of the community:

Winnipeg Mounted Rifles,
born Feb. 20, 1875, died Sept. 15, 1916.

16th Canadian Scottish,
born Feb. 13, 1895, died March 5, 1918.

105th Battalion,
born April 5, 1895, died Sept. 29, 1918.

20th Engineers U.S.A.
born Aug. 1, 1894, died Nov. 9, 1918.

The following Gaelic message from Rev. John MacLeod, a Scottish minister, was carried to the elders at Orwell by Annabella, widow of Dr. James Munro of Kilmuir, Skye, in 1840:

A few lines to the church.

Tha lain MacLeoid bhur brathair agus bhur cosheirbhaisach anns an tighearn, a cur beanachd a chum na seanair agus na'm braithrean dilis ann a'n Griosda ann a'm Braith Orwell, agus a dh'ionnsuidh nan uille thaag aideachadh ainm Iosa a guidhe gu durachdach aig caihear na'n Ghras, gu'm biodh an t-iomlan dhin air bhur gleidhadh gu tearuinte trid air turai Tre an t-shoaghal thrioblaideach so.

Oir ged nach h-urrain sibhse mo ghuth a chluinntean tha Neach eile ann a tha cluinntean ar 'n uirnuighean uille.

Air an Aohbar sin that miag' iaridh bhur 'n uirnuighean air bhur sonninne anns an site so.

You will present this among the Elders.

A few lines to the church.

John MacLeod, your Brother and co-worker in the Lord, sends a blessing to the Elders and the Faithful Brethren in Christ in the Parish of Orwell, and to all who acknowledge the name of Jesus, and earnestly prays at the throne of Grace that all of us be kept safely during our journey through this troublesome world.

Though it is not possible for you to hear my voice there is Another who hears all our prayers, and for that reason I beseech your prayers for us who are living in this place.

You will present this among the Elders.

Margaret McLeod, daughter of Neil McLeod, of Orwell Bridge, when recently interviewed in Orwell spoke with eager interest of the early history of the settlement. Peggy Neil, as she is familiarly and affectionately known to the whole countryside, is possessed of a keen eye and a memory that would mark one with distinction at any age in life. Eighty-seven years spent wholly within the confines of her native Orwell have made her mind a repository from which those seeking to unravel the devious intricacies of family relationships, and local history, may dip but never sound the depths. The minutest details of the public and private life of the people are at her finger tips to give or withhold according as her wise discretion or fancy dictates. No one could be more willing to give than she, of this valuable store of knowledge, to those whose interest or pleasure it is to hand down to future generations an accurate record of the community as it was seen and understood by her.

"I recall," said Miss MacLeod, when recently seen at her home, "many of the original settlers. A more honest, upright, God-fearing people it would be hard to find. They all conversed in Gaelic, but most of even the original settlers later acquired English as well.

"Although times were hard our wants were few and simple, and I do not recall that we had to deny ourselves more than we do today. It may be that not knowing luxuries we never craved them. The only pleasures women engaged in were the 'ceilidhs,' which I suppose correspond to the modern `teas.' The neighboring men and women gathered at each other's homes. The Highlanders were all fond of singing and music. The flute, fiddle and mouth organ were the usual musical instruments. There was always someone with an ear for music. At these 'ceilidhs' tales of witches and ghosts were told so vividly that we were often afraid to go home in the dark. Many of the women used snuff and some smoked the pipe. People were hospitable and one could always count on a warm welcome in every home. The church was the great meeting place, where old friends saw each other on Sunday. In spite of all the comforts of the present age I do not look back on the period of my youth as a too severe one, even if women did work more in the the open field than they do today."

Few, if any, of the old timers now living in Orwell have minds so stored with the history of past events in Belfast as Margaret Macqueen, who is now approaching eighty-four years of age. Her mother was a notable woman in her day. Born in Uig, Skye, in 1819, she emigrated to Prince Edward Island in 1829.
At Montague River, in 1839, she married John Macqueen of Orwell. At that time the roads were simply a "blaze" through the forest. It was regarded as no hardship that the eight or nine mile drive from Montague River to their new home in Orwell North was made on horseback, bride and groom riding on the back of the same animal. This delightful old lady lived to be almost ninety-six years of age, passing away in 1915, with faculties unimpaired to the end. Though she was almost a centenarian she never conversed except in Gaelic. But in Belfast this was not unusual. In 1915 she was sprightly, cheerful, and fond of life; her kindly, lovable nature bursting forth in her favorite expression "Oh, mo ghaol, mo ghaol" (my dear).

"But," said Miss Macqueen, when recently talking about these events, "this drive was not considered any hardship. I recall myself as a young girl walking to Charlottetown and back the same day. This journey meant going up to the Head of Vernon River, for there was then no bridge at what was later called Vernon River Bridge. Many neighboring women did likewise. Among them I recall two of the most remarkable ladies whom I ever met. Rachel Gordon of Uigg, wife of John MacLeod, who lived to be almost ninety-eight, was one. The other was Miss Gunn from Miramichi, wife of his brother, Big Murdoch MacLeod. She lived for a century, all but three months, and up to her death a few years ago enjoyed perfect health. She thought nothing of starting on foot to Charlottetown, even at middle age, with shopping basket over her arm. She always completed the forty mile trip the same day in time to prepare the evening meal for her family.

"On these journeys along the Town Road we frequently met the New Perth and other settlers living along that road. They used a mode of conveyance that we never saw in use elsewhere. They called it a `sliding car.' This device was made of two poles fastened to the hames with the rear ends on the ground. Across these poles were fastened boards, on which the kindly father carried over the weary twenty mile trail from town, to his anxiously waiting family, the meagre supply of provisions necessary to meet the simple demands of the frugal lives they lived.

"In our district, in those early days, produce was generally carried in huge home made linen sacks thrown across the horse's back. Grain was often taken in open row boats to Acorn's grist mill near Pownal. We often cut our grain at night. Young men and women gathered in crowds and worked with reaping hooks in the small fields surrounded by woods. Lit up by flaming birchbark torches on the end of long poles, the scene was an animating one. Many of the settlers made notable cheese. They cured it in grain stacks. This treatment gave a distinctive flavor greatly relished by those who partook of it.

"Although times were hard there were but few beggars. As there were no public institutions for the weak-minded, they wandered about the country, a constant source of anxiety to others. Everyone was busy. There was no reason or excuse for idleness when even the women and children could be usefully employed gathering slash from the cut-over land, when seasonal work failed. Only the wilfully idle had an easy time.

"Social conventions assumed a more important part in the life of the district as wealth increased. When the famous Highland minister, Roderick MacLeod (known as Maighstir Ruairidh), then visiting at the Nicholson home in Orwell, came down to breakfast in bare feet, the daughters of the house were so surprised at the strange sight that they ever recalled it with amusement.

"The early settlers had few holidays. Christmas passed unnoticed. New Year's Day was the great day of the year. On the Eve of that day `striking parties,' composed of young folk of the district, armed with sticks, marched through the settlement. When they arrived at a house they surrounded it, and to the accompaniment of music from the sticks beating the log walls, vigorously sang a Gaelic refrain, which may be translated:

Get up auld wife, and shake your feathers,
Dinna think that we are beggars,
We're jist bairns come oot to play,
Get up and gie us oor hogmanay.

"If, as happened but rarely, there was no 'Scotch' on hand, they were given cakes. But these were poor substitutes for what they sought, and the eager haste with which they directed their fleet footsteps to the light beckoning from the nearest neighbors' window, revealed an intention to ignore substitutes, and an anxiety to slake their inherited thirst by the only means known to them and to their forefathers for generations. When the log houses were replaced by shingled ones, these parties were discouraged and finally abandoned.

"There was no market for farm produce. The result was that laborers were paid paltry wages, as the following entry in an old Minute Book will show: 'Dec. 20/61. Norman McPherson began working with John McQueen for three years to serve at rate 2 for first year, 2 4s. for second year and 4 for third, and if proves well gets 6 for third year.'

"We were as content with our lot then as we are today. We denied ourselves what we knew we could not afford. This was an excellent training, and did much to build in the poor but proud Highlander a character marked by integrity and honor, virtues that he prized above life itself."

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus