The November 2003 Tour of Rear Beaver Cove
It was on an overcast day in early November 2003 that our little group met at the home of Blaine and Anita MacKinnon in Beaver Cove. It was about 9:30 a.m. and the purpose of this gathering of Gaels was to visit the site where Scottish settlers; mostly from the western isles of Scotland, had immigrated, obtained land and settled during the early part of the nineteenth century. Most of the travelers were from the area and some were actual descendants of the original settlers to Rear Beaver Cove. In the group were people with backpacks, thermos bottles, water bottles, lunches and cameras. We were ready to start. Along with Blaine, our host for the trip were: Carmella MacLean, (Josie) Roy and Elaine MacLean, Philip and Marina MacLennan, Gerard and Leah MacNeil, Leonard Bryden and his wife, Loreen MacDonald (Morrison), Florence Lawery (Morrison) and Beatrice MacDonald (Morrison), Paula Lynch, Lloyd MacDonald, John Flynn and myself as well as my wife, Norman and Leona MacIntyre.
Blaine produced a large map of the area and gave us some explanation of the route to be traveled and where some of the old farms were to be found. I was especially interested in seeing where the old Nicholson farm was located as it was here that the Right Reverend Doctor Patrick Joseph Nicholson’s father Seoras (George) was born. “Doc Pat” as we called him at Saint Francis Xavier University in Antigonish had been President of St.F.X.U. for many years and he was retired and living on campus when I was there. He was an avid Gaelic scholar and physicist who was known for his intellectual prowess. He had sought me out, hearing that I was from Boisdale and he told me during one of our conversations that he was related to my mother whose maiden name was Nicholson. Just as I had my reasons for having an interest in Rear Beaver Cove, I am sure that each of the other travelers also had their own reasons for making the trip. Having read Father Alan MacMillan’s book “To The Hills of Boisdale” and also having read a map of the area; I became aware of several of the original Scottish immigrants who obtained land grants in this area. They were: Gilliesbuig (Archibald) Gillis and his wife Anna who settled there around the year 1832. They brought with them nine children, all born in Barra. A well-known descendant of this family was a man whom I knew well, Joe Gillis “Big Joe” who lived next door to us at Barrachois Harbour at one time. He was an important official with the C.N.R. and his son Bert was one of the founding members of The Boisdale Historical Society. _ Alasdair Nicholson and his wife Caitriona(Catherine) came around the year 1836. _ Domhnull(Donald) MacInnis, his wife Margaret and their son Ruairidh(Roderick) Dhomhnuill. _ Lachlann MacDonald and his wife Mor who came from South Uist which is where my ancestors came from. _ Domhnull MacDonald and his wife Mairead(Margaret). _ Seumas Ian Mhoir,(James son of Big John) MacKinnon and his second wife Raonaid settled in Rear Beaver Cove where they raised five children. _Domhnull MacLean and his wife Annag lived at MacLean’s Crossing where there is a fork in the Rear Beaver Cove road. _ Ian MacMullin,along with his wife Seonaid(Janet) and their eight children came from Barra and settled here sometime in the 1830′s. _Calum(Malcolm) MacMullin and his second wife Ann. _Ian MacMullin and his wife Morag(Sarah). _Seumas MacMullin and his wife Ciorsdan. _Eoin MacMullin and his wife Mairi. _Niall MacMullin and his wife Ciorsdan. _Eoghann MacPhee and his wife Kate had ten children. _Gilleasbuig O’Handley and his wife Christie lived near Loon Lake just on the border of Rear Beaver Cove and Boisdale
Leona and Norman MacIntyre gingerly cross “the brook” while others ponder their future
Needs picture here
2nd Photo-Taking in the view of the Big Glen are: Betrice MacDonald, Gerard MacNeil, Loreen MacDonald, Lloyd MacDonald, Phillip MacLennan, Blaine MacKinnon. Norman and Leona MacIntyre
3rd Photo Phillip MacLennan, Lloyd MacDonald, Gerard MacNeil, Leah MacNeil, Leona MacIntyre, Blaine MacKinnon, Roy MacLean, Betrice MacDonald, a bit of Leonard Bryden, Florence Lawery, Linda Bryden, Elaine MacLean, John Flynn, Marina MacLennan
When I was a boy I remember that a neighbour of ours in Boisdale, Hughie R. O’Handley used to take his horse and sleigh in winter when Loon Lake was frozen over to cross the lake to get a special white sand that he used in the making of grave headstones. Many of these can be seen today in the Boisdale Cemetery._ Aonghas(Angus) O’Handley and his wife Christie. _ Eoin Ruadh(Red) O’Handley and his wife Mary who had four children. While O’Handley is an Irish name, I remember once being told by Alec O’Handley, who ran a sawmill at Barrachois Harbour for many years, that the O’Handleys had been in Scotland for generations before they emigrated to Canada. The original immigrants to Rear Beaver Cove from that family were the product of inter-marriage with the Scots for many years, spoke Scottish Gaelic and had thoroughly assimilated the Scottish culture. I have mentioned the names of some of the people who pioneered this community just to give a sense of who they were, now that we are surveying what is left of their labours, hopes and dreams. They worked hard; building houses and barns, clearing fields for hay, crops and pasture and providing for their families what physical comforts they could. It strikes me as being very sad that these labours on behalf of their families were, by events of fate and circumstance, to lead to the abandonment of farms, roads and houses. Neil A. MacKinnon said that it was the rise of the economy providing jobs in the mines and the steel plant that caused whole families to leave this community; drifting to the city of Sydney and its surrounding towns. There, a steady job and modern conveniences gave them a more comfortable life. Many of the children and grandchildren of the original pioneers left to seek their fortunes in central and western Canada and in the United States where their descendants live today. Neil A. stated that by 1921 the community of Rear Beaver Cove was totally abandoned. While we were walking along the old road through the rear, Blaine told me that in the early 1940′s Duncan O’Handley from Boisdale and as well as his as his aunt and uncle Neil and Mary (MacMullin) MacNeil lived there for part of a winter where they ran a sawmill. They were the last to spend a winter in Rear Beaver Cove.
The day was light overcast and grey as we climbed into two vehicles that would take us up the steep hillside that was an extension of the Boisdale Hills. My wife Leona and I went with Blaine in his 4 wheel drive, along with Carmella and Lloyd . The others who were present went in a truck with Leonard Bryden and his wife The road was very good starting off; it being a forestry road that had been constructed there in recent years. To our left, we passed by a beautiful large area of pine trees that had been planted there. They were now about seven feet tall and very healthy looking. A little farther along we passed by Blaine’s sawmill which I had seen in operation on a previous occasion. It is an ingenious design which consists of a table that adjusts easily and can handle fairly large logs. A chainsaw with a long blade is slid along the log and it cuts a perfectly shaped board from a squared log as you walk along the catwalk. Blaine had been cutting hemlock logs into 2″ planks for his own use. Hemlock was valued by the early settlers as it is very resistant to rot as well as being a strong wood; although most of the early cabins were constructed of spruce and pine logs. As we continued on up the hill, which was very steep at times, we were going in a southerly direction and after passing through mixed woodland with spruce, fir, hemlock, birch and maple trees, I could not help but think how beautiful this must have been a few weeks earlier. The leaves of all the hardwood trees would have shown their various colours with shades of yellow and crimson. At the top of the hill, a distance of approximately 3/4 of a mile, we met up with the others who were waiting at an intersection in the road. To our right was an old road that was to lead us in to where the old farms were and to our left was a good forestry road. We headed southwest walking and the terrain was much more gradual until we passed a clearing where some cutting had been done recently.
Shortly after passing this clearing, we came to a driveway which led us in to Johnny MacKinnon’s old farm. As we walked along a good path we could see places where rocks had been placed to build up the low spots in the road. This made a good driveway in to the farm. To our right as we went in were remnants of an ancient stone fence. As they cleared stones and rocks from their fields the farmers carried them to the edges and made fences. Often posts were driven in among the stones and rail fences built as well. The walking was easy now and soon we reached a flat plateau where all of the trees had been limbed and the area seemed open and spacious. Just to our right was the rock foundation of the old farm house. The depression of the root cellar could be seen there between the rows of rocks that had been the foundation of the house. All around the foundation were stones and cement discs painted white and arranged in the form of a Rosary. At the front of the foundation was a huge flat granite stone which had served as a threshold step for the house at one time and seated upon this stone was a beautiful statue of Our Blessed Lady. This had been placed there by the MacKinnon family this summer as a sign of respect for their ancestors and the strong faith in God that was held by these sturdy pioneers. To the east of this spot was another foundation which it is believed was the foundation of the first log house that had been built on the property. As we moved around to the southwest, we came upon the foundation walls of a large barn; all that remains of a building that had once housed the horse, cows, and in the bottom part next to the ground, the sheep. Hay for the winter would have been stored inside the barn and this hay would insulate the building against heat loss. It was the heat from the animals that would have kept the barn from becoming too cold. I remember as a young boy, going to my uncle’s barn to help feed and milk the dairy cows. In the coldest winter mornings and evenings it would be quite comfortable inside the barn with the only source of heat being the animals. As we turned down the path from this place I felt respect and admiration for the pioneers who had such reverence for their God, as well as respect for the recent ones who had remembered and honored their ancestors here.
When we came back to the road again we kept going south and passed nearby the brook which had provided clear water for the pioneers and their animals; to our left were the remains of a stone wall on Neil MacLean’s old farm. It came to my mind that these people would have been used to laying stones back in their homeland and I admired the neat placing of the stones in this wall. There is a definite skill to building a strong stone wall without using mortar and this skill had been mastered by the Scots who came from a country that had very few trees left on its mountains and in its glens. As we continued on we went through some very low and wet terrain where we sometimes had to go off the path to circumvent huge puddles of water. Blaine indicated a spot towards the east which had been the site of the Rear Beaver Cove school in which the children from these farms were educated in English. For most of the children their first language and that spoken most often by their parents was Scottish Gaelic(Gaidhlig), the language of “A Ghaidhealtachd”(The Highlands) from which they had come. After Culloden, in 1746 there had been a concerted effort by the English invaders to destroy this language, along with the culture, music and dance of the Celts. It must have been with a sense of relief and pride that these people revived and maintained their language and customs in a new world. To my mind there is none as lively, colourful and entertaining as the Scottish dress, dance and song that was recalled, revived and nurtured by these people. I remember as a young lad going to a milling frolic in the Boisdale Parish hall and listening to the singing of gaelic songs by: Findlay Cameron, Mrs. Cameron, Joseph Lawrence MacDonald, Hughie MacIntyre, Roddie Nicholson, Alec Peter MacDonald, Katie Bell MacIntyre, Roddy Morrison and others. I was impressed with the energy and laughter of the singers as they sang the verses and pounded the milling cloth on the table. I expect that this schoolhouse in Rear Beaver Cove, on occasion, vibrated with the sound of a violin, square dancing, step-dancing and the lively voices in gaelic songs. This crossed my mind as we passed through the silence of this place. This abandoned community is now, not unlike the empty villages that had been destroyed in the cruel and infamous Highland Clearances so well depicted by John Prebble in his writings.
All of a sudden Blaine stopped and gave us a choice; would we like to keep going in this direction which had now turned to the east and had become very wet, or would we rather go on this new trail which branched off to our right and go southwest over higher terrain towards the ridge above the Big Glen and the Gillis and Nicholson properties. There was no time lost in making the decision as we were all getting concerned about the depth of the water in places on this road. The east road would would eventually take us past Loon Lake and on to the Bourinot Road at Steel’s Crossing, where the Bourinot road meets the MacAdam’s Lake Road and the Frenchvale Road begins to the east I had traveled this road in the spring with my son, Michael, on his ATV and knew that it kept due east until it became a wide logging road just before you get to Loon Lake. I suppose that this road was traveled over many times by horse and wagon as farmers went to Sydney with their families to conduct business, sell produce and buy supplies. As a matter of fact it was the route taken by a previous expedition of the Boisdale Historical Society.
As we headed southwest again on the high road, the trail was good and spirits lifted. Soon we came to a ridge that commanded a breathtakingly beautiful panoramic view of the Big Glen as it dipped before us to the South and ran East towards Frenchvale and Southwest towards Eskasoni. This area around us had been the MacInnis farm, with the Nicholson farm nearby. I tried to imagine this area as one of hayfields, apple orchards, barns and houses but the forest had taken it over so completely that it was a far stretch of the imagination. Here we stopped for a brief rest and people sat on fallen trees and rocks or just leaned against them. (see Photo 2) took advantage of this time to take a picture of this place before we retraced our steps to go back. We retraced our track back almost to where we had left the vehicles and then we started back down the hill. Part of the way was to be along the old log slide built by Chappells Lumber Dealers and partly we followed the original road that had been built and maintained every year by the original settlers. As we proceeded along ,I noticed places where the road had been built up and cribbed with stones, not unlike the ancient Roman roads that are yet to be found in parts of Scotland. Evidence once again of the skills of the pioneers as this work has lasted almost 200 years in a harsh climate of frost and snow.
All of a sudden I noticed that everyone up ahead had stopped and as we approached I heard the unmistakable sound of bubbling water running over rocks. (see Photo 1) Sure enough we were faced with the prospect of crossing a big brook. This circumstance was an unwelcome one for those who wore sneakers or low hiking shoes but with the help of those who had rubber footwear on and the large rocks that were in the streambed, all made it safely across without mishap. From this point on was the most beautiful part of the walk. The road was wide and level and it was bordered on one side by a ridge rising to our right; on it were stately hardwood trees and to our left was the effervescent bubbling of the brook. It was quite full of water after the autumn rains as it curled its way following the path of least resistance down to the Bras d’Or Lake. Before long we were at the paved Highway, Route 223 just up from Blaine’s driveway and forming up for a group picture, (see Photo 3) after which we all parted and went our separate ways. As Carmella, Leona and I got in the van to go home I could almost hear voices echoing from the hills above “thigibh a-rithist uaireigin” (please come again).