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Prince Edward Island
The Catholic Scotch Settlement on Prince Edward Island

Prince Edward Island’s Celtic heritage is still very much alive, underlying many tourism and holiday-related events. This significant presence is due in large part to the fact that, in the early nineteenth century, people of Scottish origin comprised the vast majority of the colony’s population. They eventually settled across the Island, but were concentrated primarily along the north shore from Malpeque Bay to East Point and throughout Kings County and Eastern Queens County. Most of Prince Edward Island’s Scottish population came from the Highlands, Gaelic speakers who spoke little English.

The Highlands were in a state of economic and social upheaval after the Battle of Culloden at the turn of the nineteenth century. These hardships, together with the highland “clearances,” religious discrimination against Catholics, a general population increase, and the exciting tales of life in America were more than sufficient to motivate Highland Scots to emigrate to the New World.

Upon arriving on the Island, the Highlanders had no capital with which to buy land and found themselves entangled in “the land question” that has marked Island history. While under British rule, the Island was divided into lots owned primarily by absentee landlords who, in the majority of cases, made no effort to develop their land or foster decent and just relations with their tenant-farmers. On the other hand, the Lowland Scots, relatively few in number, enjoyed a more favourable fate than their Highland cousins did. Coming to the Island primarily from Glasgow or Greenock, they benefited from an economic and social status on par with the “English.”

Thomas Douglas, Fifth Lord of Selkirk, bought the 80,000-acre Lot 57 and financed three ships—the Polly, Dykes and Oughton to carry settlers to his estate. The Selkirk followers left their Highland homes and, in 1803, established themselves in an area that was to become the community of Belfast—from the French “la belle face” (the beautiful place).

Captain John MacDonald, Eighth Earl of Glenaladale, purchased Lot 36 (south of Tracadie Harbour) from James Montgomery in 1770. MacDonald was to become one of the Island’s most influential and embittered proprietors. To his new estate he brought persecuted emigrants from South Uist along with other Catholics from Arisaig and Moydart. These new settlers travelled aboard the Alexander, landing at Scotchfort in 1772.

By and large, the Scottish settlers found the Island well suited to traditional Highland agricultural practices—after they cleared away the forests that covered the fertile soil. They cut down trees and planted potatoes among the stumps, tilled small plots with hand implements and allowed their cattle to graze all over their lands. Their livelihoods were supplemented by timber, which was sold as a cash crop.

Today, Scottish-Prince Edward Island history and culture are preserved and promoted by numerous localized and clan organizations across the Island. The Belfast Historical Society concerns itself primarily with the Selkirk settlers and the Clan MacLeod association with Caledonian Protestant Scots. Somewhat broader in scope, the Scottish Settlers Historical Society promotes Scottish culture in general—music, song, and dance—keeping the ceilidh popular for many years to come.


by A. M. Pope

Published in THE CATHOLIC WORLD, 1882

In the year 1770 travelling in the Highlands of Scotland was neither so fashionable nor so easy as it is to-day. Steamers were unknown. Oban, waxing strong in the shelter of Dunstaffnage, was unconscious of its future celebrity as a gay seaport town. The Campbells were flourishing as a green bay-tree, nourished on that all-powerful cordial, "government pap." They were the most fashionable people of the country; in brand-new garments of the London cut, new politics of the Hanoverian tint, with a new religion and a new king, they walked in the footsteps of their leader, MacCailleam-Mor, stigmatized by one of Scotland's most vigorous writers as

"He who sold his king for gold, the master-fiend Argyle."

The Western Islands occasionally shipped to England shaggy little bits of canine perfection that were sold at high prices to the phlegmatic Brunswick belles of the English court, but for the most part they were unvisited and unmolested. MacDonald of Sleat had given in his allegiance to the new religion, and for his refusal to espouse the cause of the exiled king had been created Lord MacDonald of the Isles in the Irish peerage. Clan Ronald had gone "over the water to Charlie," though the Inverness-shire hills still echoed to the shrill pibroch of his clansmen, and the bagpipes resounded where to-day one hears but the rifle of the Sassenach sportsman or the bleating of the mountain sheep.

From Oban, after sailing through the Sound of Mull and rounding Ardnamurchan Point, one sights the little island of Muck, a place where woman's rights were once pretty well enforced; and after passing the islands called Rum and Eig, that in spite of one's self suggest the addition of milk and sugar, we come to the Long island of the Hebrides—South Uist. Here in the spring of 1770 was enacted the first of those tragedies that gave to British North America the gallant and God-fearing bands of Scotch emigrants that have done so much to enrich the Dominion of Canada.

The southern part of South Uist had for its laird Alexander MacDonald, better known in those days as Alister mor Bhoistal, or Big Sandy of Boisdale; he owned the southern part of the island, and had leased the northern part from his kinsman and feudal chieftain, Clan Ronald, so that his tenantry numbered over two hundred families—all of them, of course, Catholics. Boisdale took unto himself a wife of "the daughters of Heth," a Calvinist, and fell an easy prey to the gloomy horrors of that doctrine. Not content with converting himself, he undertook to convert his followers. He imported a dominie, to whom he entrusted the instruction of his household, and to this man he gave the care of a free school which he opened on his estate. The people, unsuspecting, sent their children gladly at first, but, soon finding their religion was being tampered with, they withdrew them. Upon this Boisdale issued an edict abolishing days of abstinence, holidays of obligation, going to church, to confession, to communion, and even doing away with the priest himself. He gave the people the option of complying with this mild expression of his wishes or of being evicted from their lands and houses, and then set out himself to engraft his doctrines by means of muscular persuasion. It must have been a strange sight that Lenten Sunday morning more than a century ago—the bell calling the faithful to God's own feast: the clansmen coming from near and far, over hill and dale, in their picturesque dress; the Highland lassies in their plaid gowns, with their banded yellow hair, and innocent blue eyes, and so much determination withal; the old wives, who had grown weary while praying for their king to be restored to his own again, and who were looking forward now to their last sleep beside the rocky shores they loved so well, where the surging Atlantic would sing their requiem through the long, wild nights of those northern latitudes, and would bring tangled garlands and clusters of strange sea-mosses to strew their graves in the cladh er cladach na fairge.To this peaceful scene came the laird in his south-country dress, and in his hand, not the sword of other days, but his bhati-bui, or yellow walking-stick! With this weapon he actually attempted to drive his tenants into a Protestant church that he had erected, and belabored them severely, which treatment did not tend to increase their admiration for what they called credible a bhati-bui—the "creed of the yellow stick." Upon hearing his conditions his tenants declared themselves ready to part with their patches of land but not with their faith. They were encouraged and supported by their pastor, an Irish Dominican friar, Father Wynne, who, thus becoming obnoxious to Boisdale, was obliged to fly from the island. The persecution went on, but the people, though they suffered, did not waver. However, it so happened that the persecution suddenly stopped, but not before the people had imbibed the mania for emigration and carried out the scheme devised in their favor by Captain John MacDonald, the laird of Glenaladale, called by his countrymen Fer a Ghlinne.*

The great Clan Colla, or MacDonald sept was divided into several distinct sub-clans, each having its chief—namely, Clan Ronald, Glengarry, ** MacDonald of Sleat, Glencoe, Keppoch, and Kinloch-Moidart—and these branches were again sub-divided. Clan Ronald and Glengarry have disputed the chieftainship of the sept for many years, and a great many careful students of Celtic history decide that Glengarry has the stronger claim. Clan Ronald takes its name from "Ranald, eighth chief of the race of Somerled, thane of Argyle, progenitor of the MacDonalds of Glengarry and of all the MacDonalds known as Clanranald, or Clann Raonuil—that is, descendants of Ronald." The Glengarry family now spell their name MacDonell, it being so written in the patent of nobility conferring their title of Lord MacDonell and Aross given them by Charles II in 1660.***

We have already spoken of Captain John MacDonald of Glenaladale, who came to the rescue of Boisdale's tenants. At the time of the fatal mistake that put the MacDonalds on the left wing of the Jacobite army, and so lost to Scotland the field of Culloden, this Captain John MacDonald was but a child. He was sent to Ratisbon to receive his education in a Catholic college, and returned to his native land one of the most scholarly men of his day. He first married Miss Gordon, of Wardhouse, who died young, and many years afterwards Miss Margery MacDonald, of Ghernish, by whom he had a family of four sons and one daughter. Glenaladale was a wise and far-seeing man, and the events of the time in Scotland showed him that for his clansmen the only hope of happiness lay in emigration. Not only was Boisdale bent on tyranny, but he had infected others. For instance, a missionary priest named Kennedy, landing on the island of Muck, was arrested and imprisoned by order of Mrs. MacLean, wife of the proprietor, who himself was absent from the island. The same work was going on in the island of Barn and in the surrounding country, and the very existence of the Catholic religion in the Western Islands seemed at stake. Such events induced Glenaladale to organize a scheme of emigration, and, going up to Edinburgh, he entered into a treaty with the lord-advocate, Henry Dundas, for some large tracts of land in the isle of St. John, lying in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and known since 1798 as Prince Edward Island, so called in compliment to the Duke of Kent. Glenaladale's following being Catholics proved to be anything but an objection against them, as there were already about fifty families of Acadians on the island, and the authorities hoped that the coming of the Highlanders might ensure a Catholic clergyman for these people, who were without pastoral care.

In February, 1772, Glenaladale went to Greenock and chartered the ship Alexander; but it was not until May that the Alexander, with two hundred and ten emigrants, sailed for St. John's Island. One hundred of these were from Uist and a hundred and ten from the mainland. They, by a wise foresight, took with them provisions sufficient for a whole year. They were accompanied by Father James MacDonald, a secular priest who bad obtained faculties from Rome, to last until such time as he could have them renewed by the bishop of Quebec. A Dr. Roderick MacDonald was among the passengers, and, owing to his medical skill and their own prudence, they successfully combated several cases of fever, and, their number lessened only by the loss of one child, they arrived safely in the Gulf of St. Lawrence at the end of seven weeks, and dropped anchor in what is now known as the harbor of Charlottetown, opposite to a spot that bad been partly cleared of woods in preparation for this colony.

Yielding, however, to the persuasions of Glenaladale's brother, Lieutenant Donald MacDonald, the skipper of the Alexander, against his will, pushed further up the Hillsborough to a point near the head of Tracadie Bay, the final destination of his passengers, who landed themselves and their goods and chattels, doubtless well pleased to be once more on terra firma. As they had passed, on their way up the river, an old stronghold called French Fort, they dubbed the place of their landing Scotch Fort— a name it retains to this day.

In 1773 Fer a Ghlinne sold his estate and set sail for America, coming to St. John's Island by way of Philadelphia and Boston. In Boston he learned that a vessel which the previous year he bad despatched from Scotland with a cargo of provisions for the emigrants had never reached her destination, having been taken by a privateer. To meet the demand caused by this serious loss he brought from Boston a cargo of produce sufficient to appease the immediate wants of the colony. He proceeded to his new estate at Tracadie, where he lived for many years, always taking a very active part in the public affairs of the island of his adoption. Although he had shown himself generous to a fault, he was nevertheless very tenacious of the rights of land-owners. Some of his tenants were so prosperous as soon to be able to purchase leads in Antigonish and Bras d'Or, where their descendants are still to be found. The British government had the most exalted opinion of this Highland gentleman, and the office of governor of St. John's Island was offered to him. He was, however, obliged to decline the honor because of the anti-Catholic nature of the oath at that time required to be taken. Glenaladale could have accepted the governorship only at the price of his religion. It was during the administration of Colonel Ready that a better state of affairs was brought about in Prince Edward Island. He was appointed governor in 1829, and from that year until 1837 eighteen hundred and forty-four emigrants arrived and infused new life into the agriculture and trade of the country. It was in the year 1830 that the Prince Edward Island legislature passed the act for "the relief of his majesty's Roman Catholic subjects," by which their civil and political disabilities were repealed and "all places of trust or profit rendered as open to them as to any other portion of the king's subjects."

In conjunction with Major Small, Glenaladale was instrumental in forming the Eighty-fourth, or Royal Highland, Regiment in Nova Scotia, and gallant deeds are told of him in the records of those troubled times.

Roderick, the son of Fer a Ghlinne, though intended by his father for a priest, entered the army at an early age, and died in the Ionian Islands about twenty-five years ago. He married a niece of Sir James McDonnell, brother to the chief of Glengarry and general of the British forces in Canada. It was this latter McDonnell, by the way, who was the hero of Hugomont, and who, after the battle of Waterloo, received from the Duke of Wellington a special mark of distinction for his bravery. He was called "the bravest man in the British army." Lieutenant Roderick MacDonald, when in London in 1835, having been requested by the Highland Society of Prince Edward Island to select and purchase a tartan for the Highlanders of that colony, asked Miss Flora MacDonald, granddaughter of the heroine of that name, to decide on the pattern. The young lady chose as a prominent color the Gordon tartan, out of respect to the Duke of Gordon, a great patron of the Highlander, in America, and interwove with it the colors of the other clans. This tartan has since been adopted by the Highland Societies of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The only son of Lieutenant Roderick MacDonald is a member of the Society of Jesus. One of Glenaladale's sons, John, became a priest and died in England in 1874; William was drowned; and the eldest son, Donald, lived on the family estate, which his descendants still hold.

The Rev. James MacDonald came out in the emigration of 1774, and exercised his ministry among his countrymen and the Acadians of the colony, and also along the shores of the neighboring provinces. He was a zealous and large-hearted man, and universally beloved. The beloved saggarth, worn out by the hardships and extent of his mission, died in 1785 at the early age of forty-nine years, and was buried in the old French cemetery at Scotch Fort. For many years after his death the Catholics of St John's Island were without a pastor, until in 1790 the son of one Ewen ban MacEachern, who had arrived among the emigrants of 1774, having been consecrated priest at Valladolid, in Spain, came out to visit his parents in their new home, and, seeing the sore need of his presence, decided to remain and throw himself into the work so manifestly waiting for him. Among the heroic and holy dead who have worked for Christ on the wild coasts and in the dense forests of the New World there is no more prominent figure, no more revered memory, than that of the Right Rev. Angus MacEachern, first bishop of Charlottetown. Catholic and Protestant alike speak lovingly of his virtues and good deeds. His bright intellect mastered all the knotty points of his surrounding; and his wise judgment has borne fruit in the success of the cause for which he worked. His devotion and self-sacrifice sowed the seed of a goodly harvest, to be witnessed in the prosperity and steady increase of the church in Prince Edward Island. Father MacEachern was first created Bishop of Rosens, in partibus, and afterwards bishop of Charlottetown. He died in his mission-hone at St Andrews, and was buried in the old cemetery where repose also the mortal remains of good Father James, and of a Father Augustine McDonald, brother of Glenaladale, who, worn out with missionary labors among his native hills, came out to spend his last years with his people, beside whom he now sleeps the dreamless sleep of death.

We may have some idea of the hardships encountered by Bishop MacEachern when we consider that for may years after his arrival on Prince Edward Island there were no high roads nor vehicles in the country. Journeys were accomplished in summer by riding on horseback through rough pathways hewn in the forest. In winter these journeys were generally made on snow-shoes and necessitated weary nights of camping-out under the insufficient shelter of the green spruce groves. The severity of the climate is shown by the following incident, which occurred in Charlottetown, the capital of the island, only two or three years ago. An old woman residing in the bogor negro quarter of the town, came before the stipendiary magistrate with a petition that teams should be prevented from driving over her house, as since the last snow-storm she had been completely blocked up, and the temporary road broken through the snow-banks and used by the public as a highway lay right across the roof of her dwelling!

In the year 1790 there came from the island of Barra a reinforcement of Highlanders, who settled for the most part in the western end of Prince Edward Island, in and around the district known as Grand River. They were MacKinnons, MacDonalds, MacIntyres, and Gillises.

On the island of Barn dwelt a loyal Catholic population. But the laird of Barra—one McNeil by name—had adopted the religion of Calvin; ho accordingly tried to inoculate his tenants, and succeeded just about as well as did Alister mor Bhoistal. On the south end of the island of Barra was built the Catholic church; it was probably insufficient for the wants of the people, and its situation was somewhat inconvenient, as the greater part of the population lived at the north end and wished to have their church in that locality. They subscribed four hundred and fifty pounds, and on the 25th of March, 1790, Father Alexander MacDonald gave out that all his flock were to meet on the north end of the island on that evening to discuss the proposed erection. This news was brought to the laird, who determined there should be no church built. Four men were nevertheless selected to choose the site; they were Alec MacKinnon, John MacDonald, Malcolm MacKinnon, and Neil MacNeil. They set off for the appointed land, and met the laird in full bravery riding on his Highland pony, with his sword girded on, all ready for a fray.

"'What brought you here?' said the laud. Alec McKinnon, a very strong and powerful man, was the spokesman and made answer:

"'My lord, to select ground for a church.'

"Said the laird: `Don't you know, Alec, I've set my face against it?'

"McKinnon, in reply, said they were `hard dealt with and worse than slaves.'

"The laird retaliated: 'You may thank me for your education.'

McKinnon: 'I don't; there are schools anywhere.'

"The laird: 'Take care; I'd as soon fight you here as on the mountain.'

"McKinnon: 'No, my lord, I won't fight; I'd rather leave."'

Soon after this encounter McNeil's Catholic tenants all gave notice, and on the 28th of March they, or probably some among them, went to Tobermory, in the island of Mull, and laid their case before Bishop McDonald, who gave them a letter to Colonel Frazer at Edinburgh. This officer was much interested in promoting emigration to Nova Scotia, and promised them a ship if they could muster three hundred and fifty emigrants. The required number was made up by the addition of some from Uist and from the mainland. They sailed from Tobermory and arrived at Charlottetown Harbor. From Charlottetown the emigrants went up to Malpeque, but in 1792 most of them settled in Grand River, Lot 14. About this time another band came out, principally MacDonalds, McMillens, and McLellens, and settled in Lot 18 and Indian River.

Among all the Highland emigrations to Canada none have furnished so many men successful in professional and mercantile life as the MacDonalds of Georgetown, at the east end of Prince Edward Island. Andrew MacDonald, Esquire, of Eilean Shona, Inverness-shire, and Arisaig on the island of Eig, came to Prince Edward Island in 1806, bringing with him a following of forty persons. He had married a Miss MacDonald and had a family of fifteen children, the last of whom was laid to rest in Georgetown cemetery but a few weeks ago, having been born in 1797 and died in 1882. Mr. Andrew MacDonald had purchased an extensive estate in Prince Edward Island, but, owing to some informality in the title-deed, it was ultimately eaten up by law-costs, and there remained to his descendants but Panmure Island and some property in Georgetown. However, in San Francisco, in Boston, in New Brunswick and in Montreal, as well as in old Scotia and in Prince Edward Island, the descendants of this enterprising Scotch gentleman are not only prosperous but remarkable for their superior talents and success.

The large and fertile property in Prince County known as Bedeque was originally the property of MacDonald of Rhetland a branch of the house of Morar founded by Raol MacAllan 0g. In 1775 Rhetland, following the example of his kinsman Glenaladale, determined to better the condition of his people by emigration, and with that view purchased ten thousand acres in Prince Edward Island and sold his estate in Scotland to Lord MacDonald of Sleat. He was returning in an open boat from Skye, whither he had gone to receive from Lord MacDonald the purchase-money, when a squall arose, and Rhetland, with his eldest son and all on board were drowned. He left a grandson, who succeeded to the title and estate, and also two sons and two daughters. The family was of course much impoverished by the loss of the gold paid for their lands, and had no choice but to come out to their newly acquired property in America, where their descendants still dwell. A young priest, great-grandson of the old Rhetland, left Prince Edward Island some years ago and became a most popular vicaire in Montreal. He has since entered the Society of Jesus.

The second bishop of Prince Edward Island, the Right Rev. Bernard MacDonald, was of the house of Alisary, another branch of Glenaladale. He succeeded Bishop MacEachern, and was consecrated bishop of Charlottetown in 1836. He was a hardworking pastor and took a deep interest in education. He established in 1855 St. Dunstan's College, an institute of learning for Catholic boys, and was instrumental in inducing the Sisters of the Congregation de Notre Dame of Montreal to open their first mission on the island. He died in his college of St. Dunstan, about two miles from Charlottetown, in 1859.

The present bishop of Charlottetown, the Right Rev. Dr. McIntyre, is descended from one of the Inverness-shire families who came out in the Queen of Greenock. He was consecrated bishop in August, 1860, and has done a vast work in the building of churches and convents and the organizing of charitable institutions in his large diocese, which comprises the whole of Prince Edward Island and the Magdalen Isles. There are now forty- six churches in Prince Edward Island, and eight convents under the care of the Sisters of the Congregation. There are thirty-six priests in the diocese of Charlottetown; of these eleven are MacDonalds, and three of that name, natives of Prince Edward Island, have entered the Society of Jesus.

A Highland gentleman of Prince Edward Island, writing of his countrymen, says:

"The old people were good, frugal and industrious; they cleared the land, built houses and barns, and when they died generally left a good farm free from debt and a good stock of cattle to sons who were not long content to live as their self-denying parents had done, and who would take the first offer of wages to go in a vessel as sailors or fishermen. The number of those who have been lost sight of in that way is as great as of those now to be found in the old settlements. Their bones whiten the bottom of the 'George's Banks,' or they are absorbed in the mixed populations of the fishing-towns of New England. Those who came from the Western Islands all have a hankering for the sea, and there is hardly a family to be found that has not one or more of its sons sailors or fishermen. When they have a tendency that way they seldom make good farmers, and so families soon disappear from their native island. The Highlander of my first recollection was very fond of whiskey, and this extravagant habit kept a great many of them in poverty. The last ten years have wrought much improvement in that respect, and many of them are becoming independent farmers and saving money."

One cannot drive through the rural districts of Prince Edward Island without seeing that, in spite of the propensity of some to a sea-going life, as a rule the Scotch make good farmers. Through sad experience have they bought their knowledge, for their hands were more accustomed to fishing-lines than to hoes. It is said of one Highland settlement that when the census was first taken there the returns showed twenty-nine bagpipes and five ploughs! To-day, however, there are no more flourishing farms to be seen than those of the western Highlanders. Snug houses and barns mark their settlements, and many of them hold high places of trust in their native colony. Strangers who visit Prince Edward Island on yachting excursions are struck by the fact that, in entering nearly every harbor, the most prominent object is always the Catholic church, keeping, as it were, the Ave Maris Stella in the hearts of this seafaring people. As the tired fisherman at sunset enters port the Angelus bell is sure to welcome his return. In sight of the lofty spire, where flashes the golden symbol of his faith, he repeats the Am Beannacha' Moire, in which his human feeling of tenderness for his beloved Mother is blended with his Catholic reverence for the mystery of the Incarnation.

*Or, as the Irish more correctly would write it, fear na ghlinne- that is, the "man of the valleys" (or glens)

**For the Glengarry colony in Canada see the article "A Scotch Catholic Settlement in Canada" in THE CATHOLIC WORLD for October, 1881

***Donald, Donnell, or more properly, Domhnall (pronounced Dhonal), has practically almost disappeared as a Christian name among the Irish Gaels, having been lost in its supposed equivalent, "Daniel," with which Biblical name it has, of course, not the slightest connection- merely a remote resemblance in sound. In a similar manner Brian has become "Bernard" and "Barney", Cathal and Cormac, "Charles"; Tadg (Teige) "Jeremiah"(!) or "Teddy"; Sivdla (pronounced Sheela), "Julia," etc. Eoghan has either been supplanted by its Welsh brother, "Owen," or has been transmogrified into the Greek "Eugene." Most singular of all that very ancient and suggestive Gaelic name, Conn (a wolf-hound), is treated as if it were the nickname of the classical "Cornelius" or "Constantine." Thus the Gaelic-speaking Conn MacDuaire, when he learned English, was metamorphosed into "Cornelius (or perhaps Constantine) Maguire"!

Thanks to the Glenaladale Settlers for this information

See also The Island Register, Prince Edward Islands Genealogy Site

Return to our History of Prince Edward Island

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