The War of 1812 and Donald “Pentioner” MacKay

The hot topic in Canadian history this year is the War of 1812.   I never gave much thought to that conflict and erroneously assumed it was mainly revlevant to Upper Canada and the privateer activity on the Atlantic.   It is well known that one of  Earltown’s settlers was involved in the Battle of New Orleans however I never made the connection to the War of 1812.   My thanks to Toni MacDonald of Brule for bringing the relevance of the War to my attention.

The Battle of New Orleans took place between December 12, 1814 and January 26th, 1815 with the major battle occurring on January 8th.  It was the last battle front of the War of 1812 with heavy losses for the British.   The worst losses were sustained after peace was negotiated but before word reached Louisiana.  Among the British soldiers was one Donald MacKay who was severely wounded in battle.

Donald was born in the Parish of Lairg, Sutherland, in 1770.   As a young man he enlisted in the army and served for 21 years.    After his severe wounds,  he was discharged and sent back to Britain.  After his recovery, likely in England,  he returned to his native parish.   He next appears living in the traditional MacKay country of Strathnaver.   In the far north Parish of Farr,  he married Barbara MacKay.    After the birth and death of their eldest son,  they moved to Tomich in Lairg where Donald found employment as a grasskeeper for Major Gilchrist of the 93rd Sutherland Regiment.   They also lived for a time in the Parish of Creich.

In the last great migration of 1831-32,  Donald and Barbara together with their young family emigrated to Pictou.  One version of their story claims they lived for a time near Blue Mountain with Donald’s brother James.  They came to East Earltown shortly thereafter and acquired a farm on the crest of the hill on Squire MacKay Road.   It was land originally reserved for the Deans of Kings College.   From this lofty situation,  they had a magnificent view three counties and two colonies.

Despite his wounds,  (some say he lost an arm in the war),  Donald cleared a productive farm.   He was known as “Donald Pensioner”  or simply “Pensioner” as there were nearly a dozen Donald MacKays in the surrounding communities at that time.   Descendants claim he received a life pension for his extensive service to the crown.

After an active life of military adventure,  herding cattle in the Highlands,  clearing a farm from virgin forest and active farming in an infant settlement,   Donald died in 1871 at the advanced age of 101.  He is buried in Gunn’s Cemetery,  a short distance from his homestead.  His wife Barbara is buried beside him.   A stately stone was erected when that small cemetery was at the side of an active country road.  Her epitaph reads that  “She was a woman of quiet piety and her example and memory are a sweet inheritance.   Far from the haunts of the busy world may their ashes rest in this serene and quiet place”.     One hundred and thirty four years later,  it is now a remote break on a dead end road, even further from the haunts of the busy world!

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