The Achany Letters


Highland emigration to Nova Scotia is often portrayed as a traumatic event after which the emigrants permanently left their homeland thus concluding all contact with those left behind.   In many cases that would be true.  Those with the literacy skills to conduct correspondence  were in the minority, both in Nova Scotia and Scotland.  Some, like those from Clyne,  left communities that became totally vacant.  Others came as part of an extended family with little need to keep in touch with people back home.   Consequently there are very few surviving documents of communication between the old and new settlements.

Earltown did have at least one settler who not only kept in touch with family and friends in Scotland but actually kept the letters.   William MacKay “Achany”  corresponded for a number of years with siblings, nieces, nephews and old acquaintances in his home Parish of Kincardine as well as his wife’s family in Rogart and Dornoch.   We don’t have any of the letters written by William but a portfolio exists of original letters addressed to  “William MacKay, settler, Newfield, Earltown by Pictou, America”.

The letters give insight into the continuing struggles of the crofting class back in Scotland.   Some make reference to the unpopular moderation of the Kirk,  a precursor to the formation of the Free Church of Scotland in the 1840’s.   Certain writers inquire about the possibility of getting free land in Nova Scotia should they decide to emigrate.  A few letters give insight in the customs of the times such as providing mourners with a wee dram at a graveyard burial.

Many of the letters are difficult to follow.  The education of the writers may have been limited but the main contributing factor is that the writers were trying to convey their Gaelic thoughts in written English, their second language.   As one Mr. Murray writes  “I don’t know how to put the English to it”.

William MacKay “Achany” was born in the Parish of Kincardine, Ross, in 1783.  In adult life he lived at Invercarron at the confluence of the Carron and the Kyle of Sutherland.  This area was part of the Achany Estate, a one time Munro holding that straddled the boundary of Ross and Sutherland.  When William arrived in Earltown, he was nicknamed “Achany” to distinguish him from a number of other William MacKays. He married Sybella Murray of Rogart in Scotland.   Sybella’s brother and mother emigrated to Earltown in 1819, (the Stager Murrays), which may account for William and Sybella arriving in Earltown a few  years later.

William and Sybella’s homestead was located on the Campbell Road at Central Earltown.  Their sons William and John lived on this road as well.   A son, Kenneth, lived at West Branch while another son George settled on the Peter MacDonald Road at The Falls.  Their only daughter Christy married George Henderson of Kildonan and West Earltown.

Robert (Bob) Forbes, late of Denmark, NS, and a great, great grandson of William “Achany”, generously shared the letters several years ago.   Over the next few weeks, examples of the letters will be posted along with some background comments.

One comment on “The Achany Letters

  1. Lynn Gray says:

    Thanks, Glen. I thoroughly enjoyed learning these bits of Earltown history.



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