The Bonesetter

Physicians, as we know them today, were not readily available in the remote valleys of Sutherlandshire nor in rural Nova Scotia. When they did become assessable to the rural population, their services dealt mostly with internal medicine. Routine matters, such as obstetrics, remedies for common illnesses, and skeletal injury fell upon traditional holistic practices by members of the community.

The herbalists, with their arsenal of natural plant material, seemed to be few in number among the immigrants to the Scottish neighbourhoods. The lack of familiar plant material in their new surroundings likely led to their demise. The midwife was an important member of all rural communities. Some practised at large while others tended only to their extended family. The lessor known medic today is the bonesetter.

The bonesetter, or fear fuidhachaidh chnamh, as known in Gaelic, was once ubiquitous in many cultures. As the name suggests, they primarily set broken bones – human and animal. They also repaired dislocated bones and joints and performed many of the treatments common to chiropractors today.

In Earltown, the earliest practitioner was Peter Murray, alias The Bonesetter.
Peter was born around 1778 and brought up in DailfeusaigDailfeusaig, Rogart  (Peter Murray) in the Parish of Rogart. This hamlet was located on the upper portion of the Brora River that formed the boundary between Rogart and Clyne. His father John was a labourer, likely a cattle herder, for a more substantial tenant of the Sutherland Estate. Both John and Peter show up in an 1812 militia list as living at Dailfeusaig with Peter listed as a “residenter”.

On November 3rd, 1814, Peter married a childhood friend named Eliza. She was born in 1795 at nearby Scibberscross to Alexander Murray and Christy Sutherland. Her father had moved to a remote area called Altandoin in the Parish of Kildonan when Eliza was a young girl. That family was uprooted by the clearances of 1812 and found refuge on the heights of Slettil Hill during 1813 before moving into Strath Halladale to the north. The young couple took their vows in the manse of Kildonan on the above date before Rev. Alexander Sage.

We assume that the young couple returned to Dailfeusaig where things were much more stable than in Kildonan and further north. However, this was not to continue. Dailfeusaig was part of a holding over which John Sutherland of Scibberscross was tacksman. Sutherland of Scibberscross was an antagonist of the Sutherland Estate management. It was no surprise when the Scibberscross tack was taken from John Sutherland and given to John Hall in 1818. In 1819 the area along the Brora, between its source and Scibberscross, was cleared. Most of the people took flight to Pictou including several families who eventually landed in Earltown that summer.

In the land petitions of 1822, Peter claims he was a recent arrival from Scotland. However various traditions, settlement patterns and other evidence would suggest he arrived in 1819 with brother in law Alex Sutherland “Ballan”, his former neighbour and militia buddy, Robert Douglas, and a host of other families that settled in the vicinity of Earltown Village.  Some of these early emigrants temporarily lived in the Scotsburn area with earlier emigrants while waiting for location tickets or made that area a home base while clearing their new land.

Peter, Eliza and their two eldest children settled on what is now Sugar Moon farm. Remains of an early dwelling  can be found on the Rogart Mountain trail. In its day, itBonesetter's ruin, Alex MacDonald Road (Peter Murray).jpg looked out over the blossoming settlement in the basin and surrounding hills.
Peter became a leader in both the spiritual and physical life of the community. He was one of the first elders to be elected after the Presbyterian church formally organized in the 1840’s. He was credited with being the one who selected the site of the Village Cemetery in 1824.

Peter’s most important contribution was his bone setting skills. This was something he obviously learned in the old country. During the settlement years, the nearest medical professionals were located in Pictou and, as already noted, were not apt to respond to cases involving broken bones. No doubt there were many bones to heal as land clearing was a dangerous task and few of the settlers had any experience with an axe or bringing down trees. Sprains and dislocations were likely rampant as well. The treatments were likely harsh and painful but the long term relief and rehabilitation endeared him to the community.

To be continued

Part II will deal with Peter’s later life and the bonesetters among his descendants.


  1. 1812/13 Sutherland Militia Muster Lists
  2. Correspondence and notes of Mrs. Ida MacKay,  Dartmouth, NS
  3. Whiston, Norris,  Land Petitions of North Colchester, NS
  4. Correspondence of Dr. James Hunter, Scotland
  5. Correspondence of Alexander Murray “Banker” , Inverness, Scotland

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