The Life and Times of Charles R McKay

by Ian MacCara

Editor’s Note:  Although the subject of this article was not a resident, or a descendant of a resident of Earltown, his life and times provides insight into the daily life of the Sutherland diaspora living in Northern Nova Scotia.  There are many family and cultural connections between the communities of Earltown and Plainfield and both communities began as satellites of what is now the Scotsburn district.

          CR as he was known, had roots in Nova Scotia, coming down from one of the Protestant German families brought to the province by Edward Cornwallis[1], and also from one Charles Andrew McKay possibly from the area of Farr in the North of Scotland[2].  His McKay line were among the early settlers to the Elmfield – Plainfield areas of Pictou County, Nova Scotia. 

          In his will the above mentioned Charles Andrew McKay outlines property in the Elmfield area to be left to his son David McKay.  That property[3] will be held for David  provided he  returns to the area within twelve years after the Death of Charles Andrew which occurred in May of 1856. It seems that David had made his way to Australia, as he married a Jessie Ross in Balarat circa 1859.  It is uncertain but probable that Jessie was from the Rogers Hill area of Pictou County.  The Canadian census of 1871, and 1881 giving her place of birth (POB) as Nova Scotia.

          The union of David and Jessie, results in five children: Maria, Elizabeth, Charles R, and David all being born in Yandot, Victoria, Australia. The 5th child is CR’s brother John Andrew who is born in Elmfield 1868.  This means that David and Jessie made it back to Nova Scotia in time to inherit the property left to David in his father’s will! 

          Checking the census over the period 1871 through 1911 we find CR living first with his parents, then by 1891 with his father and new stepmother. His own mother passed away sometime after 1881 and before 1887.  Census records state his return from Yandoit Australia was in 1867, the foundation year for Canada. His first 20 years or so back in Nova Scotia seem to have been on the property in Elmfield.  The new stepmother, Annie Stewart Robertson, widow of one Thomas Miller, marries David McKay on the 19th of July 1887.  CR resides for an extended period on what appears to be her property possibly known as “Millbank Farm” near Pictou Nova Scotia.  In 1903 when Annie Stewart passes away we see in the wording of her will, “I give and bequeath to my step son Charles R McKay my parlour bedstead or dressing case.”  As late as 1911, even after his father’s death in 1910, CR is still at Millbank. 

          It is noteworthy that Margaret McTavish is living and working at Millbank farm in 1911.  She is the daughter of CR’s first cousin Elizabeth Wilhelmina McKay. About this time another daughter, Caroline McTavish, writes a short “History of Plainfield” in which she references a grandfather clock in possession of Charles R McKay “Millbank”.  It seems this clock, “still a reliable timekeeper”, was at one time the property of CR’s late Grand Uncle, Angus McKay.  Angus McKay settled in Elmfield around 1817. From Scotland he brought with him the works for this same clock and “being handy with tools manufactured the case”.        

          Eventually CR settles back on the property in Elmfield. The 1921 census finds him living there along with two first cousins: Elizabeth Wilhelmina McKay, and John Campbell McKay. This brings us to a diary kept by one of these cousins, Elizabeth Wilhelmina McKay, between 1921 and 1926.  This gives us an interesting record of what life was like in rural Pictou County during the late 19th and early 20th century.  It was with great foresight that Marjory Graham, from a neighbouring farm in Elmfield, transcribed this diary in her youth.

Elizabeth Wilhelmina McKay MacTavish

          Perhaps the first takeaway from the diary of Elizabeth Wilhelmina McKay is the fact that she chose to do so. She apparently was a very capable 63 year old widow, having lost her husband Roderick McTavish[4] in 1915. There is no preamble to the diary. The first entry on the 15th of May 1921 simply states “up to Hermon Church, tea with Mrs. Hatch”.

          The diary references both the Hermon Church[5] and the Bethel Church at Scotsburn. A great effort always went into attending the same, and travel could have been on foot, or using CR’s horse(s), skis, or snowshoes. During this period of time the formation of the United Church of Canada was taking place[6], and not all Presbyterians were in favour of this union of churches. We see references to CR attending anti union meetings. This cause was significant enough to him that even when ill and shortly before his death the effort was made to drive him to vote on this issue. Cars were a relatively new form of transport and CR does not appear to have owned one. The only references to automobiles come about when visitors from the US arrive or when due to his illness he needed assistance.

          Horses were still in common use in rural Pictou County. One of his horses was called “Major”.  Major was important enough to life on the farm that we hear of his first shoes as coming from blacksmith “James Cotter”. CR’s other horse was called “Peggy” and she is brought to Scotsburn to get shod. Peggy seems to be the horse that Elizabeth Wilhelmina takes on some of her community visits. The diary reports CR, on occasion, taking his horse(s) to farmer’s meetings, or using the team on the “road machine”.  The “team” was often used to assist in building a sluice, bridge, or in  telephone line construction. This was  all in addition to the regular farm chores.

          While CR may have been a bit behind in the up take of the automobile, he was well up on the telephone.  Beyond the use of the team in putting up telephone lines, he is reported to have installed and repaired telephones for neighbours. In one case he is reported as making repairs near the switch board. Again connecting some family dots we can speculate that CR was being influenced in this regard by A Murray MacKay, a first cousin once removed.   A Murray was a life long employee and builder of Maritime Tel and Tel Company[7].    John Duncan MacKay the father of the just mentioned A Murray, had the telephone in Plainfield well before 1914.  John Duncan’s father-in-law, whose first language was Gaelic was still living prior to this date. He is reported to have not adapted well to the use of the magneto telephone mounted in the parlour of their Plainfield home.  At times this father-in-law, George Murray, assuming no one was home to answer this ringing device, would shout into the room, “they’re all oot”! He wasn’t high tech like CR!

          Things were always getting done pertaining to CR’s Elmfield farm. In her diary his cousin Elizabeth frequently gives examples of his various skill sets in action:  “CR went to MacKenzie’s, and got his big rope made for the pitching fork,” “CR top grafted the two trees to the south in the little garden, macintosh, and the one to the north red astracan,” CR painted the wheels on the buggy”, CR painted the buggy”.  And so on and so on. He digs a new well, puts in a croc and puts up a well house over a span of three days.  Harness is cleaned and repaired, fencing is done, and lime is spread.  In between we hear mention of anniversaries, funerals, lodge meetings, visitors from near and far all, interspersed with shared community work events.  Exhibitions and local markets were well attended.

          Many community events were seasonal and well planned. Logs and firewood were hauled out of the woods when the frost was well into the ground or when there was dry spring weather. CR both cut firewood at home for the scheduled arrival of the wood cutter crew as well as moving on with the crew(s) to help neighbours keep their own supply of firewood up to date.  The threshing mill made its weather dependent visits to the community farms over the fall with this season sometimes even extending into December. CR seems to have been very handy around the threshing mill.  In early December 1922, “the mill company presented him with a sum of money for his efficent help with the mill”. 

          Other community events were not so well planned: 28th July 1921 “fire at Millsville and fire in Plainfield wood. CR away at fire until late” 29th July 1921 “CR went early to help with Plainfield fire & we had a nice shower last night” On 1st  June 1922 “CR at barn fires at Murrayfield”, 26 November 1922 “the Scotsburn manse burned down” 18th November 1923 “Eddie Irvings store was burned this morning” 1st May 1924 “Andrew’s house burned down this afternoon” Many funerals, accidents, and sales are reported. Of note, 19th of November 1924 “Dr Campbell’s funeral”.  Dr Duncan Campbell, was a graduate of Tulane University, Louisiana in 1891. He eventually returned to West Branch, Pictou County which is  near Murrayfield, Plainfield and Elmfield. He carried on a successful practice, and in fact serves as a memorable marker on many local family trees.

          CR’s farm income was based on diverse, and seasonably viable activities requiring the planting, husbandry, and marketing skills that are representative of the time. Produce was sold from home, and at markets in Scotsburn and Pictou. We read reports such as “CR in town with apples and cabbage”, “CR sold two fox furs”, “CR to Scotsburn, sold 30 lb of dried apples 15cents per lb, and 4 lb of rhubarb 6 cents per lb” and “CR took veal to Scotsburn”. Foxes were purchased, raised, with their pelts being sold as far away as Halifax. Insurance was even purchased to couver the sale of two silver fox furs and shipped to Halifax bring in the grand sum of $90.00.  Pelts of mink and racoon were also prepared and sold as opportunities arose. Chickens were raised for meat and eggs. Cream was separated and sold in Scotsburn. Butter was also churned and butter sold. Other sales / purchases: “CR sold three lambs, $4.00 each”, “CR took 27.5 lb of fowl to Scotsburn, 30 cents per pound” and “CR purchased little pig today, $5.00”.

          Activities included plantings of cauliflower, potatoes, and cabbage. Sheep were sheared, apples dried, and berries picked. Neighbours dropped by to pick goose berries, cherries, and to pick up meat. On 22 December 1922, “John Murray came for his goose for Christmas”. These routines were interspersed with once in a life time events: 20 July 1923 “ CR went to the laying of the corner stone of the Oddfellows Hall” explaining in part the many references to his attendance at lodge meetings as far away as Pictou. 4 March 1924 “CR went to the lodge for the first time in the new hall”.

          Not long after this date the references to CR in the diary change.  We hear of his visits to the hospital, with follow up visits from friends, clergy, and doctors when he does return home.   6th of August 1925, “the doctor took CR home today, he was feeling stronger”. 21st  October 1925, “Rev, Alex Stirling came to see Charlie today”.  29th October 1925, “Graham and Mary came with their car and took CR up to the school house to vote”.

          By 22nd December 1925 we read:  “ Our dear Charlie past away at half past ten last night. Nurse Margaret McKay was with us. Alex is to Scotsburn tonight for the Casket”. 23 December 1925, “Our dear Charlie’s funeral was today. The funeral was held in the hall above the school, Scotsburn[8]. Everything was done as he directed before he passed away. It was storming a little when we came home.”

          The 25th of December 1925, “A most beautiful day. We missed Charlie today  but he is away from trouble”. 

[1] This refers to the Keiller family that were part of the German/Swiss settlements of Lunenburg County .  CR’s grandmother belonged to this family.   These settlers arrived from Europe in the early 1750’s.

[2]  Farr is a parish on the North Coast of Scotland and the heart of  Clan MacKay Country. CR’s uncle claimed a connection to that parish. However most anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that these MacKays emigrated from the Parish of Rogart and specifically from a hamlet called Torrisaite near Morness.   Others came to Mount Dalhousie and Earltown from this general area.

[3] Located near the junction of the Elmfield Road and present day Route 256.

[4] The MacTavish name came to the West Branch – Plainfield area from Lochbroom, Scotland

[5] Herman Church was located in Millsville and served the communities between Scotsburn and Central West River.  It’s site is marked with a cairn.

[6] The United Church of Canada was formed in 1925 to amalgamate the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregationalist denominations.  The pragmatic purpose was to consolidate closely aligned Protestant denominations and eliminate duplication in small communities. This was true in Western Canada but Pictou County already was “united” with one predominant Presbyterian church in each community.  The end result was two churches of similar theology in Scotsburn.

[7] Dr. Alexander Murray MacKay, (1886-1983), was a son of John Duncan and Elizabeth (Murray) MacKay of Plainfield. In addition to Chairing the board of Maritime Tel and Tel,  he was heavily engaged on numerous boards and commissions including the Halifax-Dartmouth Bridge Commission.  The bridge spanning the Narrows of Halifax Harbour is named in his honour.   Keillor MacKay, one time Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, was a brother.

[8] The school in 1925 was a two story building located in what is now the parking lot of  Bethel Presbyterian Church.

Ian MacCara, a native and resident of Plainfield, has collected stories, images and genealogy of the Plainfield – Scotsburn area for several years. His mother was a native of Balmoral which has led Ian to delve into similar research in the Earltown district.

2 comments on “The Life and Times of Charles R McKay

  1. Ian MacCara says:

    Thanks very much to Glen Matheson, for his editorial advice, and posting this article. A big thank-you to Marjory Fraser Graham, who with great care and fore sight made a copy of Elizabeth Wilhelmina McKay’s diary circa 1950.

  2. Anne S Maccara says:

    Thanks for this interesting vignette of the lives of our ancestors in mid-19 to early 20th century. They were rugged people. That must have been quite a voyage back from Victoria, Australia. I’m assuming they took a sailing vessel crossing the Pacific and round the horn. Quite an adventure! Enough adventure to suffice for a few generations…

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