Catechists in the New World

The traditional titles, offices and vocations of the pioneer mainline churches are largely unknown today in rural Nova Scotia, having slowly transitioned into more casual forms of religious observance or, in most cases, into a secular lifestyle with a Christian ethical code. Gone are the days of ruling elders, precentors, Clerk of Session, stewards, etc..   Long gone is the Catechist, the subject of this post.

The term Catechist comes from Greek meaning to teach by spoken word. It was a recognized position in the Catholic laity prior to the reformation and thus migrated into the early Protestant church.

By the 18th century, the Catechists were a highly regarded group of religionists in the North Highlands of Scotland. There were initially appointed from among the laity to assist the Parish Minister with Christian education matters, such as instructing parents on baptism, preparing adults for confirmation and presiding over what we now call “bible study meetings”.   The parishes in the north were geographically large and remote.   People living in the out lying areas would be unable to attend the Parish church on a regular basis therefore the Catechist would be dispatched to those areas to instruct a particular family or group of families in their homes.

These Catechists were chosen from the laity by the minister and occasionally by the people. They were men of unwavering piety, deep thought and high functionality in Gaelic. English was not necessarily required and they often supplemented the preaching of the ministers who were not necessarily as proficient in Gaelic.   Some had basic education and could read in both languages however many relied upon a high capacity to remember everything they ever heard including extensive tracts of scripture.   Some received a stipend from the Church of Scotland for those duties performed under the supervision of the clergy. Others simply served as part of a personal calling.

The Catechists were the core of a unique group in the northern shires known as “The Men”.   The Men would assemble at the various sacrament events in the neighbouring parishes.   During the four day communion, Friday was reserved for “The Men”.   A scriptural passage would be presented by a presiding minister and “The Men” would rise in turn and speak extensively as to the meaning. Some were very eloquent and philosophical. Others used the occasion to speak impressively but without substance. The minister would conclude the day long event by correcting scriptural references and summarizing the debate.   Some Catechists became quite famous over the whole of Highlands for their insight and speaking abilities.

By the start of the 19th century, just prior to the clearances, the Catechists had risen to great prominence, surpassing the elected elders and clergy in popularity. This was particularly true in the Parish of Clyne where the pulpit was occupied by Rev. Walter Ross.   Rev. Ross was an appointee of the Countess and, transparently, was a voice of the Sutherland Estate. He was a cattleman, often absent from his duties.   The Catechists filled the spiritual void and often conducted services in the outlying areas as well as in the school in Strath Brora.   In the messy politics of the Strath Brora clearances, Rev. Ross clearly took sides with the Estate.

It will come as no surprise that the Catechists received no special treatment during the upheavals of 1819 to 1822 in Clyne and beyond.   They were among those evicted from their homes and sent elsewhere to start over.   Three such men found their way to Earltown. They came from separate parishes and at different times. But none the less, they came as a result of social upheaval during which their church remained silent.

In Northern Nova Scotia, particularly in North Colchester, Pictou County and parts of Cape Breton, the Presbyterian population exploded in the first decades of the 19th century.   Ministers were scarce and of those that were established in the towns, most did not adhere to the Church of Scotland.   Although disappointed with the Church of Scotland, (The Kirk), the settlers out of the far north of Scotland still clung to it. It would be many years before the infant settlements, such as Earltown, would receive a settled minister.   In the mean time they traveled to Pictou, New Glasgow or Hopewell for baptisms and marriage. Occasionally a missionary would pass through the settlement and handle the backlog. Weekly worship fell upon themselves.

In the case of Earltown, the three Catechists filled the void. They visited families in their remote homesteads, presided over burials and conducted prayer meetings in homes or barns. By the mid 1830’s, Rev. William Sutherland was living at West Earltown as a farmer. He was never called but availed himself to those who would adhere to him. It appears that some families, for whatever reason, stuck with the Catechists until the arrival of the Free Church and a settled minister in 1846.

Proceedings of the Presbyterian Church indicate that the “Catechist” designation was still recognized as late as the 1860’s but only as it related to trained missionaries sent to labour in remote areas not served by a minister.   These Catechists appear to have been student ministers or experienced teachers aspiring to be in the pulpit. “The Men” in the communions of the new world included some former Highland Catechists but now included the elders who now had Christian education as part of their job descriptions.   As the Catechists of old died off, the elders became the sole leaders in education and outreach.

The three following posts will follow the travels of George Baillie, William Murray and Joseph MacKenzie, all active Catechists in Earltown.


MacPhail’s Edinburgh Ecclesiastical Journal and Literary Reviews:

     Letter to the Editor by anonymous Highland Parish Minister

 Munro, Rev. Donald, “Records of Grace in Sutherland”, Free Church of Scotland 1953 (A biographical collection compiled by Rev. Munro of Rogart in the mid 1800’s)

 Patterson, Rev. George, “A History of the County of Pictou”, Dawson Bros., Montreal 1877

Report of the Proceedings of the General Presbyterian Council, Edinburgh, 1877

 Correspondence: Dr. Elizabeth Ritchie, University of the Highlands & Islands, Dornoch

Youth of The Falls


This picture was taken around 1900, very likely by E.W.L. Haskett-Smith of Tatamagouche.  It was posed on the bank of the Waugh River near The Falls school.  A more complete biography on the subjects will follow however here are the ones identified to date:

Back row:  (faces blurred)  Mr. Grant,  Gib’s Alex Sutherland,  Hughie Sutherland “Kemptown”, Peter Murray

Second from back: L-R  Willie A. MacLeod, Gib’s Willie Sutherland, Gib’s Barbara Sutherland, Mary Sutherland “Sandy”, Jessie Bell Sutherland “Caribou”,  Tillie Sutherland “Sandy”

Third from back: L-R   John Gallie, Kennie’s Jim MacKay,  Geordie MacLeod, Janie MacLeod, Barbara Ann MacLeod (Dan’s), Tena MacLeod,  Jennie Sutherland “Ban”, Cassie Matheson,  Kennie’s Maggie MacKay

Fourth from back: L-R   Dan R. MacLeod, Dan’s Johnny MacKay, Tena Matheson,  Cassie Sutherland “Sandy”,  Farquhar Sutherland “Sandy”, Wesley Sutherland “Sandy”, John Will MacLeod, Dan’s George W. MacKay, Murdoch Sutherland “Ban”

Front row:   Jessie Ann MacLeod, Barbara MacLeod,  Jessie Sutherland “Sandy”, Leslie MacLeod, Willie Murray “Corrigan”,  Dan Murray “Corrigan”,  Daniel Sutherland “Caribou”,  Bessie Matheson, Marion MacLeod, Alice Sutherland “Ban”,  Margaret Sutherland “Ban”

MacBain’s Corner Group Photo

MacBain's Corner  ca. 1900

MacBain’s Corner ca. 1900

This is one of a series of group pictures taken in the area around 1900 by a travelling photographer.  It was most likely taken by E.W.L. Haskett-Smith, a surveyor from England, who was working in Tatamagouche at the time.   A list of those in the picture was not attached.  If anyone can identify their relatives in this picture or have a list to accompany the picture, please contact me.

Clydesdale School

Clydesdale School

Clydesdale School Courtesy of Carol Driscol

The Clydesdale School was located on the Clydesdale Road about one kilometer southwest of the junction of the Clydesdale and Stewart Roads.  It served the area once known as Spain and appears to have been labeled as the South Earltown school in the 1830’s.  The section extended from the Captains Road to just beyond the county line.  The Baillie family, who actually lived in Pictou County, attended this school due to its close proximity.  The district also covered the east end of the Berrichan.

The exact date of closure is not known.  At the time of the first war, Johanna Murray McGonagle, claimed that the building was in very poor repair.  The sills were rotten and snow would drift in under the walls.

Back Row (Left to Right):   Mrs. Tuttle – teacher;  Georgie Baillie (Mrs Herdman McNabb), Barbara MacKay “Achlean”, Tena Graham, Bessie MacIntosh (Mrs. Shier), Christy Baillie, Annie Murray “Gorm”,  Josie Murray “Gorm” (McGonagle), Margaret Baillie, (1st Husband Wm. Graham, 2nd Husband Wm. Baillie, River John),  Agnes Murray “Gorm”, Agnes Murray,  Bill Baillie (later of River John),  Mrs. Dan MacIntosh;

Front row from right to left:  Dan MacIntosh,  Annie MacIntosh,  Willie Murray “Gorm”,  Jack Graham,  Jack Baillie,  John Will MacKay “Achlean”,  J. Murray,  Bessie MacIntosh, Alice MacKay “Achlean”,  Annie MacIntosh, Agnes MacIntosh,  Lawson Baillie.

Approximately location of Google Maps:

Fiddler MacIntosh

Robert MacIntosh 1819-1904

Robert MacIntosh
1819-1904   (Collection of Kathryn Sutherland, Mn.)

When not immersed in the never ending toil of farm and forest,  the Scots turned to the pipes or the fiddle to lift their spirits.  Every corner of the settlement had someone with the talent to play the melodies brought from the old country.

The most notable fiddler in the settlement during the 19th century was Robbie MacIntosh.  Robbie was born in Rogart in 1819, the eldest son of William and Betsy MacIntosh.  The family left Rogart in 1825 to come to Earltown and join up with William’s brother, Donald, who had come over a few years earlier.   This MacIntosh family settled on the west end of the Clydesdale Road – a short distance in from the Denmark road.  Robert was the eldest of six children and took over the family farm from his parents.  He had five siblings, none of whom married.

Robbie’s father was an accomplished fiddler in the Old Country and entertained his fellow passengers on the voyage to Nova Scotia.  Robbie took up the fiddle at an early age and became a well known musician.  He was in demand throughout Earltown and West Pictou at dances, fairs, folics and weddings.  He competed in contests and was often the victor.

His most noteworthy engagement was in 1860 when the Prince of Wales,  later King Edward VII, visited Halifax. A ball was held to honour the Prince and Robbie was invited to play the Scottish reels for the Royal Dance.  Robbie had an audience with the Prince and was given a tall silk hat from the Prince’s wardrobe.

Like many of today’s accomplished fiddlers in Cape Breton,  Robbie could step dance while playing the fiddle.  He was still able to master this technique at an advanced age.

When Fiddler MacIntosh became too old to look after the farm,  he went to live with the Graham family at the other end of Clydesdale.  He died in the care of the Graham family in 1904.  His grand silk hat was lost in a subsequent house fire.


Interview:  Josie MacIntosh Graham  ca. 1980

G.R. Sutherland : “The Rise and Decline of the Community of Earltown”  1980


Murray Cemetery Tour 2015

On Sunday August 2nd, forty five people gathered in this hidden graveyard under clear skies.  Many were descendants of the first settlers of this Northwest corner of the Earltown district.  Others were just fascinated with cemeteries.

The earliest inscribed death bears the year 1830.  Hugh MacLeod was a native of Urachyle on the banks of the River Brora in the Parish of Clyne.  Hugh, his wife Marion, and four near adult children were among the last to be evicted by the Sutherland Estate in the year 1821.  They arrived in Pictou later that year and were pointed to the wilderness of West Earltown to begin a new life.  Nine hard years later, Hugh was laid to rest in a small clearing sandwiched between the flanks of Spiddle Hill and the Waugh River.

There were earlier deaths in this infant community.  However the remains were interred in what is now called MacKenzie Cemetery.  It had been consecrated in 1822 as part of a proposed church yard near the geographic centre of the growing community.   It would have been an arduous journey over rough paths and trails for a distance of six miles.  By the late 1820’s, it was likely decided that West Earltown, and the area later known as The Falls, needed a more accessible site.

Accessible is not the first thing that comes to mind when one travels along a one lane track between a steep forested slope on the left and a river bank on the right, eventually ending up at a “dead end” in more ways than one.  However in 1830 this was the main road between The Falls and Earltown, with the road continuing along the base of the hill to the present day community of West Earltown.  A few years later, another wider road was cut through to Earltown on the opposite side of the river.   The cemetery was known as Riverside throughout the late 1800’s but Murray’s became the name of choice in the 1900’s.  Access was always through the neighbouring Murray farm.

Over fifty of those interred therein were present during the large scale evictions of Strath Brora during 1820 and 1821.  The balance of the cemetery is largely made up with the following two generations of these families.

Not only is this site a memorial to a substantial body of emigrants to a new settlement,  it is a memorial to a dark chapter in the history of Sutherlandshire.


The Bite of the Axe

The early settlers had to endure many hardships. They were not accustomed to working in a forest, they were susceptible to injury, food was scarce while the land was being cleared and then there was the weather – hotter summers and colder winters. Solitude was another hardship as many of these Scots previously lived in a cluster of several families, whether in a well traveled area or in a remote glen.
Many of our first families came over as part of a group and settled as a group. Often they were able to pick land close to a relative or friend. However there were exceptions whereby a lone settler would enter the district and be given a location well removed from others.
The late Lawrence and Margie (MacKenzie) Wilson used to tell the story of one such settler in Earltown. His name has since been forgotten. The settler took a less travelled trail into the community and located his proposed grant deep in the forest at a considerable distance from the nearest settlement. He set about erecting a crude shelter and started to clear his land. After many days, potentially weeks, he was in despair with loneliness and homesickness. He was about to abandon his grant and seek another situation closer to Pictou.
Then early one morning he heard the echo of an axe biting into a tree. He followed the sound and in short order discovered not only another living soul but someone that he knew from the Old County.
The settler always claimed that the sweetest sound he ever heard was the bite of that axe.

PS    Alex MacKay of Vancouver has recently provided notes of his late father, John A. MacKay, with a similar version of this story.  The forlorn settler was his ancestor Donald MacKay of MacBain’s Corner.  When investigating the sound of the axe, he discovered that his new neighbour was his half brother, Big William MacKay.

2015 Cemetery Tour – Murray’s Cemetery, The Falls

In a forgotten corner of West Earltown and The Falls, in the shadow of Spiddle Hill, lies Murray’s Cemetery. It is not visible to the travelling public nor are there any signs to lead one up a single track road along the Waugh River to this very tranquil and very historic spot.
This was the cemetery that served the above two communities from the 1830’s through to 1900. It is the resting place of a couple of generations that were, for the most part, evicted under duress from their ancestors’ homeland in Strath Brora, Sutherlandshire. They chose to emigrate to Pictou and reassembled as a Strath Brora community in exile, clearing the heavily forested slopes in the northwest corner of Earltown.
On Sunday, August 2nd, we will be conducting a guided walk among the monuments of these exiles, remembering their past, their struggles and their contribution to their new community. We will see the stone of Rev. William Sutherland, a settler and farmer, who was never called but served the area nonetheless. Nearby is the memorial to Catechist Baillie, one of the “Men of Sutherland” who was revered and feared in the days before the ministers. Then there are the two Eliza’s, one the legendary “Scotch Lady” who was lured from Glasgow to marry a cousin, (spoiler alert – she died single!), and the other Eliza who was “done wrong” in every sense. These are just some of the colourful characters that will be featured.
This event is part of the annual Earltown Gathering centered at Sugar Moon Farm. People may assemble at Sugar Moon prior to 10 AM at which time they will be guided to the cemetery. For those who know the way and wish to go there directly, access is currently off the Gil Sutherland Road and through the Edwin Cameron farm. It is highly recommended that you park at the far end of the farmstead, (near the old bridge), and we will provide transportation for the remainder of the way. The road is single lane and there is only parking for three vehicles at the site.
There is no admission fee for this event but donations will be accepted, if you are so inclined, towards the maintenance of the cemetery.

UPDATE: The Cameron family has indicated that people may park in a pasture immediately past the cemetery.  The road is in good shape but one should proceed with caution.  For those with low vehicles, we will still arrange for lift from the farmyard.  It is also a pleasant 10 minute stroll.

It’s Complicated …The Relationship of William Murray and Girzel Grant

Readers of this blog may also be interested in following the posts on historylinksdornoch.   The blog explores the history and archaeology of Dornoch and surrounding areas in Sutherland, Scotland.   It is a collaboration between Historylinks museum in Dornoch and the Centre for History at the University of the Highlands and Islands, and moderated by Dr. Elizabeth Ritchie.  Dr. Ritchie is an enthusiastic scholar of the history of Sutherland, particularly in the areas of religion, education, emigration and women’s issues.

You will find a post entitled  It’s Complicated …The Relationship of William Murray and Girzel Grant: Part 1.     This couple, who embodied the notion that opposites attract,  were parents to three emigrant families to West Pictou and Earltown.   Janet Murray MacIntosh settled near Elmfield in 1812, Robert Murray “Valley” settled near East Earltown in 1819 and Donald Murray “Craig” settled several years later atop the Craig in Loganville.   Part II will appear in the near future after which this blog will flesh out the continuing story of the family in Nova Scotia.

Enjoy !!

Achany Letters # 2


This letter was written by Alex Murray, brother of William’s wife Sybella Murray MacKay.  Alex was also a brother of Robert Murray, “Stager” of Earltown and he makes mention of his brother in the greetings.  Alex is living in the Parish of Creich on the opposite side of the Kyle of Sutherland from William’s home parish of Kincardine, Ross.   Consequently he is well acquainted with William’s family and friends.

Of particular historical interest is the mention of clearances taking place nearby.  It would appear to be the Glen Calvie clearance after which the people took refuge in the churchyard of Croick.



To William M’Kay,   Newfield

Earltown Settlement

By Pictou Nova Scotia

North America


Clashnashinag, May 30, 1845


Dear Brother by receiving this short epistle you will understand that I received your most welcome letter on the 15th of April last, and I am overjoyed to hear that you and your wife and family and the rest of my relations there were in the land of the living and in the place of hope at the date of your letter.   As this leaves me at present, my wife and family, my Brothers and Sisters, and all our relations as far as I know, except Alexr M’Kay’s wife, my uncle’s daughter – she is always sickly. Hugh my uncle is poorly in health. He got a fall about six or seven years ago and he is going on crutches since.   Appy my Aunt died last year

I think you forgot writing to Mr. Alex Ross and sister – they are always inquiring about you when they happen to see me. Please to give my best respects to Christian and her husband – I forgot his name, to Kenneth and his wife, to George and his wife to John and William, not forgetting Robert, my brother, and his wife and family. And tell him that I did not forget him yet but he thinks I did. I would to like to hear from him now and then; But for myself I would sooner travel a days journey than to begin to write, for my hand shakes and my sight fails me.

I am told that a number of the tenants in Gleann Palawarg** in Ross Shire were summoned out of their farms and has no place to go to…and I a m told that that a civil officer or a lawyer came dwon from Edinburgh for to see them and that he desired them to put tents up in the churchyard for such a time and then to take rooms in Tain and to be good to themselves.   I suppose that the Man that put them out must provide for them while they live, or give back their farms to them again. There is some of the great men that would not allow the lower people to live at all if they could. They are worse since this separation took place than before.

I have nothing particular to acquaint you of at present. Provisions are cheap and plentiful, oatmeal 16 s per bole, potatoes __ per bole, very little demand for cattle.

Remember me to David Grant and wife and tell him John his brother is well and that his wife died. Remember me to Strachan Gordon. Adam and his wife wishes to be remembered to you all – there is none of his children living but Barbara and Anne.   My wife and sisters joins me in sending our best respects to you and your wife,

I remain your loving Brother Ales’er Murray



** Very hard to transcribe. It could be Balawairg, Balawaing, Calawairg.