The Catechist of Coiranscaig – Part II

We ended part I with George, Catherine and young family arriving in Pictou and being dispatched to Earltown.

It was August in 1822 when the Baillie family, along with others from their home parish, set out from Pictou to find their new home. Old friends and familiar faces were to be found along the way in the Caribou District, West Branch and finally in the Berrichan. The Caribou people were already well established. The Berrichan people, particularly the Baillies of Kilbraur, were two years into the pioneer experience.   Most of this group migrated down the Waugh River valley towards Tatamagouche and extended the 1821 settlement of West Earltown towards The Falls.

George took a 200 acre parcel on the west facing slope of Spiddle Hill. At the top of this slope is an outcropping of rock much reminiscent of the Carrol Rock near Coiranscaig in Clyne. This familiar looking landmark probably convinced George that this would be home.   According to tradition, he chose to clear the hilltop rather than the more fertile valley bottom next to the river.

In addition to the rigors of establishing a viable farm, George assumed a self appointed role of a Highland catechist.   It would be many years before the mother church would secure a permanent minister for the growing district. Thus George had a potential mission of several hundred souls to nurture.   In the years to come, William Murray and Joseph MacKenzie, both trained catechists, settled in the Earltown area and lightened the load.   However, George did not contain his zeal to Earltown. As evidenced by the marriage of several descendants into the Gaelic Presbyterian community surrounding Wallace in Cumberland County, it appears that he was a regular apostle to Kirk people in that area.   There were also strong associations with the Caribou District in Pictou.

“Records of Grace in Sutherland” relates how George Baillie “by his holy life, he continued to adorn the doctrine of God his Saviour” in North America. “One day, it is affirmed, he had occasion to go to a place some distance from his new home. On his return, he completely lost his way in the pathless forest. In his helplessness, he had recourse to prayer, and when he rose from his knees, he saw a strange dog approaching and fawning upon him and then moving in a certain direction. He followed the sagacious animal until at least he came in sight of his own log cabin.”[i]

In addition to weekly prayer meetings and catechising in the settlers’ homes, he continued to exercise his debating skills at four day communions in the scattered districts of North Colchester and Pictou. It was reported in a paper in the 1840’s that “prominent among the men speaking to the question at a recent Tatamagouche communion, was the venerable George Baillie of Earltown, whose grasp of the doctrines could match or exceed that of the attending clergy”. Therefore, George was a powerful speaker in both Gaelic and English, as Tatamagouche would not have conducted their communion in the tongue of the Gael.

Not everyone was enamoured by his religious zeal. An elderly lady once related to this writer that George Baillie was a regular visitor to her grandfather’s home.   Although her grandfather was an elder and pious, he dreaded these visits and would have the whole family hide in the hopes that Baillie would move along to the next farm.   Although the clergy describe him in the most flattering of terms, he could be very dour and not bashful about rebuking parents and children alike for lapses in their scriptural knowledge or attention to family devotions.

When a church structure finally came to Earltown, both the Kirk and the Free Church, George was one of two elders elected to represent The Falls District of the Earltown Congregation under the auspices of the Free Church of Scotland.

Of his family, his eldest son, Alexander, settled the lower 100 acres of his grant beside the river. Alex was more commonly known as “Doctor Baillie”, supposedly due to a practice of setting broken bones. His eldest daughter Christy married Alexander Sutherland, “Laughing Sandy”, of MacLeod Road. Several tales survive of “Laughing Christy” who apparently had the second sight for which her Grandmother Baillie was renowned.  Four daughters, Margaret, Ann, Mary and Elizabeth, married in the Wallace area as did a son John. Their youngest son, Dan, was a successful farmer at Balfron.

The August 12th, 1854 edition of the Presbyterian Witness gave notice of his death: “At Earltown, June 26th, Mr. George Bailie, age 72 years. Mr. Bailie was a native of the parish of Clyne, Sutherlandshire, Scotland. He gave evidence early of a saving acquaintance with God, and at the early age of 23 he became a member of the Church of Scotland. He emigrated to America in the year 1822 and on this side of the Atlantic he still maintained his Christian profession.   Possessed of an exceedingly retentive memory….”[ii]

His remains lie in Murray Cemetery, in the shadow of his home on Spiddle Hill.



[i] 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)

[ii] Presbyterian Witness, August 12, 1854 Microfilm   PANS

Iii Interview, Mrs. Gladys MacDonald, 1982

A Spiddle Hill Tragedy

The onset of active winter weather in 2013 brings to mind the harsh winter of 1900-1901.   The first few years of the 20th century were remembered as having particularly harsh winters.   The most notable year was 1905 better known as “The Winter of the Deep Snow”.  The winter of 1901 was also noted for its heavy snowfall.

The John Murray and Christy Sutherland family lived on the northeast slope of Spiddle Hill.   Both were born in Sutherland, likely in Clyne.   John emigrated in 1815 to Pictou County.   A few years later John and Christy settled on their remote homestead.  They had at least six children of which only one daughter married.   Three daughters and a son continued to operate the small farm after the parents died.

By 1901 only two elderly daughters were left,  Eliza and Kate.  One of them was completely blind and confined to the house while the other managed what was left of their farm.   During a particularly bad blizzard,  the able sister was stricken with either a stroke or heart attack and died.

The farm was off the nearest road which was not regularly travelled in the best of times.  It was several days before people were able to shovel themselves out.  A neighbour,  realizing that nobody had been past the Murray home since the blizzard,  ventured back through the woods and discovered both sisters were dead.   One story claims the blind sister was found frozen outside the house while another version claims she was found by the stove.  Her fingers had been burned trying to manage the fires.

The sisters are buried in the MacKenzie Cemetery.

How Spiddle Hill got its name ????

As children we used to take delight in talking about Spiddle Hill.  It was something about the phoenetics or rhyming that appealed to young people.

The settlement was located on a steep hill that separated the Waugh River settlement, (The Falls),  from the Matheson Brook valley settlement.  In the early 1960’s,  the community was completely devoid of people,  the farms returning to spruce trees and the houses windowless and tilted.  It was a haunting experience to travel the narrow road over the hill  and nightmares usually followed such a trip.

In its heyday,  the settlement contained ten farms which were settled between 1821 and 1845 by families mostly from Clyne.  The steep, stoney fields were a challenge to cultivate so it is not surprising that the homesteads were gradually abandoned in the early 1900’s.

The last settler to arrive was Alexander Murray “Corrigan”.  He emigrated from Strath Halladale in Lord Reay’s Country in the year 1845 at a very advanced age.  He was accompanied by his elderly wife, Christy Sutherland,  sons Robert and Donald, daughters Catherine and Ellen.    They started their married life at Tannachy on the Rogart side of Strathbrora.  Around 1810,  Alexander and a brother William moved their families to a remote croft near Altanduin in Kildonan.  In 1814 they were forcefully evicted by the estate.   They migrated north and found shelter for the winter in an encampment on Slettil Hill near the Caithness border.  They were once again removed and this time they found a permanent home at Craigton in Strath Halladale.   In 1819 two of their daughters settled in Earltown and a third one emigrated in 1832.   By 1845 the remaining family was ready for a change,  with the exception of one son who had married and wished to remain in Craigton with his wife’s people.

As for Spiddle Hill, it was always accepted that it was named after a place in Sutherlandshire.   Research on old maps and other Sutherland records have not yielded any clues for a place named  “Spiddle”.   There is a reference in the Earltown Presbyterian records to a Cnoc Na Spidail.  This did not help in the quest.  The only place close to Spiddle is Slettil Hill, one time home of Alexander Murray, Corrigan.

Alexander’s old home on Spiddle Hill is now owned by his descendent,  Edwin Cameron of The Falls.