This is the truest of tales, of the
backwoods boy, Donald McCaig, born in the forest, in
The Tale of a Backwoods Boy
Why should I write this life? Well, why should I not? Someone has said that everyman’s life is, to himself, a tragedy. Mine, so far as it has been seen by the world, has been exceedingly tame and uneventful, and certainly to the ordinary onlooker has so far presented little worth recording, but human lives like many other things are not always what they seem. We are all double in our lives, as in our being. The calm, plodding, laborious life that fate forces upon us is but a faint reflection of the motives which are the mainspring of its apparent actions, and cold, deliberative and generally circumspect social, financial, or political environments, which are always to some extent the outward reflection of one human life upon another and upon surrounding inanimate nature.
Nature, so far as is anywhere recorded, underwent no violent change in any of her normal phenomena, nor any suspension of her laws, nor any undue activity in their operation, when I, a human soul, was ushered upon the planet. How could such a thing be? I was simply one among the millions who continually arrive or pass away, of which, nature in her blind government knows nothing and takes no account. I will therefore at once dismiss from this narrative the thought that the subject of the following story can be of any account or importance or use or influence or necessity in the universal jumble of earth’s phenomena. I have only therefore to recount the accident, as influenced and affected by a pair of human eyes with a human soul behind them, having opened upon the great world of universal questionings, and record as accurately and faithfully as possible how such questionings affected and formed one of the atoms dowered with what, for want of higher or better knowledge, may be designated as a human soul.
My parents, I know, were poor, for which I think they were entitled to little credit, as they were born so, and as a consequence or necessity arising out of this condition, I believe that they were honest, as they never had the wherewith to purchase immunity from the consequences of roguery. They, as a matter of course, remained honest all of their lives, and I, as a secondary effect of a secondary cause, have also remained pure and honest up to the present writing, A.D. 1894.
It would not interest the reader, but I am going to tell him nevertheless, that my parents were born in the south of Argyllshire, in the first years of the present century. My father, because he had been left an orphan, too young to enter upon the business of smuggling, to which his progenitors had been for a few generations intermittently addicted, and who had the honour of supplying the Ducal castle of the Lorne family with illicit Scotch whiskey, was, I think, the first branch of the genealogical tree who bore more peaceful fruit. Too young and inexperienced to enter upon this uncertain and sometimes dangerous mode of existence, in 1815, at the age of 15, he left his native Argyllshire and passed over into Ayrshire, and there became a hewer of wood and drawer of water on the Eginston Estate, and throughout an experience of 15 years became thoroughly conversant with agriculture as it was practised in Ayrshire in the early part of the present century.
He was a man of more than average bodily strength and physical beauty, lean, tall, firmly built, straight, square shouldered, and of an active, energetic spirit and almost inexhaustible physical endurance and being. As already stated, honest, if not from principle, at least from necessity, he rose to positions of trust in the way of foreman or overseer of his fellow labourers, and at the time was head gardener around the Castle of Montgomery, where survived much of the tradition and lore of the great national poet (Robert Burns), and was himself guilty occasionally of stringing words in banal jingle. There is perhaps little more that needs to be said of a man who left his record rather by the labour of his hands than by his head, and who, while he had the faults of being hasty and passionate, was possessed of a warm, generous nature, always ready to assist the poor and unfortunate in their time of distress.
All that need be added to the foregoing introductory sketch is that after a long and laborious life, for he died at the age of eighty, he left to his youngest son a farm of 200 acres, unencumbered and well stocked, and about $3,000 in cash, which was about equally divided among his surviving family of four children.
My mother was also born in
Argyllshire, in the small fishing
Having been left to themselves, each portionless, so very young, their education was confined chiefly to reading and writing, on the part of my father, and reading only, on the part of my mother, but of this accomplishment she made the best possible use, for the benefit of her children in later years, when we were able to purchase a few books. The reading of Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” or a collection of old U.P. or Morrisonian hymns on a Sabbath afternoon, in a very sweet musical voice, in the back woods, before the days of schools and churches, is a memory and a picture that can never be obliterated from the minds of her children.
Having lived amid the very scenes of Burn’s early life and at the time when his great but sad career had closed, they had gathered much connected with his life and times in the way of tradition and song. And in the old fashioned way, free from the embellishments of today, mother sang those songs as they were sung in that day in the homes and land of the poet.
The sad experiences of my mother’s life in the wilds of Canada, nearly 70 years ago, gave to those songs an infinite pathos and sadness and a depth of meaning, which they have never since conveyed to me, even with all the accompaniments of modern art. The short sketch which I here add of my parents’ life in the island of Cape Breton will perhaps convey to the reader a sufficient reason why the sound of the lines Bonnie Doon and Mary in Heaven, as sung by my mother, should have in them a power and a pathos that the embellishment of art alone can never give.
About the year 1831, after paying a short visit to their Argyllshire home, my parents emigrated to Cape Breton with their two young children, Donald and Catharine, or Katie, then three and one year old. They settled on the River Dinis, in the County of _________, in the midst of the forest, about 30 miles from Sydney, and with long stretches of unbroken solitude between them and others, who, like themselves, had come out from the old land with the hope of making a home in the new world and possessing acreage of their own. Here, trials began, of which settlers in the forest today have no conception. Even the voyage of eight or nine weeks, cooped up in the hold of a small sailing vessel, with such rough accommodation as is today afforded to sheep and pigs in their short six days’ voyage across the ocean, was no light trial to a young girl who had known nothing worse than the labour, free air, and exercise of her Ayrshire home.
But this, only physical trial and
discomfort, could be borne, since health and youth soon recover from mere
physical trial. But when within one
year of her settlement in
Old Canadian pioneers will understand what is meant by “going to the front for supplies”. Not going, alone, but staying, to earn the wherewithal to pay for these supplies. Many a Canadian mother, who today rests from her labours, has been left alone in the midst of the Canadian forest and the severity of the Canadian winter, while her husband has been forced to go to the front to secure the means to keep starvation from the home. The brave young wife, left under these circumstances, with only bears and wolves for nearest neighbours, must have endured through the silent night watch, tortures, of which, we today have little conception. But add to this the keener misery of bereavement, the silent graves, and the lonely mother watching through the night, and the picture of desolation and misery needs no other colouring than the stern reality of fact.
The circumstances narrated in the foregoing paragraphs bring me to the close of 1831, when my brother, Donald, and sister, Katie, died, about six months before I was born. What influence the mental condition, which followed, may have had upon my own character and mental constitution, was idle to enquire and speculate about, but, since I have begun to understand these things, I have frequently been impressed with the conviction that the strange fascination that I have always found in the loneliness and silence of the forest, is largely due to the circumstances and conditions that I have described, and that a kind of strange melancholy and shrinking from human struggles and competition has a deeper meaning then would appear on the surface.
On May 15th 1832, I was fairly launched on the struggle for existence, with the heritage of poverty and toil in front of me, and behind me, the groundwork of a good healthy constitution, inherited from those who for generations had left all that fresh air, outdoor labour, and moderate indulgence in plain food and drink could devise, to their progeny. Perhaps, some of my readers may take exception to occasional liberal indulgence in the product of the illicit still, with making and operating of which, I fear that some of my ancestors on the father’s side were somewhat familiar. But as this is the true story of the mental, moral, and physical phenomena, on which we dignify, with the titles, human soul, human mind and sometimes, for short, man, it is better that I record this drawback, if such it be, to my more perfect existence.
I have a good memory, my life
lies spread out before me since I was three years of age and I can today read
it off from the pictures on memory’s wall.
My parents left
I have distinct recollections of being in company with my older cousins, fishing, of losing the gad of trout over the side of the canoe into the river, and of being threatened with a pitch into the river for my misadventure. I also remember well pheasant or partridge shooting by my father, on the birch trees where they used to gather to pick the birch buds, and my idea of these buds themselves, which was that they were small birds to which they bear some likeness in form.
I also have a distinct recollection of potato planting and digging among the stumps, I being taken out to the field where my mother, like all mothers of these early days, took part in the work. Sugar making, violin, and violin music are among my very distinct memory pictures. Even the curiously formed sap vessels, made from birch bark, are clearly before me in form and size.
Rain and snow storms are still fresh
to my memory, and also the sound of the rain on the roof, which has still a
strange half-pleasing, half-saddening influence upon me, and of my being
alone, having stolen out to our small log barn to watch the raindrops dancing
in the pools by the walls as they fell from the eves. I have but few recollections of persons,
only three or four besides that of my grandmother, three cousins, and the
tailor who made my first pants,
The pants were preparation, as
far as I was concerned, for our farewell to the
The only farm produce grown in
At this day, there was no mill on
the island, neither grist or saw mills.
All sawn lumber was cut in a saw pit by two men with a whip saw, and
all of the oatmeal used in the
May 1836 left
I come now to record my
recollections of the voyage to what was known as
The two brothers alone made up the
whole crew, but as my father and uncle had considerable acquaintance with the
sea, their services were enlisted to help the weary brothers in their
struggle with the wind and waves. My
The two French sailors and
masters had kindly put their little cabin, a hole, perhaps six feet by six
feet, at my mother’s disposal. She proved
to be a very poor sailor, not withstanding that she belonged to a race of
fishermen. I, being young, was allowed
to share in the exceptional luxury of this cabin passage. But even this had its disadvantages. More than once during our passage, the
waves, in washing over our vessel, poured down into the little cabin until we
were in danger of being drowned, like rats in our hole. The scene is still very distinct of my
father dashing down the little ladder to find the small trunks and boxes
floating about in our little cabin.
This voyage, which occupied over seven weeks from
I have no recollection of
July 1836 we reached Hamilton in
safety, four in all, Father and Mother, myself, Donald II, that is, the
second Donald, and a second little Katie, named after the silent occupants of
the silent and lonely graves in the
We arrived in Hamilton with a
little wearing apparel and some bed clothes in the shape of old country
blankets that had survived the ocean and tear of five years in Cape Breton,
but with no money, no home, no friends, and no food. The latter was most pressing and must be
obtained in some way. Highlanders, so
far as I have known them, are generally ashamed to beg. Their scruples about sheep stealing are not
so difficult to overcome, at least, so report has it. However, we had recourse to neither. Mother, putting her pride behind her back,
went out into the streets of
After considerable looking about,
my father, at length, succeeded in completing an engagement with John Applegarth, who maws then building a great mill about
three miles out of Hamilton, on a small stream between that city and
Waterdown. The engagement was for $10
a month by the year, without board.
His first work was the quarrying of stones for the new mill. At this time, no kind of work came amiss to
my father, ordinary carpenter work, blacksmithing, and masonry were among the
trades at which he could do respectable work, and his ability as a general
workman soon made his services valuable to his employers. We were at this time living in
After about three weeks at this employment, an accident in the quarry found my father laid off work with three broken ribs, but he had made himself valuable enough to his employer to have his place kept open for him till he should be able to return to work, but as three miles from his work on a winter’s morning was not considered a satisfactory arrangement for a workman, Mr. Applegarth was induced to build a shanty near the quarry, in the bush.
Accordingly, against a kind of excavation against the side of the hill, a small shanty built of the loose and useless stones lying about the quarry, a retreat for the winter was thrown together without clay or mortar, and covered with boards instead of shingles.
Here we moved in, on Christmas
eve 1836, after a somewhat memorable trip from
Some time after dark, we arrived at our stone hut in the side of the hill, only to be confronted with more serious cause of alarm than either cold or hunger. It was trying enough in a winter’s night to enter a cold cheerless hut without fire or light or friend or neighbour in sight, but for a husband to find himself so placed, with two helpless children and a wife taken suddenly ill with labour, because of the accidents of the journey, without any help at hand or knowledge of where it could be found, was anything but a pleasant or hopeful situation.
A fire was rapidly built in one corner of the hut, against the stone of the wall, which revealed icicles as thick as a man’s arm all along one side of the wall, which had been formed from a previous thaw by the water running in through the stones from the hillside, against which the hut was built. I have a very distinct recollection of the revelations made by the light of the fire, in this ice palace. A shakedown was quickly made on the floor where mother could rest, with little hope but prayer and faith.
Here, with death, death in its
most sad and pathetic form, staring him in the face, my father left her
alone, with her two children, myself and sister Katie, two and four years old,
and hurried out into the night and darkness, to look for help in this
terrible extremity. He was young and
strong and soon reached the
During the winter and summer of 1837, the stones were quarried and John Applegarth’s mill was built, and there was no reason why we should any longer remain in the stone hut. Therefore, in the fall of 1837, we, accordingly, moved up to the village of Waterdown, where mother and Mrs. Grierson became the most intimate friends, and where her pleasant home and delightful orchard and garden became the paradise of us children, during the many pleasant visits we were allowed to make to the home of old Granny Grierson.
Captain Fields was one of the
oldest and most respected residents of the
During McKenzie’s rebellion and
the few succeeding years, he was much from home and induced my father to
undertake the management of his farm during his absence. Before this, however, John Applegarth, who considered himself as having some kind of
claim on my father’s allegiance, had him called out
in the fall of 1837 to join the government forces against McKenzie. He was accordingly drafted into Colonel
Chisholm’s squad and was present at the burning of
One of the vivid recollections of my childhood is the parting of my parents when my father went off to the wars, taking down his old shotgun from the wall, and leaving a lonely woman without a relative or friend in the country, with her three children, the eldest being five and the youngest, not a year old.
This war, however, was neither long nor deadly, and about Christmas, father returned from a struggle in which his judgement in later years would have led him to take the opposite side.
The war over, the management of Captain Field’s farm was undertaken and continued for three years and ended with mutual trust and respect between the parties most interested.
May 1840, we were again afloat; my father had given up the management of Captain Field’s farm and had become ambitious to be again the possessor of lands and a home of his own. Accordingly, after purchasing the location rights of 200 acres in the Township of Puslinch from a Mr. Jackson, near Hamilton, my father, by transfer, became the locate owner of a home in the wilderness. Here, after a two days journey, we arrived on my birthday, 15th of May, to begin anew the struggle for existence. And here, as a boy of eight, I began to learn in reality what is meant by earning your bread by the sweat of your brow.
We had taken a day to get from Waterdown to what was known at that time as McMeekin’s Tavern on the Brock Road and as teams could not easily get any nearer our destination, part of our stuff was left at Mr. McMeekin’s, and our team, with mother and the children, was driven out to Mr. Gillespie’s farm, afterwards owned by Mr. McKenzie, now of Manitoba, and now owned by Mr. Hetherington. This was the nearest point to which teams could be got to our future home, still about three miles off by a blaze foot path, which then led through the McLennan, Stewart and Sheehan farms. All except the Stewart farm have since changed their owners.
Next day, we arrived on foot at my Uncle Donald McCaig’s, who had come into the township some two years earlier and whose son, Hector, is still on the old homestead. The inventory of our whole belongings and outfit when we arrived that 15th of May 1840 was a strong, healthy father, a faithful, frugal, true, and honest mother, three children, a boy eight years old on that day, and two sisters, Katie and Mary, still younger, a cow and a calf, and an axe, some boxes, that is, old country chests, containing mostly bed clothes, a few pots and dishes, perhaps some common knives and forks and certainly some spoons, for to my boyish sorrow we sometimes ate porridge and took bread as dessert.
We had come into a Highland
settlement and received a
In a week or ten days after we had got into our own quarters, about half an acre had been cleared and planted with turnips and potatoes. The logs and brush were too green to burn and so were drawn to the outside of this, our first field, and built up into a log and brush fence. We had thus some provisions made for the winter, turnips for our cow, and turnips and potatoes for ourselves.
But our summer work did not end here. Chopping went on till about the end of June. And in August, another little field of three acres was fired, and nothing left but black logs, which, by the institution called a bee, were logged up and burned off, and the field made ready for fall wheat, from which our first harvest was cut next summer, 1841, which yielded us about 70 bushels of excellent wheat. A great part of this was sold in the Galt market for about $1 per bushel.
I might say that this wheat was cut by my parents with the sickle. They had come from Ayrshire and were expert with this old classic agricultural implement, perhaps, having even turned it aside to hone the symbol dear of their native land, for they were from the immediate locality of Montgomery’s Castle and were familiar with the songs, sympathies, and prejudices of Burns. By the returns of this, our first field, and our first harvest, I think that we were safely placed beyond the risk of actual want. I do not remember that we were ever hungry or naked or cold, though I have no doubt that both our food and clothing would today be considered plain and perhaps, unsavoury, and certainly unfashionable.
For 15 years I had an all sufficient experience of this kind of work till I became an expert at most kinds of pioneer work of those early days. Not equal to the best at some things, but in the variety of my attainments, I had some reason to hold myself as equal to any. I could cradle* well and make my own cradles**. I could drive oxen and make their harness, yokes and bows. Broken wagons, sleighs, ploughs, or harness rarely went to the carpenter or blacksmith shop. I could take up the notched square on dovetailed corners of the various log buildings of the day, and do, perhaps not the best, but respectable work in each department. At the age of 23, I could do all this, frame a building, discuss theology, and play the fiddle, and I had tried to make one or two, since my mother would never let me purchase, and she retained a sufficient influence over me to have her way till after I left home.
* to cradle ─ to mow corn with a scythe
** a cradle ─ a frame to lay corn evenly
End of the tale and the tale end,
although there is an important note below.
Readers, please be aware that this work was originally penned under the title “Autobiography of a Backwoods Boy” and more importantly, that it has not here been presented in its entirety. For the play complete, please contact those resolutely wonderful people at the Puslinch Historical Society.