- Alice Bardsley
There are many in Nova Scotia and Cape Breton who can trace their forebears back in a direct line to this important event. In fact it was the most important of any emigration to the seaboard provinces of British North America.
There certainly was a variety of familiar names on the passenger list. There were McKays, my own forefathers, the Camerons, Frasers, Sutherlands, Murrays and Rosses to mention a few. How they ever got along together for the eleven weeks, miserable weeks, it took them to make the voyage is a mystery. In Scotland feuds were always raging between the clans.
No doubt the common misery of the journey cut them down to one level and survival was the main issue. Apparently the ship was so rotten the timbers could be picked apart with the fingers in places. The miracle was that any of them reached Pictou, but they did, with the exception of eighteen who died at sea.
My knowledge of the HECTOR did not come from records but, rather, by word of mouth. My father, Murdo McKay, who was 94 when he died several years ago, told us the tales as they were told to him by his father Alexander McKay, who was 94 also when he went to his rest. He in turn heard the tales first hand from his father Donald McKay who was one of the Passengers on the HECTOR and died at the age of one hundred and two. So it would seem that hardship is not always the cause of early, sudden death.
It was due in part to the prudence of one of the passengers - a Macloud - that many more were not commited to the deep. He saved a quantity of food that was mouldy and considered unfit during the first weeks of the voyage. The crew did not foresee the storms and illnesses that were to ravage them all before they reached port. Macloud rescued the packages and, when the food ended with no land in sight, he produced the rejects and thereby saved many lives. The story goes that most of the food was made of oatmeal and therefore did not lose too much of its value through mould.
One story I listened to many times as a child was that of one Donald Murray who had smuggled a flask of gin aboard the HECTOR in an inner coat pocket. It was to be a surprise treat for several of his cronies when they reached the new country: a sort of celebration. When they were half-way across the ocean, buffeted by storms that delayed them by many days, Murray's only child was stricken with smallpox. Eighteen had already died and were committed to the sea.
Murray's child suffered the raging fever that is part of the disease and, in addition, thirst as the water supply was either gone or contaminated. The father was beside himself with grief and prayed for rain to fill the empty pails. In desperation, and to dull his distress, he retired to some private part of the vessel to seek solitude in a drink from his treasured flask. It turned out to be a treasure indeed. When he uncorked the flask he found that one of his cronies had beaten him to the punch. The gin had been taken and water put in its place.
With thanks to his Maker and tears in his eyes, Donald hastened to his sick child's cot. It was said that the refreshing drink turned the tide of illness and his child lived. There was a follow-up tale to the effect that when the Settlers were at last placed and happier years came Murray searched out that thief and gave him one of his fattest cattle - quite a gift at that time.
The pressure put on the gullible Highlanders at that time to get them to leave their highland homes would be called 'false pretences' today. One John Ross who was employed by the HECTOR's owners painted quite a picture for the proud and harassed Highlanders. He told them they would find this new land across the sea, free farms, food for a whole year as well as free passage on the ship. What they did find was a dense forest edging the cold seas, an utter lack of any shelter and a terror of Indians who might be hostile to the intruders. There was also danger of wild beasts being on the prowl. Their arrival in the Fall made matters worse as it was too late to start crops or clear land.
Another tale often told by old-timers is that of the many miles walked through snow and forests from Pictou to Truro, a distance of some eighty miles, to pick up what meagre food supplies they could earn by servitude to their better-off fellow men. There were times when they had to boil bark and buds of trees to keep body and soul together.
The fault, according to present day narrators, was altogether with the Agents who had made so many false promises. However the Highland, pioneer, blood was in the veins of those hardy, spirited men and women. They did not bewail their lot for too long. Instead they bent their back to the axe and hoe. They hunted moose and caribou. They made footwear, bed and floor coverings from the hides.
They cleared the forests, built shelters and were soon selling timber to outside markets. They built their cabins of unhewn logs stuffed between with moss to keep out the breeze. They carved their own chairs and tables out of wood. They also made wooden plates and spoons and had fewer stomachaches eating porridge made of oatmeal and cornmeal than their more prosperous descendants do today eating refined foods from sterling silver dishes. They learned how to tap the maple trees in season and soused their bowls of porridge with the vitamin loaded sap. Small wonder they lived to be in their nineties and hundreds.
They weren't in Nova Scotia long when they had their churches, schools and farms. These matters applied to all pioneer emigrants, not only to the Highlanders. There were those from the Isle of Barra - strong handsome men and women whose descendants still speak the Gaelic.
My Grandfather (Big Sandy), at this time in his eighties, was walking a distance of thirty miles to do an errand. A group of young blades lolling on a doorstep saw him approaching and decided to have some fun at his expense.
"You are a good walker, Mr. McKay", they said.
"I should be," quoth he. "I've been doing it for more than eighty years."
One dandy took a five dollar gold piece out of his pocket and winking around asked, "Can you change this for me, old man?"
"Yes," said Big Sandy. Reaching in his pocket he produced another five dollar gold piece, exchanged the coin, and went on his way in silence - a pronounced silence. His son, Alex, who had gone on to be Mayor of Whitehall, Montana, kept his father supplied with gold pieces. They were easily come by in those days.
So, all you sons of the men and women who came here on pioneer ships, do not be ashamed if the skirl of the pipes brings a tickle to your foot or a tear to your eye. There is within you a spirit that still answers to one word - COURAGE.
Published in: The Maritime Farmer - 3 November 1964