Thursday, July 19, 2018

In Search of Donald Campbell

Offer me the opportunity to do a bit of time travel and I am powerless to resist. My cousin Jack Campbell—my third cousin if you care to know—is, like myself, the great-great grandson of an early Scots pioneer in these parts, Donald Campbell—my father’s father’s mother’s father. Donald arrived in Cape Breton from the Highlands of Scotland sometime in the later 1820s. He built himself a homestead on a grant of two hundred acres close to the shore of the Great Bras d’Or—at a place that would be named for a Hebridean island and come to be known as New Harris. We’re mounting a little expedition to snoop about the site of Donald’s old homestead, Jack explained, would you like to come? Hell, yes, I would.

The site is not far from the north end of the big green bridge now spanning the Great Bras d’Or between New Harris and Boularderie Island. The crew—Jack, his son John, and Dave Oake, the lucky man hitched to my cousin Denise Campbell, together with yours-truly—mounted the expedition on Wednesday, in clear but distinctly not cool summer conditions. Our party scrambled over terrain now choked with windfall and leg-lacerating blackberry canes: not perhaps everyone’s cup-of-tea but perfectly fine by me.

Now a still-nimble octogenarian, Jack has visited the site more than a few times, beginning as long ago as the late 1940s. This time he came equipped with air survey photo, land grant map, GPS and a couple of extra special items meant to entice his crewmates: the bowls of two old clay pipes he’d found at the site years and years ago. One bowl is marked “Garibaldi Pipe”, the other bears no words but is decorated with features strongly suggesting an Irish origin—Irish harp and shamrocks. Who was the smoker who jettisoned the broken pipes in days long gone? Wouldn’t it be grand if we could feel confident they once provided late-evening comfort to our dear old great-great-granddad?

Virtually nothing would now be known about our ancestor but for a vital relic from the year 1830 that tells more than a little about Donald Campbell. A remarkable letter, written by Donald himself, survives, a letter revealing a good deal about his feelings for his new Cape Breton homeland, the activities that occupied him as a pioneer, the priorities he stressed as he contemplated his near future.

The letter was penned to Donald’s brother-in-law, Hugh McKay, of Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland. In it, Donald revels in his independence, his freedom from the demands he would face if he were still a simple Scots crofter beholden to a Highland laird.

One of the details emerging from Donald’s letter is that his wife Barbara was pregnant. The child was born in 1831, a sister to Jack’s great-grandfather Angus and—in the fullness of time—my great-grandmother.

“Thank God I am well pleased for coming to this country”, Donald wrote, “as I find myself quite easy, having occupied land called my own free from all burden whatsoever. I go out and in at my pleasure, no soul living forces me to do a turn against my will, no laws, no factors here, no rents nor any toilsome work but what I do for myself.” Donald Campbell clearly wanted Hugh McKay to join him in Cape Breton but he hedged his bets: “Fishing is plentiful here, any person having plenty of fishing materials is sure of fishing well here . . . but if you have not the spirit to come send me one of your herring nets.”

Donald’s letter is wonderfully evocative of a place and time now long gone. The letter, close to 190 years old, is pretty much all we have left of our ancestor. The year of Donald’s birth, the year of his passing, the whereabouts of his burial place—none of these things are known. Nor do we know whether Hugh McKay sent his brother-in-law the much-desired fishing nets. Donald’s descendants hope he did.

We managed to make our way to the homestead site, a depression indicating a long-ago cellar, stone piles once part of a foundation or wall nearly two centuries old. If the site once so easily yielded bits of two broken clay pipes, what else might be uncovered if a keen crew were to return with a few tools—picks and shovels, let’s say; a buck saw, maybe even a metal detector? Perhaps in dispatches hence I will be able to supply answers to my loyal readers.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Haymaking on MacKenzie Hill


He’s been gone for two years now but fresh proof materialized just this morning that the pull of his personality lives on. As we approached Bob Nagel’s old place on MacKenzie iHillHill, after akjsfsakdjbfhaskjldbfdskljbfadskjlfsldKfnhsd\LGKahf\asjferw;l\gjS;L\DGNJw\r;les\gnj\rpG\NADS;fkJ\agr;egLJHill after our Dalem Lake constitutional, Jan and I heard the familiar strains of a New Holland tractor mowing hay—well, hay may be a bit too grandiose a term to describe the weedy, motley mix now growing in Bob’s field. The man operating the tractor is the same one who performed the service lo these many years, a guy with plenty of other options for spending his precious summer time—local, long-time Member of Parliament, Mark Eyking. 

The thing is, Mark is among the myriad throng who loved Bob Nagel and cherished the times he shared with him. Mark is just one of the folks around Boularderie Island who seek avenues for communing with their dearly departed friend. On a beautiful mid-July summer morning cutting Bob’s hay struck Mark as the best available means for connecting with his late, lamented pal. This communion is the only reward Mark will reap for his labours: Bob’s MP pal has no need of the hay—or whatever it is we should call the crop—and won’t get any material reward for cutting it. His reward will be a strictly immaterial one—the good feeling of seeing a job well done, the same job that Bob cherished over the many haying seasons that preceded the present one.

Mark is not alone. Others do their bit for their old friend even though the friend is absent. Jim Troke cuts the grass of the laneway and an apron around the old house. Bob’s nephew Dennis, the new laird of the manor at Wuthering Heights, will arrive in ten days time to find the grounds of the old place as well groomed as they ever were. Mark, Jim and others carry out their acts of remembrance—small and not so small—perhaps imagining the friend they cherished would be delighted at the ongoing proof that Robert Carl Nagel mattered in these here parts.

Wherever we wander on Boularderie we run into people who want to remember Robert—and share favourite anecdotes about the man from Boston who spent only the summer here but who seemed as much an integral part of the local community as anyone who lived here all the year round. Always a pleasure, Bob would say after hanging out with friends on his porch for an afternoon or an evening, always a joy. The friends knew he meant it.

Contention was a rare ingredient in Bob’s friendships but, possessed of a high-strung, volatile personality and being overly fond of political argument, I was someone who sometimes crossed metaphorical swords with him. We had unaligned views about politicians, views I was keen to debate, but like everyone else, I too relished the merriment and great fun that flourished whenever people gathered on Bob’s porch to savour what he irreverently liked to call “good Christian fellowship”.

On our way to and from Dalem Lake Jan and I walk past Bob’s place almost every day. I am like all the others: I too remember the fun and frivolity, the mayhem and mischief that unfolded behind the yellow door at the last house on MacKenzie ridge. I too miss facets of friendship: the laughter, the show tunes, the Jussi Bjoerling arias, the 2002 construction of the porch that became the venue for so much hospitality, horseplay and hilarity.

Neither Mark nor Jim need or want to be commended for their acts of friendship but I commend them anyway.  Mark’s efforts this morning were aimed at Bobby Nagel but they warmed another heart this morning—in spades.

They Did a Good Job


We went on a multi-purpose road trip. Knowing that Jan’s affection for traveling in Leo, the noisy Ram three-quarter ton pickup, is much slighter than my own, Darcy and Amanda generously offered the loan of their shiny, new Toyota Corolla. I would have considered the offer far too kind but Jan accepted—and happily drove every one of the 1,200 km of the journey.

A main objective of the odyssey was to bask in the presence of Doris Irene Bowles MacLeod, my beloved Mum, now in her 95th year. The dear old thing remains a gold-standard model of positivity, good nature and engagement, a model I can dream about emulating in years to come but know I never will. Mother and son canvassed the usual array of subjects: family affairs, the World Cup, the rescue of the cave-trapped Thai boys, the latest astounding and incomprehensible developments in the Donald Trump saga. Of course we played cribbage too, culminating in a series finale that saw Doris skunk me in a drubbing that brought to mind Secretariat’s thrashing of the field in the 1973 Kentucky Derby.

Nancy and Donald put up with us for a couple of nights at their shangri-la at the mouth of the Shubenacadie. I got up early both mornings, went for a walk, nearly stepped on a porcupine when his path crossed mine on the grown-over old Princeport road. Whether I was more startled than my barbed friend, who can say. I flushed a family of pheasants too, savoured the vocal stylings of an array of warblers and a brilliant rose-breasted grosbeak, felt freshly grateful for nature’s plenitude.

Halifax was the scene of the Atlantic Independent Booksellers’ 2018 Summer Book Fair. I was one of four writers invited to give presentations on their latest works at the Monday breakfast session. I spoke about Frank Fredrickson and Duke Keats, two of my favourites among thirty-two members of the Hockey Hall of Fame who were also soldiers in the Great War of 1914-18. My new book, From Rinks to Regiments, will be published by Heritage House in October. I hope the Monday talk will have persuaded a bookseller or two to give Rinks a turn in their front window displays this autumn.

At Amherst Shore, Garth and Carole extended their usual over-the-top welcome. On Monday evening the women thrashed the men at bridge. On Tuesday we went to New Brunswick, the women to take in a quilt show, the men to inspect the old Albert County courthouse and gaol and to attend to exhibits on two local lads who made good: R. B. Bennett, Canada’s prime minister from 1930 to 1935, and Cy Peck, commanding officer of the 16th Battalion, Canadian Scottish, winner of the Victoria Cross in 1918.

At Alma, gateway to Fundy National Park, our quartet invaded a little building that is currently the venue of Saprano’s Pizzeria but once upon a time was the cozy home of my Aunt Catherine and Uncle Cecil, a place I knew intimately as a boy. Other intimacies occurred there: goaded by Garth, I explained to the Saprano’s clientele, servers and husband-and-wife proprietors that this very place is where I was conceived in early May 1946. The honeymoon corner is now re-purposed: the Sapranos’ men’s loo. Where Mum and Dad took the key initial steps at producing their first-born is now the place dozens of men go to pee every single business day. The female half of the proprietor team made my day—no, my whole month. Regarding me with plenty of eye contact and a very warm smile, ‘Ms. Saprano’, said of my parents, the newlyweds, “they did a good job”. Honest. I neither lie nor exaggerate.

Departing Alma we chose the coastal scenic route and were not short-changed. If, gentle reader, you ever have the chance to select NB Highway 915 as your road of choice for getting from Alma to Albert, do it: the views of Shepody Bay, Cape Enrage and Mary’s Point are every bit as enticing as the place names are evocative.

Some road trips are better than others. Hearing an impartial, objective observer assert that HJ and Doris did “a good job” in that corner bridal suite oh so long ago did much to make this particular road trip one to remember.