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.
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.