Description A Pictou Pioneer - 1784

A Pictou County Pioneer – 1784

(By J. G. Robertson from Research in Scotland and facts received from W. R. and R. S. Robertson)


It must have been the occasion of much thought and argument in the family of John Robertson of Fairlie, Scotland that resulted in this family deciding to leave the land of their birth and to venture across the stormy Atlantic to seek a new home in the unknown forests of Nova Scotia.

The head of the house, John himself was 59 years of age and his good wife Margaret was 54 so they were no longer very young.  Their elder son James was not quite 23, their younger son William was 15 and their youngest daughter Mary was only 5 years old.

The Robertson family was well established around Beauly and Kilmorack and were all tenants of Lord Lovat of Beaufort Castle.

They were all descended from Robert Robertson of Struan who was a man of great ability and who had been “Chamberlain” to Hugh, Lord Lovat before 1690, probably in 1685.

He was appointed “Factor” to Dowager Lady Lovat in 1711 and died in 1720.  He was succeeded as “Factor” by his eldest son Patrick (or Peter) who died in 1739 and was followed by his sons William (as factor) Duncan and Hugh.

One factor that probably influenced them to leave Kilmorack was that Margaret’s three young brothers, Donald, Roderick and Hugh MacKay were then out in Nova Scotia, they having gone out on the ship “Hector” in 1773.   Another factor was that her older brother Alexander (the soldier) was prepared to try his luck in the land beyond the seas.

It was nevertheless a serious decision to make but they decided to emigrate, although there was no hope of their ever seeing their beloved Scotland again.

The die was cast and June or July 1784 saw them on board the ship “John” bound for Halifax, N.S., along with the Alexander MacKay family and several families of Frasers.  They all were tenants and they all looked forward to owning their own lands.  This, they considered very important.

What sort of trip they had is unknown but doubtless it was stormy, slow and tedious. Finally about the end of August they landed in Halifax where they no doubt were met by the brother Roderick MacKay, the other brothers Donald and Hugh being at Pictou.

They no doubt considered that the rocks and forest around Halifax constituted terrible land for farming, and so it was, but they heard that much better land was available around Pictou and also that the “Gaelic” was spoken freely there.  In September they proceeded on foot over the rough trail made through the primeval forest and across brooks and rivers.

John and his family doubtless were heavily laden, all except the two youngest daughters Margaret and Mary.  Even they probably had their bundles.  They could not make many miles in a day and all were very tired before they tramped well over one hundred miles of woodland.

They left an excellent grandfather’s clock with Margaret’s brother Roderick for two or three years and may have left behind other furniture with him as they couldn’t take much with them on their backs.

All were dismayed by the big trees and the dense forests.   They must have wondered how they would clear the land.  They finally arrived at the village of Pictou and found that much good land was already claimed. 

Leaving Margaret and the girls with friends, John speedily set out with his two sons to explore the country for winter was approaching.   They found a sort of crude trail or path and went up the East River Valley passing a few cabins where New Glasgow and Stellarton now stand.

They spent a couple of nights sleeping under the protection of a large elm tree.   This elm tree is still standing at my home.  They looked further but returned and decided that this was good land as they could find.  They then erected a good camp made of spruce poles and branches exactly where Glencairn House now stands.

John, James and William returned to Pictou with the news that they had a home.  They now brought their women folk to this camp.  It was with mixed feelings that Margaret, Catherine and Ann regarded their new home.  Who can blame them.

In 1785 or ’86 John, assisted by his sons built a very good cabin of logs with a cellar under it exactly where the Robertson Cairn now stands.  They got some provisions from the government for the first winter, in fact for the first year.  Moose, wildcat, fox and bear were plentiful, and they got salmon from the river and trout from the lake not far away.

John, the pioneer, and his two sons claimed and got plenty of land.  It amounted to nearly 2,000 acres, extending from the East River to what was afterwards called the “Cross Brook”.  About three miles in length and a mile in width.  The Cairn now stands not very far from the centre of this block of land, part of which is still owned by John’s descendants.  They were land hungry after being confined to smaller acreages as tenant farmers in the Highlands.

For several years they had hard and difficult times.  They became good with the axe, chopping down trees, burning them, planting potatoes, oats and wheat among the stumps and harvesting them with hoe and sickle.  They had the friendliest relations with the Mic-Mac Indians who were very kind to them.

All of John’s and Margaret’s family married and raised large families.  James the eldest son had a family of 12.  Catherine the eldest daughter married Ian Ruadh (Red John Fraser) and had a family of 8.  Ann married James Fraser (Culloden) and had 7 of a family.  William the younger son married Christina MacKenzie a maiden of 19 and had 13 in his family all of whom save one lived to a good old age, proving that they were healthy and strong.  Margaret married John MacKenzie (Christina’s brother) had 8 of a family.  She outlived all her brothers and sisters dying at the good age of 97.  Little Mary who was only 9 years old when they arrived from Scotland married Robert Grant of Millstream, a noted elder in the church.  She lived a busy life bringing up 10 children and died at the age of 87.

The second settler was Patrick Finner who built a cabin on what is now Irish Mountain, so named after this Irishman.  A third was William Duff who was a friend of John’s.  John generously gave him 150 acres on the lower slope of Irish Mountain as he wanted him for a neighbour.

The Robertsons and their neighbours had to carry their oats and wheat on their backs to the nearest grist mill and carry it home as oatmeal and flour, so the friends persuaded John and really his son William to build a grist mill on his farm. 

A sawmill was added later and to this led to the district being called “Robertson’s Mills”.  Several years afterwards, on the erection of a church the name was changed to Churchville, which is not much of an improvement.

On the marriage of the elder son James to Helen (or Ellen) MacDonald, of the MacDonalds of Glencoe,  John gave 850 acres of land to his son.   This land extended from the East River to the Crossbrook but was narrow beyond where the hamlet of Churchville now stands.  James built his log cabin near the top of a small hill not far from where A. D. MacDonald now has his home.  Here he and Helen raised 7 sons and 5 daughters.

William Robertson, son of John, at the age of 30 built his home near his father’s, beside the brook where Thomas MacLeod now has his home.  This house was moved about 50 yards away when a new house was built by another William (Miller) who was a grandson of John’s and who ran the grist mill for years.

Gradually as years went by the clearing was extended and cows, oxen and a few sheep were purchased, and a couple of horses added later.

John and Margaret worked hard but led a good life among their children and grandchildren.  The latter numbered nearly sixty.  They grew old together and celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary in a quiet way.

John was gathered to his Fathers on June 19th, 1818 at the good age of 93.  His wife Margaret lived on in the old home where the Cairn now stands until she passed away in 1825 at the age of 95 years.

They were both buried in the old neglected cemetery in the village of New Glasgow where the Rev. James D. MacGregor and his wife are also buried.  It is a great shame that there is no road in to this cemetery at the present time.

James and William prospered and cleared more land.  Neighbours took up farms nearby.  William became and elder in the Springville congregation and according to Rev. A. MacLean Sinclair was a clear and forceful speaker in both Gaelic and English being a very influential elder.

Another William Robertson, a son of James, was later on an elder too.  He was noted for making a good prayer and was always called “The Deacon”.


William Robertson’s Eldest Son


William’s eldest son was named John, after his grandfather.  He was born in 1804 and in 1833 married Margaret Grant daughter of Alexander Grant of Millstream.

He was promised and received 200 acres of the best land from his father and proceeded to build a house for his bride.  He erected the framework of a house about 150 yards from the old cabin, where the Cairn now stands but on the hill now owned by Clarence MacDonald.  A terrific storm occurred which wrecked and blew down the framework.  He decided to move it and rebuilt his home on the knoll near the famous elm tree which is the present Glencairn House.  It was completed in 1834.

This younger John and the young Margaret were blessed with six children, but two sons died in childhood.


Glencairn House – 1834


It was not called Glencairn House until 1934 when a plaque was unveiled.  It was built at first as a plain square house without the present kitchen veranda or patio.  It had one entrance and had a porch built over the doorway.  This porch was removed later and is now in existence and is still know as the “Old Porch”.

The house had a huge fireplace capable of having two fires at once, one in the (then) kitchen, which is now a good dining room, and one in the living room, which was “the parlor” for many years.

It had a large kitchen, a parlor and three bedrooms downstairs but no bathroom.  The upstairs remained unfinished for several years and access to it was by a good ladder for some of the children to go to bed.

John some years later built a new kitchen and had two entrances to his home, with another chimney and a new fangled stove which caused lots of trouble.

In 1860 Margaret unfortunately died and was one of the first to be buried in the new cemetery which was only opened that year.  Her third son had died in 1853.  Her two sons and two daughters were present when she passed away, Robert Smith her younger son being only 14 years of age at his mother’s death.

Robert S. (my father) grew up to be an outstanding farmer.  He had the best land and farmed it to advantage.  His older brother William Roderick, a powerful man, after a term at “The West River Academy” went to California in the gold rush, returned without much gold and then moved to Ontario living first at Brampton and later at Goderich where he brought up a family of eight children.

After the death of his wife, John lived on and farmed his extensive acres ably assisted by my father.  His youngest brother William ran the grist mill and his other two brothers Colin and James occupied adjacent farms given to them by their father William.  Colin also operated the saw mill, afterwards managed by his two sons.  Roderick, another son of William’s went to Fall River, Massachusetts.

John, the eldest son of William was, as stated above, born in June 1804 and died in December 1889 at the age of 85.  He was buried beside his wife in the new cemetery across the road from the village hall.  He was a tall powerful man in his day, a good citizen and an excellent farmer.

During 1888 and 1889 Robert S., my father, was busy courting my mother (the daughter of Squire MacHardy) and building a new veranda on the old home and finishing the upstairs inside.  Three rooms were thus added to the house but no bathroom was considered.  He painted the new veranda and the whole house white.  The house had always been white.   The veranda was a gay affair, having four doors which are now reduced to two.

He married my mother Jessie MacHardy in the early summer of 1889, only a few short months before the death of his father (John).  About a year later I was born and nine months afterwards my gay young mother was killed in an unfortunate run-away.  My father was never the same again.  I was looked after by my good kind aunt Christie who I loved like a mother.  She was laid to rest in 1915. 

Five years after, in 1896, my father presented me with a step-mother.  She was Sarah Belle Fraser, kind and beautiful.  She was a true mother to me and I loved her very dearly.

A description of the life we lived will be left to a later account save to mention that I went to college in 1908, went to Saskatchewan in 1912 and trained for a commission for World War I in 1915.

I was wise enough to marry Lydia Adelia Paulson in June 1916.  I soon went overseas as a lieutenant and was very severely wounded in 1917 on the side of Vimy Ridge in France.

Time flies and I retired from the position of “Agricultural Counsellor for Canada” in Great Britain in 1955 and returned to Canada.

During his lifetime my father enlarged the kitchen by adding a good pantry and a large entry and by digging a suitable well which furnished excellent water inside the house.   Also he renovated the barns and poultry houses.

He installed the telephone and in due time electric light succeeded kerosene lamps.

He gradually retired from farming and died in 1925 at the age of 80 and my sainted step-mother died in 1940 at the age of 84.  They rest in the corner lot of the new cemetery amongst many Robertsons.  “May they rest in Peace”.

In 1956 my wife and I completely renovated the old Glencairn House, put new beams in the cellar, installed an up-to-date furnace, enlarged the living room, put in a bathroom upstairs and a toilet off the library, created a sewing room, got city water installed in addition to the cold water in the well, and we made many changes to make it more comfortable such as building a nice patio which has proved a great convenience.

A small orchard, ornamental trees and shrubs add to the appearance of the old home, now called Glencairn House, built on land owned by the Robertsons for 183 years.

Thus, time passes in the pleasant County of Pictou.  We, the present descendants of “The Pioneer” come and go and pass from the scene.  The Two Hundredth Anniversary will be held in 1984.  Who will see it?

    J. G. Robertson



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