The story of Mary McLeod

From Florence Keene's
'Under Northland Skies'.
(with permission)
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At the head of the wild and bleak Loch Assynt in the north of Scotland was the newly-built parish school which was of cold grey stone. The year was about 1792 when Mary McLeod was nearing the end of her primary education. She was a bright, intelligent girl who vied for top place in her class with an equally bright and intelligent boy, Norman McLeod. Though both had the name McLeod, they were not related.

At an early age Mary fell in love with Norman who grew into a fine young man, tall and powerfully built. For a time after leaving primary school he became a fisherman, but his hunger for knowledge was strong, and his brilliant intellect drove him to pursue higher education at the University of Aberdeen.

While he was away he was constantly in Mary's thoughts, and she knitted him socks, pullovers, and scarves with wool she had first spun on her spinning wheel. There were no regular means of sending letters in those days, but people thought nothing of walking from Assynt to Aberdeen, a distance of over 150 miles, to see their friends.

One Christmas, Mary, longing to see her fiance, persuaded a friend to travel on foot over mountain tracks and across barren moors to Aberdeen to take Norman her gifts. Needless to say, Norman was delighted. Mary rejoiced in his successes every time he won acclaim in his studies, as if they were her own. In 1814, when he had gained a medal in Moral Philosophy, he gave it to her, and she treasured it all her life. He then decided to take up the ministry, which meant going to Edinburgh to continue his studies.

In an era when most girls were married long before they were 21, Mary had been proud to wait for Norman, and she was 25 before she became his wife. For a time she stayed on in Assynt while her husband was attending Edinburgh University, but this did not last long as he disagreed violently with some of the lecturers, and so the Church of Scotland was barred to him. Mary welcomed him home and comforted him in his black moods of doubt and indecision. She rejoiced when another door opened for him and he was offered the position of teacher at the Ullapool School on Loch Broom, about 30 miles from Assynt. Loch Broom was famous for its herrings, which provided a flourishing business for its people.

In that summer of 1814 it seemed that fortune was smiling on Mary, for at Ullapool she was able to live in a comfortable grey stone house and have a servant to help run it, and a pony to take her for rides, while her husband seemed happy and busy. She too was happy and content, for she had her first baby, John Luther, who filled her days with interest.

Unfortunately this state of affairs did not last long. Strangely enough the cause of this next problem was her husband's eloquent tongue, which drew the people to listen to his sermons, and in so doing emptied the church of the resident minister, Dr Ross, who proved to be a powerful enemy.

Because Norman and Ross were at loggerheads, Mary and he took their little son 40 miles over moor and mountain to have him baptised by the Rev. Lachlan McKenzie at Loch Carron. But Dr Ross had been there before them - with the result that they had to carry their baby all the way back without his being baptised. Mary was weary and despondent after walking all those miles for nothing, and so was Norman, but her faith in her husband did not falter. She knew he would overcome all these temporary problems.

Worse was to follow. Even though the doctrines Norman preached were stark and uncompromising, he retained his large following. This incensed Dr Ross, with whom Norman came into conflict with at every turn. The end result was that he had to resign his teaching position, which was controlled by the church, and take up fishing again. This continued for some time, and there seemed to be no future for the McLeods in Scotland.

It was no surprise to Mary when her husband decided to seek some country where they could enjoy freedom of worship. His thoughts turned to North America. In 1817, leaving Mary and their three children, John, Donald and baby Bunyan behind, Norman with a band of his followers finally chose Pictou in Nova Scotia as a place in which to settle. The following year Mary and her children made the long Atlantic crossing, and the fetid air of the cabins did little for her health or that of Bunyan, a delicate child.

For the third time she set about establishing a home in a rigorous climate. She never ceased to marvel at the energy and driving force of her husband whose leadership had brought a band of some 400 followers to Pictou with him. For three years the highlanders lived on at Pictou, where they had begun to develop their holdings, while Norman was fully extended as their spiritual leader, schoolteacher and magistrate. He prowess as a fearless and forceful speaker spread abroad, and he received an invitation to go to Ohio. Mary watched his deliberations as he tried to decide whether to accept or refuse the invitation. She was weary of moving from place to place, but was resigned to another uprooting when he and some men set off for Ohio.
They had not gone far when a storm blew them into St. Ann's Harbour on Cape Breton Island, but still a part of Nova Scotia, which after some exploration seemed a desirable place to settle, so why go farther?

To prepare for the move from Pictou to St Ann's, Norman built a model trading vessel which he named Mary after his wife. So once again she was uprooted, but this time to a more suitable area. After about ten years at St Ann's life became somewhat easier for Mary when Norman built her a large three-storeyed house with a housekeeper and other help to run it.

That strong, often stern and implacable husband of hers continued to keep an eye on the doings of his flock, and if any of them committed any misdemeanor that person was 'named' in church publicly, causing great humiliation. Sometimes Mary felt that he was too inflexible, but nothing could shake her loyalty to her husband or her admiration for his ability. She knew he could also be kind, loving and generous.
However, every now and then her feelings for him were put to a severe test. There was the Sunday she wore some ribbons in her bonnet in church. Norman treated her no differently from the rest of his people and publicly 'named her sin'. She was humiliated and furious.

For Mary, the 30 years they spent in St Ann's were full of both joy and sorrow. She had even more children, Mary, Alexander, Murdoch, Samuel, Edward, Margaret, and another Edward. Margaret, usually called Peggy, was a beautiful happy child, and her father's favourite - if such a stern man could have a favourite! When Margaret was just a toddler the first Edward died and was buried on the nearby hillside, where the spot was marked by a cross bearing the simple epitaph, 'Short Spring; endless Autumn'. Mary was still grieving for him when at the age of 43 she had another son. As was sometimes the custom, she called him 'Edward' after the little boy who had died. It was not surprising that Mary, never a robust person, suffered from continuous child-bearing and the rigours of the cold climate, but this did not stop her continuing to take a sympathetic interest in the activities of the young people.

As the years rolled by and her family grew up, some of them left St Ann's for pastures new. Her second son, Donald, went to Adelaide in South Australia. One day she received a letter from him describing the country in glowing terms - a great empty continent with a warm climate, an ideal place in which to live. After several bad seasons at St Ann's, the lure of a warm country was too great for Norman and his followers, and after deliberations they began building ships for their migration to Australia. At this time Mary was 70 and Norman 71, and she felt that she had had enough of voyaging over the oceans, but Norman's enthusiasm was unlimited.

Life was not without excitement for Mary at this time. Before the Margaret, the ship that Norman had named after his favourite daughter, was ready to sail in October 1851, a barque sailed into the harbour for an overhaul during the winter months. A handsome young officer, Hugh Anderson, came ashore and before long met Margaret McLeod and fell in love with her. He was a resourceful young man and said that he would like to learn Gaelic, the language of St Ann's, and asked Mary if Margaret could teach him. Mary saw through this ruse, but thought that his ship would be leaving ere long so agreed.

Mary was no doubt amused when she heard one of the first sentences that he learned by heart. It was; "Thoir gaol do, mo callen boidheach laoghach." (Give me your love my handsome bonny lass).

When Hugh's ship left, he went missing and was believed drowned. Days later, he turned up at the Manse and asked Norman McLeod if he could assist in the building of the ships for the migration. Norman agreed. Before the Margaret sailed for Australia, Hugh boldly asked for Margaret's hand in marriage. Norman replied sternly, "Thou art not of our people, and Peggy cannot understand you or go among strangers."
replied Hugh, "that she can, for has she not taught me Gaelic, and has she not made a Gaidleal (Highlander) out of a Gallda?" (Lowlander).

At that strategic moment Mary and Margaret appeared, and when Norman saw the pleading look in his daughter's eyes he could not say no, but replied, "Well, silver and gold have I none, but in Peggy you have a treasure and with her you get my blessing and that of Heaven also."

Eventually in October 1851, Mary and her family, and 136 of Norman's flock left for Adelaide in the Margaret, but when they reached Adelaide there was no sign of Donald. They were all very disappointed but later found a letter at the Post Office saying that he was going to Melbourne, and possibly on to New Zealand. After a weeks rest they continued to Melbourne, but still there was no Donald to meet them.

Australia was in the throes of the goldrush and some of the young men from the Margaret went to try their luck at Ballarat. By 1852 Mary was once more camping in temporary accommodation, but the conditions were worse than any she had experienced. She had to pay 2s 6d for a bucket of water which had to be strained through muslin and boiled before anyone could drink it, while the sanitation in general was appalling. In Australia she lost three of her sons, Alexander, Samuel and Edward, who all died of typhoid fever. Broken-hearted, she was pleased when the decision to go to New Zealand was made.

Soon after arriving in New Zealand in the Gazelle, Mary and Norman and many of their followers settled in Waipu, and they were delighted with their new land. It was summer when they first stepped ashore there, and the warmth of the climate, the beautiful beach and the green of the bush filled their hearts with joy and thankfulness. Mary soon learnt that Waipu did indeed seem like their 'promised land', for food was plentiful, with fish in the sea, wild duck in the river, and wild pigs in the bush.
This was the fifth time she had set up a new home, but this time she did not have to do the heavy work of pioneering, for some of the young girls were always on hand to help her. After all, she was now over 70.

Perhaps one of the happiest events of Mary's life in Waipu was the marriage of her daughter Margaret to Hugh Anderson, both of whom were very popular. To add to the excitement, it was to be a double wedding, with Ina McKay and Hector McKenzie being the second couple. Margaret and Ina's mothers planned a real Highland wedding, beginning with the banns being proclaimed in church on three successive Sundays. During this time both Margaret and Ina were in strict seclusion until the Friday night before the wedding, when they received their girlfriends bearing presents in their home for the "'oidhche' nan cas", (the night of the feet-washing). Once a serious religious ceremony, it had become a night of fun when friends washed the bride's feet, and often played tricks on her by putting colouring matter in the water. To end the evening the two mothers made sure there were plenty of good things to eat at supper time.

On their wedding day Margaret and Ina, led by a piper, marched to the church with their wedding parties, while the bridegrooms did the same. After the ceremony, Margaret and Hugh, and Ina and Hector, walked arm-in-arm followed by the wedding parties to a sumptuous wedding feast in the McLeod's home. Everyone was happy, and the young men fired shots into the air while the girls flew ribbons to celebrate the event.
In church the following Sunday was the day of 'beachdaichu', or 'kirking', and after the service the young couples again walked arm-in-arm tp the brides' homes, and this was supposed to be the last time they walked arm-in-arm in public.

For Mary life in Waipu went along comparatively smoothly. She was popular, wise and generous, and always had a sympathetic ear for anyone with problems.

It was a sad day for all when in 1857 this gentle, loving woman entered her rest. She was given a traditional Highland funeral, which everyone in Waipu attended. According to custom, a young boy visited every home in the district saying,
"You are invited to attend the funeral of Mrs McLeod at 2 o'clock tomorrow, and God be with you."

The body was not left alone, but watched over by a roster of friends and relatives until the burial. On the day of the funeral the people, dressed in their best, gathered at the house of mourning, where a service was held. As there was no hearse a bier was brought from the church to the house, her coffin was put on it and then carried shoulder high to the Waipu cemetery, which was a beautiful site not far from where she first set foot in Waipu in the summer of 1854.