In 1838 or thereabouts, my great-great-grandparents Duncan and Sarah MacEachern bought ninety acres in New Argyle, Prince Edward Island and opened it up for farming. An 1841 map locates the lot, no.10, a mile or so inland from Allen Cove (now Canoe Cove) on the Island’s south shore; Duncan’s name can be seen lightly penciled atop.Hemmed in on two sides by lots with direct access to water, but having none of its own, this was clearly not prime real estate. But a realtor might emphasize that it had good soil and good drainage, that it was on a hill looking out over the Northumberland Strait, and that a stream – well, a rivulet – ran through its back. To the 29-year-old Duncan, who had come from Bunessen on the Isle of Mull around 1830 and the 18-year-old Sarah, also from Scotland, it must have seemed a perfectly fine place to start a family in Canada. Twelve children would be born there over the next quarter-century.
When Meacham’s Atlas of PEI appeared in 1880, it would show that Duncan was still farming the ninety acres in what was then the unfortunately-named “Argyle Rear.” A few years later, son John left a tailoring business in Charlottetown to move back with his parents and take over the farm. (Having spent more than a half-century in Canada, Duncan still only spoke Gaelic, so John’s wife, Annie, who spoke only English, always needed a translator to speak with him.) With travel in those days little better on the roads than in the fields, the farm was something of a thoroughfare, and John is remembered for selling his boots to a passing neighbor while out plowing, and walking home in his socks.
Cummins Atlas of 1928 has the farm belonging to “John C. McEachern & son.” The son was my grandfather Gordon, born in 1892, the year of Duncan’s death. Gordon would live eight-and-a-half decades on those ninety acres, but he was hardly reclusive. He became known for being a storyteller, and would later travel throughout the Island shearing sheep, in an age when getting that job was as much about your ability to spin a yarn as trim the wool. Gordon was the second of four children, and he handed the farm down to Arnold, my father, also the second of four. It may be evidence of the farm’s limited value, limited potential, that no oldest son has ever claimed it as his own.
Aerial photographs from 1935 through 2010 shows our farm’s constancy – not just borders are unchanging, but land use, too. There is the same patchwork quilt of fields, the same few acres of woodland, the same house, barn, and outbuildings. The farm operation stayed small. We always had ten or so dairy cows, separated the milk from the cream and sold the cream, the skim milk fattening up the next generation of cattle and MacEacherns. There were always some pigs, a dog, cats, and a beloved workhorse or two.
Somewhere along the line Arnold stopped trusting or keeping up with or simply affording new farm equipment; he depended on manual labour instead. We would help neighbours bale their 20,000 bales of hay each summer in return for them helping us with our 4,000 – they had machinery, we had sons. We never even bought a milking machine: my father was the last farmer I know to milk by hand, certainly to milk so many. When I was a child, we would occasionally take a one-day holiday to Nova Scotia, always truncated by the need to return in time for milking. On our late return the cows would be pressed against the fence balefully mooing, as if the farm itself were compelling us home.
I have always had difficulty knowing what to make of the fact that across almost two hundred years the MacEacherns kept our farm exactly intact – never selling any of the ninety acres, never buying land beyond it. On the one hand, it signaled a deep contentedness, a clear sense of our place in the world. I have come to love these ninety acres more than anywhere else in the world (so much that I dedicated a book to it). I have picked its stones and its raspberries, buried toys and pigs in it, walked what seems every square metre of it. It was the imagined setting of Beatrix Potter books when I was a child, and is still the setting of a surprising number of my dreams as an adult. On the other hand, my family’s inertia also suggested a certain lack of ambition, imagination, or simply ability. I didn’t know whether to be proud of my history or embarrassed by it.
My estimation of the family was thrown somewhat a year ago, when I learned more about Duncan MacEachern. I had always assumed that my ancestors must have been sedentary farmers in Scotland before becoming sedentary farmers on PEI, but this Duncan’s family was not. They were well-educated, and his father Dougald left Mull to take a succession of increasingly creditable positions throughout Scotland: managing farms using the most modern methods, planting trees for the Duke of Argyle, running a wood business at Loch Lomond. Duncan and his teenage brothers fished herring in the Greenock waters, their spectacular catches leading buyers on the dock to dub them “the lucky boys.” When the family headed for Canada in 1830, they did so not out of hardship but of their own choosing. On landing at PEI, the captain, so impressed with the family, offered them free passage to Bay Chaleur if they joined his shipbuilding and lumbering business there. But Dougald’s brother, who had moved to Canoe Cove a decade earlier, was waiting for them, so they disembarked. As difficult as it was to match those venturesome Scots with my cautious Islanders, I was happy to do so: it meant my ancestors could have chosen anywhere, and chose here. I was descended from lucky boys.
But more recently I’ve discovered that, believe it or not, this Duncan MacEachern who came to Canoe Cove from Mull circa 1830 may well not be – likely isn’t – my Duncan MacEachern who came to Canoe Cove from Mull circa 1830. The idea that I might be of “wrong” MacEacherns, MacEacherns of whom almost nothing is known, seemed to make things even worse.
This summer, I was back in New Argyle helping close up the family farm. My father, Arnold, had felt pressured to take over the family farm as a young man, so he never pressured his children to do the same, and none have. My mother, Meredith, died last fall and Arnold is living in an apartment – the first time in his eighty years he’s lived away from the farm. We held what we advertised as a “century farm yard sale,” and watched as hundreds of people wandered through the old country furniture, harnessry, extinct farming technologies, and knickknacks, looking for deals or just soaking up the past. There has likely never been so many people on the farm before; my father wasn’t one of them. All day I vacillated between pride at our family’s long history in farming this place, pleasure in giving these belongings – many of them only just pulled out of a loft for the first time in a half-century – a second home, and hatred for all these vultures picking over our carcass. Actually, that’s not accurate: I didn’t vacillate, I felt those things simultaneously.
Everyone has been asking, “So, is your family going to sell?” Yes. None of my siblings nor I are in a position to move back. We would like to sell before the 1897 farmhouse starts to fall in on itself, and we hope the land will be farmed. (I’ve always found it interesting that my father would prefer some other family farm it than have a MacEachern let it, in the local idiom, “go spruce.”) But we would also like someone rich to swoop in, recognize its secluded and serene nature and its beautiful view of Nova Scotia, and throw money at us. It’s amazing how quickly you come to define a property’s value in monetary terms when you’re coming to sell it. It’s not greed, I don’t think, or not entirely: you just don’t want to sell your family, your past, yourself cheap.
But I am keeping the ten-acre southernmost field for myself. It’s a productive field with road access, and along its edge are the raspberries which I pick each August. I’ll pay the double taxation that non-Islanders pay, scramble to find farmers to rent it, think about building a retirement home on it but never do so, and eventually pass it on to my daughter Sadie and make it her problem. It’ll be great.
A couple of days after the sale, still filled with seller’s regret that I had undervalued my family’s belongings several hundred times, I was wandering through the empty farmhouse waiting for a guy to pick up the sawgear he’d bought. I walked through the dining room, glanced into its closet empty for the first time in fifty years, and stopped. I thought about the fact that although the closet backed onto a set of stairs, it had a flat back. Huh. So I pulled loose a board at the back and then began pulling things out from behind it. A cane. A gas lamp. A container of DDT. A children’s drum that parents had presumably got sick of hearing. A 1903 roll-up school map of PEI. An 1880 Meacham’s Atlas, complete with doodles of my father and his three siblings’ handprints in December 1945. Two large framed photographs of long-dead family members. It seemed a fine inheritance. Lucky me.
 See Elizabeth Ritchie, “From Mull to Canoe Cove: The Indirect Route,” History Scotland, 14 no.1 (Jan/Feb 2014 2014), 40-5, and 14 no.2 (Mar/Apr 2014), 48-51; and David Weale, “The Emigrant: Beginnings in Scotland,” The Island Magazine 16 (fall 1984), 15-22.
 Most of what we know about Dougald’s family comes from a history that his son John wrote in the 1860s. John was living in Charlottetown when he wrote that his family had lost track of his brother Duncan’s whereabouts – making this unlikely to be the same Duncan living 20 kilometres away. Also, John was born in 1809, the same year of birth on “my” Duncan’s tombstone, making them unlikely to be brothers.
Latest posts by Alan MacEachern (see all)
- Material World: Exhibiting the Anthropocene - May 4, 2020
- CHESS 2020 ~ keep the dates! - October 4, 2019
- Well-Grounded - July 10, 2019
- ICEHO Bulletin 19 - March 28, 2019
- Review of Mannell, Living Lightly on the Earth - February 6, 2019
- Canopy: An Interview with Alan MacEachern - January 15, 2019
- The Year in Apocalypses - December 31, 2018
- Morley K. Thomas, 1918-2018 - April 27, 2018
- When History Stops at the Border - April 11, 2018
- World Congress of Environmental History 2019: Call for Papers - March 10, 2018