Lives of the settlers

Two brothers, Angus and William MacKay, had already settled in the area which would eventually be called Zorra Township, in the 1820’s. They were originally from ‘Relochan’ (Rhilochan today) in Sutherlandshire.

In 1829, Angus returned to Sutherlandshire and persuaded a large group of Sutherlandshire residents to come to Zorra. In 1829, Angus came back to Zorra, bringing his parents (Isobel and George MacKay) and 360 Sutherland people with him. They sailed to Quebec on two ships, the Canada and the John.

In November 1829 Isobel MacKay died in Zorra and was the first person to be buried in the Old Log Church Cemetery.

The following year, even more people left Sutherlandshire with a few from Ross-shire and Inverness-shire. Five ships sailed from Cromarty to Pictou, Nova Scotia and Quebec in the summer of 1831 and two more were expected within days, for a total of 1,500 souls. By 1833, Zorra had 110 Sutherland families, although some were migrants from Pictou, Nova Scotia. By 1842, Zorra had 2,722 people, mostly from the Scottish Highlands.

Reminders of home

The links between Zorra Township and Sutherland were strong. The name Golspie was given to a new community in the southern portion of the Township. One settler near Golspie named his new home Dunrobin!

Letters were the source of communication between settlers and their friends and families back home. One of a group of settlers, walking to church one day, revealed they had just received a letter from a friend in Dornoch, Sutherland-shire, Scotland. This letter had lain in the post office for several days, owing to the inability of Mrs. Burton, the person to who it was addressed, to pay the postage of two shillings. The two young sons of ‘Mr. N.’, hearing of the good woman’s difficulty and having no spare cash, took their flails and hired out for two days, threshing wheat for Mr. McAlpin, a farmer near Woodstock. For their work, they received two shillings, and that night the money was handed to the widow Burton. Next morning the letter was eagerly read.

Many of the neighbours, hearing of its arrival, called on Mrs. Burton to see if there was any news about their friends ‘ayont the sea’. The letter had become a sort of circulating library and the chief subject of conversation in the district. In it, the information was conveyed that a number of families were just about leaving the parish of Rogart to make a home in the woods of Zorra.

To get an idea of the allotment of land and the plethora of highland names you can see the map of Zorra Township held by MacGill University

Once these new settlers made their long way down to Zorra from Quebec, they had to quickly build a house before winter set in. Surrounded by thick forests of tall, ancient trees, they began chopping them down and used the logs and wood as material to not only build their log houses and barns but also furnish their homes. The first log cabins were 12 feet x 18 feet and about 9 or 10 feet high. They consisted of two rooms and a loft (usually for the older children) reached by wooden pegs driven into the log wall. Younger children slept in a low trundle bed kept under the main bed then pulled out when in use.

The roof was constructed of basswood logs, hollowed out and laid alongside each other with the hollow side up. Other logs, also hollowed, were laid upon these, with the hollow side down, to overlap those underneath. Such a roof was waterproof but didn’t always protect against the driven snow. The openings between the log walls were filled with moss from the trees then daubed with soft clay. There was a large fireplace built of stones, wood and clay that provided the heat and cooking.

Those families who could afford it, had a couple of andirons in the fireplace upon which the sticks were carefully laid. Other families used a couple of flat stones for this purpose. From the top of the chimney was suspended a chain with a hook at the lower end, capable of being raised or lowered to adjust the pot to the fire. Eventually, a crane took the place of the chain with a moveable bar of iron attached by hinges to one side of the chimney and placed horizontally over the fire. Two pots could be suspended over this, one for porridge and the other for soup.

The bread was baked, at first, in a flat bottomed pot called the bake kettle which stood on three short legs. It had a lid with a broad rim and a loop handle to lift it by. The raised dough was placed into this pot, placed upon the hearth then covered in hot coals, producing well raised baked bread. Reflectors eventually took the place of these bake kettles and finally wood stoves replaced both.

The table was bare but scrupulously clean. Two bedsteads, a few stools and wooden chairs and a large Sutherlandshire chest constituted the furniture. There was usually one window consisting of four panes of glass, 6 x 8 inches each. Most of the dishes were pewter and brought from the old country. The spoons were made of horn and the knives and forks had horn handles.

The earliest settlers found the area covered with giant old growth trees. “Soon little clearances, like so many breathing spots, could be found scattered over the whole township” as settlers began clearing their land. Nowhere, however, could one clearance be seen from another. This rendered unusual the flying visit of today. The visitor was expected to stay at least two or three hours and if the visit was cut short, the visitor would likely be asked “Have you come for a fire?”. Matches were not available and so the home fire was kept burning, covered with coals and ashes at night then raked off in the morning, disclosing “the nucleus of a new fire”. Occasionally, the fire did go out and a settler had to go to the nearest neighbour for a kindling brand…thus the short visit so they could return to their own home and rekindle their fire.

To discover more about the pioneers’ school days click here.