James and Catherine McLay left their native Scotland for the new world in 1872, and had settled on Gabriola Island by 1874, where they grew produce for the Nanaimo market, according to “scientific principles”. (These principles paid off in the form of first prize for every vegetable entered in the 1886 Cowichan fair.)  James was an active member of the Gabriola farming community, serving at various times as roads foreman, secretary of the school board, on committees for relief of the widows and orphans of mine disasters, and, in later life, as justice of the peace.  Not content with farming and community service, he was also a taxidermist (some of his work still survives), an amateur astronomer, and contributed articles and poems to the Nanaimo Free Press.  He typifies the energy of the late nineteenth century, in his commitment to science and his willingness to express himself in a public forum.

We have found three of his poems published in the Nanaimo Free Press.  The first, “No More“, was written just weeks before Catherine’s death from consumption (tuberculosis), and published on March 14, 1883.  The second, “Mother’s Away“, was published April 21, two weeks after her death. The third, “Arise, Bruised Spirit“, appeared on August 30, 1884, not long after the disaster at the Wellington colliery.  The first two are clearly personal. Whether the third is addressed to the survivors of the disaster, to his own bruised spirit, or both, we leave to the reader to decide.

James McLay was born in Scotland, probably on March 24, 1837; his wife, Catherine (nee Grieve(s)), in 1829. The family immigrated to Canada in 1872, when James was 35 and Catherine about 40.  We know nothing about the circumstances that led to this move, though we do know from his writings that he had not farmed before.  The family must have come fairly directly to Gabriola, as the first of James’ occasional communications to the Nanaimo Free Press, signed `COM.’, was published on May 9, 1874 .  He must have impressed the settlers already on the island with his capability, for soon after his arrival he was made foreman of the road crew for the `West end’ of Gabriola, with authority to spend half of the island’s annual road budget of $500.

Despite their lack of agricultural experience, the McLays grew superior produce for market in Nanaimo. A Nanaimo Free Press item, on October 24, 1880, notes that James: “took down to the Cowichan show an assortment of vegetables and cereals, but they were not allowed to compete. Good judges, however, state that the Gabriola exhibit was fully equal, if not superior, to the products of Cowichan.” Later that year, he showed “some very large apples — They would do credit to a Rochester orchard.”  A year later, in 1881, he wrote another article for the Free Press, giving farming advice, based on his seven years of experience on Gabriola, in which he credits the liberal use of manure for his success. Later the same year, he wrote a third article, describing an “entertainment” at the Gabriola school.

Early in 1883, Catherine fell ill with “that insiduous [sic] disease–consumption” (tuberculosis).  Despite medical care in Nanaimo, she declined steadily. James wrote a poem, published in the Free Press, expressing his sense of impending loss.  She died, “in her 53rd year” and “in the presence of her husband and friends”, on April 7, 1883.  The funeral took place on April 10, and “was largely attended”. (“Mrs. McLay was greatly respected in this community…”) A funeral discourse in her memory was delivered at the Methodist Church on April 15.  She is buried in the Nanaimo cemetery. Another poem by James was published in the Free Press two weeks after her death.

By September of 1883, James was busy in his role as secretary of the school board, advertising for “A female teacher for the North Gabriola school. Salary, $50 per month.” The assessment rolls of 1884-5 list him as owning 200 acres of Section 18: the south-west quarter (160 acres) and the south-west quarter of the north-west quarter (40 acres). Another 160 adjacent acres are listed as owned by Robert McLay–perhaps a brother. In July of 1884, James was again advertising for a female teacher for the school–still at $50 per month. In August there was a disaster at the Wellington Colliery–and James joined the committee to collect funds for the widows and orphans, contributing $5.00 himself. He also wrote more verse for the Free Press around this time, perhaps stimulated by his thoughts on the disaster.

We should not think of James and his neighbours as a dour lot, always sober and hard-working.  In one of his occasional communications to the Nanaimo Free Press January, 1886, he gives a Dickensian description of the Shaws’ silver wedding anniversary celebration, in which he and Mrs. Shaw dance the Highland fling “to deafening applause”.  1886 was a busy year–in May, another ad for a lady teacher for the North Gabriola School; in June, re-elected as school trustee; in early July, an advertisement for raspberries, and another ad for a “female teacher” (salary $50.00 per month); and in October, “Mr. James McLay, J.P., Gabriola Island, took down to the Maple Bay show, yesterday, three Swede turnips , weighing 35 pounds each, and apples weighing 24 ounces each. Well done, Gabriola.”  A follow-up article in the next edition reported that he “carried off the first prizes for all the vegetables he took down to the show, viz: apples, drumhead cabbage, red cabbage, onions, and tomatoes.”

On the evening of May 3, 1887, there was an explosion in the No.1 shaft of the Vancouver Coal Company mine in Nanaimo. Fire spread rapidly to the ventilating shaft, and 148 miners died. Among them were three sons of Gabriola farmers–James Hoggan, 21; Thomas Martin, 22; and John McGuffie, 22.  James McLay was asked to join the relief committee for widows and orphans, because of his contribution three years previously. He took charge of contributions from North Gabriola, contributing $5.00 himself.

Later in 1887, James again advertised for a female teacher, offered a cow for sale, and grew a bouquet of roses in mid-December–an indication of “the salubrity of our climate.” In 1889, he brought to the Free Press three stalks of rhubarb (weighing together 6½ pounds); was re-elected school trustee, and participated in the examination of the school, at which the teacher–Miss Clunas–handed in her resignation.

Two years later, one of James’ cows was brutally attacked–“the body being slashed in several places, the poor animal being left in agony.” The perpetrators — “malicious persons who thus endeavoured to work off their spleen on Mr. McLay by damaging his stock” — were apparently identified, but no further mention is made in the press of this incident, its outcome, or the reason for “their spleen”.  Later in 1891, James took some Yellow Egg plums to the Free Press offices — “They would take first prize at any exhibition.”

Nothing more is heard of James McLay until 1894, when he serves as pall bearer for Magnus Edgar, a fellow Scot, and another Gabriola pioneer.  Later that year, he is involved (as Justice of the Peace) in the investigation of the killing of eight sheep, belonging to the Jamieson brothers, by a pack of dogs. The owners of the dogs could not be identified.

We have no further information from the Free Press after 1895, but do know from his great great grand-daughter that he was a taxidermist (she has two stuffed owls in a glass case) and an amateur astronomer. From the 1891 and 1901 censuses, we learn that his religion was “Free Thinker”, and that he was suffering from no “infirmities” at the time of the latter census.

According to June Harrison’s book–The People of Gabriola–James Rollo discovered him quite ill, apparently of a heart attack, sometime in June of 1918. He died on June 27th, at the age of 81, and was buried in the Nanaimo Cemetery, next to Catherine. He appears to have given freely of his education, talents, and inquiring mind to the Gabriola community throughout his life.  The island was a less civilized place when he left it.

Nanaimo Free Press
Gabriola Edition | May 1874
(probably written by James McLay)

To a large number of our readers this island is known as the “Big Island”, and as many of these have never even visited it although so near, yet take an interest in farming generally, it may not be uninteresting to give some slight description of it.

Many who see these grey beetling cliffs facing the town might think it an unhospitable, barren island with nothing but gloomy pine trees on its surface, but this is not so, and though not above seven miles on its longest line, and two or two and a half on its broadest, there are many patches of rich swamp and alder bottom, and it contains no less than nineteen settlers, viz., (going from the E. end to the W.,) Messrs. Degnen, Dick, Gray, Martin, Kemp, Magnus Edgar, Chappel, McGuffie, Easson, Hoggan, McLay, Hall, LeBoeuf, Goss, Caulfield, White, and Heath, seventeen of whom are in constant occupation of their claims and hard at work.

Their stock consists in all of some four hundred and fifty or perhaps five hundred head of cattle, besides a horse which we mention because it is in the habit of visiting a neighbouring island for summer quarters, and is on friendly terms with the cattle thereon much to the disgust of the gentleman who owns it. They have also numerous pigs and fowls, and supply us with butter, eggs, potatoes, turnips, and a considerable quantity of oats, not to say anything of the very excellent beef it feeds.

Of the settlers, the older ones of course have done most work, as the Messrs. Hoggan, whose dwelling house, garden, barn, and buildings are a model of neatness, comfort, and good workmanship. They are on the borders of a lake which they have lowered considerably.

Amongst the others, Messrs. Magnus, Degnen, Gray, McGuffie, Chappel, and Kemp, much good and substantial work has been done, and the more recent settlers are quickly following suit. The Messrs. Martin, the last pre-emptors, are about to begin the cultivation of hops which Mr. Jonathan Martin thoroughly understands.

An efficient Public School, with Mr. Seneker as teacher, has existed for some time, and the main want at present is a regular mail service with Nanaimo.

No More

All nature smiles on him that ne’er
Felt touch of sorrow’s hand,
The sun to him in dazzling robes,
Beams on a happy land.

Ah! yes, the sun with glory opes
The portals of the morn,
And strikes love’s chords within the heart,
That has no cause to mourn.

To me, the sun’s resplendent rays,
Sinks sad’ning in my heart,
And every pretty flower I see
Throws, but a poisoned dart.

The azure fields ‘mongst starry heights
Where roamed my spirits light,
Seems now to me a dreary waste,
A chaos of the night.

No more, alas no more for me,
Can summer gem the lea,
With daisy sweet or heather-bell,
Where Katy walked with me.

Mother’s Away

She has passed life’s bourne, and away, away-
Away to the realms of eternal day,
Led by the star of her heaven-born love,
Beaming on her soul from the mansions above.

She passed away like a vision of light-
Wafted away on the wings of the night,
As if borne along on an angel’s wings;
She looked so immortal-that mortal thing.

She slipped from our grasp in the dark’ning hour,
As the night’s dark pall veiled the bright sun’s power;
As her loved ones crouched, in the shadowed gloom
Of the lamp’s pale light in the saddened room-

In the saddened room, where the deep-heaved sigh,
Brought the scorching tear to the motherless eye-
To the motherless eye, of all save one-
Mary knows not yet her ma’s “race is run,”

Knows not yet, of the severed earthly ties,
And that in the quiet grave, her ma now lies.
Then angel of love, let the sad news fall,
Softly on her ear – on the ears of all;

Uncles and aunts, and her grandmamma too,
Let their tears be like drops of pearly dew,
Glistening o’er the bed where affections lie,
Mellowing the heart, and the grief-dimmed eye.

She has passed life’s bourne, and away, away-
Away to the realms of eternal day,
Led by the star of her heaven-born love,
Beaming on her soul from the mansions above.

Arise, Bruised Spirit, Arise

Ah! why should we so fondly cling
To thoughts that give the deepest sting-
To memories that o’er us throw
A veil whose warp and waft is woe.

E’en as we bid sad thoughts depart
We clasp them closer to our heart,
And fondle o’er the withered flower
We’re casting off from hour to hour.

The things we love pass softly by,
As feathered clouds within the sky,
The thing we dread, we always find
Nursed in the cradle of the mind.

And oft within this tangled vale,
We hear the laugh drowned in the wail,
And see the opening bud of spring
Shrivel beneath death’s venomed sting.

But this is nature and nature’s law,
A blooming flower, a withered straw:
A tree life rising greets the sun,
Its mate, low mouldering and undone.

Yet from that fallen giant’s dust,
The sapling shoot is gayly thrust,
And deathless all – its ashes greens
The shading forest’s leafy screens.

Then, rise bruised spirit from the gloom-
The mystic vista to the tomb,
That, for which thou mourn’st is not there
But gerns the brow of nature fair.

But thou, poor vaunting, finit man
Would’st sum correct the infinite’s plan,
Yet spurn his works through nature given
The ladder’s steps ‘tween earth and heaven.

Man, can do something in his line
Can eat a peach and say tis fine,
But how the mellow thing did grow
Is just the thing he cannot know.

He can earth’s granite jaws unlock –
Belch from its hold, the surf-beat rock,
Where, for some thousand years it hath
Withstood the ocean’s billowed wrath.

He can, but then, is’t he who can?
Here comes a thought we cannot span–
Wide, as the universe’s flight,
Where there is neither depth, nor heighth.

A centreless, and boundless way,
And timeless all – no night, no day.
Without beginning, and no end
That finit mind can comprehend.

But on, and on, forever on,
Stretches the eternal spirit throne,
Bejewelled with its blazing suns,
And living worlds, which round them runs.

Back to our modest earth again,
And listen to the joyous strain.
Or plaintive notes, of bird or bee,
In sorrow, or in ecstacy.

Then, let us nothing under rate,
For know – the power is just as great
That shoots from dust, the grassy spears
As what revolves celestial spheres.

Then, forward, spirit, on your way,
A task awaits you every day —
Nought lives, or moves, in calm or storms,
But hath its duties to perform.