Monday, March 16, 2009


In 1861 the census in Ontario for the county of Nottawasaga (around Barrie) included a young family headed by a Neil McLean. He was around twenty eight or twenty nine years old at the time, married to Margaret, who was a Bell, born in Ontario, and they had two young sons. The area had a lot of Scottish settlers. The Scots tended to gather in their own communities when they came to Canada and they weren't unique in that regard. Prince Edward Island has a large Lebanese community. Up in Sudbury, especially west of the city, there are many Finlanders, descendants of the hardy loggers and miners who helped settle the north. My own neighbourhood still has the coffee shops and social clubs, the small shops and restaurants of the once predominantly Italian population. Still the men gather for espresso on the sidewalks but they are mostly old and the black clad widows of men long gone can be seen at the small groceries now run by Koreans and Vietnamese. Down the street a bistro run by a couple of Indian heritage. Further along the Portuguese butcher. And so it goes.

So sometime between 1834 and 1855 Neil McLean arrived in Canada and made for a community which included a lot of McLeans already, perhaps some cousins who went before him. And there he met young Margaret (Maggie?) Bell. And its all surmise now but there were many Bells and McLeans back in Islay so perhaps this was the original connection. Or he may have fled the tenement slums of Edinburgh. In any case he left Scotland and came to Canada to make a new life.

I don't know a lot about Neil McLean. He may have come with his own parents as a boy. Or perhaps he sailed as a young man. For me his story starts in 1861, where he appears out of the mist, the father of two young boys, a farmer in Southern Ontario. Who knows what brought him there, how he met his wife, what they looked like?

Ten years later I know that he was now the father of six and another ten years after that, now nearing fifty, he is the father of eight, his youngest, at five, his namesake.

And then they disappear again.

At the turn of the century his youngest son appears. He now is married too and has his own land. He may as well be on the other side of the moon as "The Old Homestead" as our family calls it, is at the mouth of the Goulais River, west of the Soo, on the north shore of Lake Superior. The adjacent land is farmed by his older brother Malcolm, who would live into his nineties and actually be remembered by my father and his brothers and sister, a relic from a long forgotten time. Uncle Mac is in one of the old photos of the old farmhouse, over to the right, a little wiry bald fellow, McLean through and through, looking much younger then his age at the time.

His youngest brother died young and like many families that are long lived, there is shock at his passing, for he is only in his fifties when he dies. His widow sends a letter at his passing, a copy of which I have, and her sorrow is riven with shock. The McLeans are long lived and at his death he is survived by four of his siblings. Of his own six children only the oldest, my grandfather, doesn't see 85 and he does not die of natural causes. The remainder live into their late eighties and nineties and indeed there is still a daughter alive today. Another passed at 98 just a few years back.

In the Goulais cemetery the red pines whisper in the soft breeze that meanders up from Superior. They look down on the headstones of the settlers and their children and their children's children. When I first visited it, three summers ago, I wandered among my kin. There are McLeans everywhere you look and Robinsons and Whelans, my great grandmother's people. There is a plaque in memory of the first settlers, Frederick and Sarah Tilley, who sailed from Kincardine, on the Bruce Peninsula, in 1878. And at the southern end of the cemetery, at the edge of the forest, lay Neil McLean and his wife, Margaret Bell. That's where I found them, for they disappeared, just as three of their children did, from the records that I have so far come across.

I looked down at their crosses, freshly painted, maintained by their descendants and wondered what brought them here. And I thought of my Dad's brother Ray.

St. Patricks' Day is a big day in my uncle's household. He brought his family up as Irish for he slightly misunderstood a part of the story. The Kincardine part. Uncle Ray is a talker, not much of a listener, and the rest of the family isn't much for looking into the past, although my Dad and his siblings always suspected that the truth was that it was the Scottish side of the Irish sea that they originally sailed from. There are McLeans in Ulster though and while one of the previous generation, my great uncle Morley, who was a trapper by profession (and contributed seven more McLeans to the world - sense a trend here?), would argue with his nephew about the family origins, Uncle Ray was never convinced. Kincardine! Kincardine! he would shout. We came from Kincardine he would say, we all know the story, they came from Kincardine.

The day that I told Uncle Ray that he had a touch of Whelan in him but otherwise he had more French and native Canadian in him than Irish was a sad day in that house let me tell you. My cousin turned to me afterwards and said that he found himself a little lost at that point. He had been brought up Irish and had actually been to Ireland a number of times, returning to the old country, as it were. I told him that he might book a flight to Edinburgh. We came from Kincardine alright.

Kincardine, Ontario.

On St. Patrick's Day I always have a glass of stout and usually whip up a wicked Irish stew. I stay home because I hate going out and dealing with all of the damn amateurs in the pubs. But I'll raise a glass to Ireland and the Irish, even the wannabes. I've been a couple of times and its a beautiful country and the people are wonderful. I can drink to that.


As for the Oilers these days, well, they seem to be lost in the mist themselves, unsure of where they have come from and certainly unsure of where they are going.

They have just finished a stretch that has left even eternal optimist Bruce looking to slit his wrists and the reality is its hard to argue with his pessimism. The team should be home and cooled out, in my opinion. In September I figured they would be where they are right now but that's if the roster stayed healthy, which they have for the most part.

And they just had a stretch where a nice little run would have resulted in clearance. Instead there was a loss to Ottawa. A blown lead to Montreal where the fourth line was caught out against the Habs' top line. Losses to Atlanta and Colorado. Blown points everywhere. Story of the season.

I'm always willing to give the benefit of the doubt but as has been said here many times with regards to Kevin Lowe, a mistake is a msitake, but many mistakes betrays incompetence.

And so it has been with the coaching this year. One could argue that Smid on LW was one thing or Strudwick playing so much is another but the misuse of Cole and Penner, using Pisani at centre, the collapse of the PK, the stagnant PP, the continuous poor starts and poor efforts, the Moreau penalty situation, the present misuse of Kotalik, the latest idea to play for a shootout rather then trying to win the game in overtime ... it goes on and on.

Craig MacTavish is a good coach but he is having a really really bad year. His club is a flawed one but in my opinion his decisions this season may have cost this club a playoff spot. And that's a shame and its impossible to forgive.


Scott said...

Great prose to open there Black Dog. It's the beginnings of a short story for sure. Do you have any of those by the way? I love the blog, but if you've done the work of putting together a short story I'd love to read it if you'd be willing to share.

As for MacTavish it really is the sum of the decisions that's damning. Each one makes some sense in isolation but taken together it's just too many wrong calls. Too bad that. Still, there is reason for optimism both with him and with the team. They're performing pretty well at EV the last few games so if they can improve from terrible to below average on special teams they may yet go on a nice run here.

hunter1909 said...

I stopped "celebrating" St Paddy's after the one where I ended up crawling on my hands and knees up the hill I lived on at that time, too drunk to walk home.

Also haranguing various strangers in public places, the exact sort of behaviour that likely has me potentially ending up waking up in a police cell on a manslaughter charge.

At New Year's I figured Oilers for 8th maybe 7th tops, and right now I look like a prophet. I always did have a sports brain. Then they might not quite qualify, which for me is a big fat woo hoo since I'm the type of Oiler fan who hates seeing them booted out in early rounds(shades of the Jets who back in the day played the slut behind the bicycle shed) anyway.

Swabbubba said...

The Oiler have just got to skate, pass & shoot. Whatever happens happens. The need to get the get funk out

Black Dog said...

Thanks Scott. I used to do a little writing in University but I hadn't the patience, the attention to detail or the confidence to carry on.

Maybe someday. Problem now is time. I haven't a lot of it.

As for the Oilers yeah their work at ES has improved. Fact is they have a lot of NHL quality forwards right now. They may be young but the fact that Stortini and Pouliot are sitting and that the "fourth line" is Brodziak/Moreau/Penner does speak to the fact that there is some depth up front.

2 PP goals in 11 games and atrocious PK is killing them though

hunter - true enough except they have to start getting some experience, I can't remember the last team of kids who came in and roared through a couple of rounds.

Its too bad because both Calgary and Chicago look a little vulnerable. If they had not given away so many points they might have a favourable matchup.

IF they make it.

doritogrande said...

Nice writeup about the old family Pat. I too have a long-lived family, with my grandpa (we call him Gigi) hitting 91 this year, and still puttering around as always. He's slowing now, doesn't like to drive anymore, cooking habits have gone to pot since Baba left us two years ago. Still though, not even a falling TV can stop the man. Two brothers still alive to boot, though I think he's the oldest of the lot. Also had a distantly related relative alive just two months short of his Centennial. Ripe old ages throughout Dad's side of the family.

I hope the Cancer scares that apparently riddle the other half don't come into play.

Bruce said...

And a Happy St Pat's Day to you, BD. I have Irish in my veins and I will have a little more of it tonight after I lift a snifter of Bushmill's during the game. Or two, depending on how it's going. Why slit my wrists, when I can twist them instead.

Black Dog said...

Nice call on the Bushmill's Bruce, that's a favourite of mine.

Stay away from any open windows and refrain from sticking your head in the oven if things go poorly ;)

Good stuff doritogrande.

docweb said...

Enjoyed your post as usual. Spent the night on call so no Bushmill's for me!

My Dad's folks are from Ulster...Prods. I have been over twice, once in 1985(before kids when things were really quite dangerous) and again 3 years ago with kids in tow. Quite the change over the years and for the better of course. I can remember in '85 the checkpoints and such. The signs in the stores like "if you see an unattended package please contact the staff" was quite unnerving for a Canadian.

In 2006 went to both the Guiness factory in Dublin and the Bushmill factory in Antrim. I can say that the Bushmill factory was superior in several ways..the tour took you actually inside the factory, you had a great opportunity to sample the wares, and several of the group (which included by daughter) ended the tour with a taste test of several different types of whiskey. She had a very enjoyable rest of the day!!

For a very interesting insight into the North from a Canadian with "Prod" background I would recommend "The Bloody Red Hand" by Derek Lundy.

Black Dog said...

docweb - I have that book; its terrific

have been over twice, once to Dublin and then drove to the south and southwest, second time was just in Dublin

Its a beautiful country and the Irish are wonderful. They had a tough go of it for many years so its nice to see the country finding peace and prosperity finally.

GregO said...

I can't figure out which thread to hi-jack, but I'm sure you'll get some entertainment out of this: