Tuesday 11 May 2021

Who was Uncle John?

 When my father-in-law, William (Bill) McKay, came to Canada in 1927, he went first to the farm owned by his “Uncle John” in Tregarva, located 8 miles north of Regina, Saskatchewan.  Bill travelled with his older brother, Hugh, who had been there before.

Hugh had made the same journey in 1923, declaring on his passenger information that he intended “to make my home” in Canada. His destination was recorded as “joining relative, relationship Uncle . . . Mr. John McKay, Tregarva.” John had paid for his passage. In December 1926, he returned to his home in Dyke Village, Moray, Scotland, in order to settle affairs and marry Catherine Mathieson. The ceremony took place at The Manse, in Elgin, Moray, on 18 May 1927. Bill McKay was a witness to the marriage.

1923 passenger information for Hugh McKay

Hugh continued to live in Saskatchewan for several years. The families lost touch with each other over the years, though, so that avenue of research is gone.

1927 ship’s passenger record for Metagama showing Hugh and William McKay

In July 1927, both Hugh and Bill sailed for Canada, both intent on working for and living on Uncle John’s farm and making a permanent home in the country. Catherine followed in February 1928. Bill did not last long in Saskatchewan. After an apparent family disagreement, he left for Calgary, Alberta. By 1931 he had married there.

But who was Uncle John? It is a question we have pondered on for a long time. We believed he was a member of the family but tracking him back to Scotland has been a challenge.

John has been found on several Canadian censuses between 1891 and 1926. His year of birth as calculated from these records ranged from 1852 to 1865, with most having the date as being 1854-55. The year he arrived in the country was shown as being between 1869 and 1880, with most having the date of 1868-69.

All of the census records on which he appears were taken in Saskatchewan, after his marriage to Margaret (Maggie) Lambert. Maggie had been born in Ontario, to parents William and Margaret Lambert. Her birth year from census data ranges from 1858 to 1870. The couple did not have children so information from descendants is not available. We also have lost touch with

We assumed that John would have been a brother or half-brother of Alexander McKay, the father of Hugh and Bill. Scotland census data we have for the family shows a half-brother born in 1847, in Macduff, Banffshire, to parents Hugh McKay and Isabella Thomson. No birth or baptism record has yet been found for him, so we cannot confirm his date of birth.

He is recorded on the 1851 Scotland Census with his parents and two siblings, living in Macduff, Banffshire and shown to have been born in Gamrie, Banffshire (the village next door).

1851 Scotland census showing family of Hugh & Isabella (Thomson) McKay, living in Gamrie, Banffshire

Curiously I did find the baptism records for his five siblings, born between 1848 and 1856. They were baptized in the Macduff Free Church. I downloaded all the Macduff Free Church records. They stop at 1854. The church was only formed in 1843. So, if he was born in 1855 or later, as some Canadian censuses indicate, or in 1842, as shown on his death record, he misses the Macduff Free Church records entirely. How about that for luck? It appears another avenue to locating him is shut down.

Hugh moved to Findhorn, Moray, after Isabella died in 1856. There is a 14-year old John McKay on the 1861 census working as a herd boy on a farm near Rafford, Elgin County, which is just five miles from Findhorn. The census records his birthplace as being Findhorn but there was no person of that name born there in 1847 so the boy seems more likely to be Hugh’s son born in Macduff.

No immigration or passenger record has been found either, so the date of his arrival in Canada cannot be confirmed. There are several men named John McKay on the 1871 and 1881 Canada censuses, all born around 1847 and living in Ontario. Any of them could be our man but confirmation is not possible. It seems likely (that term again) the immigration date of 1868 or 1869 is correct.

I hoped we might get more information about his birth date and parentage by obtaining copies of his marriage and death certificates. Unfortunately, the death record shows another date for his birth: 6 April 1842, in Scotland. The April part might be right. No information is recorded for his parents’ names as the informant, John’s nephew, obviously did not know them. The certificate did indicate his full name was John Alexander MacKay.

1938 death record for John McKay of Tregarva, Saskatchewan

Next, I applied for a copy of the marriage record for John McKay and Margaret Lambert. At the time I only had a range of a decade, between censuses, during which I thought the event had occurred. I hoped this document would have details of the groom’s parents. After searching their records, the provincial department came back with the comment that they could not find a registration for the marriage. Darn!

The Lumsden Historical Museum collect information about the area and the people in and around the town of Lumsden, Saskatchewan. That includes Tregarva, where John and Maggie farmed. I contacted Bill King who is with the museum to see if they had any publications or information about the McKay family. He immediately put me in touch with John Sled, a local historian, who collects such information.

John was able to give me more information about John and Maggie, much of it gleaned from newspaper accounts. The date of their marriage, 31 December 1889, was reported in The Regina Leader newspaper (later to become The Leader-Post) on 7 January 1890. While the date was great to discover, the writeup did not contain any information about John’s background.

1889 marriage announcement in The Regina Leader for John McKay and Margaret Lambert

John did apply for a homestead patent in 1906 in Tregarva, on lands he and his wife had resided on since 1889, but the documents do not have any information as to his origin.

A short news item in The Leader-Post about John’s death in 1938, also did not mention anything about his history other than to say he “had farmed for more than half a century at Tregarva, taking land there in 1887. Before that he spent five years in Ontario after coming from Scotland, where he was born.” He may have met his future wife while living in Ontario and accompanied them to Saskatchewan where her parents took up farming.

Anyway, it was a bit more information to add to the family history but did not help us in determining where he came from.

1938 death announcement in The Leader-Post (Regina) for John MacKay

All of the evidence about the origin of John McKay is circumstantial. Given the information from various sources about his relationship to Hugh and Bill McKay, we are confident he was the oldest son of Hugh McKay and Isabella Thomson.

My suspicion is that he was baptized at the Macduff Free Church in 1847, but the event was not recorded. It is interesting that a cousin by the name of John McKay Anderson was baptized on December 31st of that year and perhaps the minister got confused and his notes may have missed the fact that there were two babies who shared part of a name. That John McKay Anderson stayed in Scotland, though.

Regardless, he will always be known as Uncle John.