My mind often wanders to a little white-washed stone house on a winding road. Its bright red door perpetually welcomes me home. I sit with a good book beside a roaring peat fire drinking tea. The house is in a community called the Braes. Nestled in an area called Camastianavaig on the Isle of Skye off Scotland’s Northwest Coast. If you’re familiar with the History of the Highlands and Islands you know that in 1882 the beautiful Braes was the location of the Battle of the Braes. An uprising of the local crofting community.
If you’re more familiar with Prince Edward Island history, you know that there’s a village called The Brae on this island. Nestled along a winding river, The Brae, also referred to just as Brae, is a community located along the East and West sides of the Brae River in Lot 9, Prince County, 4 ½ miles South of O’Leary.
I discussed the Battle of the Braes in my thesis and would delight in discussing it at length. But for now a discussion of The Brae that is closer to my real home, far away from my imagined one, this Brae, the PEI one.
Brae is Scots for a steep bank, slope, or hillside (the origins of the word are Old Norse). It was named by the Scottish immigrants who settled there in the 1820s. However, the history of this land long pre-dates its naming…To the Northeast of the Brae there is a road called Portage road. Aptly named because The Brae River would have been a prime portage route. Its sheltered banks, freshwater springs, and forests would have made an ideal Mi’Kmaq camp-site pre-European-contact.
During the time of the Scottish settlement, Mi’Kmaq traveled by canoe in the Brae river and lived in camps from Mid-May to Autumn in small clearings near springs and brooks that branched off of the Brae river (Past & Present, 5). When some of the first Scottish settlers came to the Brae river, the Mi’Kmaq traveled via canoe and settled upstream along MacNevin’s Brook and MacPhee’s Brook where trout were plentiful. They returned to larger camps near Egmont Bay for the Winter. The Scottish settlers at the Brae appear to have had a good relationship with the Mi’Kmaq. The settlers were largely unequipped to live in their new surroundings and their relationship with the Mi’Kmaq was vital to their survival. The Mi’Kmaq taught them survival skills and how to make necessary implements such as bows and arrows, and snowshoes (5).
In the late 1800s Mi’Kmaq still traveled to the Brae, but they traveled by foot instead of canoe. They also camped there in the winter months. They preferred areas where there were stands of ash trees nearby were for camping sites as they used the trees for basket-weaving. Families worked together to create many different kinds of baskets. They also used ash to make wicker chairs, camp stools, and axe handles. They sold their wares to the other inhabitants of the Brae. In the 1880’s a Mi’Kmaq family lived year-round in Neil MacNevin’s woods. The father, Joe, would accept potatoes, vegetables, milk or eggs from the homes he visited. In return he would give them a partridge, eels, berries, or an axe handle (6). The family moved to a new area near Lockhart’s brook in Coleman when their camp burnt down. Joe’s son Peter had a daughter Gracie Joe, who was named after a resident of the Brae who helped deliver her, Mrs. Angus MacEachern Sr. (6).
In the early 1920’s Mrs MacNevin stated that the Mi’Kmaq would not camp in the Brae during the summer, but they would settle in the Brae during the winter. They continued the tradition of making baskets from nearby ash stands. In the spring, the women, with their infants, would go door-to-door selling/trading baskets and axe handles. In the early 1920’s a Mi’Kmaq man known as Paralyzed Tom was a regular visitor in the Brae and neighbouring communities. Residents would give him bread, flour, pork, potatoes, milk, or butter which he would carry around in a sack on his back or on a sleigh in the winter (Past & Present: 6). Tom lived on a Mi’Kmaq camp on the Brae River behind what was known as “Effie’s Hill.” As a young girl, Mrs Harry MacKinnon visited this camp to see infant twins. According to Mrs. MacNevin, after these winter camps of the 1920’s, the Mi’Kmaq returned to the area but only seasonally and they always travelled by foot.
There is limited documentary evidence of an 18th Century Acadian settlement in the Brae. However, oral history and physical evidence described by the succeeding Scottish settlers indicates that there was indeed an Acadian settlement there. Descendents of Acadians in the area claim that artefacts and other visible evidence related to their ancestors settlement, such as dykes and ruins of log cabins near springs in the woods, were found by Scottish Settlers. One of the first Scottish settlers in the Brae, Capt. McAllar, was reported to have found a musket, bayonet, and helmet, similar to the type used by “French soldiers” in the remains of an old log cabin on his property. The head of a china doll was found by another settler while they were clearing the forest. (Past and Present: 6-7). Subsequent settlers continued to find the remains of the Acadian settlement.Settler Anthony Downing’s grandson, James Delaney, tells of how his Grandfather talked about his family escaping deportation in the Gaspe region by fleeing to the Brae between 1750 and 1760. His grandfather recalled as a child going with his father from New Brunswick to PEI to search for valuables buried by Acadians before they were deported.
By 1816, new settlers were living in the Brae. Stephen Sullivan was the proprietor of Lot 9. The first resident of Lot 9 mentioned in written records is a Mr. Hardy. In early maps the Brae River is actually called Hardy’s River. In 1816 the surveyor Robert Fox paddled past a residence on the East side of the river. This residence is depicted in Fox’s map as Hardy’s House and is the only house on the map. The map also depicts a trail through the woods called Hardy’s Portage (Paro Accession No. 0,777E).
Around 1826, Scottish settlers from the Highlands and Islands set up camps and shelters along the River and began building the settlement they called the Brae. They didn’t own the land and were considered to be squatters. In 1840, settler James McDonald purchased some shoreline property that was not under the ownership of the proprietor (Past and Present:14). The names of the earliest known Scottish settlers in the Brae are as follows: Alexander MacDonald, Neil McDonald, Archibald McDonald, James McDonald, Neill MacKinnon, John McDonald Sr., Captain McAllar, John McDonald Jr., and Donald McNeill. An undated map believed to be between 1833 and 1841 also includes residents named: Donald Campbell, Donald Gillis, Vincent McAdam (10).
By 1841 there were nineteen families and 118 settlers living in the area. The names of the earliest residents of Upper Brae are as follows: James McDonald, Luke Robichau, Joseph Robichau, Stephen Gallent, Louis Munzeroll, and Anthony Downin (Antoine Downee) (15). The settlement stretched out from the shore at the mouth of the Brae and along the river as far as a place that was known as Gallant’s End, now called Lidstone’s corner (14). There was a saw mill in the middle of the Brae, and a schoolhouse in the lower Brae. In the upper area at least five households were Acadian. Descendents of the earliest settlers of Lot 9 claim there were more Acadian families living in the woods in Upper Brae who were not included in the Census (15). A family of mixed Acadian and Mi’Kmaq heritage were said to be living in an area known as “the Frenchman’s hiding hole” (15).
When planning our 2012 Field Season we allotted a certain amount of time for Survey Work. While researching high potential areas to Survey I was naturally drawn to The Brae because of the name. As I researched the community, I became even more intrigued. The Brae area had been home to several different cultural groups and held the possibility to be an interesting multi-component site. The Brae landscape highlights multiple periods of habitation and land use: Pre-contact Mi’Kmaq, Historic Mi’Kmaq, early Acadian, and 19th Century Scottish.
The geographic location of the Brae River and its tributaries in addition to the information provided by community histories prompted me to recommend this area to the Provincial Archaeologist for inclusion on our roster of areas on the Island to be surveyed archaeologically. Much to my delight, while in the area for another project, we were able to conduct a pedestrian survey around part of the river. Our survey did not reveal any Aboriginal artefacts. However, we found strong evidence of 19th century Scottish habitation. Fortuitously, one of the first artefacts collected from the surface was a clay pipe stem with a “Glasgow” maker’s mark.
Many thanks to our hawk-eyed field crew whose spotting skills made a brief but thorough and successful survey of the Brae shoreline. I was thrilled for a second year in a row to work with a UPEI Public History student placement. The placement if for a course taught by Dr. Ed MacDonald that is designed to offer students the opportunity to experience working in a heritage-related job in PEI. This year’s student, Mark, chose to work on the Brae collection. After training, he finished processing the artefacts that were surface collected during the survey by systematically cataloging and recording them. And he was a natural at that very time-consuming, sometimes monotonous, process. He then completed his own analysis and research in a written report. As part of the course he was also required to do a presentation for his professor and classmates. I didn’t see it but heard it was great! Both myself and Dr. Kristmanson were very pleased with Mark’s work.
What fascinates me about the history of this community is the multi-layered temporal and cultural awareness that its inhabitants would have experienced. Further archaeological survey work and testing in the area would be necessary to find evidence of the different types of habitation (if the curious Scots didn’t already clear all evidence up…). I hope we go back to this rich, multicultural area that has beneath its soil the potential to be a very interesting and concise multi-component site. Until that day comes I have yet another Brae to daydream about, although this daydream is definitely closer to home.
McNevin, Mrs. Lorne, Past and Present: A History of the Brae Summerside: Williams & Crue, 1979.
PARO, Accession No. 0,777E.