"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Friday, April 6, 2012

Nova Scotia Connections: A Day in the Life of Great Village: Musical Notes, The MacLachlan Family

Far and wide in Colchester County and beyond, Great Village has a well-founded reputation as a musical place. Music is part of nearly every gathering of villagers from church services to temperance society meetings. “The Maple Leaf Forever” and “God Save the King” are sung every morning in the school; military bands, Boy Scouts and Foresters have filled the streets with patriotic airs on parade; and of an evening the strains of a violin or piano can be heard in many a home. It could be a musicale or simply one of the youngsters practising their lessons. Many of the children and young people in Great Village take piano lessons, and one of their favourite teachers is Alberta E. MacLachlan (née Layton). Mrs. MacLachlan has been giving piano and voice lessons in the village for some years. She also directs the choirs of the Presbyterian and Baptist churches ─ and her success is attested by the congregations, which some say have swelled because of the guarantee of fine hymn singing. Under Mrs. MacLachlan’s able tutelage the fame of the village as a centre of musical talent and expression has certainly grown.

The MacLachlan family is a highly musical one. Mrs. MacLachlan’s husband, Donald, is a violinist and fiddler much in demand for concerts and square dances all along the shore. He also has a fine tenor voice which all audiences enjoy. With Mrs. MacLachlan’s own advanced accomplishment as a pianist, this household, with its flock of bairns, is festive indeed. The oldest children, Thomas, Annie and Margaret, are all well on their way to mastering the piano, showing definite signs of having inherited the musical ability of their parents, and nothing less is expected of the younger children.(1)

Don and Bertie, as their friends call them, were married in December 1899, and friends and family rejoiced not only in the couple’s happiness, but also in their own delight that two such musical young people were joined together, a perfect duet. Mr. MacLachlan operates a small but busy farm on Scrabble Hill road and Mrs. MacLachlan oversees their bustling household and growing family of six children: Thomas, Annie, Margaret, Harland, Muir and Donalda.(2)

The MacLachlan family in Great Village

Even in the midst of all the tasks and chores such an active farm and family demand during the day, the MacLachlans regularly find time to attend neighbours’ musicales and to host musicales in their own home. On Monday next Mrs. William DesBrisay (Bertie and Annie are related) has invited them to her final gathering before she leaves for the West in July. A grand musical night it will be as Mrs. DesBrisay is a fine pianist herself. The MacLachlans are planning to have some friends in for an evening’s entertainment to mark Dominion Day in two weeks’ time. Rev. Gillespie’s brother James will be in town. James Gillespie is another accomplished violinist who villagers have got to know well since Rev. Gillespie arrived. James and Mr. MacLachlan have great fun performing together, and everyone present benefits, too! Tonight Mrs. MacLachlan is playing the organ in the church before Miss Harrison’s lecture. As is Mrs. MacLachlan’s way, she took time to ask Miss Harrison for a list of her favourite hymns so she could put together a programme to complement this much anticipated talk. It is not surprising that Mrs. MacLachlan is also in demand to play at all the Great Village weddings, and she obliges as often as she can, her rendition of Lohergrin’s Wedding March being one of the most frequent requests.(3)

Mr. MacLachlan is up bright and early this morning, as he always is, in the barn getting the chores done. He reminds himself that he must go check the new windmill he has built. Later in the morning he goes to Hill’s store, Ruth Hill having told him that the new rakes and a scythe he ordered have arrived. A trip to Truro and the hubbub of the election yesterday kept him from picking them up. He also knows Ruth will have heard how things are at the Bulmers. Though there is quite a difference in their ages, Mr. and Mrs. MacLachlan are good friends with Will and Elizabeth Bulmer. Will has always been willing to give him a hand with extra work which comes up on the farm, and that is often. Mrs. MacLachlan has given Mary Bulmer many piano lessons over the years, and Mary can always be counted on to help out with the younger children when Mrs. MacLachlan has a full slate of piano students at the house.

The MacLachlan family home

Ruth tells him that Mr. Bulmer, Gertrude and Grace left early for Londonderry Station. Indeed, as Mr. MacLachlan puts his rakes and scythe in the back of his wagon, he sees Will Bulmer drive down the hill and across the bridge. Mr. MacLachlan walks over to the yard and gives Will a hand unharnessing the horse. Will says the train was a few minutes late and very full, but Gertie and Grace got off okay. He doesn’t say much else, but Mr. MacLachlan doesn’t expect him to. They chat about the election, the weather, the horses.

Towards tea time as he comes from the barn, Mr. MacLachlan sees Elizabeth, Gertrude’s daughter, marching proudly behind the Bulmer’s cow Nelly, bringing her home from Chisholm's pasture. Mr. MacLachlan knows the cow could just as easily find her own way down the hill, but he thinks the Bulmers are wise to give the wee child something purposeful to do. He already has Harland and Muir help him out in the barn. He smiles and waves at her. She waves back with a big smile of her own, and runs quickly to keep up with the cow. As he washes up at the sink he talks quietly to Bertie who is setting the table. Margaret is in the parlour practising on the piano. Annie helps her mother with the cooking. Thomas is in his room studying for his exams. Mark has Harland and Muir in the hallway playing “farm” with their toy wagons and horses. Wee Donalda is in her highchair waiving a spoon, like a conductor, he thinks and smiles to himself. Looking around at this little tribe he grows thoughtful and says to Bertie that he hopes Gertie will soon get better.(4)

1. Thomas MacLachlan went on to a career as a composer, musician and music teacher in the United States, living for most of his life in New York State.

2. Muir MacLachlan was an exact contemporary of Elizabeth Bishop. When Bishop entered Grade Primary in the Great Village school in September 1916, Muir was one of her classmates. She wrote of their encounter in “Primer Class”: “When I went home the first day and was asked who was in Primer Class with me, I replied, ‘Manure MacLaughlin [sic],’ as his name sounded to me. I was familiar with manure ─ there was a great pile of it beside the barn ─ but of course his real name was Muir, and everyone laughed. Muir wore a navy-blue cap, with a red-and-yellow maple leaf embroidered above the visor” (Collected Prose, 8-9). In 1973, on another visit to Great Village, Bishop encountered Muir again. She wrote to Loren MacIvor, “Nova Scotia was awfully nice. We went to Great Village and Muir MacClachlan [sic] in the MacClachlan General Store remembered me and he looks just as he did, aged 6 in ‘Primer Class,’ except for being bald” (One Art, 582). One son, Mark, had died of whooping cough in 1908, at the age of fourteen months. One more MacLachlan, Malcolm, was added to this lively family in 1917.

3. Though he continued to farm, in 1919 Donald MacLachlan opened a store on the east side of the Great Village River in partnership with his brother-in-law A.G. Benson. Donald’s wife also helped out in the store over the years. In 1920 Donald took over the business entirely and operated it until 1930, when Muir MacLachlan took the helm, and, along with his wife Helen, steered a prosperous course until he retired in 1981. The building which housed the MacLachlan’s store still stands in Great Village, and is now a convenience store. In his old age Donald was a familiar figure on the streets of the village riding his bicycle to the store. Donald MacLachlan died in 1955. Alberta MacLachlan died in 1968.

Donald and Muir's store

4. Elizabeth Bishop was deeply fond of the MacLachlans, though she never seems to have been able to spell their name correctly. She includes them in “In the Village” (under the name McLean, an easier one to spell): “We pass the McLeans’, whom I know very well. Mr. McLean is just coming out of his new barn with the tin hip roof and with him is Jock, their old shepherd dog, long-haired, black and white and yellow” (Collected Prose, 263). The story of the deaf dog, which comprises much of the “In the Village” encounter, may have had a contemporary source (i.e., in 1916); but in 1946, when Bishop visited Great Village, she encountered the MacLachlans and their dog and wrote about it to Marianne Moore in a letter dated August 29. This encounter came only a few years before Bishop wrote “In the Village” and clearly influenced that story: “I went to call on a family in the Village, the MacLaughlins [sic], and as I can up Mr. Mac was coming out of the barn with another farm collie ─ a very old one, his face was all white. He came up to me wagging his tail and barking in a very loud rather hollow-sounding way and Mr. Mac said to him, ‘Stop it, Jackie!’ and then to me, in a sort of polite aside behind his hand, ‘He’s stone deaf.’ We went in the house and as soon as I sat down Jackie promptly brought in a very old small bone and dropped it at my feet. Mrs. Mac shouted at him, ‘That’s very hospitable of you, Jackie, but take it away!’ and then said to me in the same polite aside, in a lowered voice, ‘He’s stone deaf.’ I asked how old he was and they said about fifteen. ‘Yes,’ said Mrs. Mac. ‘Last winter they said we’d never keep him through the winter. But he has a very good winter, yes, a very good winter, didn’t he, Don? He went to the woods with Don every day, and he only had rheumatism in one leg.’ And they both sat back and looked at him admiringly” (One Art, 140).

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