James and Catherine McLay
                  MCLAY                            GRIEVES (GUIRE)
               (Scotland)                         (Fife, Scotland)
      +-------------+--------------+                       +
      |                            |  Fife SCT 14/11/55    |
    Robert                       James----------+------Catherine 
(1828 - 10/11/15)        (4/3/1834 - 27/6/1918) |      (1829 - 7/4/83)
                         Nanaimo (Nan Cem 9 46) | Gabriola (Nan Cem 11 46)
                                   |            |          |          |
                              Catherine       Robert      Mary     Richard

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.

Created July 25, 1999      Last modified January 25, 2000