MacDONALD, JAMES (Seumas MacDhomõaill), priest and missionary; b. 1736 in the West Highlands, Scotland, probably in Moidart; d. 1785 on St John’s (Prince Edward) Island.
James MacDonald was one of those bright lads the Scottish Catholic Church liked to send abroad for education. He entered the Jesuits’ Scots College at Rome in 1754 and was ordained to the secular priesthood there in 1765 after completing his studies in philosophy, theology, and dogmatics. Returning to Scotland, he served until 1772 as a missionary priest based mainly at Drummond, near Crieff (Tayside). In May of that year he left Glasgow on the Alexander with more than 200 Highland Catholics for St John’s Island, part of the first major emigration of Catholics from Scotland to America since the 1745–46 rebellion.
The group was led by laymen John MacDonald* of Glenaladale, known as Fear-a-Ghlinne, and his brother Donald (cousins of Father James), but the scheme had been conceived and the financing arranged by two bishops of the Scottish Catholic Church, John MacDonald and George Hay. Bishop MacDonald, fearful that the persecution initiated by Colin MacDonald of Boysdale on South Uist would spread, and unable to protest it legally, argued that emigration would relieve the sufferers on Uist by threatening the Highland lairds with depopulation of their estates. The church was aware of St John’s Island through contact with the lord advocate of Scotland, James William Montgomery, who had extensive holdings there [see William Montgomery, and it chose this site because of the Catholic Acadian population, and because the Scots “being all together on an Island, . . . would be the easier kept together & Religion the more flourish among them.” The Scottish Church hoped to be given jurisdiction over the Island, but Rome decided to keep it under the bishop of Quebec, Jean-Olivier Briand. Father James, who had always been eager to go with his people, was selected to accompany the emigrants. He was in many ways an ideal choice for the venture, particularly since he was fluent in Gaelic, English, Latin, and French.
In spite of the bishops’ hopes only 11 of 36 families on the Boysdale estate were willing to leave and the bulk of the emigrants came from the mainland MacDonald of Clanranald lands of Arisaig and Moidart. After a five-week voyage, the Alexander made its way up the Hillsborough River to Glenaladale’s Lot 36, where Father James celebrated the Island’s first mass under British rule. The only alternative leader to the Glenaladale MacDonalds, the priest found himself acting as spokesman for dissidents among the immigrants, many of whom were old friends and relations. He had other trials to contend with as well. The Acadians refused to mix with the Scots in a single settlement, and MacDonald was ordered by Briand to minister to the Acadians at Malpeque, where he settled for the first winter. There being no other priest on the Island, MacDonald could not himself receive the sacraments and felt extremely isolated.
In June 1773 Father James travelled to Quebec to explore the possibility of removing his “poor People” from the Island; though they had come out a year before with tools and food for a year, there was now, as he wrote home, “no money, no Cloathes, no meat to be met with there without paying four times the price of it, and it gives me a heart break that my poor friends who were in a tolerable good condition before they left Scotland are now upon the brink of the greatest misery and poverty.” In Quebec he met Father Bernard-Sylvestre Dosque, the former priest at Malpeque, and was offered lands in Quebec for his parishioners. From the standpoint of the Scottish Church, Father James’s activities were extremely dangerous, for dispersion of the settlement would imply its failure, and success was essential to frighten the Hebrides lairds and prevent further persecution. Fortunately conditions on the Island improved just in time. The arrival of Glenaladale later in 1773 with supplies combined with a better harvest to prevent the priest, in Bishop MacDonald’s words, “from near destroying the whole affair,” for those few who followed his advice were “irrecoverably” ruined and heartily repented of their removal to Quebec. There is no evidence that Father James’s role in this episode damaged his relations with either the Glenaladales or his parishioners.
The immediate crisis of adjustment to the new land behind him and his people, Father James settled down to a routine of parochial activities among both Highlanders and Acadians. A church was built at Scotchfort, and the priest also often performed his duties in private houses as he had done in Scotland. Overcoming his fears of isolation, he refused an invitation from mainland Acadians to become their priest, insisting on the need to remain with his Island flocks. By 1776 he was fully reconciled to his situation and was even hearing confessions by Indians through interpreters as Dosque had done. There is unfortunately little record of his activities because of wartime interruptions in correspondence. Years of itinerant pastoral work, including occasional visits to Nova Scotia, in a land with only rudimentary communication and transportation took their toll and in 1785 Father James’s worst fear was realized when for want of another priest he died of fever without receiving the last rites. He lies buried in an unmarked grave in Scotchfort. The Island was left without a resident priest until the arrival of Angus Bernard MacEachern* in 1790.
Scottish Catholic Archives (Edinburgh), Blairs Letters, 11 Nov. 1770, Bishop George Hay to John Geddes; 25 Nov. 1771, Hay to Peter Grant; 14 Feb. 1772, Bishop John MacDonald to Hay; 23 April 1772, Bishop John MacDonald to Charles Cruickshank; 19 Jan. 1773, John MacDonald of Glenaladale to Hay; 9 June 1773, Father James MacDonald to John Grant; 25 Oct. 1773, Bishop John MacDonald to Hay; 4 Nov. 1776, Father James MacDonald to Hay. J. C. MacMillan, The early history of the Catholic Church in Prince Edward Island (Quebec, 1905), 41–50. J. M. Bumsted, “Highland emigration to the Island of St. John and the Scottish Catholic Church, 1769–1774,” Dal. Rev., LVIII (1978–79), 511–27. Ada MacLeod, “The Glenaladale pioneers,” Dal. Rev., XI (1931–32), 311–24.