MacDONALD OF GLENALADALE, HELEN (MacDonald) (Eilidh MacDhòmhnaill), estate manager; b. c. 1750 in Scotland, daughter of Alexander M’Donald of Glenaladale and Margaret MacDonell of Scothouse (Scotus); d. c. 1803 on Prince Edward Island.
Little is known of the early life of Helen MacDonald (or Nelly, as she was always called). She obviously received some sort of formal education, for she wrote fluent English as well as Gaelic. In 1772 Nelly and her younger sister Margaret (Peggy) accompanied their brother Donald on board the Alexander to St John’s (Prince Edward) Island. The family, led by eldest brother John, who arrived the following year, was attempting to create a Highland Catholic colony on the Island, partly to recoup its fortune and partly to help relieve religious persecution and economic oppression in the Highlands. Nelly and her sister shared in all the difficulties and privations of pioneering in unfamiliar wilderness. By the opening of the American rebellion in 1775, the little settlement on Lot 36 – centred at Scotchfort – had taken hold. The MacDonald brothers were desperately short of money, however, and, although Catholics, they were commissioned in the Royal Highland Emigrants (84th Foot), a regiment recruited for American service during the war. Both had left the Island before the end of 1775, Donald never to return (he was killed in battle in 1781) and John to remain away until 1792, occupied first by the war and then in Britain by political struggles related to the Island. Nelly and her sister had planned to leave the Island during the war for a more congenial location, but they never did.
With her brothers absent, supervision and management of the settlement and of the MacDonald interests on the Island devolved upon Nelly. Such responsibilities, when men were away at war or on business, were not at all unusual for women of the time, their magnitude depending on the extent of the family holdings involved. John MacDonald’s continuous 16-year absence was excessive, however, while both the nature of his property and the political aspect of landownership on the Island made Nelly’s task onerous and crucial. For MacDonald was not merely a landholder with a large farm; he was a self-conscious Highland laird (known in Gaelic as Fear-a-Ghlinne, the lord of the glen) with a considerable number of dependent tenants for whom he felt responsible. As a proprietor, moreover, he was threatened by the machinations of the official clique that controlled the Island. Nelly operated at a considerable disadvantage in her attempts to manage the estate and protect her brother’s interests. As a woman she could not become involved in the political and social activities necessary to establish a base of local support, although she did have enough influence to acquire some Charlottetown town lots in her own name, and because Catholics on the Island could neither vote nor hold office, she was unable to work behind the scenes in the capital through any of her numerous relations or tenants.
The demands made upon Nelly during her lengthy stewardship were considerable. She had to operate the family farm, which included more than 90 head of cattle, since without its produce survival was impossible on the isolated Island. Her success in this endeavour, such that her brother subsequently asked her advice in management matters, was due to help from the tenants and the work of soldiers she hired in Charlottetown. In the mid 1780s she even had a house built for her brother, to his specifications. Collecting rentals from tenants was more difficult, for the Island had little cash and no market for its produce; but – especially in 1781 when John feared the loss of his property unless he raised money for the quitrent payments – Nelly tried to collect, and stored the money in a strong-box in her cellar. Reporting on the progress of the estate was undoubtedly easier than garnering the political intelligence her brother demanded. He was especially interested in the Island government’s sale of forfeited proprietorial lots late in 1781, a little matter that Governor Walter Patterson* neglected to mention to the government in Britain until – acting on Nelly’s information – MacDonald and other proprietors forced the ministry to insist on details from Charlottetown.
In return for Nelly’s efforts, John provided periodic remittances of money and luxuries (on one occasion, eight pairs of shoes, two to three yards of lasting, patterns, and two pairs of galoshes), and a constant flow of paternal advice. “You & the People should have dances & Merriment Among Yourselves,” he wrote in 1780, “it is very reasonable that You Should be innocently Merry, & make the Time pass Smoothly.” But only innocently merry. When Nelly met a young officer at one of the dances held in her house and contemplated an engagement, John became most concerned. The young man had “no dependence but on his commission,” and his sister would not add to her “consequence by the connection,” for provincial corps were little better than militia. Promising to return to look after his sister, MacDonald insisted it untill then you had better not throw yourself away” and “make yourself & me look silly in the Eyes of the world.” Nelly acquiesced in her brother’s wishes on this occasion; as her mother wrote in 1785, “One comfort I have marrage is not nesesary to salvation – so my Dear Nelly you may . . . be happie els wher if not in marrage here.” After his intervention, however, MacDonald found it necessary to complain constantly of his sister’s gloomy and discontented letters and to advise her to “keep your mind as easy as possible.” Finally, shortly before John was expected back on the Island in 1792, the Royal Gazette announced Nelly’s marriage to Ronald MacDonald of Grand Tracadie. As one of her last acts of management Nelly inventoried the population – human and animal – on her brother’s lots 35 and 36. Despite her efforts, many of the tenants had moved away during John’s absence.
Fear-a-Ghlinne returned to the Island with a new bride. Nelly did not get on well with her sister-in-law Margaret (whose imperiousness led to her being known as “the Queen of Tracadie”), but when MacDonald went again to Britain in 1802 she found herself saddled with Margaret and advice from her brother to let his wife have her own way as to the management of the house. By this time Nelly was constantly ill, and she died shortly thereafter. Her life was a tribute to the resourcefulness of pioneer women despite the limitations and demands imposed upon them by their society.
PAPEI, RG 16, Land registry records. Private arch., Jean and Colin MacDonald (St Peters, P.E.I), MacDonald family papers, Helen MacDonald corr; 1779–1802 (copies at PAPEI). Scottish Catholic Arch. (Edinburgh), Blairs letters, 11 Dec. 1775, John MacDonald to George Hay; 4 Nov. 1776, James MacDonald to Hay. Royal Gazette and Miscellany of the Island of Saint John (Charlottetown), 28 Jan. 1792. J. M. Bumsted, “Captain John MacDonald and the Island,” Island Magazine, no.6 (spring–summer 1979): 15–20; “Highland emigration to the Island of St. John and the Scottish Catholic Church, 1769–1774,” Dalhousie Rev., 58 (1978–79): 511–27. A. F. MacDonald, “Captain John MacDonald, ‘Glenalladale,’” CCHA Report, 30 (1964): 21–22.