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SINCLAIR, ALEXANDER MacLEAN, Presbyterian minister, author, Gaelic scholar, and educator; b. 1 March 1840 in Glen Bard, N.S., son of John Sinclair and Christy MacLean; m. 1 Aug. 1882 Mary Ann Campbell in Sunny Brae, N.S., and they had four sons and one daughter; d. 14 Feb. 1924 in Hopewell, N.S.

Alexander MacLean Sinclair’s parents, both immigrants from Scotland, separated before his birth. Christy Sinclair was a daughter of the renowned Gaelic bard Iain MacGhillEathain* (John MacLean), and the child was apparently named after Alexander MacLean of Coll, who in Scotland had been the bard’s patron. Young Alexander was raised by his mother at her parents’ home in Glen Bard in a thoroughly Gaelic milieu; he rarely saw his father.

From an early age he attended the local school in Beaver Meadow under the tutelage of Norman MacDonald, who had immigrated to Nova Scotia in 1843. The late Donald Cameron, who was raised in Beaver Meadow, recalled Sinclair telling him in Gaelic that on wintry days in his boyhood he would walk home from school behind his friend William MacDonald, whose large frame – “he had shoulders as wide as a gate” – would shelter him from blowing snow. At the school only English was used and Gaelic was not permitted even during recess. The boy learned to read the language by means of the Lord’s Prayer, which he knew by heart in Gaelic.

School was not the only place where young Alexander received his education. “My other teachers,” he recalled, “were two near neighbours: John MacDonald, an Taillear Abrach [the Lochaber tailor], and John MacDonald, an Domhnullach Ur [the new MacDonald]. . . . The one could not read at all; the other certainly was not a reader of historical books. But they both had a number of stories of ghosts, strong Highlanders, and clan feuds; they also had bits of old Gaelic songs by heart. I listened to them many a night and became pretty well acquainted with all their lore.” In addition to his studies he spent his time in outdoor pursuits: hunting, fishing, trapping, and snaring. “The first money I ever received was from mink skins,” he noted in his diary. During these years the family attended religious services at Barneys River (Kenzieville), where the minister was the Reverend Duncan Black Blair, a renowned Gaelic scholar and poet.

By age 15 Sinclair was sufficiently accomplished to be given the charge of 90 students at the schoolhouse in Lochaber, for which he was to receive an annual stipend of $120. In 1856 he began his preparation for the ministry by entering Pictou Academy. He enrolled three years later at the Free Church College in Halifax and in 1861 at the Normal School in Truro, from which he graduated as a teacher. He taught a summer term in 1862 at Canning, where he delivered a lecture on education that was highly acclaimed. In 1863 he entered the Theological Hall of the Presbyterian Church in Halifax and attended courses in chemistry and political economy at Dalhousie College. He was licensed to preach by Blair after a rigorous examination before the Presbytery of Pictou on 2 May 1866. He took up his first charge, Springville and Sunny Brae, on 25 July 1866. He would remain with this congregation, preaching in Gaelic and English, for the next 22 years.

Along with his dedication to the ministry, Sinclair had a lifelong devotion to the Gaelic language. As early as 1862 a ten-stanza Gaelic poem of his had appeared in the Antigonish Casket under the signature “A. McG. Sinclair, Gleann-Bard.” In 1863 he contributed a biographical account of his grandfather MacLean to the Halifax edition of John Mackenzie’s Sàr-obair nam bàrd Gaelach: or, the beauties of Gaelic poetry, and lives of the Highland bards . . . (Glasgow, 1841) that was published by his former teacher, Norman MacDonald. In 1869 he journeyed to Scotland, Ireland, England, and France. In Scotland he met his grandfather’s relatives and wrote down from their dictation in Gaelic a considerable amount of genealogical and literary information. His travels there convinced him that those who had emigrated to Canada and their descendants were far better off than those who had stayed in Scotland.

Throughout the 1870s Sinclair continued to collect Gaelic poetry, such as the poem “An adharc [The horn]” by his grandfather which he wrote down in 1873 from the oral recitation of Mary Forbes of Beaver Meadow and which would otherwise have been lost. He also developed an interest in local history. In 1874 he took extensive notes from Finlay Grant of accounts of the early history of the East River region. During this time he worked assiduously on the two important Gaelic manuscripts that his grandfather had brought from Scotland. The first of these was written in the 18th century by Dr Hector Maclean and was given to the bard by Maclean’s daughter. It contains some 3,600 lines of poetry, much of which is unknown from other sources. The other manuscript was the bard’s own collection, which, according to Sinclair, “contains about 17,700 lines, exclusive of the collector’s own poems.”

In 1880 Sinclair reissued a collection of the Gaelic hymns of John MacLean and included hymns by Blair, the Reverend James Drummond MacGregor*, and John MacGillivray. The following year he published Clàrsach na coille [Harp of the forest], which presents MacLean’s secular poetry, both the material composed in Scotland and that written in Nova Scotia, in addition to a few items by other poets, including the bard’s son Charles and Sinclair himself. This was the first important collection of Gaelic secular poetry largely composed in Canada. For several years Sinclair conducted a Gaelic-language column in the Pictou News. The first sentence of the initial column on 7 Dec. 1883 decries the lack of a Gaelic newspaper in Canada.

In the 1880s Sinclair received offers from a number of congregations and in May 1888 he accepted the pastoral charge of Belfast, P.E.I., where descendants of many of the Selkirk settlers of 1803 [see James Williams*] still kept the Gaelic language and traditions alive. Throughout the following decade and the early years of the 20th century, while attending to his congregation, Sinclair published substantial collections of Gaelic poetry and a number of genealogical studies. These include Comhchruinneachadh Ghlinn-a-Bhaird: the Glenbard collection of Gaelic poetry (Charlottetown and Montreal, 1890); The Gaelic bards from 1411 to [1715] (Charlottetown, 1890); The Gaelic bards from 1715 to 1765 (Charlottetown, 1892); Orain le Iain Lom Mac-Dhomhnaill: poems by John Lom MacDonald (Antigonish and Glasgow, 1895); The Gaelic bards from 1775 to 1825 (Sydney, N.S., 1896); Na bàird Leathanach: the Maclean bards (2v., Charlottetown, 1898-1900); The Clan Gillean (Charlottetown, 1899); The Sinclairs of Roslin, Caithness, and Goshen (Charlottetown, 1901); Mactalla nan tùr [Echo of the towers] (Sydney, 1901); Filidh na coille [Poet of the forest] . . . (Charlottetown, 1901); Dain agus orain, le Alasdair Mac-Fhionghain [Poems and songs, by Alexander MacKinnon] (1902); and The Gaelic bards from 1825 to 1875 (Sydney, 1904). He also contributed important articles to the Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness in Scotland, the Celtic Review (Edinburgh) and the Celtic Monthly (Glasgow). He published essays in other journals as well and in such newspapers as the Oban Times (Oban, Scot.), the Eastern Chronicle (New Glasgow, N.S.), the Presbyterian Witness (Halifax, etc.), and the Casket.

Sinclair retired from his charge in 1906 and returned to Nova Scotia. For several years between 1907 to 1914 he lectured on Gaelic language and literature in the fall semesters at St Francis Xavier College in Antigonish and in the winter semesters at Dalhousie. Manuscript notes of some of his lectures reveal his solid knowledge of comparative Indo-European philology. (Sinclair used the term “Indo-Keltic” just as German philologists used the term “Indo-Germanic.”) Among his students at St Francis Xavier were Angus Lewis Macdonald*, later premier of Nova Scotia, and Patrick Joseph Nicholson, who became president of the university and an important supporter of the Gaelic language both there and in his weekly Gaelic article in the Casket. Sinclair received an honorary lld degree from Dalhousie in 1914.

On 14 Feb. 1924, just two weeks before his 84th birthday, Sinclair passed away at his home in Hopewell. He was survived by his wife, whom he had married in an all-Gaelic service more than 40 years earlier, and by all of his five children. He will be remembered as a pioneer in the field of Celtic studies in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. His publications brought to the world nearly all the material in the manuscripts of Dr Hector Maclean and John MacLean. Although modern critics may find fault with the way in which he sometimes “improved” his sources, it should be taken into account that he was a self-made Gaelic scholar who had no formal training in the subject. His promotion of Gaelic language and literature earned for him the respect of contemporary Celtic scholars throughout the world.

Kenneth E. Nilsen

Sinclair’s university lecture notes are preserved in the Father Charles Brewer Celtic Coll. at St Francis Xavier Univ. Library, Antigonish, N.S. His collection of the hymns of John MacLean and others was published in Edinburgh as Dain spioradail. . . . Clàrsach na coille: a collection of Gaelic poetry was revised and edited by Hector MacDougall and published in Glasgow in 1928 as The MacLean songster: Clàrsach na coille . . . ; this edition includes a “Memoir” of Sinclair by his son Donald Maclean. In addition to the works mentioned in the text, Sinclair published “A collection of Gaelic poems” in the Trans. of the Gaelic Soc. of Inverness (Inverness, Scot.), 26 (1904–7): 235–62. It should be noted that his volume Mactalla nan tùr fills the gap, 1765–75, in his Gaelic bards series.

Casket (Antigonish), 1851–2001. Morning Herald (Halifax), 3 Aug. 1882. Pictou News (Pictou, N.S.), 1883–86. [Sagart Arisaig (Ronald McGillivray)], History of Antigonish, ed. R. A MacLean (2v., [Antigonish], 1976). D. M. Sinclair, “Some family history” (typescript, Halifax, 1979; copy in NSARM Library.)§

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Kenneth E. Nilsen, “SINCLAIR, ALEXANDER MACLEAN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 19, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/sinclair_alexander_maclean_15E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/sinclair_alexander_maclean_15E.html
Author of Article: Kenneth E. Nilsen
Title of Article: SINCLAIR, ALEXANDER MACLEAN
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 2005
Year of revision: 2005
Access Date: April 19, 2014