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Outline of the life of Rev. James MacGregor

Editor’s note: This was submitted by Clyde Macdonald, a member of the Pictou County Roots Society and author of many books about people from Pictou County. Macdonald said he often receives requests for information about Rev. James MacGregor and hoped to make it widely available.

1.    When Rev. James MacGregor was born in Perthshire, Scotland, in December of 1759, he was named James with a surname of Drummond. This was at a time when the use of the surname MacGregor was still banned by the law of the land and, if used, it was under penalty of death. He changed his surname to MacGregor while attending university in Glasgow, Scotland.

2.    On file at the First Presbyterian Church, New Glasgow, is a copy of the petition signed in the fall of 1784 by Robert Patterson (Squire) and John Patterson (Deacon) of Pictou; William Smith of West River; Robert Marshall of Middle River; and Donald McKay of the East River. The petition was an application to Scotland for the services of a Presbyterian minister who would preach in both Gaelic and English. The result was that Rev. James MacGregor was appointed to proceed to Pictou, which he did in 1786. He was 27 years of age.

3.    For the support of Rev. MacGregor, the petitioners agreed they would raise £80 for his first year. It was reported that Rev. MacGregor received no salary until he had been over a year at work.


4.    There is no known portrait of Rev. James MacGregor. He has been reported to be “a large man, six feet tall” and “rather above the middle size, had a somewhat long visage and dark complexion, spare in flesh and possessed an athletic active frame. He had a gift for conversation.”


5.    Gaelic was Rev. MacGregor’s native tongue. He was taught English by his father and minister. He became a master of both languages.


6.    For a period from Sept. 17, 1786, to October 1804, Rev. MacGregor personally wrote the minutes of the Associate Session of Pictou. These minutes in Rev. MacGregor’s handwriting are also on file at First Presbyterian Church, New Glasgow.


7. Rev. MacGregor was a staunch supporter of the anti-slavery movement of the time. From the £27 stipend he received for his year’s service, he gave £20 of it to purchase the freedom of a slave girl from her Nova Scotian owner and master. It is also reported that he aided in the freedom and release of other slaves from their owners and masters.

In 1788, Rev. MacGregor caused to be published in Halifax “Letter to a Clergyman,” which urged Rev. Daniel Cock of Truro, a slave owner, to set free a black girl he held in slavery. And what a rebuke it was. According to historian Barry Cahill, this document “is the earliest and most outstanding production of white antislavery literature in Canada.” MacGregor wrote: “But if they be members of the body of Christ, does not He account them precious as himself? Are they not one spirit with the Lord, of His flesh and His bones?”


8.    Rev. MacGregor was one of the first Pictonians recorded to have found and used coal under his property at Albion Mines (later called Stellarton) on the west side of the East River.


9.    Rev. MacGregor’s grandson, the historian Rev. George Patterson, wrote that a coal fire was burning in Rev. MacGregor’s home when he entertained the political candidates the year before the Nova Scotian provincial election of 1799.


10. In the summer of 1827, the General Mining Company sent Richard Smith to the west side of the East River (Albion Mines) to develop coal mines. For the company, Smith was successful in buying the 800-acre farm of Rev. MacGregor for £1,150 as well as the farms of William McKay and Colin McKay. New 212-food shafts were sunk and proper machinery was erected to mine the coal on an extensive scale. On Sept. 6 of the same year, the first coal was raised.


11. Also in 1827, Rev. MacGregor moved to Plymouth on the east side of the East River where he caused a brick house to be built. It was reported that “a man from the old country was employed to make the brick.” It was touted as the first brick house that was ever built in the eastern part of Nova Scotia. This is where Rev. MacGregor lived “until near the close of his life.”


12. He was referred to as “MacGregor of the verses” for his keen mind and his poetic abilities.


13. In 1822, Rev. MacGregor’s worth and works were recorded when an honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity was conferred on him in absentia by the Senate of the University of Glasgow, Scotland.


14. Rev. MacGregor was twice married. He and his first wife, a Hector passenger of one year old in 1773, had seven children – four sons and three daughters. The fourth son died when but a few days old. His wife Ann died on Nov. 6, 1810, following the birth of this fourth son. To his second wife, Janet (Auld) Gordon, the widow of Rev. Peter Gordon, they had two sons and two daughters and one of their sons died but a few days old. As well, Rev. MacGregor helped raise Janet’s two daughters (Betsy and Janet Gordon) born to her first marriage.


15. In 1824 a cancer was successfully removed from Rev. MacGregor’s lower lip. Could he have been a pipe smoker of tobacco?


16. On Feb. 13, 1828, Rev. MacGregor suffered a stroke, which resulted in a partial paralysis of his right side and some memory loss. On March 1, 1830, he suffered a second stroke. Two days later he was dead. He was 70.


17. Although Rev. MacGregor died in the winter month of March, there were “scarcely less than 2,000 persons at his funeral.”


18. On file in the Registry of Probate, Pictou, is the Last Will and Testament in the handwriting of Rev. MacGregor; however, it is neither signed nor does it contain the signatures of two required witnesses. Five individuals stepped forward and were appointed administrators of his estate.


19. As a result of Rev. James MacGregor’s labours leading up to his death, Pictou County became almost exclusively Presbyterian. He is now universally considered to be the most outstanding MacGregor ever to have emigrated from Scotland.


20. The humongous cairn-like monument to Rev. James MacGregor in the Pioneer Cemetery, New Glasgow, reads that he was the “First Minister of Pictou County.” In contrast to that assertion, Sunny Brae native Rev. John Peter MacPhie wrote at page 34 in his 1914 book “Pictonians at Home and Abroad” as follows: “The first minister who laboured in Nova Scotia was Rev. James Lyon who was an Ulster Scot. He arrived in Nova Scotia in 1764 or 1765 and remained about seven years…. In 1769, he removed to Pictou with his family, remaining only about two years, after which he went to Maine. The only memorial of his visit to Pictou is that he gave his name to Lyon’s Brook.”

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