The McVarish family of High Mingarry
by John Dye

When I came to Moidart in 1965, many of the old people still spoke of the McVarish brothers as if they had only recently left the district.  They had a reputation as a family of renowned strong men, and the strongest of them was Donald, known in Gaelic as Domnuill Dubh Laidir Mingarry (Strong Black Donald of Mingarry).  One of the stories concerned a visit one of the brothers made to Scamadale, where another brother happened to be staying.  He knocked on the door but did not answer the call from within.  Instead he held tight to the door handle.  When the man came to the door and couldn't turn the handle, he said, 'that must be my brother.'

Donald was remembered in Mingarry for his construction of a bridge over the burn at High Mingarry.  The story is that funeral processions used to cross the burn and one day, in a spate, they could not hold the coffin and it was swept away and smashed open, releasing the body.  This was considered to be a great scandal and Donald made it his business to construct a bridge over the burn to prevent such a thing ever recurring.  It was said locally that he constructed the bridge unaided in a single night.

Died at River Dennis Station, Cape Breton, on February 9th 1911, a remarkable old lady, in the person of Mrs Alexander MacVarish, nee Stewart, daughter of George Stewart of Mingarie Ard, Scotland.  In 1843 she emigrated with her husband to Cape Breton, landing at Ship Harbour, as Hawkesbury was then called.  As she was even then the mother of six children, she must certainly have attained the age of 100 years.  For the last eight years or so, this dear old soul lived with her daughter, Maggie, the first child to be born to her in the new country, who was married to Hugh MacLean. Sam one of the pioneers Catholics of River Dennis.   Mrs Macvarish had 14 children, 65 grandchildren, 68 great grandchildren, and 2 great grandchildren, in all a progeny of 149.

The above named Mrs Alexander MacVarish came with her husband and four children from Mingarie Ard, Scotland, to Cape Breton in 1843, landing at Ship Harbour, and ultimately settling down at River Inhabitants, where eight more children were born to them.  The names of the children were as follows: John, Mary, Angus, Donald (and two infant children who died), born in the old country; Margaret, Marcella, Annie, Hugh, George, Christie, Mary and Jane (born at River Inhabitants).

Alexander MacVarish, the father of the above family; had three brothers, namely:  Black Donald who went to Australia, Hugh, who died in Scotland, and Angus, who came to America, settled in the western part of Antigonish county, and changed his name to MacDonald.  The brother Alexander at River Inhabitants went to Antigonish to see this Angus and had great difficulty tracing him out owing to his change of name.  We know a prominent MacDonald family in Antigonish who are direct descendants of this Angus Macvarish.

The following are McVarishes  mentioned as participants or witnesses in the Moidart Parish Marriage register.  (I suspect some records may be missong - JD)

Jan 24 Alexander Mcdonald, Langwall & Mary McPherson, Shielfoot
Witnesses: Alexander McVarish & Donald McPherson

Jan 25 Ewen McIsaac, Langwall & Marianne McGregor, Port Bata
Witnesses: Alexander McVarish & Dugald McGregor

Feb 8 Michael McVarish, Scardoise & Mary McIsaac, Allt ?Burgh
Witnesses: Ewen McVarish & Ranald McIsaac

Feb 8 Michael McVarish, Dalilea & Janet Cumming, Polloch
Witnesses: Duncan Cameron & Angus McVarish

Feb 29 Donald McVarish, Langwall & Mary McVarish, Langwall
Witnesses: John McVarish & Alexander McVarish

Jul 1 Alexander McInnes, Glasgow & Catherine McDonald, Dorlin
Witnesses: Donald McVarish & Norman McDonald

Jul 25 Roderick McVarish, Langwall & Marion Mcneil, Langwall
Witnesses: Alexander Mcneil & Donald McVarish

Jul 25 Donald McIsaac, Langwall & Marcella McVarich, Langwall
Witnesses: Duncan McIsaac & Donald McVarish

Jul 25 Duncan McVarish, Langwall & Mary McIsaac, Langwall
Witnesses: Duncan McIsaac & Donald McVarish

Jan 8 Alexander McVarish, Mingarry & Catherine Stuart, Mingarry
Witnesses: Duncan McVarish & Hugh McVarish

Feb 13 John Cameron, Carnach Sunart & Mary Stuart, Croft Dalilea
Witnesses: John McVarish & Simon McDonald

Feb 13 Roderick McIsaac, Shona Beg & Margaret McVarish, ?Derrydaff
Witnesses: John McIsaac & Allan McVarish

Aug 7 John MacDonald, Island Shona & Catherine McVarish, Dalilea
Witnesses: Angus McDonald & John McVarish

Mar 7 Ewen McVarish, Scardoise & Catherine McIsaac, Kyle AUSTRALIA 1838
Witnesses: Donald Chisholm & Ranald McIsaac

Aug 25 Alexander McVarish, Langall & Mary McDonald, ?
Witnesses: Duncan McVarish & Duncan McIsaac. Rev. A McD

Feb 3 John McMaster, Mingarry & Mary McPherson, Mingarry AUSTRALIA 1852
Witnesses: John McPherson & Donald McVarish. Rev. A McD

Feb 10 Alexander McVarish, Langall & Margaret McVarish, ? Mull.
Married Tobermory by the Rev Charles McDonald

Jan 16 Ewen Stewart, Croft & Mary McVarish, Croft AMERICA
Witnesses: John Cameron, Croft & John McVarish, Langal . Rev. R R

Jan 16 John McDonald, ?Kinloid Arisaig & Peggy McVarish, Langal, Moidart
Witnesses: Ranald McDonald, ?Mallach Bain & John McDonald, Mingarry. Rev. R R

Feb 7 Ranald McEachan, ?Mallachbuie Arasaig & Flora McVarish, Langal.
Witnesses: Angus McDonald & John McDonald, Langal. Rev. R R

Feb 27 Alexander Kinnaird, Moss & Bella McDonald, Scardoise.
Witnesses: Ewen McVarish & Archy McDonald, Moss. Rev. R R.

Feb 19 John McVarish, Mingarry & Mary McPherson, Kentra.
Witnesses: Alexander McIsaac & Ewen McPherson, Mingarry. Rev. R R.

Jan 22 John McVarish, Scardoise & Mary McDonald, Cliffe WENT TO CANADA
Witnesses: Alexander McDonald & John McDonald, Cliffe. Rev. R R.

Jan 14 Donald McDonald, Dalilea & Kitty McDonald, Mingarry
Witnesses: Alexander McVarish & John McDonald, Mingarry. Rev. R R.

Jun 8 Ewen McDonald, Morar & Clementina McVarish, Portavata
Witnesses: Malcolm Kelly, Dorlin & Ewen McDonald, Scardoise. Rev. R R

Feb 5 Charles McInnes & Mysie ?McVarish , Dalnabreck at Mingarry
Witnesses: William McInnes & William Corbett. Rev. C McD.

Jul 4 Donald McVarish, Arisaig & Mary McDonald, Blain at Mingarry
Witnesses: Ambrose Griffiths , Mingarry & Alexander Cameron ?Caol.

From the above, I have the following Christian names of McVarishes in West Moidart:

1832 - Alexander, Angus, Donald (Langwall), Duncan (Langwall), Ewen, John, Marcella (Langwall), Mary (Langwall), Michael (Scardoise), Michael (Dalilea), Roderick (Langwall)

1833 - Alexander (Mingarry), Allan, Catherine (Dalilea), Duncan, Hugh, John, Margaret (Derrydaff)

1834 - no MacVarish entries

1835 - Alexander (Langall), Duncan, Ewen (Scardoise)

1836 - Donald

1837 - Alexander (Langall), Margaret (Mull)

1838 - no MacVarish entries

1839 - John (Langal), Mary (Croft), Peggy Margaret?)

1840 -

1841 -

1842 - Flora (Langal)

1843 - Ewen

1844 - John (Mingarry)

1845 - John (Scardoise)

1846 - Alexander

1847 -

1848 - Clementina (Portavata)

1849 -

1862 - Mysie (Dalnabreck)

1865 - Donald (Arisaig)

N.B. these are the records for West Moidart only.  There may well have been other McVarishes in wedding records in Arisaig and Glenfinnan during this time.

Of the original brothers at High Mingarry, i.e. Alexander, Donald, Hugh and Angus none are noted to be at Mingarry in the census of 1841, although the records indicate that Alexander and his wife (Catherine, nee Stuart) emigrated in 1843.  In fact, there is no record of a couple called Alexander and Catherine MacVarish in the 1841 census of Moidart.

The fate of Donald MacVarish is a mystery.  However, there was a possibility that he, like his brother Angus, changed his name to MacDonald.  The Scamadale story indicates that at least one of the brothers had some business on the south side of Loch Shiel, which is 'Protestant country' and on the Sunart Estate of James Milles Riddell.  The passenger list of the Allison, which sailed to Australia in 1852, includes a Catholic family headed by Donald MacDonald who had been living at Claish, within sight of Mingarry but on the south side of the loch.  The emigration of this family had been sponsored by the owner of Sunart Estate.

The family are recorded as Donald MacDonald (38) and his wife, Catherine (29).  They left with four children but unfortunately the two youngest, Jane (4) and Peggy (1), died on the voyage so that Donald and Catherine arrived with their son Angus (8).  They disembarked at Geelong on 8th February 1853.

Unfortunately the parish records give no records of a marriage of Donald MacVarish to Catherine, and one might have expected him to keep his original name in Moidart.  There is no record of a Donald MacDonald marrying a Catherine at that time either, although three Donald MacDonalds married Kittys (or Kettys) locally, and one of the Mingarry MacVarish family witnessed one of these weddings.

Donald MacDonald, Dalilea and Kitty MacDonald, Mingarry, married on 14th January 1846, the witnesses being Alexander MacVarish, Mingarry and John MacDonald, Mingarry.  This was six years before the Allison sailed so it is unlikely that they would have had a son of eight years of age at that time. 

Donald Macdonald and Ketty (Catherine) MacDonald, both of Scardoish, married in Glasgow five days before on the ship Araminta left for for Australia on 5th June 1852.

Another marriage between a Donald MacDonald and a Kitty took place on 31st July 1844 and was between Donald MacDonald, Langal and Kitty MacDonald, Dorlin, a supplementary note adds that they emigrated to Port Philip in 1852 (which was the point of arrival of the Allison).  These seem most likely to have been the family from Claish which sailed on the Allison.

The fate of Donald MacVarish remains a mystery.

It seemed strange that two of the emigrant MacVarishes went to Canada while Donald went to Australia.  There had been a major emigration to Australia from Moidart in the 1830s and 1840s and it is possible that he went to Australia to join relatives of his wife.