Photos by Bruce Murray, VisionFire Studios
Over the last 20 years, Clyde Macdonald has uncovered and documented a treasure trove of historic information about his fellow Pictonians — their lives, crimes and achievements. Many of these untold stories would never have been revealed had it not been for his insatiable interest in history.
Lawyer and former provincial court judge, Macdonald will publish his 19th book in October, and he is already thinking of his next project.
And judging by the reception for his past work, Pictonians — as well as people from all across North America who trace their ancestry to Pictou County — can hardly wait.
“In the year 2022, there still exists a genuine interest in the diverse Pictou County history, generated from all walks of life and diverse cultures that is ready to be revived, brought to life and recorded by journalists, story tellers and writers,” he says.
With titles like Notable Pictonians (2003), More Notable Pictonians (2004), Murder Cases in Pictou County 1811-1950 (2006), Innocent until Proven Guilty, Pictou County Court Cases (2009), Crimes, Trials, Duels, Accidents (2016) and Pictonians at War (2020), Macdonald has been able to ferret out information on long-forgotten criminal cases, war heroes, athletes, artisans and other notables over the centuries. His books are dense with information, often supplemented with rare photographs, some donated by aged relatives of the subjects of his stories.
Each book acknowledges by name the assistance provided him by individuals through research assistance, information and photographs.
Macdonald attributes the strong personalities of early Pictonians, many of whom came from Scotland, to religion, education and a sound work ethic.
“This was the springboard that transformed the achievements of the descendants of these settlers into the rich history of Pictou County,” he says.
Another Pictou County historian, James M. Cameron, wrote in the preface of his 1994 book Yesteryears in Pictou County, that his only regret was that “Pictou County’s recorded history is merely a ripple in a large lake.”
Cameron wrote 15 books and 11 historical booklets.
After 21 years of practising law in New Glasgow, until his appointment as a judge of the Provincial Court in 1990, Macdonald finally felt he had the time to research some of his favourite subjects. He started with the history of the village of Sunny Brae, where he was born in 1942 and lived for his first 18 years. He wrote stories of the veterans from the village in two world wars and the artisans in stone of Pictou County.
The book Faithful Services in WW1 and WW II, Veterans of Sunny Brae covers the war records and lives of more than 100 soldiers and nurses. He managed to get photographs of almost all the veterans from their relatives and credits his daughter Meghan Macdonald in Indiana with helping with the research.
This was followed by the 400-page Sunny Brae, a Village Since 1802, covering almost every aspect of life in the village over more than 200 years.
In 2000, when he was ready to publish his first book, Artisans in Stone of Pictou County, he was a sitting judge and thought it best to ask the chief judge of the provincial court, Pat Curran, if his position as a judge posed a conflict.
“It’s all right as long as you don’t make money from it,” was the answer.
Macdonald donated $10,000 from the sale of the books to the Pictou County Historical Society, and they published Artisans in Stone of Pictou County. All the funds from the sale of his books go to charitable institutions.
The first book launch revealed the depth of public interest in local history.
Frank Calder of Springville, Pictou County, who had recently published a history of that village, told Macdonald he shouldn’t expect any more than 25 people at the book launch. Macdonald knew that more than 25 members of his own family and relatives would attend so he prepared a light lunch and drinks for 75 people.
But it was standing room only when 150 people turned up at the Museum of Industry in Stellarton, many curious after reading a newspaper interview with the author and receiving invitation cards sent to “individuals who read books.”
The following launches usually attracted upwards of 250 people and the first three books sold for $12 each because Macdonald wanted to make them accessible to everyone.
The light lunches became popular, perhaps because Macdonald made it known that “if you don’t read books, come for the lunch.”
To reach ever wider readership, Macdonald’s books also deal with historical events outside the county, including the trial of Joseph Howe, publisher of The Novascotian, who was charged with criminal libel in Halifax and successfully defended himself in the Nova Scotia legislature and struck a blow for press freedom. More recently, he investigated the 1946 case of Black beautician Viola Desmond who was dragged out of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow and charged by police for refusing to move from the whites-only section of the theatre.
In 2009, he published a book entitled Innocent until Proven Guilty: Pictou County Court Cases, which contains a chapter on the Desmond case. Macdonald stated publicly that Desmond should be granted a pardon. When a representative from the Nova Scotia justice department asked him for any authority he could cite on pardons, he provided information on a Pictou County case in which a man sentenced to hang for murder was pardoned by King George III during his 50th Jubilee in 1810-11, when convicted criminals in the British territories could apply for a pardon. The man was pardoned, but six months later drowned in Saint John.
On April 15, 2010, then Lt.-Gov. Mayann Francis, invoked the Royal Prerogative (on the advice of premier Darrell Dexter) and granted a posthumous free pardon to Viola Desmond.
Some of Macdonald’s stories go further afield, as in “The Duel that Stunned a Nation.” Here he describes the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton in 1804, in which Burr, then vice-president of the United States, killed Hamilton, the first secretary of the treasury.
The next chapter, entitled “An Affair of Honour: The Last Fatal Duel Fought in Nova Scotia” describes a duel between Halifax merchant and auctioneer William Bowie and Halifax attorney Richard John Uniacke, Jr., in 1808 in which Bowie was fatally injured.
Macdonald’s interest in historical events in Pictou County began in 1968, when as a graduate of the University of New Brunswick law school, he was completing his articling at the Halifax law firm of Stewart, MacKeen and Covert.
Clients of the firm had purchased the Henry House on Barrington Street, renovated it and opened it as a restaurant.
The Henry House was known for its association with William Alexander Henry, a father of Confederation, co-author of the British North America Act and the first Nova Scotian to serve as a justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.
Macdonald was asked to go to the Registry of Deeds and search the land records to determine if Henry ever held title to the property. There were no land transactions on record to show that Henry ever owned the Henry House and lands. The next year, the Henry House was designated a National Historic Site.
That began what became a life-long interest in what can only be described as historical exhumation.