Columns and Letters

Then and Now: Schoolhouse memories of Alistair MacLeod

-by Jim St. Clair

To those who will listen carefully and look deeply, buildings will tell stories of people and events connected with them. Locked deeply within their boards and shingles are memories – recollections that need to be recalled.

On the slight slope above the harbour of Port Hood Island, the two room schoolhouse now serves as a residence for summer visitors who have a deep love of the island. 

Built in such a way that it could provide a small apartment for a teacher as well as several teaching areas, for three generations it served the educational needs for the residents of the place once known as Chestico Island or the inner one of the Chestico Islands.

By its name the Margaret-Ann School revealed the respect which the people of the island had for two able women who promoted education – Margaret Fraser Smith and Ann Ross Smith. 

For those who will listen, it will tell the story of their energy and determination in earlier days. Schoolhouses carry memories. 

Alistair MacLeod

In the autumn of 1956, with his training at the Normal School in Truro behind him, a twenty-one-year old Alistair MacLeod arrived on Port Hood Island to teach a varied group of students at the Margaret-Ann School. 

The Tobey, Cameron, Embree and Morrison young people were of different ages and required instruction at several levels. Some of them were very close to him in age. Others were much younger. But teacher and students got along well – they learning from him about the importance of good writing and imagination in their own stories, he learning from them about the aspects of living on a small island. 

Although MacLeod and his pupils were of different ethnic and religious backgrounds, they came to have much respect for each other. For MacLeod, many new images were recorded in his fertile memory and perhaps in his notebooks – particularly those of ice travel when the harbour froze over and people walked and rode from island to mainland and back. 

Although now no longer an educational institute, the Margaret-Ann School carries for many the memory of the young, vibrant, creative instructor, teaching and living among the people of the island. Certainly he came to see with clarity images about the way that ice and snow flurries can cause confusion in people as they go from place to place in the depths of winter. These would appear in his stories. 

So it was for the developing writer and teacher of creative composition in the school term of 1956-1957 on Port Hood Island. As he explored the whole of the small island and came to know the stories of the people and realized how much life was changing around them, he breathed in the salt air that is so pervasive. “The thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts,” according to the poet Longfellow. And so it must have been for the young man teaching at the Margaret-Ann School in order to have money for his college education the next year. His awareness of the changing culture would have a strong influence. 

MacLeod returns to the Margaret-Ann School

More than three decades later, Alistair MacLeod, a distinguished professor in Windsor, Ontario, a published writer of short stories that were much admired and a summer resident of Inverness County, returned to the Margaret-Ann School. 

The Inverness County Council of the Arts Summer Arts Festival was being held on Port Hood Island. People were ferried over from the mainland (i.e. Port Hood wharf) and enjoyed the day on the island with art and music and readings being shared. Great food was available as well.  A small museological display was set up in the Port Hood Island Hall, a former Methodist Church.  So much sharing of creativity of the county that day!

There in the room where he had taught young students about the joys and importance of writing, the distinguished author read from his own writings and spoke about his craft, how he proceeded turning imaginative thought into stories and the way he drew upon his memory, such as being out on the ice in Port Hood Harbour. Many were surprised to learn from him how slowly he wrote and how much care he took with each word and how he wrote with ball-point pen, not a typewriter or the newly available word processors.

For those present that day, the authentic person of wit and caring was evident. His renewal of acquaintance with former students at the Margaret-Ann School was joyful.

The Margaret-Ann School of Port Hood Island carries memories of the older Alistair MacLeod and retains them along with those of much earlier days. 

A few years later, MacLeod once again visited the island as he conducted a workshop in creative writing.  He and the island were strongly bonded. The population of the island was much smaller than when he spent a winter there. The activity on the island was much less, although many former residents opened their old homes for the summer and new landowners came from many places.

The salt air is omnipresent – the “lost salt gift of blood” may be felt or recalled as people stroll from place to place across old fields and along the shore where once there were large fish houses. 

Port Hood Island has many memories, and one that is precious is that of a young teacher who returned to share his knowledge and creations – Alistair MacLeod of happy memory.  

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