big belle farm

The following history of the farmstead is taken from the book:

MacLeod, Mary K., & St. Clair, James O. (1994) Pride of Place: The Life and Times of Cape Breton Heritage Houses. University College of Cape Breton Press.

MacPherson-Gillis House

Mabou Ridge

John MacPherson had been a tailor with the British Army for a number of years before he and his wife Christine MacDonald and their children left Scotland in 1830. They had resided in Kinguussie Scotland, an area much settled by MacPhersons - (the MacPhersons of Cluny). Their first three children were born in Ceann-a-ghiuthsaidh (Kingussie in Gaelic) but their other five children were born in Cape Breton. Since he was able to receive land in Cape Breton in return for his service in the army and since they were coming to live in an area where relatives and former neighbors were already settled (Glencoe District), John MacPherson assumed that all would be well in this new location. But his assumptions were not well based it would seem, for considerable controversy arose over land boundaries in his first place of settlement. His MacDonald in-laws were encroaching on his land (at least that is what he stated and the local magistrate confirmed on documents preserved in land records). Meanwhile , the family was growing from three children to eight born to him and Christine by the mid-1830's. Conflict seemed to be threatening the new life in the new land.

Fortunately, as a result of his complaint to the magistrates and their willingness to come to the assistance of this MacPherson Family, another tract of land was granted to him, about five miles from the old grant assigned to him on arrival. This piece of land was on the side of Mabou Ridge with most of it facing to the East and the South. According to tradition, the MacPhersons built a log house and proceeded to clear land and to acquire an adjacent wood lot as well.

In the late 1850's John MacPherson and his sons, the oldest of whom were in their teens and twenties, prepared to build a new house. The dwelling completed by them in the year 1859 is still standing and in excellent condition. The house was located a few hundred yards about the log house and along the side of a surveyed highway which went from Port Hood to Whycocomagh. In later years, this road was abandoned but a portion of it is still in use as the lane leading to the farmstead.

Tradition states that the building was completed except for the finishing of the upstairs (which was left for some years as one large room) when the daughter, Janet (born in Cape Breton in 1835) married a school teacher, Donald "Kelly" MacDonald, Stewartdale. The dance celebrating the marriage is said to have been held in the undivided second storey of this storey and a half house. If the legendary account is true, the house was well built as it withstood square sets which lasted into the early morning hours. Two sons of the MacPherson Family were involved with storekeeping in Mabou, Port Hood and Whycocomagh, as was a daughter, Christy, after the early death of her husband, Archibald MaDonald. But John MacPherson (known as "Jock") and his sister Charlotte remained on the farm until they were quite elderly people. They were much remembered for their wit and their hospitality for many years.

After the death of John MacPherson, the Army Tailor, Jock and Charlotte and the widowed mother and young nephews carried on the farm. It was an active undertaking for the 1871 Census reports 100 acres under cultivation with oats, buckwheat, hay and flax. Sheep and cattle in fairly large numbers were raised as well as pigs. In 1871 it was reported that in the previous year, 300 pounds of butter and 100 pounds of cheese were made and 60 yards of woolen cloth and 15 yards of linen cloth were woven. The farm continued to be well worked for many years.

In 1905, the elderly MacPherson brother and sister sold the 200 acre farm to John MacNeil, a neighbor who lived on it for two years. But in 1907, he and his wife Bella sold the farm to Neil and Bessie (MacDonald) Gillis, formerly of Upper Southwest Margaree. The Gillis Family has lived on the farm ever since. They were active in farm production and in the woods. They kept the buildings in excellent repair. Now, even though they no longer keep animals in the large adjacent barn, the Gillis descendants live in the old house where they receive relatives, neighbors and friends with much hospitality. The cleared land is still mowed and the hay carried off to feed cattle on other local farms. So the Gillises have carried on a fine tradition of caring for the property and of hard work.

The 1859 house was built at a time when stoves were being used for heating so that there is no trace of fireplaces in the structure. In fact, the building is one of those surviving houses which show the transition between the earlier center chimney houses and the later Gothic revival houses with their steep roofs and large peaked windows and center hallways. The house has a modest pitch to the roof and a relatively low post of twelve feet. Although it now has a large addition to the rear which was needed by the extensive Gillis Family, it was originally just one building without additions. A full dormer has been constructed on the front to provide more room and more light in the upstairs which has long since been divided into rooms.

The house displays a symmetrical arrangement of doors and windows on the front and on the side. Modest returning eaves are also still evident from the earlier days. Much care has been lavished on this quite old house so that it quite comfortable for modern living, while at the same time preserving the integrity of the original building. The view from the windows and front veranda is out over the fields, other farmsteads, and the hills of Mabou Ridge and Glencoe. The Gillises have found the same joy and comfort in this beautiful spot and attractive dwelling as did the MacPhersons of the nineteenth century.


Church, Alonzo. Map of Cape Breton

Census Records 1838, 1861, 1871, 1881 - Public Archives of N.S.

Land Records, Registry Office, Port Hood and Dept. of Natural Resources, Dartmouth, N.S.



Recollections transmitted by Mary C. MacFarlane, Elizabeth Marsh, Christina (MacDonald() Warwick, Theorphilus Smith, Angus Rankin and the Gillis Family.

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