On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish - A. MacLean Sinclair

A. MacLean Sinclair


A. MacLean Sinclair (1840-1924)

Alexander MacLean Sinclair was born on 1 March 1840 in Glenbard, Nova Scotia to Christy MacLean and John Sinclair. MacLean Sinclair’s mother had divorced his father a few months after their marriage. He would not meet his father until he was 12 years old. From this point on, MacLean Sinclair would see his father at least once a year.

There are some discrepancies surrounding MacLean Sinclair’s birth date; his baptismal record from St. James’ Presbyterian Church, Dorchester indicated that he was born on the 28th of February, while his family history and his son’s memorial in the 1928 edition of Clàrsach na Coille state that it was on the 1st of March.

In Michael David Linkletter’s dissertation about Alexander MacLean Sinclair, he has come up with a possible explanation as to why this discrepancy exists: “it is possible that this incongruity can be explained by the fact that 1840 was a leap year, and that perhaps Maclean Sinclair was born on 29 February” (pg. 73).

In 1848, MacLean Sinclair began formal education in a one-room schoolhouse in Beaver Meadow, Nova Scotia. He graduated from Beaver Meadow School in 1855 and began teaching local schools at the age of 15. After a year of teaching, MacLean Sinclair decided he would continue his education and attended Pictou Academy for two years. As a student, he was described as “regular in his attendance, assiduous in his studies, and maintained throughout the conduct and character of a good student” (“The Pictou Academy and St. Mary’s,” Eastern Chronicle (2 Jan. 1917): 1).

He began teaching again after his time at Pictou Academy. In 1861, MacLean Sinclair attended the Provincial Normal School and graduated as a grammar school teacher.

In 1863, he went back to school and attended the seminary of the Theological Hall of the Presbyterian Church, where he studied theology, church history, Biblical literature, and Jewish antiquities. He also attended Dalhousie at the same time, studying chemistry, political economy, natural philosophy, moral philosophy, and metaphysics.

On 2 May 1866, MacLean Sinclair became a full licensed preacher and was ordained as a minister in the Free Church of Nova Scotia. Afterwards, he became the pastor of Springville and Sunny Brae.

In 1869, MacLean Sinclair travelled to Scotland for four months to become more familiar with his roots. From an early age, MacLean Sinclair was heavily influenced by Gaelic culture and his Scottish background. MacLean Sinclair’s grandfather was a famous Gaelic poet, John MacLean. It was his grandfather and his mother whom he developed his intense interest in Gaelic literature and language, so much so that his services were conducted in both English and Gaelic.

In 1871, MacLean Sinclair was living in Pictou, Nova Scotia with his mother, Christy. His mother would take care of his home until he was married in 1882. Even after MacLean Sinclair’s marriage, Christy would remain a considerable part of his life until her death in 1887.

In 1879, MacLean Sinclair was living in Springville, Nova Scotia when he was visited The Celtic Magazine’s editor, Alexander Mackenzie. Mackenzie described Maclean Sinclair’s library in his magazine:
[. . .] I envied him his magnificent and valuable library ten times more. It is almost impossible to conceive that such a rare collection of valuable books could be met with in such an out-of-the-way place. I believe his collection of Celtic works is the best private one on the American Continent, and a very few indeed surpass it even at home. [. . .] Many people, possessing good libraries, know very little of their contents, but Mr. Sinclair knows every word, and is a thorough master of every idea in his splendid collection (Alexander Mackenzie, “The Editor in Canada,” Celtic Magazine 5.50 (Dec. 1879): 72-73.)

In 1881, MacLean Sinclair published Clàrsach na Coille, a collection of Gaelic poetry and hymns. It also contained all his grandfather’s works.

In 1882, he married Mary Ann Campbell. Both were very affectionate to one another. MacLean Sinclair wrote two loves songs about Mary, and she wrote him a letter on the third anniversary of their wedding, expressing “her fondness for his smile, of which she can remind herself by looking at his “fascinating” photograph” (Linkletter, “Bu Dual Dha Sin” pg. 132)

During his time in East River, Maclean Sinclair became the editor of a Gaelic column in the Pictou News titled “Cùil na Gàidhilg” (“The Gaelic Corner”) which ran from December 1883 to at least January 1888. Also while in East River, Mary gave birth to two of their five children: Charles L. (1885) and John M. (1889).

In 1888, MacLean Sinclair accepted a pastoral charge in Belfast, Prince Edward Island. During their time in Belfast, Mary would have three more children: Christy (1891), George (1895), and Donald M. (1899). He was adamant that the children speak Gaelic in the home as he wanted to preserve the language and traditions that his mother and grandfather passed down to him.

This period would be Maclean Sinclair’s most productive regarding publications. He would publish seventeen books: thirteen volumes of Gaelic poetry, three on clan history, and one on the Peoples and Languages of the World (1894). He would publish his magnum opus, The Clan Gillean, during his time in Prince Edward Island.

In 1907, Maclean Sinclair was offered a position as a Celtic lecturer at St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, and Dalhousie University, Halifax. He settled in Hopewell, Pictou County as it was in between both schools. In the same year, he was named an honorary fellow of the Gaelic Society of Canada.

In 1912, Maclean Sinclair retired from lecturing when he was seventy-two.

In 1914, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Dalhousie University.

In 1916, he celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination.

On 14 February 1924, Rev. Alexander Maclean Sinclair passed away at his home in Hopewell. He had been failing in health for approximately two years before his death. He is remembered as one of the greatest Gaelic scholars of his time.

As of 2006, his home in Hopewell is still owned by his family. Although much of his library has gone to the Nova Scotia Public Archives and the Special Collections at St. Francis Xavier University, much of his library and papers remains in the house in Hopewell.

The UPEI Provenance book titled On the Manners of the Ancient Irish by Eugene O’Curry was bought from MacLean Sinclair by Rev. James Phelan for Saint Dunstan’s College. It has A. Maclean Sinclair’s signature inscribed with the date “June 1883.” Underneath Alexander’s signature, Rev. James Phelan wrote: “from whom this work was bought by Rev. James Phelan, for S.D.C.” Phelan also inscribed “Presented to the Library of St. Dunstan’s College by Rev. James Phelan May 28th, 1905.”


1871 Census of Canada. Census Place: East River, Pictou, Nova Scotia; Roll: C-10561; Page: 7; Family No: 24.

1891 Census of Canada. Census Place: Lot 58, Queens, Prince Edward Island; Roll: T-6384; Family No: 92.

1901 Census of Canada. Census Place: Lot (township/canton) 57, Queen's (east/est), Prince Edward Island; Page: 4; Family No: 38.

1921 Census of Canada. Reference Number: RG 31; Folder Number: 47; Census Place: Hopewell, Riverton, Fox Brook, Pictou, Nova Scotia; Page Number: 9.

“Cultural Value of Gaelic Language Stressed in Nova Scotia.” The Charlottetown Guardian. 17 September 1935. Accessed through Island Newspapers on 15 August 2016.

Linkletter, Michael David. “Bu Dual Dha Sin (That was His Birthright): Gaelic Scholar Alexander Maclean Sinclair (1840-1924).” Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University, May 2006. Accessed on 15 August 2016.

MacLean, J.P. A History of the Clan MacLean: From its First Settlement at Duard Castle, In the Isle of Mull, to the Present Period. Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1889. Pg. 381.

MacPhie, Rev. J.P. Pictonians at Home and Abroad: Sketches of Professional Men and Women of Pictou County - Its History and Institutions. Boston, Massachusetts: Pinkham Press, 1914. Pg. 70 & 85.

Nova Scotia Death Records. Year: 1924. Book: 99. Page: 857.

Nova Scotia Death Records. Year: 1935. Book: 151. Page: 864.

Nova Scotia Marriage Records. Year: 1882. Book: 1831. Page: 228. No.: 99.

“Rev. A. MacLean Sinclair.” Clan MacLean Atlantic Canada. Accessed on 15 August 2016.

Sinclair, Alisdair. “Rev. Alexander Maclean Sinclair, F.G.S.C., LL.D (1840-1924).” Roslin O Roslin, Summer 1997 (vol 3 no 8), Rory Sinclair, Editor.


Photo from website Clan MacLean Atlantic Canada.

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