Some 170,000 Scots crossed the Atlantic between 1815 and 1870, roughly 14 per cent of the total British migration of this period. Included in that number were the Highlanders brought to the Red River Colony by the Earl of Selkirk. In 1811, Thomas Douglas, the 5th Earl of Selkirk, entered into the Selkirk Concession, whereby he was granted a very large section of land that he planned to populate with impoverished people from Scotland (a much lengthier story to be told at a later time) in return for providing the Hudson’s Bay company with 200 employees per year.
One can only surmise that Duncan McRae was one of those Scots recruited through the Earl of Selkirk’s program. He was born in 1813, in Stornoway, an important port in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, the Highlands, and was signed to a contract to work with the Hudson Bay Company in 1837 for £28 per year, which would be the equivalent of $4,360.77 CDN today, for a period of 5 years. Once the 5 years had expired he was free to take on whatever work he wanted.
Duncan McRae was a stonemason by trade and stone structures had not been the norm in the Selkirk settlement but with wood structures not surviving the harsh environment and with plenty of limestone available it can be understood why stone became popular in the 1830’s. While employed by the Hudson Bay Company (HBC), Duncan McRae worked on what later became known at “Lower Fort Garry” and built the walls surrounding the fort as well as working on the “Upper Fort” in what is now downtown Winnipeg. Even after his contract expired he continued to do work for the HBC and his handiwork can be seen in other areas of the “Lower Fort”.
Duncan McRae continued to live and work in the Red River Settlement. In 1842 he purchased acreage from the HBC just north of Lockport after marrying Charlotte Smith, with whom he would have twelve children.
After having left the employ of HBC, Duncan McRae was hired by Reverend William Cockran to construct the St. Andrews Church (1845-1849) and later the Rectory (1851-1854). It was during the construction of the church that Duncan McRae fell from the scaffolding and suffered severe injury. This was not the end, though he may have had to give up the heavy construction part of his livelihood. We know that he continued to build many other stone structures around the area, giving us insight into his perseverance and work ethic.
Kildonan Presbyterian Church – 1852-1854
St. Peter Dynevor Anglican Church – 1853
Miss Davis School/Twin Oaks – 1858
St. Peter’s Dynevor Rectory – 1862-1865
St. John’s Anglican Cathedral – 1862
Home of Captain William Kennedy (Arctic Explorer)- 1866
Donald Murry House in West Kildonan later to become the Manitoba College, the predecessor of University of Winnipeg – 1871
After a long and prosperous life, he spent the last several years of his life as an invalid. He died in 1898, at the age of 85, and is buried in the family plot at Little Britain Church.
There can be no dispute, Duncan McRae’s constructions stand out as uniquely his and they continue to stand the test of time. It is fitting that he is buried near one of his buildings – in use and standing strong today.
You can take a driving tour and visit some of Duncan McRae’s buildings. It’s all right here! Grab your copy of the Red River North Heritage Tour.
Red River North Tourism is an all-volunteer not-for-profit organization that develops, promotes, and coordinates activities to maximize regional tourism on behalf of the Municipalities of Selkirk, St Andrews, and St Clements.