By the year Canada became a nation, 150 years ago, Dugald Buchanan McNab had been serving the people of Cape Breton in various capacities for over 45 years, chiefly as a land surveyor.
He was a native of Scotland, and had settled with his parents and siblings on a large unbroken piece of land on the shores of the Bras d’Or Lake at McNab’s Cove in present-day Richmond County.
His father would take up farming. McNab was a lad of 15 by the time his family arrived in Cape Breton in 1810, with only the education he had acquired in Scotland and at home. No schoolhouse stood anywhere near McNab’s Cove and only an occasional travelling teacher passed through.
Yet McNab managed to pursue an interest in land surveying and road building, possibly under the tutelage of long-time Cape Breton land surveyor John Higgins of Grande Greve, and later, of Port Hastings
By 1820, Dugald McNab had been appointed a deputy Crown land surveyor for Richmond County by Thomas Crawley of Sydney, the island’s Surveyor-General. McNab resided with his family at McNab’s Cove during the early years of his career, travelling about on horseback, by foot and water to survey plots of Crown land for settlers. He played a major role in tracing out and supervising the building of roads in the county including the main post road running from Sydney to the Gut of Canso. In the early 1830s, McNab surveyed the lands reserved to First Nations peoples at Potlotek, Malagawatch, Whycocomagh, and Wagmatcook, for which he was paid at a rate of about $4 per day, plus travelling expenses.
McNab moved to Cape Breton County during the 1840s to continue his career, and became the deputy Crown land surveyor for Victoria County at Baddeck soon after the new county was split off from Cape Breton County in 1851. Over time, he held a number of other municipal offices: registrar of deeds, notary public, justice of the peace, and school commissioner. McNab came to know the new county intimately, no doubt due to his work as a land surveyor and a road and bridge builder. He was so highly esteemed for his skill and knowledge, that his Halifax supervisor once described him as a surveyor “whose competency could not be doubted.”
Soon after the close of his long career, McNab sent three successive petitions to the Nova Scotia Government for a pension based upon his age and years of service as a deputy Crown land surveyor. His wife of 50 years had died in 1874. Each request was turned down out of fear that paying him a pension would open the door to “many other old public servants.” A similar petition, sent from Sydney to the House of Commons in Ottawa in 1876, went nowhere. A fifth succeeded to a degree: the Nova Scotia Government agreed to pay McNab an annual pension of $100 to rescue him from “destitution” and give “the necessities of life,” in the expectation that he would not “want it very long.” McNab would confound the Halifax pension authorities by living a further 19 years.
By the time the first pension payment reached McNab, he had pulled up stakes in Cape Breton and moved to Maine to be near his only daughter, carrying with him a bagful of testimonials from Nova Scotia friends and connections, as well as the instruments of his chosen profession. Five years later, at the age of 86, McNab announced in a local newspaper a plan to resume land surveying, in Maine.
Among his testimonials was one from the Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia, Adams George Archibald, who testified that “I have always looked upon you as one of the most faithful and diligent officers” in the Crown land department of Nova Scotia.
In the year Canada was born, McNab was still very much an active Crown land surveyor in the backlands of Cape Breton, where he left his mark on numerous surveys and survey plans of pioneer lands and roads. By his land surveying work alone, he became widely-known and highly-respected.
The pioneers owed him a huge debt of gratitude. McNab died in Maine in 1897, aged 102. Today, few passers-by on Trunk 4 at McNab’s Cove are aware that a patch of former farmland at that place was the home of one of Cape Breton’s longest-serving and most revered public servants in pioneer days. Dugald McNab deserves a place in our memory as we approach the century and a half of Canada on July 1.