Playmates: An Eighteenth-Century Boyhood

This is the second of Kate MacFarlane’s two-part examination of the boyhood of Donald Sage. Kate says ‘I am a retired civil servant living in Ottawa, Canada. I had a long career with the Canadian government, working primarily on the designation and preservation of our built heritage. I am currently pursuing an MLitt in history through the University of the Highlands and Islands and serving as a volunteer board member with Heritage Ottawa.

In all his childhood and school boy adventures, Sage was accompanied by his older brother Eneas. Only fourteen months apart in age, they were the closest of brothers and friends. Speaking of his very early years he wrote “…of my sisters, I have no recollection. My only brother with whom I played all day and slept at night, did attract my notice.”[1]

As boys, Donald and Eneas enjoyed constructing miniature houses and mills, fishing expeditions, exploring and berry picking. They were often joined by John MacThomais, son of their father’s principal farm servant who was close to them in age. According to Sage, John “was our constant companion, counsellor, and associate. He was a pleasing and talkative companion, and was furnished with an abundant store of old traditions, which he had rather a knack of telling, and which made many a day, “merrily to go by.”[2] Throughout his childhood, however, it was Eneas who featured most prominently in his memories and affection.

In 1801, the brothers left home to attend school at Dornoch. There, Sage made numerous friends, including Hugh Bethune, “a forward, smart boy” but, unfortunately, Hugh and Eneas “could not agree, nor in any way pull together.”[3] A disagreement as to who should take “the place of leader and principal adviser in all the amusements of our play hours” was settled in “the ordinary way of deciding such differences between school boys” with a boxing match.[4] Apparently, Eneas won hands down as poor Hugh “was far from being on an equality with him in muscular strength.”[5]

Dornoch Burgh School – at the site where Donald, Aeneas and his friends would have studied. Photo 1907 – over a hundred yeras after they attended. Historylinks Archive Cat 2002_011 Picture 993.

According to Sage, “some of my school fellows with whom I was most intimate when at Dornoch were three young men of the name of Hay. They were natives of the West Indies; the offspring of a negro woman” and a Scotsman.[6] The oldest Hay brother, Fergus, “was very handsome…had all the manners of a gentleman, and had first rate abilities.”[7] Sage met Fergus under unfortunate circumstances when “merely to save the skins of Walter Bethune, Bob Barclay and others,” Fergus falsely blamed him for something that resulted in thirty unjust lashes from the school master.[8] Fergus, however, was “conscious of the impropriety of his conduct though his pride would not allow him to say so” and from that point on, he “behaved…with very great kindness” toward Sage.[9]

Donald and Eneas returned home from school in the spring of 1803. In the autumn of 1804, following a serious disagreement which caused “an open rupture” with their fractious stepmother, Eneas went to sea. Parting from his brother was traumatic for Sage. Years later, he wrote that he felt as though his “very life was gradually deserting me” when they said good-bye. Eneas too was “almost stupefied with grief.”[10] Sadly, the brothers never met again. Eneas wrote to let his family know when he arrived in London and sent along “a few prints of ships in gilt frames…as a peace-offering to his stepmother.”[11] A second letter, sent from Philadelphia, turned out to be the last. A footnote in Memorabilia Domestica notes “what became of [Eneas] afterwards was never known.”[12]

Sage’s memories of his childhood and school years focus almost exclusively on masculine pursuits and masculine company. He recalls, with affection and amusement, the housekeeper who lived with them before his father remarried and he attempts to give his difficult stepmother her due. He says next to nothing about his sisters. It is a boys’ world he looks back on, at home and in school and of all his companions, it is Eneas who stands out, who “impresses himself strongly on my reminiscences.”[13]


[1]Sage, Donald. Memorabilia Domestica, Or, Parish Life in the North of Scotland, p. 79.

[2]Ibid, p. 94.

[3]Ibid, p. 115. More on Donald and Aeneas’ journey to school in previous posts beginning with https://historylinksdornoch.wordpress.com/2013/02/25/donalds-journey-part-1/ (February 25, 2013)

[4]Ibid.

[5]Ibid.

[6]Ibid, p. 117.

[7]Ibid.

[8]Ibid.

[9]Ibid.

[10]Ibid, p. 128.

[11]Ibid, p. 129.

[12]Ibid.

[13]Ibid, p. 107.

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