In the dining room of the Manor House at Murray Bay Nairne’s portrait still hangs. It was painted, probably in Scotland, when he was an old man, by an artist, to me unknown. The face is refined, showing kindliness and gentleness in the lines of the mouth, and revealing the “friendly honest man” that he aspired to be. His nose is big and in spite of the prevailing gentleness of demeanour the thin lips, pressed together, indicate some vigour of character. He has the watery eye of old age and this takes away somewhat from the impression of energy. It is not a clever face but honest, rather sad, and unmistakeably Scottish in type. Nairne wears the red coat of the British officer and a wig in the fashion of the time. The portrait might be one of a frequenter of court functions in London rather than that of a hardy pioneer at Murray Bay, who had carried on a stern battle with the wilderness.
Nairne was a good letter writer. To his kin in Scotland he sent from the beginning voluminous annual epistles. They are not such as we now write, hurriedly scratched off in a few minutes. With abundant time at his disposal Nairne could write what must have occupied many days. When written, the letters were sometimes copied in a book almost as large as an office ledger. It is well that this was done, for in this book is preserved almost the sole record of the life at Murray Bay of a century and a half ago. The pages are still fresh and the handwriting, while not that of one much accustomed to use the pen, is clear and vigorous. The zeal for copying letters was intermittent. There are gaps, covering many years. Then, for a time, not only the letters sent, but those received, are copied into the book. In the long winter evenings there was not much to do. Malcolm Fraser, it is true, lived just across the river at the neighbouring manor house. But Malcolm was more usually away than not. Besides, as one grows older, there is no place like one’s own fireside of a winter evening. So our good seigneur read and dozed and wrote and we are grateful that he has told us so much about past days.
Nairne’s first visit to Malbaie was, as we have seen, in the autumn of 1761, when he took possession of his seigniory. Not until the following year was the formal grant made by Murray. Long afterwards, in 1798, writing to a friend, Hepburn, in Scotland, Nairne recalled his arrival at his future home. “I came here first in 1761 with five soldiers [alas, we do not know their names!] and procured some Canadian servants. One small house contained us all for several years and [we] were separated from every other people for about eighteen miles without any road.” He contrasts this with what he sees about him at the time of writing—a parish with more than five hundred inhabitants, with one hundred men capable of bearing arms, grist mills, fisheries, good houses and barns, fertile fields, a priest, a chapel, and so on. The five soldiers of whom Nairne speaks were no doubt men of the 78th Highlanders and ancestors of a goodly portion of the population of Malbaie at the present time. Perhaps some of them had fought at Culloden; certainly all fought at Louisbourg and Quebec.