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John was the son of John MacPhail and Mary MacLennan of Ruisgarry. He and his sibllings emigrated to Upper River Denys, Cape Breton during the late 1820s. John settled at Judique, marrying Margaret MacKiggan. Together they had four children: Sarah, Isabel, Mary and John.
More information about the family can be found on this website detailing the history of Inverness County.