Robert Burns as a
Symbol of Montreal Scottish Identity, 1801 - 1875
A talk given by Gillian I. Leitch
A paper presented at the Burns in the Scottish
Diaspora Conference, Napier University, Edinburgh, July 2009 and at
the 2009 Scottish Studies Fall Colloquium, University of Guelph,
Figure 1. Montreal Daily Star, 20 October 1930, page 3.
On a cold and rainy October day in
1930, Montreal’s Scottish community unveiled a statue of Robert
Burns in the city’s downtown Dorchester Square. The statue was a
reproduction of the one which stands in Ayr, near Burns’
birthplace. Its erection was not only in honour of Burn’s genius,
but also to commemorate the impact of Scots on Montreal’s
development. The speeches made that day emphasised that point.
Burns was a symbol of Scottish
identity in 1930s Montreal. The utilization of Burns as such was
not a sudden thing. It evolved over the nineteenth century,
competing with other symbols of Caledonia within Montreal ‘s
Scottish community for pre-eminence.
This study will trace the development
of Montreal’s Scottish community through its public celebrations,
commemorations and voluntary associations, and their use of Robert
Burns within them. It begins in 1801, the date of the first Burns’
supper in Edinburgh, and ends in 1875. These public events and
institutions featured in the city’s English-language press, and
reflect the changes in Scottish identity, and their representations
over these seventy-four years.
Figure 2: Population of Montreal by Place of
Scots have never been a large
percentage of Montreal’s population, averaging between six and ten
percent in the period under discussion. This chart shows that while
the English-speaking population were the majority of the city’s
population between 1832 and 1871, as a national group, French
Canadians were always the majority. Among the Anglophone groups in
the city the largest national group were the Irish, who numbered
between eighteen and twenty-five percent of the population.
A lot of the historiography dwells on
the over-representation of Scots among the city’s political and
economic elite. And while this is true, it does not mean that all
Scots operated in this group. The vast majority of Montreal’s Scots
occupied the less rarefied air of the middle and working classes.
In 1807, the Montreal Curling Club
was founded. It was at its heart a national association which,
until about 1820, limited its membership to those of Scottish
origin. Curling was not only a pleasant way to spend a frozen
afternoon in the great outdoors, but a means of promoting Scottish
identity. The events not only utilised the curling itself, but also
other symbols of Scotland, particularly bagpipes.
The competitors walked in procession
to and from the ice and tavern, accompanied by pipes. At the
tavern, after the games, they toasted the day along with Scotland
and its heroes. This account of curling, which appeared in the
Herald in 1824, underscored the presentation of curling as
After being divided into
two parties for the games of the day,
and their chiefs being appointed, the Rules
were repeated by
their host, Mr. Hector McEchearn, and they
proceeded to the
scene of the action on the river, headed
each by their National
Music, that instrument which gives
enthusiasm to their joys, and
Heroism to their duty- which inspires their
merriment, mixed with those remembrances of
their country and
its past story, and softened by
recollections of the “many braw lads
it has whistled to their grave.”
The first half of the nineteenth
century was marked by the development of St. Andrew’s Day
celebrations. The city embraced the use of patron saints to
celebrate the various national identities present. One newspaper
called this the “brotherhood of saints.”
The English were the first to use
their patron saint, George, in 1808. They held an elaborate dinner
which lasted a full day, and utilised St. George excessively as
decoration, on the food, walls and in the toasts. Other groups
The Scots, following the first
successful St. David’s Day in March 1816, undertook the organisation
of the first St. Andrew’s Day, in November 1816. Like the other
groups had before them, the occasion was marked with a dinner, full
of toasts and traditional dishes. It was followed by a ball. The
Herald described it thus:
The dancing commenced
about 7 o’clock and continued
with great spirit till after midnight, when
the company to
the number of 150 sat down to a sumptuous
supper. . . The supper room was handsomely
the occasion having at the upper end a
representing St. Andrew at full length.
After supper the
dancing was resumed and continued with much
till after five. . .
St. Andrew’s Day was not celebrated
regularly until the 1830s. When it was celebrated in the 1820s it
was in various ways, balls, dinners and sometimes both. In 1825,
the Theatre Royal produced the play “Wallace” and illuminating the
building with a large transparency of the patron saint.
The St. Andrew’s Society was formed
in late January 1835, following in the footsteps of the St.
Patrick’s Society and the St. George’s Society. The German Society
came soon afterwards. These societies institutionalised the
celebration of saints’ days, and regularized the way in which they
were celebrated. A parade and church service were added to the day,
employing the same forms of celebration that the Irish had been
using since 1824.
But what of Robert Burns? He
appeared in accounts of St. Andrew’s Day as the subject of toasts.
In 1820 he was number of 18 of 19 toasts: “The Memory of Robert
Burns, our Rustic Bard.” Often though, he shared the honours with
Sit Walter Scott, but was also known to accompany Wallace, Bruce,
Knox, and Ferguson. “Auld Lang Syne” was often sung at the dinners
In 1840 a number of St. Andrew’s
Society members came together and purchased a bible which had been
reputedly given to Highland Mary by Burns in 1786. They promptly
donated to Burns’ birthplace in Ayr. Burns was obviously not out of
the consciousness of Montreal’s Scots, but was second fiddle to the
By the 1840s, Montreal’s population
had grown enormously, providing the labour for its rapidly
industrializing economy. The city’s associational life had
expenaded to accomadate these new residents. The St. Andrew’s
Society was joined by the Caledonian Society in 1855, and the
Thistle Society in 1857. These Scottish societies joined the St.
Andrew’s Society in celebrating the saint, in their parades,
services and dinner.
In 1851, Robert Burns’ birthday was
celebrated for the first time in Montreal. Not by any of the
previously mentioned Scottish societies, but by the Caledonian
Curling Club, founded the previous year. The date was chosen for
the club’s annual dinner of beef and greens. They chose the date
because it was Burn’s birthday. The club members toasted Burns that
year. In subsequent years, the Caledonian Curling Club continued to
use the same date, but ceased to toast Burns.
The centennial of Burns’ birth in
1859 marked a more concerted effort on the part of Montreal’s Scots
to use Burns as a rallying point for their community. The Burns
Club, a specially formed committee, organised a banquet at the
City’s Concert Hall. Close to a thousand men and women paid 6
shillings to dine, hear speeches, sing and toast Burns, in an
elaborately decorated room.
Figure 3: Montreal Witness, 21 January 1859.
Three days later, in the same venue, an unknown
number paid 25 cents for a promenade concert and ball, hosted by the
Thistle Society. The Thistle Society continued to host a promenade
concert and ball on Burns’ birthday until 1862. The Caledonian
Society took over the day in 1869. Instead of concerts, which
attracted large mixed crowds, they male-only dinners with smaller
numbers of attendees.
It would be a mistake to think that
Scots’ celebrations in Montreal were limited to these two days.
Montreal Scots adapted their celebrations to local needs. They used
Burns’ poem “Halloween” as inspiration for another commemoration.
October 31st was considered a traditional celebration in
Celtic cultures, but had not been mentioned in Montreal in any way
until 1860, when the Caledonian Society decided to host a “Grand
Scottish Entertainment.” They were, at this date, already
responsible for the Highland Games, held every summer, but had no
Figure 4: Montreal Witness, 19 October 1860.
The program included Scottish ballads
and instrument solos, lectures on Burns, and from 1886 on, prize
poems. The event attracted around 2000 spectators each year.
All the celebrations that I have
presented expressed a Scottish identity formed from their
experiences in Montreal. In Halloween there was a clear connection
between old world and new. Speeches, like the excerpt below, and
the prize poems like “Canadian Patriotic Song,” emphasised both
their Scottish roots and their Canadian lives.
This is one of those
occasions when Scotchmen in
are wont to look back through the years and
which intervene towards the land of their
birth, and to
recall his treasured memories and
traditions. May we all
do so to night, at the same time not failing
with gratitude and affection Canada our
There came to be three specific days
in which Scots in Montreal could express their identities publicly:
Burns Night, Halloween and St. Andrew’s Day. Of the three, two were
associated specifically with Robert Burns.
The memory of Burns can
be honored by the
lowliest in their lowly manner, with quite
much sincerity as by the lordly,
As the Pilot stated in 1861,
above, Burns was a popular figure, who lent himself to the elite and
non, alike. The elites used Burns night, while the others used
Halloween to express Scottishness. Burns had graduated from a
symbolic toast to the central figure in the community’s
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