Story of 'dead' piper's trip
to Canada holds audience spellbound
(Oct 20, 2003)
like to say, ''You could have heard a pin drop.'' They mean an audience
was so entranced they didn't shuffle, gurgle or snort. They just listened.
I have been in crowds like that, but less
often than you might think. There was a concert when Benjamin Luxon sang
Bring the News to Mother. There was the Shaw Festival's immortal Cyrano de
Bergerac when the only sound in the final scene was the audience weeping.
It doesn't happen often at genealogical
conferences, I can tell you. But it did this year, when the Ontario
Genealogical Society met in Cornwall. Taking advantage of the eastern
Ontario venue, the society asked Marianne McLean, historian of
Glengarry, to give the keynote lecture.
McLean's The People of Glengarry: Highlanders
in Transition, 1745-1820 (McGill-Queen's, 1991) traces the journey of
Scots displaced by changing circumstances in their homeland who created a
new society in British North America. I would like to say it was the first
English-speaking settlement in what would become Ontario, except that the
Scots spoke Gaelic. Many of the highlanders who left Glengarry in Scotland
to erect a new one north of the St. Lawrence River were being forced out
by their landlords, who wanted their land for more profitable agricultural
the story of a piper who joined the British army and was sent to the
far-flung empire. News came back to Scotland that he had died in India.
His family were among the earliest emigrants to Canada.
Twenty-six years after his departure, he
returned to Scotland, not dead and searching for his relations. He was
told where they had gone, so he followed.
Once he landed here, he asked after his family
and was told they lived 10 miles north in the bush. He set out on foot.
His family were sitting at dinner when a sound came through the trees. It
was the bagpipes, not an expected thing to hear in the Canadian
wilderness. They rushed outside and were greeted by their long-lost son
and brother, piping himself home.
Having so firmly grasped the hearts of her
audience, McLean went on to discuss the adventures of her own research,
which took her to Scotland. She visited the villages whose names were
carried to the new Glengarry: Glenshiel, Lochalsch, Locheanan, Strath.
She found herself telling the Scots who stayed
behind about the emigrants. The Scottish BBC has a Gaelic component, for
the dwindling number of highlanders who still speak the old language.
McLean showed them a Gaelic poem she found in a 19th century Ontario
newspaper, a lament in which one of the 18th century migrants says
farewell to his native loch.
The BBC found it so interesting they set the
poem to music, and filmed an elderly man singing the dirge while sailing
in the Highlands.
McLean ended her lecture by playing a video of the song. It made no
difference that the language was beyond us, or that we had no Scottish
heritage. The effect was the same -- you could have heard a pin drop. For
genealogists who find long-dead ancestors as lively (and alive) as the
people they work alongside every day, it was a moment of heightened
reality. We were all saying a farewell to a land we loved.
It was my job to thank the speaker, and I had
a hard time getting my thick throat in gear to do so. McLean had given us
an unforgettable moment.
McLean's People of Glengarry is available for
those who want to know more about the Scottish migrations. Also
recommended is Adventurers & Exiles: the Great Scottish Exodus, by Marjory
Harper (Profile Books, 2003).
Family historian Ryan Taylor's column on
tracing your roots appears on the first and third Mondays of the month.
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