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Canadian History
10,000 Scots gather for games here in 1892


By Andrew Armitage

On Wednesday, August 12, 1892, 10,000 “sons and daughters of Scotland” gathered at East Hill Park in Owen Sound to celebrate the homeland by way of the games of the Highlands.  They came from all parts of Ontario, from Fergus, Galt, and Guelph, from Glengarry County, and from the counties of Grey and Bruce.

They were Scots-Highlander and Lowlander, from Glasgow or Edinburgh, Hebridians – and they shared one common experience, immigration.  Starting in 1746 and not ending for well over a century, a human flood of immigrants founded new Scotlands wherever they went.

The defeat of the Staurt uprising in the year 1746 came at the end of a long period of a rising birth rate.  Scotland’s population was simply too small to be accommodated in such a small country.  The loss that the Jacobite cause suffered on the moors of Culloden was the beginning of the end.

No longer would the Highland chieftains be able to raise and support bands of fighting men.  No longer would the small crofts of Scotland shelter, no matter how poorly, the clan families.  The Highland clearances swept the crofts clean and left the Scot with no place to go but to the docks for a one-way passage elsewhere.

To Australia and United States, to obscure South America republics, and most of all, to Canada, they came.  At first there was a trickle, then a flood as newly arrived Scottish immigrants made their way toward available land.  A new dream was about to begin.  The crofts of Scotland had been small.  Fifteen acres was considered extensive and the possibility of 100 or 200 acres could hardly be imagined.

Up the Garafraxa Road, the Sydenham, from Midland and Victoria Harbour by boat they came.  The MacLeans from Islay, the McKeens of Dumfries, Scotts of Aberdeenshire, the Veitchs of Roxburghshire, Lamonts of Gasgow, the best that Scottland had to offer.         

Here, the land agents of the Queen’s bush ruled over thousands of acres.  At fifty cents apiece, the supply seemed unlimited – and so did the newly arrived sons of Scotland.  Land settlement quite often was proportioned according to unwritten rules.  The Queens Agent, with an eye on tranquility and neighbor, often allotted land according to ethnic background.

Along one concession would be an unbroken string of Highlanders.  The next concession west or east would be home to lowlanders, the subsequent one made up of English pioneers, and finally, a concession of Irish immigrants.  Such patterns of land settlement seemed to have worked, and while rivalries between English and Irish, and Scots and Scots may have surfaced from time to time, harmony and helpfulness has marked the heritage of our rural past.

The 1861 consensus of Grey and Bruce counties reveals that only 15 per cent of all landholders were either Scotland born or first generation Canadians with the blurred accent of the heather.  The overwhelming remainder were English, Canadian, German, Irish or American.

However, the Scottish settlers contributed far more than their numbers to the development of the new land.  They arrived poor, as poor as the land they had left.  Within a quarter of a century their farms were the agricultural wonder of Ontario.  Scottish names dominated politics, religion, law, education and business.  Scotland had arrived and conquered!

“The Scots are the backbone of Canada,” sated Sir William Osler.  He went on to claim “They are all right in their three vital parts – heads, hearts, and haggis.”  There was little question among the Scottish settlers of the Grey and Bruce counties that their heritage was the richest in Canada.

For had they not brought with them their age-old customs, the traditions of an ancient land?  And had they not kept the faith with the old country?  Except in language, the Scottish settlers on the Georgian Bay frontier were the most stubborn in preserving their folklore and folk customs.

Considered dour and penurious in legend, the Scottish pioneer was anything but a taciturn penny-pincher.  Gregarious by nature, they chose to gather as much as possible to take part in the fun-loving rituals of the land they had left.  Dancing, games and competitions, singing, the Scots could enjoy a celebration as much as any of their non-Gaelic neighbors.

And nothing was ever anticipated more by the Scots than the prospect of attending the games of Caledonia – the Highland Games!  These versions of the Scottish Olympics had been celebrated from time immemorial.  They were ancient, at first feasts and banqueting ceremonies, public demonstrations of physical strength and dancing grace.

They were descended from the mythical god, Cuchulainn, the Hercules of the Scottish Isles.  For centuries the clan gatherings had been held.  Heroic deeds of the past became the events of the games.  The country-dances honored the victors; poetry recitation and songs were the rewards for the caber throw, the light hammer and the heavy stone.

The earliest games held in Canada, the new land, came in 1838 in Prince Edward Isle.  The tradition spread as Scots moved westward.  Owen Sound was west enough and on August 5, 1892, the Highland games were held.

The Owen Sound Advertiser reported that “Torthorwald Camp No. 11, Sons of Scotland held their second annual Demonstration and Scottish gathering at Owen Sound on Wednesday, and judging from the vast assemblage of sturdy highlanders gathered there, Auld Scotia need as yet entertain no fear of her Canadian sons forgetting the birthplace of their fathers, the land of brown heather and shaggy wood.”

The day before had seen packed trains arriving with kilted Scots bedecked with the tartans of their clans.  Welcoming committees included Camerons, McIntoshes, McKays, and McDonalds.  Bagpipes led informal parades through the streets of Owen Sound and the songs of Robbie Burns rang through the town.

All through the night they celebrated around bonfires lit on the banks of the Sydenham.  Good-natured town police patrolled but the Advertiser reported that “The Sons of the Auld Sod kept the peace.”

The following mornings parade was led by contingents of Pipers from Harriston, Collingwood, Meaford, and other Scottish camps, “all in full regalia and two brass bands.”  The editor wryly commented “We may state here that among the Tartaned brethren from Collingwood who paraded were two rosy Scotch lassies, who looked bewitching in their becoming tartans.  What’s the matter with organizing a camp of Daughter’s of Scotland?”  What indeed!

The parade made it’s way to the East Hill Park, now Victoria Park.  There the thousands settled in for a long day of games.  There were other side attractions such as “the ever present lemonade booths, and the scene was somewhat enlivened by a Punch and Judy Show and Wonderland Musee, the colored gentleman and the normal surfeit of stale jokes.”

The games got underway at 3:00 p.m. and the advertiser reported, “the program was so long and varied that it was necessary to have several going on at one time.”  Track and Field matches held the attention of the audience for most of the afternoon.

The caber toss was won by Charles Currie of Park Head and a local, James McArthur of Durham placed a close second.  “The tossing of the caber has never before been done with more effort,” reported the Advertiser.  Jerry Leslie of Owen Sound scored one for the hometown with a win in the “Old Man’s race” and the hop, step and jump was taken by Henry Connolly of Wiarton.

On through the afternoon, the heavy and light stones, the hammer, long jump, vaulting with pole, 100 and 300 yard races, half mile and mile, and “sabre competitions,” followed one after the other.  But interest, reported the newspaper “centred around where the Highland dances were held.”

The dances of Scotland are all part of the history of the land.  The dances are Scotland, the beauty of the countryside, the pathos of the nation that was and then was never again to be, the comedy and humor of the people, the grace and courage.  The strathspeys, reels, rants, measures, hornpipes, jigs and matches, all part of the everyday customs of the people. 

Dancing at the Highland Games has always been highly competitive and in 1892 the dancing began with the “opening reel and until sunset was kept up here, and so lengthy was the programme that several of the competitions had to be contested in the evening by the aid of electric lights.

Jessie McIver of Hamilton won the under 16 Highland Fling, while the Dancing Sailor’s Hornpipe crown was taken by Tammis McRae of Montreal.  The Sword Dance was a victory for Johnston Duncan of Toronto and a local lass, Karen McPherson, won Owen Sound’s only prize with a first in the Scotch Reel.

The day ended, the massed bagpipes of a dozen towns and cities and villages softly played the game to a conclusion.  The McPhatters and McNieces and McTavishes wagoned home in the moonlight leaving only the Toronto Scottish Camp to pipe in the dawn.

The Highland Games moved on to find permanent homes in Fergus, Embro, Maxville, Oshawa, and Thunder Bay.  But the Scots stayed.  They are still here.  Pages of Mac’s line the local phone book and a Scottish goods shop stands proudly with doors open on the main street of Owen Sound.

Canada gave a home to Scots.  Robert Burns had the last word when in 1796 he addressed a Highland Society meeting in Convent Garden.  Robbie Burns spoke: “We must find a way not to frustrate the desires of five hundred Highlanders who were so audacious as to attempt an escape from their lawful lords and masters, whose property they were, by emigrating from the lands of Mr. McDonald of Glengarry to the wilds of Canada in search of the fantastic thing – LIBERTY!”


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