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A Sketch of the Life of the Hon. and Right Reverend Alexander MacDonell
Formation of the Highland Society of Canada


Prior to the Bishop's departure for England, a farewell dinner was given him by the Highland Society of Upper Canada at Carmino's Hotel, Kingston.

Such a proceeding was eminently proper, for no man had done more to maintain the honour and dignity of the Highland name in Canada than had the Bishop. I will here quote from a little pamphlet containing "An Account of the Highland Society of Canada," compiled by my father, Archibald John Macdonell (the younger of Greenfield), Secretary and one of the Directors of the Society in 1844, as it shows how deep an interest Bishop Macdonell took in all that concerned the Society of which he was virtually the founder. I will first give the introductory letter. It was addressed to a well known Glengarry man, Mr. Macdonald of Gart, who lived for many years on what was formerly known as the Grey's Creek property in the Township of Charlottenburgh, on the River St. Lawrence.

To John Macdonald, Esquire, President of the Highland Society of Canada.

"My DEAR SIR,—When circumstances have forced a people to abandon their native country and seek the means of subsistence among foreigners, or in the Colonies of their own country, they carry with them as a matter of course, the feelings and the prejueices—alike honourable—which they had imbibed at home ; to perpetuate which in the land of their adoption, to instil into the minds of their children the same principles they themselves had been taught, to teach them to love above all others—above even that of their own nativity—the country from which stern necessity alone could have driven their fathers, and with which all their fathers nearest and dearest associations are connected, and to rivet the connection between their new country and their old, among other means emigrants have invariably adopted the formation of national societies. It cannot be otherwise than that these societies must answer the end for which they were instituted, and arguing with the intention of proving it, would be supererogatory and useless.

"With such objects in view did the Highlanders in London establish the Highland Society of London, with what success is well known. That this venerable and distinguished institution has mainly contributed to preserve in its purity the Highland character, and has done more to promote the general welfare of the Highlands, than any other association, is a general and well-grounded opinion.

"While the Highlanders of Canada remember with gratitude that to the late lamented Bishop Macdonell they owe the establishment of a branch of that society among them, they cannot forget that to you the)' are indebted for its organization after it had ceased operations for fifteen years.

"The generous and patriotic motives that animated you in the work cannot be sufficiently appreciated ; but I am sure that you feel yourself in some measure recompensed for all your trouble and anxiety, when you consider how much the Society has already done to promote the objects for which it was established and re-organized.

In order that those objects may be more generally and more clearly known and understood, I have, by permission, compiled an account of the Society, containing the speech of Mr. Simon MacGillivray to the gentlemen who took part in its formation, from which more can be learned of the history and purposes of the Parent Society than from any remarks I could make; the constitution and by-laws, a list of the members, and such other information the publication of which, I thought, would in any way tend to serve the Society, or interest and gratify its members.

I do not think it necessary to appeal to the feelings of our countrymen for a liberal support of the institution; this has already been given, and to their credit be it spoken, that from Quebec to Amherstburg the utmost enthusiasm has been shown in support of this Society, which I hope and believe will be the instrument of preserving in Canada the recollection of the Highland name, and with it the chivalrous and devoted loyalty, and other noble qualities which made the ancient Highland character the first in the world. Should the national character be doomed to give way to the encroachments of modern innovations, you will have, in an eminent degree, the satisfaction of knowing that you made an effort to save it.

"As a member of the Highland Society of Canada, I joined most heartily in the mark of grateful respect shown by it to its venerated founder: and as such I desire to express my gratitude to its preserver, while as a private individual, I shew my respect for the gentleman by inscribing this small compilation to you.

I am, my dear Sir.
"Very truly yours,
"ARCH. JOHN MACDOXELL,
(Younger of Greenfield.)
"GreenIeld, Glengarry, 22nd January, 1844."

THE SECRETARY'S NARRATIVE.

"The Right Reverend Bishop Macdonell, whose whole life was spent in the service of his countrymen, rightly judging that the establishment of such an institution would be of very material benefit to them, solicited and obtained from the Highland Society of London, of which he was a distinguished member, a commission to establish a branch in Canada, of which number the Bishop himself was one. Upon its receipt, the gentlemen to whom it was addressed, being of opinion that the Counties of Glengarry and Stormont, forming the great Highland Settlement in Canada, would offer at once the greatest facility for the establishment, and the most favourable field for the operation of such an association, determined to hold the institutional meeting in them, and accordingly called a meeting of such gentlemen as were willing to aid, at the house of Mr. Angus Macdonell, at St. Raphael's, in Glengarry.

A highly respectable meeting took place in accordance with the requisition on 10th November, 1818, over which Mr. Simon MacGillivray, one of the Vice-Presidents of the Highland Society of London, presided, and at which were present among others, three of the best and finest Highland gentlemen this Province ever saw, the late Honourable William MacGillivrav. the late Bishop Macdonell and the late Honourable Neil MacLean, all of whom 'though dead still live in the hearts of their countrymen.' The Commission under which the Branch was to be constituted, being produced, was read as follows:-

"Whereas, the Highland Society of London was instituted in the year 1778 to associate together in the British Metropolis, the nobility, landed proprietors and others of the Highlands, together with their descendants, the officers of Highland Corps and gentlemen connected by family alliance with, or who have rendered some signal service to, that part of the Kingdom; for preserving the language, martial spirit, dress, music, and antiquities of the ancient Caledonians; for rescuing from oblivion the valuable remains of Celtic literature; for the establishment and support of Gaelic; for relieving distressed Highlanders at a distance from their native homes, and for promoting the welfare and general improvement of the northern parts of the Island of Great Britain.

"'And whereas, the society to extend the benefit of this Institution, and to unite together in a central union their countrymen wherever situated, have resolved to issue Commissions for the establishment of Branches thereof in the British Colonies and other places at home and abroad, where Highlanders are resident, and being extremely desirous that a Branch should be established in Canada, you are hereby empowered and requested, in pursuance of this resolution, to form a Branch of the Highland Society of London in Canada accordingly, with authority to make such by-laws as may be necessary for the management thereof, in conformity with the principles and rules of the said Society.

(Signed.) FREDERICK. '"President.

To William MacGillivray, Esq.,
Angus Shaw, Esq.,
Rev. Alexander Macdonell,
John Macdonald, Esq.,
Henry Mackenzie, Esq.'

"The commission being laid on the table, the Chairman, in opening the business of the meeting stated, 'that the best account of the objects and views of the Highland Society was to be found in the Commission just read, and it only remained for him to give some account of the origin and history of the Society, and to offer some suggestions in regard to the best mode of proceeding in the establishment of the proposed branch thereof, by the gentlemen whom he had the honour of addressing.

"'The Highland Society of London was at first merely a convivial club, established by some young Highlanders, as a place of resort, where they went to spend occasional evenings among their countrymen, and to refer to occurrences, recollections and feelings endeared to them by early associations; to resume the garb and language of their ancestors, and to introduce the songs of the bards and the music of the minstrels which had always bestowed and distinguished a peculiar character on the social meetings of Highlanders.

"Happily, the Highland Club then established soon became known to many public-spirited individuals of distinction and influence in society, and it occurred to them that the design might be extended and applied to public objects of the highest national utility. A meeting of noblemen and gentlemen was accordingly assembled, and the Society was established for the public purposes recited in the Commission—with such views and with the support of a succession of men of the first rank and consideration in the country, it was scarcely necessary to add, that the Society had flourished and was now in the highest state of prosperity. It comprised in the list of its members, with few, if any exceptions, all the noblemen and gentlemen connected with the Highlands, and who usually resorted to London.

"The names of several of the Princes graced the rolls of the Institution, and the Prince Regent himself had condescended to become a member and to accept the Highland distinction of Chief of the Society. In order further to increase the utility, and to insure the permanency of the Highland Society, it has been incorporated by an act of Parliament, and might therefore be justly described a benevolent, a literary, and an antiquarian Society, with lawful authority superior to any other similar Institution in the United Kingdom.

"'To enter into any details respecting the beneuicient services to the Highlands, and to the country at large, that are rendered by this Society, or even to enumerate them, would occupy far too much of the time of the evening, and therefore he (the Chairman) wished to suggest on what points it would be expedient for the Society about to be established in Canada to follow the example of the Parent Society, and what other objects conducive to the improvement and to the peculiar interests of this Province might be associated with those specified in the Commission. The objects of the Highland Society of London were first for preserving the language, martial spirit, dress, music and antiquities of the ancient Caledonians, and thus maintaining a bond of association wherever they should meet. This wish to preserve in the present day the language and Customs of other times might possibly be called prejudice, but so also might many of the noblest feelings which can actuate the human mind. Modern latitude of opinion might stigmatize as prejudice the loyalty of the patriot and the devotedness of the soldier; the self-called citizen of the world might, in the language of universal philanthrophy, blame love of country itself, as a narrow and prejudiced feeling, and while we attempt to measure principles by their utility, might in fact reduce them to individual and sordid selfishness. But surely to a meeting of Highlanders it was unnecessary to enlarge on this point, or to explain how love of country might resolve itself into love of one's own countrymen, and thence into attachment to the peculiar customs which distinguished those countrymen, and, even on the score of utility, to the garb which distinguished the Highland soldier, of the language in which the deeds of his forefathers were celebrated, and the music which animated him in the day of battle—all of which were objects well deserving the attention of those who wished to preserve unimpaired the martial spirit, and devote themselves to the service of the Country.

"'The next object of the Society, viz.: the rescuing from oblivion the valuable remains of Gaelic literature, was one which he supposed could not be much promoted in this Province; but if any such remains were still extant among any of the more ancient emigrants, - it was needless to point out the propriety of immediate attention to them. The object next specified, viz.: the establishment and support of Gaelic schools and the relieving of distressed Highlanders at a distance from their native homes, were both peculiarly applicable to the state of society in this Province, where the means of bestowing generally the benefits of education were still very deficient, and where many Highland emigrants were daily arriving in a state of great poverty and distress.

"'The object of the Parent Society for promoting the improvement and general welfare of the northern parts of the Island of Great Britain would probably in this branch thereof be modified, so as to apply to the improvement and general welfare of the Highland Settlements in this Province, and though he was deficient in local knowledge on the subject, yet the information he received left no room to doubt, that by a judicious distribution of premiums for agricultural improvement and by other means within the reach of the Society, much might be done towards promoting an object so desirable.

"'This mention of premiums naturally led him to consider the means of providing them and of contributing to the other objects of the Society, which it was evident, could only be done by subscriptions to be paid by members; and in fixing the rate of such subscriptions the meeting would have to consider, on the one side, the expediency of raising ample funds to promote such laudable purposes, and on the other, the danger of deterring eligible members from coining forward by exacting too high a contribution on admission into the Society.

'"On this point, and indeed on many others on which he had touched, he (the Chairman) had derived much information and assistance from a gentleman well-known to the meeting, and highly esteemed by all to whom he was known; a gentleman active and indefatigable in promotion every object connected with the prosperity of the Province, and to whose individual exertions the meeting was indebted for obtaining the Commission under which they were then *assembled, and for organizing the measures to be brought before them. This gentleman was the Reverend Alexander Macdonell. and he (the Chairman) stated that this gentleman's previous approbation of the propositions to be submitted to the meeting would of itself be sufficient to secure them a favourable reception. It only remained to speak of the internal regulations of the Society.'

"Mr. MacGillivray then proceeded to discuss some matters of internal economy, particularly the date of the general annual meeting of the Society, and after suggesting the anniversary of the Battle of Alexandria (which day, the 21st of March, had been selected by the Parent Society) and the anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, urged that the 18th of June should be adopted, as on that day Scotchmen, Englishmen and Irishmen had stood shoulder to shoulder at Waterloo, for the good not only of Britain alone, but of all Europe and even the civilized world, against a far more formidable man than King Edward—a day on which Highlanders had maintained the reputation of their country and emulated the deeds of their ancestors; and that day was accordingly selected.

It was then resolved, That it is expedient to establish in this Province a Branch of the Highland Society of London, to be called the Highland Society of Canada.

After a constitution, which declared the objects of the newly- formed Society similar to those of the Parent Society, had been adopted, the meeting proceeded to the election of office-bearers, when the Reverend Alexander Macdonell communicated the highly- gratifying intelligence that he had solicited and obtained the consent of His Excellency Sir Peregrine Maitland to become President, and the following gentlemen were unanimously elected to and, with the exception of the President, were immediately installed into their respective offices:

President
Sir Peregrine Maitland, K.C.B., &c., &c., &c.

Vice-Presidents
The Reverend Alexander Macdonell.
Colonel the Honourable Neil MacLean,
Lieutenant-Colonel Donald Greenfield Macdonell.

Treasurer
Alexandria Fraser. Esquire.

Secretary:
Archibald MacLean, Esquire.

Directors
Roderick MacLeod,
Alexander MacLean,
Alexander Wilkinson, Esquires.

"After a vote of thanks had been given to the Honourable William MacGillivray and Mr. Simon MacGillivray for their attendance at, and able assistance in. the formation of the Society, the meeting broke up."

My father states that the Society continued in active operations for several years, and contributed largely to the objects for which it was formed, drawing upon itself the blessing of many distressed Highlanders, whom it relieved at a distance from their native home; several liberal contributions in money were given to assist gentlemen engaged in the publication of works in the Gaelic language, and a succession of premiums to Gaelic scholars, performers on the bagpipes and the best dressed Highlanders; nor were the remains of Celtic literature neglected, while some collection of Gaelic poetry was made.

Owing, however, to the death of some and the removal of others of the master spirits who guided it from this part of the country, to the frequency of the meetings, and the high rate at which the yearly subscription was fixed, and deprived of the fostering care and immediate superintendence of Bishop Macdonell by his removal to Kingston, the Society, after some years of usefulness, struggled for some time under all these difficulties (added to which were those imposed upon by political excitement and the private dissensions of some of its members) and then sank into the sleep from which the exertions of Mr. Macdonald of Gart (and, I presume, those of the then Secretary as well, although be sure be did not mention it) awakened it.

That its first act on its reorganization was one worthy of the Scotch gentlemen who regulated its affairs and worthy of the great Highlander then lately departed, we shall shortly see.


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