The McGregors. by Robert Laidlaw, is
like a good country meal. Its
not fancy, but the ingredients are pure and fresh and its something to be
savoured. A lot of practical
knowledge and affection went into the writing about the Scottish people
(the Scotch), Lowland and Highland, who left their mark in that part of
the province of Ontario snuggled up to Lake Huron south of the Bruce
Peninsula. Many of their descendants are still there, and place names such
as Kincardine, Lochalsh, and Lucknow are their memorial.
I know the country well. I grew up
in Huron County, just south of
the Bruce. In that area my forefathers
had a habit of dubbing their crossroad hamlets
with the names of saints, while our
Ulster brethren used ones like Donnybrook, Dungannon, and Belfast. Scotch
or Irish, Catholic or Protestant, the early settlers tamed the land and
the taming marked them all. I like Laidlaws perception when he tells us
of James McGregor and Janet Ellis courting in a cutter and says wryly,
"There was never a chaperone to equal a Canadian winter."
If you were born and raised in the
country, and if like me your first home was a log cabin built by a
grandfather in the middle of the eighteen-hundreds, youll be fascinated
by this story, and especially by the way the author has dealt with the
experiences and hardships and joys of people who had to make do. These
people had little, could afford less, and somehow found the skills to make
what they needed. The next time you encounter a pioneers cradle, cabinet,
or chair, collected to decorate a modern house, remember how it was made.
Objects like these are perfect illustrations of how an early settler was
forced by necessity to discover skills he had never been aware ofand, in
doing so, made articles of genuine artistic worth.
Laidlaw captures the quality of
strong men, shy in the presence of women. He portrays the quiet, iron
determination of women faced with unending work, who also had to cope with
disasters such as a sudden accident crippling a husband forever, with
trying to make certain that their children captured some education, and
with the loneliness of their isolation in the bush. Remember, these were
women capable of fending off wolves and bears coming to prey on precious
livestock. It was all in a days work.
The McGregors is genuine. In fact it
reads like a true chronicle. Laidlaw knows about barn framings, about the
value of good land, about rowdiness and rough pleasure and stern, long
winded preachers. He delineates the pride of workmanship in a Scottish
stonemason, descended from a line of men with the same principles, summed
up in the words: "When you build with stone you build forever: it must be
true, it must be right, or it is there to shame your memory forever and a
The forever and a day is only a
figure of speech, but those houses are still around in Western Ontario.
Travel the back roads and concessions of Bruce or Huron counties and
youll see them, as true and right as the day they were finished.
In a sense this book is something
like those products of the early stone-masons. Solid anf substantial, with
a rough grace, it is a volume that will last forever and a day' in your
memory. Its not a flossy love story and yet its touching. The language
is unpretentious, but thats in keeping: they were unpretentious people.
For those of my vintage this book is
like a tonic. I hope younger Canadians will read it, because it is one of
the most straightforward and unbiased accounts of the particular time in
our country that I can recall. If you want to know what it was like living
on a cleared farm in the middle 1800s in Western Ontario, through into the
next century, youll get a splendid account in The McGregors. It was a
time when English, Irish, and Scotch, who had fled their homelands because
of privation, were beginning the slow assimilation into being Canadians.
If youre a Canadian literature
buff, youll also get a clue to the perceptive, incisive way Alice Munro
portrays the characters she grew up with. Her father, Robert Laidlaw,
wrote The McGregors. She has every reason to be proud and grateful
for her heritage.
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