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Canada’s Scots and Tartan Day Celebrations
by Marie Fraser

It’s refreshing to have a Scot like Alastair McIntyre ask how Canadians perceive themselves and how they celebrate their Scots heritage, rather than being lumped in with those other descendants of expatriate Scots who settled on that smaller land mass to the south of us. I believe it was Professor Edward J. Cowan, a friend and former head of the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Guelph, Ontario, now head of the Department of Scottish History at the University of Glasgow, who, during one of his lively lectures, displayed one of those traditional maps of Scotland showing the Shetland Islands in a small box at the top right hand corner. Ted explained that the inhabitants of the latter were so fed up with being identified as that tiny spot at the top right hand corner of the map, they decided to produce their own map of the Shetland Islands showing Mainland Scotland in a small box at the bottom left hand corner of the map. My favourite analogy is Ludovic Kennedy’s "In Bed with an Elephant, A Journey through Scotland’s Past and Present" (1995), where the Anglo-Scot broadcaster and writer chose the title from a 1969 speech given by Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in Washington, DC to relate with humour his view of Scotland’s rather stormy relationship with England over the centuries. Trudeau’s mother was an Elliott and his father-in-law was Jimmy Sinclair, Rhodes scholar, RCAF fighter pilot in WW II, a well-known federal politician and businessman in Vancouver, BC who was born in Grange, Banffshire.


Scots have been leaving home for hundreds of years. While the population of Scotland is around five million, it is estimated that there are many more millions of people with some Scottish ancestry, worldwide. Wherever they went, Scots adapted to their new country but seldom forgot their heritage. If anything, these expatriates have held onto their Scottishness more enthusiastically than Scots living in Scotland.

The impact of Scots on North America has been considerable. They have integrated into the culture of their adopted countries and contributed to many facets of society, but seldom have they been vocal about their efforts. One might suggest that Scots tend to be "clannish", celebrating their music and customs with one another, but they are often overlooked as an ethnic group in the increasingly multicultural mix of Canada and the United States. To add to this confusion, Scots are usually lumped in with the "English" population when census time comes around, and it has been difficult to estimate what a large group Scots really represent in the population of Canada and the United States.

The impact of Scots on the development of Canada is remarkable. If we accept the claim that Prince Henry Sinclair sailed from the Orkney Islands and landed in what is now Nova Scotia and the coast of New England in 1398, or that Scottish sailors accompanied the early Vikings who landed in Newfoundland in 1010, the influence of Scots may be greater than previously imagined. It is a matter of record that the Fraser Highlanders represented the largest contingent of troops in the British Army under General James Wolfe (1727-59). The role of the 78th Fraser Highlanders, raised in Scotland in 1757 to fight for the British against France during the Seven Years War (1757-63), has been well documented. Many Scottish soldiers stayed on after the regiment was disbanded in 1763, married French women, and settled in the new country, leaving numerous descendants, many of whom are totally Francophone, who are proud of their Scottish ancestry.

Worsening economic conditions in the Highlands following the disaster of Culloden in 1746 caused many Highland Scots to emigrate to countries around the world in search of a better life. Scots came in vast numbers to Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Quebec and Eastern Ontario in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. While conditions were harsh in the new country, the hardy Scots adapted well and soon prospered. Highland Scots were the prime movers in the North West Company of fur traders, based in Montreal. They helped to establish trade routes and explore the vast country where only native peoples had been before. Scots built Montreal, helped to establish banks, insurance companies and merchant trading companies. They established educational institutions, were prominent in medicine, law and the clergy. They included politicians, educators and skilled tradesmen, manufacturers and farmers. Scots excelled in all facets of life in their adopted country which, in 1867, became Canada.

The idea of setting aside one day each year to honour the role of Scots in the early history of Canada was put forward in the late 1980s by Mrs. Jean Watson of Nova Scotia. Mrs. Watson worked tirelessly to solicit support from politicians and Scottish groups in Nova Scotia to establish Tartan Day, eventually gaining enough support for the idea to have it accepted. She did not stop there, and continued to write letters to federal and provincial politicians and Scottish groups across Canada, urging them to adopt Tartan Day. Her persistence paid off, when the Clans & Scottish Societies of Canada endorsed her idea and convinced Ontario MPP Bill Murray to put forward a Private Member’s Bill in the Ontario Legislature, to adopt Tartan Day in Ontario, which was passed on December 19, 1991, with unanimous support of all three parties. Other provinces and the Yukon Territories followed with similar resolutions, and by 2000 all, except Quebec and Newfoundland, recognized April 6th as Tartan Day.

Efforts have been made to recognize the contribution of Scots by establishing similar events to Tartan Day in other countries, but these events have usually been held on July 1st. Since July 1st is celebrated as Canada Day, the date of April 6th was chosen to celebrate Tartan Day in Canada.

On 6th April 1320, at Arbroath Abbey on the east coast of Scotland, the nobles, barons and freeholders, together with the "whole community of the realm of Scotland," subscribed a letter to Pope John XXII, asking him to recognise the country’s political independence under the kingship of Robert Bruce, declaring the independence of Scotland from English domination following the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Sir Alexander Fraser, who in 1316 married Robert the Bruce’s widowed sister, Lady Mary, was appointed Chamberlain of Scotland in 1319, and his seal appears on this inspirational document which became known as The Declaration of Arbroath.

Declaration of Arbroath"But if our King were to abandon the cause by being ready to make us, or our kingdom, subject to the King of England or to the English, we should at once do our utmost to expel him as our enemy and the betrayer of his own rights and ours, and should choose some other man to be our king, who would be ready to defend us. For so long as a hundred of us shall remain alive, we are resolved not to submit to the domination of the English. It is not for glory, wealth or honour that we are fighting, but for freedom and freedom only, which no true man ever surrenders except with his life."

Since that time, Scotland has been a sovereign nation, now part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

As Past Chairman of Clans & Scottish Societies of Canada, my husband, W. Neil Fraser, represented CASSOC at a conference of the principal organizations in the United States, convened by the Caledonian Foundation, USA Inc., in Sarasota, Florida in March 1996. During that conference he explained why it would have been inappropriate for us to choose July 1st (Canada Day), in the same way that it would be inappropriate for them to choose July 4th (Independence Day). He also reported on the efforts of CASSOC to establish Tartan Day as a national day to celebrate our Scottish heritage in Canada and explained the concept of the event celebrated in Canada since 1987. The idea was met with great interest by the participants and was subsequently adopted by the Coalition of U.S. Scottish Organizations established as a result of the Sarasota conference.

The first observance of Tartan Day on a national basis in the United States was on April 6th 1997, and a resolution proclaiming April 6th as Tartan Day was entered into the U.S. Congressional Record on the following day.

In February 2000, Neil and I were invited to attend the Sarasota conference of the Scottish Coalition, representing six of the leading U.S. Scottish organizations, where he chaired a workshop on Tartan Day (April 6th).

Alan L. Bain, President of The American-Scottish Foundation, Inc., based in New York, telephoned Neil and sent a transcript of his remarks about National Tartan Day, on the occasion of the Wallace Award Presentation to Sir Sean Connery in Washington, DC on April 5, 2001, in the presence of Vice President Dick Cheney; Sir Sean and Lady Connery; Senator Trent Lott, Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the United States, Sir Christopher Meyer; First Minister McLeish, Dr. Lloyd J. Ogilvie, Senate Chaplain and President of the St. Andrew’s Society of Washington, DC, and other distinguished guests.

"And finally to two individuals who are not present today but for whose efforts Tartan Day may have never come into being, Neil Fraser, Chairman, Clan Fraser Society of Canada, who introduced the concept of Tartan Day to the Scottish Coalition, and Duncan MacDonald, defacto Head of the Scottish Coalition, a lady of indomitable spirit who, by sheer force of her will, drove Coalition members to make Tartan Day a reality. Thank you one and all."

Proof, once again, that Scots can work together to accomplish almost anything - especially when they are steered in the right direction by such dynamic ladies as Duncan MacDonald and Joanne Phipps!

Celebrating Tartan Day in Canada

The date of April 6th was chosen to celebrate the role of the independent Scots who helped to discover, conquer, explore, settle and build the country now called Canada.

The Scottish Studies Foundation is a charitable organization dedicated to actively supporting the Scottish Studies Program at the University of Guelph, established in 1966, and the eventual establishment of a Chair of Scottish Studies. The Foundation also plans to work with other universities across Canada to create and develop similar programs for the preservation of Canada’s Scottish heritage. The Scottish Studies Society hosts an annual Tartan Day Celebration Dinner in April, with the proceeds being donated to the Scottish Studies Foundation. During this major fund-raising event, which has been held in Toronto since 1993, a prominent man or woman is honoured as Scot of the Year.

1993 - Major General Lewis W. MacKenzie, MSC, O.StJ., CD, BA; Canadian forces officer; born 1940, Truro, Nova Scotia

1994 - The Hon. Bertha Wilson, CC, MA, LL.B, LL.D; supreme court judge; born 1923, Kirkcaldy, Fife

1995 - Lloyd Robertson, O.C.; broadcaster; born 1934, Stratford, Ontario

1996 - The Hon. Donald S. Macdonald, P.C., C.C., B.A., LL.B., LL.M.; born 1932, Ottawa, Ontario

1997 - Colonel The Hon. Henry N.R. Jackman, C.M., O.Ont., K.St.J., LL.D.; executive; born 1932, Toronto, Ontario

1998 - John E. Cleghorn, B.Comm., C.A., banker; born 1941, Montreal, Quebec

1999 - Michael I. M. MacMillan, B.A (Hons.); film and television producer; born 1956, Scarborough, Ontario

2000 - Lynton (Red) Wilson, O.C., M.A.; executive; born 1940, Port Colborne, Ontario

2001 - Katherine Macmillan, B.A. (Hons.); executive; born Toronto, Ontario

2002 - Alistair MacLeod, B.A., B.Ed., M.A., Ph.D., professor and writer; born 1936, Battleford, Saskatchewan

Scots would not be true to their heritage if they did not compete with each other, and Canadian Scots are certainly not unique in choosing to celebrate their Scottishness in their own way, in their own cities and towns, across this vast country.

Congratulations to Alan Bain, and the American Scottish community, for arranging a huge parade of pipers in New York to mark Tartan Day celebrations in the United States in April 2002. However, my husband and I will be quite happy and privileged to join the members of the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada, the 78th Fraser Highlanders and other friends in Montreal on April 6th to watch General John de Chastelain accept the 2002 Scotsman of the Year award from the Quebec Thistle Council, where he will no doubt be attired in Drummond tartan in honour of his grandmother, and will favour us with the bagpiping skills he learned many years ago while serving with the Calgary Highlanders. The former Canadian Ambassador to the United States and former Chief of Defence Staff of the Canadian Armed Forces, now spends much of his time away from his Ottawa home, as Chairman, Independent International Commission on Decommissioning of Arms in Northern Ireland. In 1999 he topped the Queen’s U.K. New Year List when he was made a Companion of Honour for his role in the peace process.

James Bruce 8th Earl of Elgin and 12th Earl of Kincardine (1811-1863) was Governor General of Canada 1847-54. Notwithstanding the riot and burning of the parliament buildings in Montreal, Lord Elgin proved to be one of the best appointments, and his triumph was to secure responsible government, which would be accountable to whichever political party dominated the legislature. As Lady Elgin’s uncle, Earl Gray, had shrewdly admitted to Nova Scotia’s Lieutenant Governor Sir John Harvey in 1846: "It is neither possible nor desirable to carry out the government of any of the British provinces in North America in opposition to the opinion of its inhabitants."

Andrew Bruce 11th Earl of Elgin and 15th Earl of Kincardine, K.T., wrote to clarify comments made about his great-grandfather in the Clan Fraser Society of Canada newsletter "Canadian Explorer": "How good of you to keep up the little jokes which make a few laughs in these dreary times but, of course, you have managed to get it wrong yet again. The Governor General was not expelled from the St. Andrew’s Society for non-payment of fees but for political reasons and being deemed unfit to be considered a suitable holder of Honorary Membership. Several curling clubs also expunged the name of their Honorary Patron at the same time."

Following a visit to Canada in October 2001, he commented on an article in the St. Andrew’s Society of Toronto newsletter entitled "Lord Elgin, the mob, and the society" about his ancestor being pelted with stones: "I am happy to let you know that two of these stones are very carefully preserved among the other more delightful artifacts of his time of Governor General. There was also mention of the St. Andrew’s Society of Montreal returning His Excellency’s subscription. My wife and I were guests of that society and, to mark the occasion, I gave them a little silver quaich with the inscription ‘To mark the resumption of a friendship between the Family of Bruce and the St. Andrew’s Society of Montreal which had lapsed briefly over the past 123 years’. "

My husband and I had the pleasure of being asked to greet the Earl and Countess upon their arrival in Toronto, en route to Montreal where they were guests of honour at the World Scottish Festival in August 1992, and we have kept in touch since that time.

In conclusion, Alastair, Canadian Scots know what motivates them to visit Scotland, and how they wish to celebrate their Scottish heritage at home, but it is nice, nevertheless, to be asked. J

See also The Scot in British North America

Canadian Government Declare Tartan Day Official in Canada

Government of Canada Makes Maple Leaf Tartan an Official Symbol of Canada
OTTAWA, March 9, 2011 -

Our thanks to Len Westerberg, Media Relations Advisor, Government of Canada, for providing this article and the pictures.

© Canadian Heritage

It's official! Canada's Maple Leaf Tartan, which has been our unofficial national tartan for many years, has now become an official symbol of Canada.

"The Maple Leaf Tartan has been worn proudly and enjoyed by Canadians for decades, but has never been elevated to the level of an official symbol–until now," said the Honourable James Moore, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages.

"Our national symbols express our identity and define our history. The Maple Leaf Tartan represents the contributions that the more than four million Canadians of Scottish heritage continue to make to our country," added Minister Moore.

The Maple Leaf Tartan was created in 1964 by David Weiser in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of Confederation in 1967.

"The tartan is one of the most visual expressions of Scottish heritage and culture," said the Honourable John Wallace, Senator (New Brunswick). "Making the Maple Leaf Tartan an official symbol of Canada highlights the many significant contributions that people of Scottish heritage have made to the founding of Canada."

The Second Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment Pipes and Drums has adopted the Maple Leaf Tartan, and National Defence Headquarters has approved it for issue for Canadian Forces pipers and drummers who do not have a specific regimental affiliation. It was also featured in costumes worn last year during the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics.

On October 21, 2010, the Government of Canada announced that April 6 will be formally recognized as Tartan Day. This April 6, Canadians across the country will be able to celebrate this day with a new official symbol of Canada.

As an official symbol of Canada, the Maple Leaf Tartan joins Canada's most significant emblems, such as the Coat of Arms and the National Flag of Canada.

The colours of the maple leaf through the changing seasons became the basis for the tartan designed by David Weiser in 1964. Known officially as the Maple leaf tartan, the pattern incorporates the green of the leaves' summer foliage, the gold which appears in early autumn, the red which appears with the coming of the first frost, and the brown tones of the fallen leaves.

Return to Articles by Marie Fraser  |  Recipients of Canada’s Scot of the Year Award


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