Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

The Western Canadian Alternative

Unlike those in the United States, the Scots in Canada have always retained a high public profile. From the sailing of the Hectar (the Canadian "Mayflower") from Ullapool in 1773 to the Highland Clearances of the 1840s—"nothing now remains but to have them removed to Canada" wrote one observer—to the late twentieth century, Scottish immigration has played a crucial role in Canadian history." In 1841 Robert MacDongall wrote one of the few Gaelic travel books—The Emigrant’s Guide to North America—for Highlanders contemplating the move. The thirteen volumes of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, which carry the story to 1920, "are simply full of Scots." Historian J. M. Bumsted has argued that Scottish immigration to Canada remained roughly stable throughout much of the nineteenth century—around 3,000 a year. One hundred and seventy thousand arrived between 1815 and 1870; 80,000 between 1870 and 1890; and 246,000 between 1900 and 1918. This consistent influx of settlers kept memories of the old country alive for each generation. By 1870 at the latest, the Scots had established themselves as the third largest ethnic group in Canadian society. By 1911 one observer boasted that Scots held about half of the nation’s top positions. Even today, many Scots who have never set foot in the United States have made numerous trips to Canada.

Unlike the States, nineteenth-century Canada never developed any melting-pot ideal. Their preferred metaphor of national identity became a mosaic. Thus, Canadian Scots found it easier than those in the States to retain their ethnicity. As a result, assimilation into the dominant culture varied considerably from province to province. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, whole clans settled in Nova Scotia (New Scotland) and Cape Breton Island. The region today is studded with Highland place-names. Even after five generations of settlement, Gaelic remains the preferred language for thousands of Cape Bretonites. The last all-Gaelic newspaper MacTalla (Echo), which survived until World War I, was published not in Inverness but in Sidney, Nova Scotia. In 1930 a Scots writer observed that "there is no part of the Empire more Highland than Cape Breton." Ontario also produced a vibrant Scottish subculture. In 1990, when Canadian writer David Craig began searching for stories of the Highland Clearances, he discovered a history of family legend and artifacts throughout all of eastern Canada. In 1949, when the St. Andrew’s Society of Detroit held its one-hundredth anniversary celebration, virtually all the pipers, bands, and Highland dancers hailed from either Ontario or the Prairie Provinces. As Ged Martin and Jeffrey Simpson have recently observed, few places have as much in common as do Canada and Scotland. To a large degree, they wrote, "the history of the one is the history of the other."

Although the impact of Scots on eastern Canada has been fairly well studied, the story of the western migration has been less highly profiled. Yet because the Prairie Provinces and British Columbia contained relatively few people, the power of a strong personality—often touted as a Scots characteristic—could reach a great distance. Historian J. M. Bumsted’s figures for Scots in the Canadian West read as follows:

Total Scots in the Canadian West

Even though declining slightly over time, as late as 1941 Scots still composed almost one-seventh of the western Canadian population.

The story of Scottish settlement in the Canadian West begins with Thomas Douglas, Fifth Earl of Selkirk. Born in 1771, Selkirk reached his maturity during the heady days of the French Revolution. His idealism also drew on the Scottish Enlightenment, whose principles he absorbed while attending the University of Edinburgh (where he knew Walter Scott). A man of catholic interests, Selkirk wrote books and essays on numerous themes: national defence, the fur trade, American Indian civilization, and poverty in Edinburgh. No armchair theorist, he mastered Gaelic so as to understand the Highlands better and also inaugurated a modest scheme to alleviate Edinburgh’s worst social problems. In 1799, much to his surprise—for he was the seventh son—he succeeded to the family title. Afterwards he had the resources to enact some of his ideas on a grand scale.

During the course of his education Selkirk had read McKenzie’s Voyages and been deeply impressed. Later he sought out other books on the fur trade, even adding one to their number. By chance his interest in North America coincided with his long.. standing concern over the plight of the Highlanders. In 1802 Selkirk established a pioneer Highland colony on Prince Edward Island, which, if it was not quite a success, was not a failure either. Then, in 1811, he purchased title to 120,000 square miles along the Red River of the North from the Hudson’s Bay Company for what became his most celebrated venture. Terming the area "Assiniboine," Selkirk selected Miles MacDonnell as governor and oversaw the 1812 arrival of thirty-six Scottish and Northern-Irish workers in one of the grandest colonial ventures in the Canadian West. The new colony sited itself a mile below the North West fur-trading post of Fort Gibraltar in Manitoba and soon became known as the Red River settlement.

On one hand the little settlement at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers produced an object lesson in Enlightenment humanity. But it also produced a clash of cultures and economics. The fur traders of the rival North West Company viewed Selkirk’s settlement and the Hudson’s Bay Company’s management of the situation with a jaundiced eye. They interpreted Red River as a bald attempt to cut off their supplies of furs and block them from their traditional lines of communication. Consequently, in June 1816 a group of North Westerners, led by Cuthbert Grant, a Scoto-Indian mixed-blood, murdered twenty-two settlers in the now-infamous "Seven Oaks massacre." Lord Selkirk arrived the next year with troops to restore the settlement. While tension remained for years, further dangers to the colony came primarily from other sources: frosts, grasshoppers, and especially floods. Although the community contained a number of ethnic groups from the onset, the Scottish immigrants predominated. In 1821 Scots comprised more than 50 percent of the population of Red River (221 of 419).

That same year the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company united, thus closing more than two decades of bitter rivalry. The union not only ended all danger of raids on Red River, it began to alter the nature of the community itself. The largely mixed-blood trappers began to consider the settlement as their own. After retirement from trapping they moved there in large numbers. By 1836 the population had grown to five thousand; by 1845 it had reached seven thousand. With this growth the Scots component of the Red River community lost its dominance. In 1845 it had dropped to a mere 5 percent (four hundred of seven thousand). It remained at that level when Manitoba became a province in 1870 (seven hundred of twelve thousand).

With the Red River experiment Lord Selkirk forged the model that would be followed all through the century for Scottish settlement in the West. If kith and kin emigrated together, departure from Scotland did not necessarily mean exile. But, as time would show, it proved far easier to sustain Scottish group loyalty in eastern Canada—Prince Edward Island, Cape Breton, and Ontario—than in the vast regions of the Canadian West.

If the Scots component of Red River faded over time, the number of Canadian Scots mixed-bloods in the region rose. Cuthbert Grant was appointed "Warden of the Plains" by the Hudson’s Bay Company and eventually established the community of Granttown at White Horse Plains, west of Winnipeg. On the west bank of the Red River, mixed-bloods and Orkney farmers steadily carved out small homesteads. Other Scoto-Indians assumed leadership roles, notably Captain William Kennedy, an explorer, trader, legislator, and negotiator of Indian treaties. Alexander Ross, who lived there with his Native wife and mixed-blood children, always thought that Red River might serve Canada as its "city on the Hill" (on the plains?)—a model to imitate regarding national race relations.

During the 1860s Scots-born politicians John A. Macdonald and George Brown led the movement for confederation; both of the first two Canadian prime ministers were childhood émigrés. In addition about one-fifth of Canada’s industrialists in the 1880s were of Scottish birth, as were many of the timber magnates and bankers. Scots also served as the first veterinarians of the West. Most of the great railway entrepreneurs, from surveyors to builders, were also Scots, Donald A. Smith and George Stephen of Moray Firth being perhaps the most famous. When the last spike was driven in 1885 at a spot named Craigellachie, British Columbia, an observer noted:

His [Lord Strathcona’s] presence recalled memories of the Mackenzies, Frasers, Finlaysons, Thompsons, MacTavishes, McLeods, MacGillivrays, Stuarts, and McLoughlins, who in a past generation had penetrated the surrounding mountains.

In a real sense the laying of the Canadian Railway track created the west country. Outside of slow and ineffectual river communication, no real settlement was possible without effective transportation. Until the arrival of the railroad in the 1880s, neither the government nor private individuals made any concerted effort to open the Canadian West to European settlement.

From the 1870s forward, however, Canada’s dreams of populating its West fit well into Britain’s plans to resettle displaced crofters from the Highlands and Islands. In 1886 the Canadian high commissioner agreed to provide financial aid to this scheme for "so desirable a class of settlers as the Scotch crofters."

Since life on the prairies in Victorian Canada proved largely male, a considerable demand arose for women settlers as well. Shetland author Jessie M. Saxby wrote to encourage middleclass Scots women to immigrate to the Canadian West, as did Edinburgh native Elizabeth Mitchel. Western Canada, they suggested, offered both economic opportunity and a chance for social advancement. "There is so much room here" became their major message. Each individual, especially the women, counted, because "there were so few of them." Moreover, most Victorians believed that the mere presence of women would cause men to behave better. Thus, the appeal for women settlers would help civilize the barbaric West.

Because of the demand for settlers, a minor "recruiting war" erupted between the various public and private agencies. Agents from the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Canadian National Railway, the Canadian national government, and the various Canadian provinces sometimes worked with, and sometimes against, one another in the quest for settlers. In addition they jostled with agents from the American western states and the American railroads.

The Canadians generally won the recruiting war for Scots with ease. Historian Marjory Harper has counted 16,000 immigrants from northeast Scotland who left for Canada in the middle of the nineteenth century. During a later period, 91 percent of all emigrants from the port of Aberdeen listed Canada as their destination. Canadian adverts continually emphasized the theme that their provinces were "more like home" than the United States. From 1910 to 1914 about 170,000 Scots emigrated to Canada.

Canadian agents based in Scotland raised recruiting to the level of high art. They commissioned booking agents in all the major cities and in many remote parts of the land. From a Glasgow base they sent speakers out on a steady tour of the farming regions of the Lowlands and northeastern Scotland. Since the Canadian prairies demanded agricultural skills, the various recruiters began to turn away from the crowded British cities to concentrate on Scotland’s richer farm regions. The culmination came in 1907 when agent John MacLennan, a Gaelic-speaking Canadian from Alberta, established a permanent office in Aberdeen. For over a decade he regularly sent hundreds of agricultural Scots to Canada.

MacLennan proved a master of his trade. He met with from twenty to thirty visitors a day in his downtown office. He obtained posters, pamphlets, and leaflets, which he distributed at numerous local gatherings at hotels, working men’s clubs, annual hiring fairs for farm workers, livestock markets (held weekly), and summer shows. He hired billboards and sent out a traveling display of Canadian produce and natural resources to every local fair. Its message, "You need Canada—Canada Needs You," was also echoed in the regular adverts placed in area newspapers. On occasion he helped fund visits by Scottish journalists or representatives of local farm organizations.

MacLennan’s message bore fruit. During his first year in Aberdeen he replied to more than 100 letters a week. During January 1910 he responded to more than 320 a week. During a 1909 speaking tour he drew an audience of 400 in Insch and 1,800 in Elgin. The Aberdeen Journal suggested that Canada’s interest in the area reflected a recognition of the superior quality of settlers from northern Scotland. Local pride notwithstanding, the Journal had a point. The small farmers, farm workers, farm wives, and maid servants all possessed skills that were immediately applicable to the recently opened Canadian prairies. One Canadian Pacific Railway agent in the early 1 920s actually journeyed with his Black Isle recruits to northern Saskatchewan to make certain they were properly settled. Moreover, as Harper has noted, the emigrants from northeast Scotland seldom left without some modest financial means. The region was losing "the backbone of the rural population," complained the Aberdeen Herald. About 20 percent of the 1.2 million British people who arrived between 1901 and 1914 were born in Scotland. Canadian recruiting agents could be found touring northeast Scotland until the 1930s.

Once the railroad opened up the Canadian prairies, a number of private organizations made similar attempts at settling Scottish immigrants. The huge Scottish-Canadian Land and Settlement Association, Ltd., the Dundee Land Investment Company, the Scottish Ontario and Manitoba Land Company, and the Dundee Investment Company all tried to establish various "Scottish colonies." In 1888 the Canadian Pacific Railway proclaimed that "millions of acres" of rich land awaited the landless and touted Assiniboia as a virtual utopia. Their brochure depicted the climate of Calgary as benefiting from warm Chinook winds that kept the "ground free from snow in the winter, except for a day or two at a time." Comments that most Métis children who lived on the Red River shared "the blood of men who fought with Lochiel near Inverness on the 15th [sic] April 1746" rounded out the appeal for Scottish immigrants. In large measure the publicity worked, and Manitoba, in the words of one historian, "became the El Dorado of many a Scots lad."

In the early 1880s Lady Gordon Cathcart of Cluny Castle in the Western Isles attempted to establish a settlement of Island crofters in Manitoba. By then I.ady Cathcart had attained a modest reputation as an idealistic heiress with concern for the plight of the crofters on her estate, even going so far as to offer one hundred pounds to any family willing to immigrate to Canada. At her urging a crofters’ delegation from Benbecula, in the Outer Hebrides, visited Manitoba in 1881 and reported back favorably. Given this impetus, Lady Cathcart teamed with the Canada Northwest Land Company and funded the passage of eleven families (one came independently), so that in 1883 fifty-one people arrived in what would be named New Benbecula, Manitoba. Her plan, as the Manitoba Daily Free Press reported, hoped "to combine sound finance and genuine, clear-eyed philanthropy." Encouraging reports enticed forty-six additional families the next year. By 1885 the community numbered 239. The experiment aroused sufficient interest that Professor G. G. Rarnsay made a trip to Canada to report their story for Macmillan's Magazine.

Ramsay’s assessment proved quite positive. He praised the émigrés’ Canadian sod houses, with their thatched roofs woven from the abundant prairie grasses. He noted that all households had planted oats, barley, and potatoes and kept cattle for butter, cheese, and milk. Because of their farm skills, the men found that they could always get work at harvest time. The young women similarly discovered that they could always find temporary work as servants. Anticipating Frederick Jackson Turner’s famed frontier thesis by eight years, G. G. Ramsay marveled how land ownership could transform Gaelic culture. The Highland settlers began life with "charm of manner" but without the "energy of the lowlander." Yet, after a brief period of land ownership, "all this seems to disappear in Canada." Other travelers gathered comments from the settlers to confirm their impressions. "If they saw me owning soil like yon in Aberdeen," said former Banchory blacksmith John Murray, ‘They’d a’ tak’ their hat aff to me." "How can we thank Lady Gordon enough?" said a New Benbecula resident. "She has made lairds of us all."

Later historians, however, have been far more critical of Lady Cathcart’s efforts. Hugh MacPhee has noted that she encouraged her crofters to emigrate just as the famed Napier Commission began its investigation into landlord-crofter relations. Although the seventeen letters from Benbecula émigrés that were included in the Napier report presented to Paliament praised her beneficence, it is somewhat suspicious that all were written in clear English rather than the crofters’ native Gaelic.

The Gaelic poem composed by Manitoba resident Donald Mackinnon from Balivanich, Benbecula, presents a very different picture of life in Canada:

A thousand liars, well rewarded
Went about with books
Extolling the North West
and the excellence of Manitoba.

In our cheerless houses in the cold morning
There is hoar frost on the blankets;
water and ale, whey or milk,
all like frozen glass.

When there is a blizzard in the bleak land
One needs the fur of every animal for clothing.

Woollen tweed will not protect us;
The wind whips our flesh off.

In Scotland on a May morning
I would go barefooted to the moors;
There was no need of the ugly Moccasin,
Nor were we clothed in furs.
If I survive until Spring
I shall leave the ‘Land of Promise.’
I’ll go to Dakota;
Land and gold abound there.

Present-day Benbecula crofter sentiment lies far closer to Mackinnon’s view than to Ramsey’s. It recalls Lady Cathcart as a grasping evictor, unsympathetic to the Catholic faith of her tenants. One historian has termed her "a notoriously implacable proprietrix." Modern scholars have concluded that in spite of the benevolence involved in all the landlord-assisted emigration schemes, the ultimate goal was to free the estates of people to increase financial profit.

The Canadian West hosted a number of these quasi-utopian Scottish resettlement schemes. Between 1888 and 1889 Killarney, Manitoba, and Saltcoats in the Northwest Territories (now Saskatchewan) were each begun with high hopes, both from the crofters—who had resisted group emigration for a generation— and from various officials of the Canadian government. As historian Wayne Norton has shown, however, the emigration scheme was "flawed in conception and rushed in implementation."

Killarney proved marginally successful, but the community established at Saltcoats failed miserably. When the forty-one crofter families from the Isles of Lewis, Harris, and North Uist arrived in Saltcoats in 1889, they met a variety of bureaucratic blunders, including a shortage of supplies. After a winter of genuine suffering the community faced several years of drought, hail, and early frosts. By 1894 forty-eight families had abandoned their homesteads. Only a Donald Mclver determined to meet his obligations. A decade later the Imperial Colonization Board, which had overseen the experiment, washed its hands of the whole affair by selling the land to a Minneapolis businessman.

Well-intentioned though it was, the Saltcoats crofter resettlement plan failed for several reasons. Foremost, perhaps, was the initial stretch of bad weather, always a concern for agriculture at that latitude. But some of the blame should be placed on the crofters themselves. Many had primarily been fishermen in the Western Isles, and they did not take easily to the demands of breaking virgin Canadian prairie soil. Moreover, the men discovered that they could earn modest wages by working as day laborers for the railway, cutting wood in winter, or hiring themselves out during the harvest season. In addition members of the community often quarreled among themselves. Consequently, after fourteen years, the Saltcoats residents disbanded and the former crofters disappeared into Canadian society. The failure of these prairie colonies also basically spelled the end of government-assisted crofter emigration schemes.

In spite of such failures numerous private agencies continued to set forth a vision of western Canada as a solution to Highland and Island social problems. A c.1912 Canadian Pacific pamphlet virtually promised social advance to any Scot willing to journey to the Canadian West. In the 1920s Benedictine priest Andrew MacDonell urged his South Uist flock to form a group settlement in Manitoba. A January 28, 1927, Stornoway Gazette article still praised Alberta as the "land of opportunity" for Highland Scots. As late as 1936 the Duchess of Atholl funded the passage of twenty-eight children to the Prince of Wales Fair-bridge Farm School on Vancouver Island. There these (mostly) orphans joined nearly one hundred other young people who had been sent there from similar situations with the hopes of turning them into potential farmers. In short, the Earl of Selkirk’s experiment at Red River had many echoes.

Scottish farmers not only settled the southern Canadian plains, they emigrated to the cosmopolitan western cities as well. Many immigrants from industrialized Glasgow and commercial Edinburgh also sought their fortunes in urban areas. In fact so many Scots landed in Vancouver that one reporter suggested in 1933 that one needed to be born "in Aberdeenshire or thereabouts" in order to work for the police force. Aberdonians were found in all walks of Vancouver life: medicine, commerce, law, trade, and the churches. The people of northeastern Scotland, an Aberdeen reporter concluded, "are helping to mold the character of this western city."

The link between Scotland and the Canadian Northwest received yet another boost when the Canadian Bank of Commerce transferred a twenty-seven-year-old teller from Victoria, B.C., to Kamloops, B.C., in 1901. The teller was Robert W. Service, son of a Scottish bank teller of the same name who had emigrated from the Lancashire region to Canada on a tramp freighter in 1895. From Kamloops young Service moved on to Whitehorse and Dawson, Yukon Territory. Although he soon resigned his position with the bank, he remained in Dawson for several years, working chiefly as a free-lance writer. During his stay he witnessed firsthand the decline of Klondike gold-rush society, which he decided to try to capture in verse.

His first collection of poems appeared in 1907 as in Canada and The Spell of the Yukon in the States. The volume sold over a million copies, an enormous print run for a book of poetry, and a sequel, Ballads of a Cheechako (1909), did almost as well. Reporters soon dubbed him ‘The Poet of the Yukon" and "The Canadian Kipling." Modestly claiming that he was simply an "inkslinger" or "rhymer," not a true poet, Service nevertheless reached an enormous audience. From 1907 to the mid-1920s he was probably the most popular household poet in both the United States and Canada. Afterwards he moved to France, where he lived until his death in 1958. Although he turned out a steady stream of works, none approached the appeal of his earlier volumes.

Service’s easily memorized poems of the Yukon and the Klondike drew heavily from the Scots/Scots-Irish/Irish tradition of folk balladry, which he must have absorbed during his youth in Britain. In this largely oral world the bard assumed the mantle of public historian, the person who recorded the crucial events of the day for posterity. Without a bard to record his deeds, the old saying had it, a great leader would soon be forgotten.

This broadside tradition of balladry usually began with an invitation. "Come all ye fair and tender maidens," the poet might say, or "Come all ye noble patriots and listen to my song." The invitation theme is nicely reflected in the opening lines of Service’s "The Cremation of Sam McGee."

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;

The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was the night on the Marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

The balladeer’s theme of invitation is raised to even greater heights in the opening lines of Service’s "The Shooting of Dan McGrew":

A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting A jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o’-love, the lady that’s known as Lou.

It would take a hard heart, indeed, not to want to read those poems to conclusion. And, it should be noted, Service’s two most famous protagonists bore the names of "McGee" and "McGrew."

Since the world of religion has always been central to the Scottish experience, it is not surprising that the kirk and the clergy played important roles as they followed, and in some cases led, the Scots to the Canadian West. In Red River during the 1820s Church of England chaplain John West complained that neither the Gaelic-speaking Highlanders nor the American Indians could understand his sermons. While he tried to minister to the numerous Scots settlers, they usually rebuffed his efforts. In the 1850s Red River had a major confrontation over issues of faith. The repeated requests from the Gaelic settlement in Killarney, Manitoba, for a minister who spoke the old language reflected this concern.

As historian George Bryce has shown, Baptist, Methodist, and Roman Catholic Scottish clerics were very active in the Canadian West. Yet the two churches that played the most central roles were probably the Presbyterian and the Episcopal. Religion was as important as race and the Scots influence proved vital in the "churching" of the Canadian Prairie West.

Churches have seldom been given their due in the story of the settlement of the Prairie West. But both south and north of the 49th parallel, they often served as the "glue" that kept an ethnic community together. In the more crowded urban areas of Toronto or Chicago, an immigrant community could support a variety of institutions: bakeries, restaurants, mutual-aid societies, even newspapers. But in the vast region of the Great Plains, the church had to assume all of these social roles. No institution played a larger part in reinforcing ethnicity in the plains than did the ethnic church.

The various divisions among Presbyterian factions in the States were not duplicated in Canada; initially all Canadian Presbyterians united in a single denomination. Although Scots were crucial to the development of American Presbyterianism, one would not say that either the Northern, Southern, or Cumberland Presbyterians in the States were a "Scots Church." This proved to be very different in Canada, where, as histonan John S. Moir has noted, the Presbyterians began as an ethnic church and never really lost that dimension. George Bryce’s compilation of 390 Presbyterian clergymen who served in western Canada from 1871 to 1910 revealed only a handful who lacked a Scots or Scotch-Irish surname.

On the Canadian frontier the Presbyterian clerics virtually served as "Scottish shepherds." "I never take a trip away from home," one wrote in 1884, "but Scotch immigrants from Highland glens and Lowland straths are met with, and they prove to be excellent settlers." One of Presbyterian T. N. Richmond’s duties in Winnipeg in the 1890s was to meet Scottish settlers on arrival and give them aid as they sought places of settlement. Missionary aid from the Church of Scotland proved a major funding source for Canadian Presbyterian home missions, and Scots theological students often tested their skills in a temporary Canadian pulpit during the summer. Missionary letters are replete with tales of Scots immigrants who sought out the ordinances of the Canadian church: men who returned to services after years of indifference; an Edmonton woman from Logierait, Scotland, who drove sixty miles in November to have her child baptized; another emigrant, handicapped by age, who devised a homemade sled of rope, hay, and an old tray so that she could attend services. The novels by Ralph Connor, especially The Sky Pilot, reflect the central role of the church in western Canadian life.

Although the ethnic dimension was central to Canadian Presbyterianism, over time the church took on a wider set of responsibilities. Joining with the Anglicans, the middle-class, generally well-educated Presbyterian clerics also saw themselves as engaged in a great crusade to save the Canadian West for "British civilization." Thus, by 1895 home missionaries were preaching the gospel in six languages. Often they concentrated especially on those other ethnic groups, such as the Hungarians, who also had a Reformed tradition in their past. Theological boundaries slipped considerably in the vastness of the prairies, and most settlers, whatever their affiliation, welcomed a visit from a Presbyterian cleric.

The western clerics viewed the presence of the church as the chief counter to barbarism. Scorn, indifference, and occasional threats of rotten eggs made the plains ministers well aware of the fragility of "civilization" in their region. Judging from the accounts in the Home and Foreign Missionary Record, civilization contained a number of aspects: sacredness of life; sacredness of marriage and the rights of property; control of liquor; and the closing of gambling halls, base playhouses, and houses of ill repute. But the most prominent symbolic element that decided whether a community passed muster or not was its observance of the Christian Sabbath. "There is no heathen so low as the heathen with a white face," one minister warned, and the solution was to keep the Sabbath intact. As events transpired, however, most prairie communities reached a compromise. On weekdays and Sunday Victorian respectability reigned supreme, more or less, in western Canada. But especially on Saturday nights, the towns became the property of the wilder elements.

"Personality," Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "never goes out of style." The late-Victorian Canadian West boasted three Scottish religious personalities who had major impacts on their regions. One was Presbyterian and two were Episcopalian.

The Presbyterian was John Robertson. Born in Perthshire, Robertson served as superintendent of Presbyterian Home Missions in western Canada from 1881 to 1902. In addition to his numerous travels, Robertson enlightened readers of the Home and Missionary Record with tales of adventure from the Great Northwest. Although he occasionally denounced the "infidel views and lax morals" of the region, he concentrated primarily on depicting social progress, especially the increased respect for rights of property and for the sacredness of life. The census of 1891 showed that the Presbyterian Church of Canada had become the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, and Robertson’s career—as the driving force behind the church in western Canada for over two decades—formed an important part of this story.

The Episcopalians Robert McKay and John Maclean were born in northeast Scotland. Each came from a Presbyterian background but converted to the Episcopal Church at university, probably as a reaction to the Great Disruption of 1843, which split the Presbyterians. After ordination McKay was appointed bishop of Rupert’s land and, from a base in Winnipeg, presided over the church in western Canada for forty years. His diocese originally contained two million square miles. Maclean, in turn. became the first bishop of Saskatchewan, a post he held until his death in 1886, at which time he was proclaimed "the central figure of our community."

Given the vast distances and sparseness of population, these well-educated, peripatetic Scots clerics had considerable personal influence. For example, like many pioneer clergymen, they established institutions that long survived them. McKay revised and reorganized St. Johns College in Winnipeg and also served as first chancellor of the University of Manitoba. Maclean, in turn, established Emmanuel College at Prince Albert in 1879, intending it as a teaching center for Native clergy. Robertson helped establish Knox College, Winnipeg. Presbyterian George Bryce founded Manitoba College in the same city and also had a part in the establishment of the University of Manitoba in 1871. Thus, kirk and education overlapped considerably in this "brick-and-mortar" era of the Canadian West.

The church was not the only bastion of Scottish culture in the Canadian West. One could find overt manifestations of "Scottishness" in a wide variety of areas. Former Highland farmers cursed their oxen in Gaelic, and local entertainment always demanded the pipes and a Scottish reel. Men donned the kilt for numerous ceremonial occasions, especially weddings, funerals, Burns Day dinners, and St. Andrew’s Day celebrations. Canadian Scots soldiers usually disliked the kilt, but the "ladies from hell" (as they were termed by the Germans) wore it bravely during World War I. Transported Highland games, performed from Nova Scotia to Vancouver, also provided a fine opportunity to parade things Scottish. There is general agreement that the Canadian national sport of ice hockey had its origin in the ancient Gaelic game of shinty.

During the early twentieth century, the Canadian railways discovered the appeal of Scottish customs to tourists. They hired pipers to dress in kilts and play traditional tunes at stations along the way west. Later, the brilliant novels of Margaret Laurence, depicting life in her fictitional Manawaka (Keepawa), Manitoba, also reflected Scots themes.

Scots names retain a high profile in western Canadian life. On the map one finds Calgary ("clear running water" in Gaelic), Banif, and a host of other towns that betray their origin. Among Canadian citizens the surnames MacLeod or MacDonald imply "Scots" just as Boudreau or Chevalier imply "French" or Goldberg and Epstein, "Jewish." One does not find this immediate Scottish connection with American Scottish surnames. For example, Montana Magazine editor Charles Rankin discovered that no one identified his name as Scottish until he moved to Helena. In the South a name such as McLelland or McGregor is perceived as an American surname. In the Southwest MacDonald is seen as a Navajo surname, for the father of a former Navajo tribal chairman took it from a song ("Old MacDonald Had a Farm") when asked for his last name by a teacher.

Although Scottish culture is woven all through the Prairie Provinces, it is nowhere more prominent than in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia. As noted in the previous chapter, Lord and Lady Aberdeen planted some of the first fruit trees there in 1892; in 1895 they subdivided the property into units of ten to one hundred acres each. These they sold to prospective fruit ranchers, many Scottish themselves. Lord and Lady Aberdeen also introduced the first irrigation system into the valley. Although they eventually lost money on the venture—in fact, their Scottish estates financed much of their Canadian programs—the Aberdeens prided themselves on shaping the future economy of the Okanagan region. They took credit not only for the shift from cattle to fruit but also for encouraging wealthy Scottish immigrants to the region.

But the Scots immigrants brought more to the Okanagan than simply their wealth or their farming skills. They also brought with them their love of mystery and romance. Even in the decidedly unromantic late-twentieth century, Americans and Canadians have looked to Scotland for an aura of mystery. How else can one explain the popularity of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Brigadoon, a fantasy tale of two hunters who stumble upon a mysterious Scottish village that appears only once a century? This musical has charmed audiences ever since it was first performed in 1947 and remains a perennial favorite among high-school and college drama students.

Equally enticing was the greatest discovery of its day: the Loch Ness Monster. Prior to 1933 Loch Ness ranked as only one of Highland Scotland’s striking lakes. That year, however, the government commenced construction of an improved road on the west side of the loch. The constant noise and commotion, so it is said, drew the monster from its deep sea lair and a wave of sightings alerted Fleet Street that a major story was in the making. Over the years the story has grown steadily. Today, if one mentions Loch Ness outside the Highlands, the first reaction is certain to be: "the monster."

Loch Ness is the largest body of fresh water in the United Kingdom. About twenty-three miles long and a mile wide, it is over seven hundred feet deep, about twice the depth of the North Sea. This depth has served to discourage swimmers, and it has earned the grim reputation as the loch that never gives up its dead. Monster supporters maintain that this is why no one has ever found a carcass.

From 1933 to the present day Loch Ness has attracted millions of visitors who hope against hope for a glimpse of Scotland’s most famous resident. The visitors range from the stern Englishman who left after an hour, threatening to sue for "false advertising," to engineer Tim Dinsdale, who has spent his entire life searching the lake for ultimate proof of the monster’s existence.

The literature on "Nessie" or "The Great Orm" is enormous. The official Loch Ness Monster Exhibition Centre at tiny Drumnadrochit also contains examples of numerous photographs, all suitably blurry. While other Highland lochs, Loch Morar and Loch Shiel, have traditions of similar sightings, knowledge of their stones remains confined to locals. Only Nessie has achieved an international reputation.

The settlers of the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, many from Lady Aberdeen’s birthplace of Inverness-shire, brought these ideas with them. In Lake Okanagan, virtually alone among North American lakes, one can find a similar "Great Orm." It, too, received its first publicity in the 1930s. The publicity surrounding the Loch Ness Monster gave new life to its Canadian counterpart—named "Ogopogo" after a popular song of the day—and it has received a great deal of interest ever since.

Ogopogo has often been seen but, unlike Nessie, has never been captured on film. No photos of the lake surface show anything of interest either, but the 1938 discovery of the living fossil coelacanth, a five-foot-long fish thought to have died out seventy million years ago, has given believers hope. If the waters off Madagascar could produce a living fossil, what might these deep-water Canadian lakes contribute? Some have suggested that the creatures might even be hatching from eggs laid in preglacial times.

The parallels are uncanny. The Loch Ness tale stretches back to St. Adamnan’s biography of St. Columba (c. 565 A.D.) and even, perhaps, to the Celtic Highland lore of the water horse or water kelpie. Similarly, American Indians of the Columbia plateau have termed the Okanagan creature "Naitaka" and have allegedly tried to pacify it by sacrificing small animals before crossing the lake. As Loch Morar and Loch Shiel have tried to usurp the fame of Loch Ness, so, too, have Lake Simcie in Keswick, Ontario, and Lake Winnipegosis, Manitoba, come forth with their various creatures, "Igopogo" and "Manipogis." Vancouver Bay also boasts an ocean-going sea monster named "Caddy." One should not be surprised to learn that the chief historian of Ogopogo, journalist Mary Moon, was the daughter of a well-known Scottish novelist. Finally, there is a persistent legend that as the Okanagan Valley was initially settled by Highland farmers, one approached the lake and asked a local resident, "What kind of beasties do ye hae in this loch, laddie?" The Scottish links to the Canadian West come in a number of guises.

The question, "Why were the Scots so drawn to western Canada?" has often been asked, but no reply has been completely satisfactory. In 1911 writer John Murray Gibbon wryly observed that the best passport for any Canadian immigrant was to speak with a Scots accent. But he also put forth his own explanation of the Scots’ success in Canada: "They were able to adapt themselves to any circumstance, they had faith in themselves, and they stuck together." To this one might add the generous experiments of the philanthropists, the community role of the clergy, the promotion efforts of the Canadian Railroads and land companies, and the vast richness of the land itself. When combined, the attraction proved irresistible.

The above information is from the book Scots in the North American West,...

Return to Canadian Scottish History


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus