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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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
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
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
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!”