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The Scottish Tradition in Canada
Scottish Place-Names in Canada
Watson Kirkconnell



This monograph* began as an address to the Celtic Society of Wolfville, Nova Scotia. So many challenging questions were raised that a systematic study was undertaken by its author, in order to prepare a toponymical roster and to analyse its significance.

* From Watson Kirkconnell, "Scottish Place Names in Canada," A Paper Delivered at the Third Annual Meeting of the Canadian institute of Onomastica Sciences, York University, Toronto, June 13, 1969, in J.B. Rudnyckyj, ed., Onomastica, No. 39 (Winnipeg, 1970).


At the outset, one should remember that Scotland, from which the Scottish Canadians have come, is not homogeneous in either race or language. In other words, there is no "Scotch race" and no "Scotch language." The ethnologist, whose definition of race is based on physical characterisitcs and measurements, distinguishes carefully between the flaxenhaired ex-Scandinavians in the extreme north, the "Black Breed" in the Western Highlands, the red-heads in the Eastern Highlands, the tall, dark-haired, blue-eyed Galwegian blend, the short, dark Strathclyde type, and the Anglo-Danish mixture of the Lowlands generally. So far as language is concerned, the English of the Lowlands is still waxing and the Gaelic of the Highlands is waning. The Welsh language of the Kingdom of Strathclyde, which persisted from the fifth century until the eleventh, has disappeared, and the Norse that was spoken in the Shetlands as late as the eighteenth century survives only in a host of place-names and dialect terms. Still older linguistic traces, found on Roman maps and no doubt borrowed by them from primordial people, are the Clyde (Clota), the Nith (Novius), the Hebrides (Hebudes) and the Orkneys (Orcades). Clan-names, while not identical in pattern with the racial and linguistic background, are nevertheless clear evidences as to diversity of national origins. Gaelic in origin are the clan-names Angus, Campbell and MacGregor. Norman-French are Bruce, Cummings, Fraser, Grant and Sinclair. Ultimately Norse are Gunn, Lamont, Macdonald, MacLeod, MacNeill (of Colonsay) and Sutherland. English are Johnson, Leslie and Stewart (although this final family was originally Breton and came over with the Normans).

Since the majority of Scottish place-names in Canada are actually based on surnames, some analysis of the latter is in order. The main types are occupational, descriptive, patronymic and territorial. Examples hereunder will be limited to actual place-names in Canada.

Examples of occupational names are Avenir (OF. avener, oat merchant), Faulkner (falconer), Gardiner (gardener), Lymburner (lime-burner), Milner (miller), Pender (impounder of strayed cattle), Sclater (slater), Sellars (M.E. seler, a saddler), Shearer (cutter of cloth), Spence (dispenser of food from the larder) and Stewart (originally the "steward" or chief manager of the royal household). Patronymic derivatives of occupational names are Macoun or Macgowan (son of the Gow or blacksmith) and MacIntyre (son of the carpenter).

Descriptive names are Auld (old), Young or Yonge, Baine (G. ban, white or flaxen-haired), Reid (red-headed), Duff (F. dubh, dark), Campbell (G. Caimbeaul, crooked mouth), Cameron (G. cam-shron, hooked nose), Strang, strong, or else OF. estrange, a foreigner), and Tod (nickname, "the fox").

Patronymic names may be Scandinavian (with a suffixed-son), Gaelic (with a prefixed Mac "son of"), and English (with a suffixed genitival -s).

Formed on the Scandinavian model are Allison (son of Ellis), Anderson (son of Andrew), Dawson (son of Dawe or David), Ferguson (son of Olr. Fergus, the grandfather of Saint Columba), Jameson (son of James), Matheson (son of Matthew), Paterson or Patterson (son of Patrick), Ni-colson (son of Nicol), Robertson (son of Robert), Robinson (son of Robin), Simpson (son of Sim or Simeon).

Gaelic patronymics have a wide range of application. Based on straight personal names are MacAdam (son of Adam), MacAlister (son of Alexander), MacAlpine (son of Ailpean), MacArthur (son of Arthur), MacAulay (son of Amhalghaidh), MacCormack (son of Cormack), MacCreary and Macrorie (son of Ruadhri), MacEwen (son of Ewen), MacFarlane (son of Bartholomew), MacGregor (son of Gregory), MacKay or MacKee (son of Aodh), MacKendrick (son of Henry), MacKenzie (son of Coinneach), McKim (son of Simon), MacKinnon (son of Fhionnghain), MacLaren (son of Laurence), MacLaughlin (son of Lachlann), MacMahon (son of Matthew), MacMurdo (son of Murdoch), MacNaughton and Mac-Cracken (son of Neachdain), MacNeill (son of Neill), MacTavish (son of Tammas, i.e. Thomas), MacVeigh (son of Bheatha), MacWatters (son of Walter). Of special note are Macdougall or Macdowall (son of Dougal, eldest son of Somerled, Norse Lord of the Isles), Macdonald (son of Donald, eldest son of Reginald, second son of Somerled), Maclver (son of Ivarr, a famous Norse chief), and MacKellar (son of Hilarius, bishop of Poitiers). A common ingredient in many old names was the Gaelic Gille, "servant," applied especially to those who were consecrated to the service of a saint or of the church in general. This was an element in the older forms of the following surnames: MacBride (son of the servant of Bride, the virgin abbess of Kildare, d. 525), MacCallum (son of the servant of Calum), McClintock (son of the servant of St. Findan), MacLean (son of the servant of St. John), MacLesse (son of the servant of Jesus), MacLen-nan (son of the servant of St. Finnan), McLure (son of the servant of Odhar), McMunn (son of the servant of St. Munn). Also associated with the church are MacMillan (son of the tonsured man), Macnab (son of the abbot), MacPherson (son of the parson), and MacTaggart (son of the priest). More general are MacEachern (son of the horse-lord), Macintosh (son of the chieftain), McKague (son of Olr. Tadhg, or the poet), McNeily (son of the poet), MacGillivrary (son of the servant of judgment), and MacLeod (probably, son of an old Norse warrior, Ljot-ulf, "ugly wolf").

Many a Highland name can shift gears into a Lowland equivalent, depending on the habitat of its owner, e.g. MacIan (MacKean)-Johnson, Macdonald-Donaldson, MacAdam-Adamsonn, MacNeill-Neilson, Mac-Nichol-Nicholson, MacTavish-Thomson, and MacMahon-Matheson.

Examples of the English genitival suffixes are Sellars and Watts.

Hundreds of Scottish surnames are of territorial origin, i.e. they represent the family's original estate or feudal lands. Since these are also place-names, there is often a doubt as to which came first in the Canadian toponymy, the hen or the egg. Wherever the place-name has had wide currency in Scotland as a surname, it has seemed reasonable to count it as a surname in Canada. Thus Gordon is the name of a little place in Berwickshire with which some genealogists first associate the family, but it is undoubtedly the family and not the obscure village that is recorded on the Canadian map. Similarly, although the name Douglas is derived from the "black water" (G. dubh glas) of a stream in Douglasdale, it is the family and not the river that is set down in Canadian gazetteers. In like manner, Blair, Buchan, Caldwell (i.e. "cauld well"), Cochrane, Dundas, Drummond, Glenelg, Harris, Kippen, Lewis, Lumsden, Ross, Selkirk and Sutherland would all seem to have been chosen as Canadian place-names on a surname basis.


My preliminary survey of place-names by shires on Scotland's map was undertaken hand in hand with the reading of J.M. Gibbon's Scots in Canada (Toronto, 1911), Wilfred Campbell's The Scotsman in Canada: Eastern Canada (Toronto and London, 1911), George Bryce's The Scotsman in Canada: Western Canada (Toronto and London, 1911), and Hazel C. Mathews's The Mark of Honour (Toronto, 1965). It became evident that the bulk of Eastern Canada's Scottish place-names were to be associated with mass migrations in 1770-1840 from Inverness, Argyle, Ross, Sutherland, Caithness, Perthshire, Moray, Skye and the Hebrides. In this period, thousands of crofters were being evicted from the glens, partly by their old chieftain-landlords and partly through the destruction of cottage weaving by the Industrial Revolution. A considerable element in the settlement consisted of Highland regiments which, after Culloden and the defeat of the Jacobite uprising of 1745, had been recruited into the British army, especially after 1757. Marion Gilroy's record, Loyalists and Land Settlement in Nova Scotia (Public Archives of Nova Scotia, 1937), shows heavy land grants to Loyalist immigrants, mostly Highland veterans, after 1783, in what are now the counties of Shelburne, Digby, Annapolis, Antigonish and Guysborough. Not a single Loyalist grant was made in Horton and Cornwallis townships, Kings County which had been solidly settled by New England "Planters" in 1761, nor in the Lunenburg South Shore area, settled in 1749-53 by Germans, Swiss and French Huguenots. In Hants County, in a proposed township of "Douglass," a whole battalion of the 84th Highland Regiment simply evaporated, leaving 115,000 acres to escheat to the crown. Most of those in Shelburne left the country before 1800, but an island of Highland population persists in the "Argyle" area, between the Acadians of Pubnico and the Acadians of Clare. After the close of the Napoleonic Wars, and especially after 1820, a severe economic depression swept the industries of the Scottish Lowlands and these also poured their harassed citizens into Canadian settlements.

Mostly unrepresented in Nova Scotia are place-names from the shires of Ayr, Banff, Berwick, Bute, Dunbarton, Kincardine, the Lothians, Nairn, Peebles, Roxburgh, Selkirk, Wigtown and Kirkcudbright. Immigrants from these areas either came too late to affect the naming of communities or did not set up the block settlements that so often perpetuate their own choice of names.

All parts of Scotland are represented in the place-names of Prince Edward Island; their gross number would have been much greater had it not been for a plague of absentee landlords and for the ambitions of surveyors and political persons to have their names perpetuated. Settlement goes back to the enterprises of Judge Stewart, of Cantyre, Argyllshire, in 1771; of Captain John MacDonald, of Glenaladale, in 1772; and of Wellwood Waugh, of Lockerbie, Dumfriesshire, in 1774. In 1803, Lord Selkirk brought in a contingent of 800 from Ross, Inverness, Argyle, and especially Skye.

The pattern of Scotch place-names in New Brunswick is not unlike that in Nova Scotia, although there is nothing like the continuing Highland concentration in Cape Breton and Antigonish. In the 1780s, the Loyalists established several regiments (largely Scotch) on the St. Croix and St. John rivers; and there were settlements, direct from Scotland, on the Lower Miramichi and in the county of Restigouche. This latter plantation, largely of fisher-folk, on the Restigouche River and its estuary, has been buried under a community of Acadian French who swarmed in here from exile when the interdict on their presence was removed in 1764.

In Lower Canada, the ultimate province of Quebec, the most important Scottish settlements were those of the Fraser Highlanders, whose mountaineer regiment had scaled the Heights in 1759 and won the battle of the Plains of Abraham.

In Ontario, where no fewer than eleven counties (Bruce, Carleton, Cochrane, Dundas, Elgin, Glengarry, Lanark, Lennox, Perth, Renfrew and Stormont) bear Scottish names, the roster of Scottish place-names is by far the largest in all Canada, yet early mass settlements left a special mark. Such were the Roman Catholic regiments of Glengarry, the Talbot settlements of Argyle Highlanders in Elgin county, the Sutherland crofters in Zorra, and the thousands from Lanark, Renfrew and the west of Scotland who flocked to Lanark county in 1820-21. Veteran resettlement (as in the days of the Caesars) and economic hardship in Scotland were major factors in the situation.

The opening up of the Western provinces came at least two generations later. Not only did immigration agencies (including those of railways and steamship lines) then recruit from all parts of Scotland; but, thanks to the C.P.R., the younger sons of Scotch-Canadian farmers in Ontario swarmed to the Prairies in their thousands. Still earlier had been the striking participation of Scots in the fur trade activities of the Hudson's Bay Company and the Northwest Company. They also played the leading role in the drama of exploration that put the names of Fraser, Simpson and Mackenzie on the maps of the Canadian West and North.

It is sometimes interesting to look for traces of a single known migration. Thus in 1774 a considerable settlement of Lowlanders from Dumfriesshire came to Prince Edward Island. Three years later some of the group, overwhelmed by a plague of grasshoppers, joined the Protestant Highlanders at Pictou. Today, in Prince Edward Island, there is still a "New Annan," and on the mainland, thirty miles northwest of Pictou, there is another "New Annan." Other Dumfriesshire place-names, ascribable to other, later migrations, are Annan, Kirkland (Lake), Moffat and Thornhill in Ontario, Gretna and Thornhill in Manitoba, Bankend in Saskatchewan, and Kirkpatrick in Alberta.

On the other hand, a very considerable contingent of Highlanders from Glenlyon, Perthshire, who settled on the north shore of the Ottawa River near Lachute in 1819, have left no toponymic trace except for Thurso (Caithness) and Lochaber Bay (Inverness), neither one relevant to the area of their origin. After 150 years, a substantial remnant of lineal descendants is still in the area of settlement.


When in a search for the place of the Scots in Canadian life one turns to the Federal Census of 1961, one arrives at the following Scottish totals by provinces, as compared with Canadians of English, Irish, French, German and Ukrainian origin. The provinces are printed in the descending order of Scottish representation.

These statistics do not reveal their full significance at a first glance. Thus the 835,590 Scots of Ontario, while they are almost as numerous as all the other Scots in Canada put together, are nevertheless inferior in Ontario to either the English or the Irish and only 29 per cent more numerous than the French. The only province where the Scots are clearly in first place is little Prince Edward Island. The Scots are in second place, behind the English, in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Manitoba and British Columbia. Both the English and the Irish outnumber them in Newfoundland; while in Alberta and Saskatchewan they rank numerically behind the English and the Germans. Even in the frontier areas of the Yukon and the Northwest Territories, they run second to the English. Another sort of yardstick is the survival of Gaelic in Nova Scotia, where 3,702 (mostly in Cape Breton) in the 1961 Census still reported it as their mother tongue. Although the English in Canada outnumber the Scots by slightly more than two to one, their ratios to the present total populations of their respective mother countries form a striking contrast; for while the English-Canadians are equivalent to 9 per cent of England's 1961 population, the Scotch-Canadians are equivalent to 38 per cent of Scotland's population. The Canadian Irish are similarly equivalent to 41 per cent of the total population of Ireland (North plus South). At the time of Confederation, in 1867, the Scots and the Irish together outnumbered those of English extraction and played a very prominent role in the politics of the new nation. Some 20 of the 34 "Fathers of Confederation" were Scots. The ingredients of these three peoples (English, Irish, Scotch) in Canada's national amalgam is thus very different from that in the "British Isles." The presence of a French sub-nation is another very difficult factor, and now we have nearly five million European-Canadians who are neither British nor French. The Canadians are to be a national blend sui generis.


In 1613, (Sir) Samuel Argall, a Kentish-man in the employ of the Virginia colony, led a naval expedition to the Bay of Fundy and destroyed the Acadian settlements as an alleged infringement of the Virginia charter. The region remained under British control until 1631, when Charles I, in order to persuade Louis XIII to hand over the dowry long overdue on his Bourbon wife, Henrietta-Maria, gave the Acadian lands (along with "Canada") back to France. In the meantime, in 1621, Sir William Alexander, a Scottish gentleman at the English court, had been given by James I a royal warrant for the development of a great "New Scotland" here, by a company of Scottish Adventurers. In the Latin text of the warrant, the territory's name was rendered as "Nova Scotia," and this is about all of the original enterprise that remains three and a half centuries later. For a brief time, however, there was great promotional activity. Alexander's notable book, Encouragement to Colonies, was published in 1624; and in the same year an Order of Baronets of Nova Scotia was instituted. Bands of colonists were sent out in 1628 and 1629-30.

In maps prepared by Sir William, many toponymical details were worked out (on paper). "New Scotland" was subdivided into two provinces: "New Caledonia" (the modern Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Southern Newfoundland) and "Alexandria" (after his own name), consisting of our New Brunswick, Gaspsie and Anticosti. Cape Breton Island became "New Galloway." Our modern St. John River was named the "Clyde" and the St. Croix River the "Tweed." appropriately separating "New Scotland" from "New England." Our Bay of Fundy was named "Argall Bay." after the man who had destroyed the Acadian Port Royal in 1613. The Bay of Chaleurs was to be the "Firth of Forth." All this paper empire collapsed in 1631, when Charles I snatched Sir William Alexander out of his new domain and handed it over to France. It was reconquered in 1654 by a fleet from Cromwell's England but was restored to France again in 1667 by an ever-obliging Charles II: It came permanently to England in 1713 by the Treaty of Utrecht. Sentimental modern Scots may day-dream over Sir William's geographical terms that remained unimplemented by the course of history.


Scottish place-names in Canada are of five main types:

(a) Actual place-names from Scotland, such as Aberdeen, Argyle, Perth, Melrose.
(b) Such place-names with an added element, such as New Aberdeen, Argyle Head, Perth Road, Melrose Hill.
(c) Scottish surnames, such as MacDonald, Currie, Duncan, Ferguson.
(d) Scottish surnames with an added element, such as MacDonald's Corners, Currie Road, Duncan Cove, Ferguson's Falls.
(e) New coinages, such as Skir Dhu ("Black Rock"), Loch Ban ("White Lake"), and Beinn Breagh ("Beautiful Mountain").


For an immigrant toponymically this land, the size of Europe, was not a a tabula rasa, ready for the imprint of new names. For upwards of 30,000 years it had been occupied by a vast network of aboriginal tribes, so diverse that 176 different Amerindian languages are still recognized in Canada today. Every stream, lake, bay headland and village already had its native name, and thousands of these still survive, from Merigomish, Antigonish and Tatamagouche in the east, through Quebec, Ottawa and Toronto, to Okanagan, Chilliwack, and Nanaimo in the far west. While some of the largest lakes (such as Ontario, Erie, Huron, Nipigon, Winnipeg, Manitoba and Winnipegosis) retain native names, thousands of other lakes and rivers had their Indian names calqued into English in the pioneer days. Virtually all of the famous explorations of the land by the white man were actually guided by Indians who already knew the terrain intimately and had access to its languages.

Earlier than the Scots in much of Canada were the French, and these as they settled staked out their own claims to the naming of places and natural features. They total over six millions today, and their towns provide a striking pageant of municipalized saints - Sainte Anne de Beaupre, Sainte Anne de la Pocatiere, Sainte Anne des Chenes, Sainte Anne des Monts, Sainte Anne des Plaines, Sainte Anne du Lac, and all their sisters and brothers. Also competing with the Scots in toponymic aggressiveness were the English and the Irish. In Ontario, for example, the English-Canadians have their London (on the Thames), Stratford (on the Avon), Bath, Brighton, Durham, Portsmouth, Southampton, York and hundreds of others. In the same province, the Irish-Canadians have townships named Cavan, Galway and Monaghan and villages named Dublin, Enniskillen and Killarney. Nova Scotia has its Londonderry and Alberta its Cork.

Also competing during recent decades for a place in the toponymic sun are five million Canadians of European nationalities other than British and French. Thus the Icelanders have given us Arnes, Gimli and Hecla; the Hungarians Esterhazy and Bekevar; and the Ukrainians (among scores of other place-names) Halicz, Sich, Julish and Yasna Olana. The Scottish place-names in Canada have had to run the gauntlet of a host of competitors.

In that struggle for survival, some of the more rugged Scottish names have failed to acclimate themselves for Canadian usage. We look in vain for Ecclefechan, Ardnamurchan, Sligachan and Ballachulish. John Milton, in his Sonnet XI, derided cacophonous Scottish surnames - "Gordon, Colkitto [i.e., G. Coll ciotach, "Coll the left-handed or crafty"], or Mac-donnel, or Galasp [i.e. Gillespie]. . . that would have made Quintilian stare and gasp" - but three of the four have "grown sleek" to our mouths. Pronounceability, however, has no doubt a bearing on viability.

Still another difficulty has sometimes lain in the opposition of officialdom and its friends. The assigning of names to territorial areas and post offices has been commonly in the hands of the Establishment, which has been prompt to donate toponymic immortality to politicians and their cronies. Scots from Prince Edward Island are ready to tell of this sort of chicanery, especially along the east coast. Back in the 1830s, in opening up what became Victoria County, Ontario, a block settlement of Highlanders from Argyllshire and Islay wanted its wholly Scotch township called "Caledonia," but the Family Compact government in Toronto insisted on calling it "Eldon," after the lord chancellor. One cannot get too indignant at this today, however, when one discovers that the name "Caledonia" occurs six times in Canada, three times in Nova Scotia, twice in Ontario, and once in Prince Edward Island, all to the great confusion of postal clerks.

Since 1897, attempts have been made by the Federal Government to achieve a tactful avoidance of so much duplication. A "Canadian Permanent Committee on Geographical Names," with headquarters in Ottawa, has been able, by discretionary consultation with the provinces, to spread hundreds of totally new names across the Canadian West in areas that were being opened up for the first time. There is no "Caledonia" west of Ontario.

Notice may be taken of the wartime drive of public emotion to change place-names. Thus, in 1824, "Berlin" was the cheerfully accepted name for a city in Waterloo County, Ontario, an area first settled in the early 1800's by Swiss-German immigrants from Pennsylvania, later reinforced by settlers direct from Germany. In 1916, however, under excited mass pressure from Ontario Anglo-Canadians, the name was changed to "Kitchener", after Field Marshall Lord Kitchener, who was drowned at sea in that year. Similar ultra-patriotic clamour during World War II, demanding the suppression of "Swastika" as the name of a community in the Timiskaming district of Northern Ontario, was successfully blocked by the town's citizens, who insisted that they had chosen the old folk-symbol as their municipal name long before Hitler and his Nazis had adopted it as a political trade-mark.


Even where a place-name may once have been happily appropriate for a community, population changes may come to render it meaningless. The tides of immigration ebb and flow, bringing totally new racial stocks to the surface. A differential birth rate may serve to replace one nationality by another. Canadians are a nomadic people, streaming from the Prairies and the Maritimes to the affluent employment centres of Ontario and Quebec, as well as from rural parts to the cities in every province. We have suffered a hemorrhage of population to the U.S.A. that runs to many millions. The total population of Canada is almost equalled by the number of present-day Americans whose ancestors (or themselves) once lived in Canada.

A number of instances will illustrate the story:

(a) "New Edinburgh,'' in Digby County, Nova Scotia, was founded and its streets were carefully laid out in 1783 by a Scottish U.E. Loyalist, Anthony Stewart, but demographic changes in the area have made it an Acadian French fishing-village. Of its 40 telephones in 1968, some 39 were French (15 Doucets, 13 Amiraults, etc.) and only one Scottish (a MacCormack).

(b) Shelburne, Nova Scotia, was founded in 1783 by U.E. Loyalists, and by 1786, with a population of over 10,000, it was the largest town in British North America. But the site was ill chosen, storms swept away wharves and warehouses, free rations were cut off at the end of 1786, the settlers fled to England, to Upper Canada, or even back to the U.S.A., and by 1816, according to the Surveyor-General of the province, only 374 persons were left in the town.

(c) In 1784, Preston, Nova Scotia, named by its Scottish Loyalist founders after towns in the Lothians and Berwickshire (unlike Preston, Ontario, which was named after Preston in Lancashire), began its career as a toponymic transplantation from Scotland. In 1814, however, it was used as a depot for Negroes rescued from slavery after the burning of Washington, D.C.; and today the community is solidly Negro.

(d) About 1773, a contingent of Scottish fisher-folk settled along the south shore of the Restigouche River and its estuary, and established such centres as Campbellton and Dawnsonville. Still earlier, however, a flood of Acadians, returning in 1764 from the deportations of 1755, settled on both shores of the Bay of Chaleurs. The Acadians' greater numbers and greater prolificity have submerged the Scottish communities and made them a small minority in a largely French population.

(e) The same process of French replacement is well advanced in the Eastern Townships of Quebec and in the famous old Highland Scottish county of Glengarry.

(f) Colonsay and Saltcoats, shown as apparently Scottish in my place-name list for Saskatchewan, have actually, since 1900-13, become Hungarian communities.

(g) In like manner, the seemingly Scottish towns of Gretna (Manitoba) and Balgonie (Saskatchewan) are now almost completely German.

Expansion rather than shrinkage of the Scots may be noted in the case of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Founded by the English in 1749, and given a famous old Yorkshire name, it has so attracted enterprising Scots from all parts of the Maritimes that its 1968 telephone directory listed 2400 "Macs," some 475 of whom were "Macdonalds." Monuments to Burns and Scott dominate its public gardens and its "North British Society" is perhaps the most powerful organization in the town.

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