"Oft did the harvest to their
Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their teams a-field!
How bowed the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!" —GRAY.
THE traveller going through
Oxford to-day and viewing its large towns, its busy factories, its elegant
churches, its commodious schoolhouses, its comfortable homes, and its
fertile fields, finds it hard to realize that within the memory of some of
us the whole district was an unbroken forest, where the wild Indian roved
and the bear and wolf prowled. This wonderful change speaks to us of
difficulties overcome, of trials patiently endured, of earnest purpose and
indomitable perseverance. The men and women who were chiefly instrumental in
bringing about the change have strong claims upon their descendants, and the
memory of their holy faith and heroic deeds ought not to be allowed lightly
to perish. The following pen pictures, though sketched with a feeble hand,
are conceived with a loving heart; and they are placed as a few sprigs of
heather upon the graves of ancestors who deserve our highest gratitude.
Away back in the thirties
Zorra was settled by a race of sturdy Highlanders from the north of
Scotland, chiefly from Sutherlandshire. As early, indeed, as 1820, two
brothers, Angus and William MacKay, settled in the district— some of their
descendants are still living there in comfort. After braving the hardships
of the forest for nine years, Angus MacKay returned to Scotland, but in the
following year returned, bringing with him his aged mother and a shipload of
These people left their
native land, not as a matter of choice, but from necessity forced upon them
by the covetousness of Highland landlords. Aristocratic proprietors formed
the plan of driving away the peasantry in order to turn their little farms
into sheep pastures and sporting grounds. The result was that men who never
flinched in battle for the defence of their country—the descendants of those
who drew their swords at Bannockburn, Sheriffmuir and Killicrankie—the
children and nearest relations of those who had sustained the honor of the
British name in many a bloody field—the heroes of Egypt, Corunna, Toulouse,
Salamanca, and Waterloo—the men of whom General Havelock exclaimed at the
close of one of the most fiercely-fought battles of modern times, "Well
done, brave Highlanders"—these noble men, who deserved so well of their
country, were robbed and trampled upon; and, as they would not be enslaved,
they were compelled to seek an asylum across the Atlantic.
With sad hearts and tearful
eyes they bade farewell to their heath-clad hills, and the homes they loved
so dearly, faced an ocean voyage of twelve weeks in an old emigrant ship,
endured all the hardships of a two weeks' journey up the St. Lawrence in
open boats towed by oxen, penetrated the unbroken fastnesses of the forest;
and, in spite of bears, wolves, and mosquitos, laid the foundation of the
prosperity we see on every side of us to-day.
The question has been
sometimes sneeringly asked: "Why should our fathers have been so, intensely
attached to their native soil ?" That attachment had piety as well as
patriotism in it. The houses from which our pioneer fathers and mothers were
driven were not only the homes which they and their forefathers had occupied
from time immemorial, but they were spots hallowed by the most sacred
associations —spots not a few in which individuals had in their hearts
"built a pillar and anointed a stone," and worshipped their God and the God
of their fathers. A forcible separation from such homes was felt as none but
members of the household of faith can feel.
But enough said on a dark
subject. The memory of these men and women ought to be revered by their
descendants. We owe them a great deal—our pleasant surroundings, the blood
that flows in our veins, our energy and solidity of character, and, in as
far as spiritual things can be inherited, the hope that cheers in life and
sustains in death.
That the Highlanders of
to-day have lost none of the "martial fires that thrilled their sires," the
Dargai Heights abundantly testify; but, alas! the Gordon Highlanders can no
longer be recruited from the land of their forefathers. A story is told
that, after a large number of the Highland tenantry had been evicted their
places filled with sheep, a recruiting officer happened to come into the
neighborhood, but the only response received by him to his request for
volunteers for the army was, "Baa, baa," thus indicating that as sheep had
been substituted for men, the recruiting officer might look to the sheep for
"A bold peasantry, their
When once destroyed can never be supplied."
When these expatriated men
and women came to Zorra there were no roads—only a blazed path here and
there to guide the traveller. Such a path led in a "bee line" from Woodstock
to where Embro is now situated. A large part of the county was at that time
swamp, and in the spring and fall of the year the swamps would be full of
water. The waters contained myriads of frogs, which kept up an incessant
croaking all day and night.
There is a story told of a
famous "frog- scare." In the fall of 183- several families settled in the
south and eastern part of the township. Very early one morning, next spring,
the whole district was suddenly awakened by unearthly sounds on every side.
The terrified ones quickly got out of bed and made what preparations they
could to meet the foe. Some thought the dreaded Indians were upon them,
others vowed that the voices were those of witches or devils flying through
the air. Windows were fastened, doors bolted, and prayers offered. For a
couple of hours before dawn the greatest panic prevailed.
With the first grey streaks
in the east, a party of men armed with axes, clubs, and such other weapons
as were available, climbed the hill to the eastward to see if the Indians
were indeed coming; but seeing no enemy, they soon returned to allay the
fears of their friends. It was not long before some of the older inhabitants
explained to the people that the sounds proceeded from the thousands of
frogs which, frozen in during the winter, and suddenly let loose by the
advent of spring, were expressing their joy in very hearty though very
The dismal howling of the
wolves, together with the "mony eldritch screeches" of the frogs outside,
and the crickets inside the houses, were a torment to the new settlers till
their ears got accustomed to the disagreeable sounds. The woods were full of
wild beasts, such as the deer, bear, wolf, fox, hedge-hog, wild-cat and
squirrel, also many snakes and other reptiles. Many stories are told of
bears appropriating, Rob Roy like, the lamb, the calf, or the pig of the
settler. Such birds as the crow, hawk, robin, woodpecker and bluejay made
the forest vocal with their notes in spring.
Besides the really dangerous
bear and wolf, there was another source of fear, as great or even greater.
These were the ghosts, the existence of which was most certainly believed in
by these Scotch settlers. Many a time have the chills run up and down my
back as I have listened to the weird, uncanny tales told at the "ingleside"
by the light of the old back-log, and evidently believed by the narrator as
well as his hearers, who gathered closer to the fire and to one another
after each blood-curdling story was told.
Mr. L-----, one of these
pioneers, had a new blue denim pair of trousers, and one day, after being in
Woodstock and partaking of a "wee drappie," he returned home at night. The
night was wet, and every time one leg passed the other while walking, the
trousers, in rubbing, gave forth a peculiar squeaking noise. It was a ghost,
sure! Mr. L------ ran for life in the direction of the nearest house, but
the ghost ran too, and kept up the terrifying sounds till, over bogs,
through swamps and brushwood, out of breath, the fleet-footed Highlandman at
last found safety in the nearest shanty.
On another occasion, this
same pioneer returned from the county town in a wretched plight. He had
imbibed freely during the day, and coming home at night lost his way. It was
in the spring-time, and the swamps and streams were full of water. In his
wanderings he crossed and re-crossed some of the streams several times,
until he arrived at home scarcely recognizable. "O my poor man," exclaimed
his wife on seeing him, "where have you been?"
"Och, woman," replied the
drouthy and drenched Hielanman, "she's cam' from Egypt, and she pe crossing
the Red Sea of'en, of'en."
When some unfortunate went
astray in the woods and did not return in the evening, his friends would
commence hallooing or blowing horn, neighbors would take up the call, and in
short time the whole country round would be hallooing or blowing horns.
These sounds could be heard a great distance, and never failed to bring the
It is related of one of the
settlers that, having gone astray several times, his friends advised him to
procure and use a compass. He did so; but the next time he went from home he
lost his way as usual.
"Why did you not steer by the compass?" said a friend to him afterwards.
"Because," was the prompt reply, "I could not get the gude-for-naethin'
thing to point right."
These settlers lost no time
whimpering over the cruelties of the past or the hardships of the present;
but, with brave hearts and stout arms, they at once went to work, and from
dawn till dark the forests resounded with the strokes of the axe, and the
crashing of the falling trees.
Soon little clearances, like
so many breathing spots, could be found scattered over the whole township;
but nowhere could one clearance be seen from another. This rendered unusual
the "flying visit" of to-day. The visitor was expected to remain two or
three hours at least, and if the visit was cut short, the visitor would
likely be asked, "Have you come for fire?" a query which requires a little
explanation. The hearth fire, like that in some ancient temples, was not
allowed to die out; and the last act of the "gude" man or his wife before
retiring to rest was to cover the bright embers over with ashes, which, when
raked off the next morning, disclosed the nucleus of a new fire.
Occasionally, however, the fire would go out, and an aged pioneer mother
relates how, on one such occasion, she had to travel nearly two miles by a
path through the woods to the nearest neighbor for a kindling-brand. Such a
visit was necessarily very brief, hence the popular taunt to a hurried
visitor, "Have you come for fire?"
Every farmer had a bell on
one of his cattle, so that when they wandered they could be more easily
found. Old settlers often remark what great distances sound could be heard
through the woods as compared with the present day, when the land is
cleared. The stroke of an axe, it is said, could easily be heard a mile
away, while a falling tree could be heard at a distance of three miles.
Sheep were folded every night as a protection from wolves. Hearing the
wolves howling, one would think they were very near, while perhaps they were
a mile away. The wolf has an instinctive dread of fire, and if a man was
benighted in the woods he was safe if he could only light a fire. A settler
put a wager that tobacco smoking had saved his life, and that he could
clearly prove it. The explanation was that, being one night lost in the
woods, he lighted a fire, and thus saved himself from the wolves; "but,"
said he, "I would not have had the wherewithal to make that fire had I not
been a smoker." This plea for the pipe is, to say the least, far-fetched,
and cannot be used to-day, for the wolves are all gone.
The first cabins were 12 x 18
feet, perhaps 9 or 10 feet high, and, of course, built of logs. The roof was
constructed of basswood logs, hollowed out, and laid alongside each other,
with the hollow side up. Then other logs, similarly hollowed, were laid on
these, with the hollow side down, and so as to overlap those underneath.
Such a roof was waterproof, but not always proof against the driven snow.
The inside of the cabin was divided into two rooms, with a loft above. In
this loft the children usually slept, and they mounted to it by means of
pegs driven into the wall. The openings between the logs were filled with
moss obtained from the trees, and the moss was daubed with soft clay. There
was a big fireplace constructed of stones, wood and clay: Such families as
could afford it had a couple of andirons in the fireplace, upon which the
sticks were carefully laid; others used a couple of fiat stones for this
purpose. From the top of the chimney was suspended a chain with a hook at
the lower end, capable of being raised or lowered, so as to adjust the pot
to the fire. By and bye this chain gave place to a "crane,"—a movable bar of
iron, attached by hinges to one side of the chimney, and placed horizontally
over the fire. Upon this could be suspended two pots, one for the porridge
and the other for the soup. The bread was baked at first in a kind of
flat-bottomed pot, called the bake-kettle, which stood upon three legs about
three inches in length. This pot had an iron lid with a broad rim and a loop
handle to lift it by. The raised dough was put into this pot, which was
placed upon the hearth and covered all over with coals. Soon the loaf
issued, well raised and baked, sweet and wholesome as any to-day from the
best of modern ovens. In the course of time the pot gave way to the
"reflectors"; and they, in turn, to the black, cheerless modern stove. The
table was bare, but always scrupulously clean. Two bedsteads, a few stools,
some rude chairs and a big Sutherlandshire chest constituted the furniture.
The chairs or stools—for there was not much difference—consisted of rough
slabs of wood, in which holes were bored, and legs fitted in. There was
usually one window, consisting of four panes of glass, 6 x 8 inches each.
Most of the dishes were of pewter, and taken from the old country. The
spoons were made of horn, and the knives and forks were horn-handled. The
fare was "hamely" but wholesome, "porridge and milk" with oaten cake being
These pioneer homes were
undoubtedly rude, and in many respects uncomfortable, but they sheltered
many a happy family, illustrating the sentiment of Scotland's poet:
"What though on hamely fare we
Wear hoddin' grey and a' that,
Gie fools their silks and knaves their wine;
The man's the gowd for a' that."
The fire blazing in the big
chimney at night cast many a weird figure in the corners of the shanty; and
often, while gazing into the glowing coals, has my fancy conjured up
Scottish castles, bloody battles, martyr scenes, and forms of beasts, birds,
We usually had to burn "green
wood." This was not so bad if the fire kept up well; but, alas for the poor
shivering ones when the night was cold and the fire burned low! It seemed
impossible to get it up again. A pioneer once remarked, in the presence of a
neighbor, that he did not believe anything could ruffle his wife's temper.
"I can tell you something that will, if you'll consent to try it," replied
the neighbor. "Agreed," said the pioneer. "Just bring home and cut up a load
of the crookedest green sticks you can find," proposed this disturber of the
peace, "and if that don't worry her I don't know what will." The plan was
complied with, but there was no change in things around the pioneer's home;
in fact, everything seemed to be more agreeable than before. At last our
friend said: "Wife, how do you like the wood I brought you last?" "First
rate," said the wife. "These crooked sticks fit right round my kettle, and
make it boil in half the time."
The good wife had learned the
important lesson that things which "can't be cured must be endured." A
difficulty which would have evoked bad temper in another, in her only
developed patience, one of the noblest Christian graces. Let the
housekeepers of to-day take a note!