Last week’s column about the Grey-Bruce area’s Gaelic heritage appears to have struck a chord. I’ve been getting phone calls from readers who expressed a heartfelt interest in the subject because of their Scottish Highland ancestry, and a strong desire to share their family history. That included whatever they knew about that tragic episode in Scottish history known as The Scottish Clearances and the crucial but now little-known role it played in bringing their ancestors to this area.
During the 18th and 19th Centuries the Anglicized Scottish aristocracy and wealthy landowners “cleared” the Highlands of small tenant farmers, known as crofters, to create vast pastures for sheep or habitat for deer only the rich were allowed to hunt. Untold thousands of people were evicted from their homes, which were then usually burned and demolished so no trace of them or the people who lived in them remained. Sometimes the homes were burned with people still inside if they took too long to leave. Most had little more than the clothes on their backs as they struggled to survive. Many died of disease and starvation in the worst conditions imaginable, or perhaps beyond imagining. Many thousands of Highland refugees were shipped to Canada. It was effectively the last stop in the clearing process.
One man who called this week said his great grandparents and their 11 children were crofters evicted from their home in the Strathaven area near Glasgow in the 1850s. They managed to get passage on a ship to Canada. Everyone survived the voyage, a small miracle in itself, given that three out of every 10 immigrants from Ireland and Scotland died of disease or starvation on the “coffin ships” of that era or were lost at sea. They made their way to Toronto where they found the land office. The land agent soon took sly note of the little money the family had left and said he knew of just the right piece of land available for that price. He claimed it was “prime agricultural land” just north of the city. The caller said his great grandparents and their children had no choice but to walk, and walk they did, for several weeks, until they eventually found their lot “covered by virgin timber and rocks” in the Bognor area in Grey County’s former Sydenham Township.
There were some kind hearts in Great Britain who did what they could to ease the suffering of the Highland refugees. A caller from the Hanover area offered to lend me a copy of a book about John Ramsay of Kildalton who paid for a steamer to take some to Canada from Islay, an island in the Scottish Hebrides. By the 1850s the islands of the Inner and Outer Hebrides, including the Isle of Lewis, the Island of Skye, The Island of Mull, and many others had become refuge for displaced Highlanders from the mainland. As a result the populations had swelled way beyond the capacity of the islands’ resources to support them. The potato famine that struck Ireland and Scotland, beginning in the late 1840s, added to the collective misery, causing further widespread starvation and death.
Another caller gave me the name and phone number of a Gaelic speaker in Kincardine to pass on to A. R. (Archie) MacKinnnon, the Gaelic researcher and retired university professor who lives in Guelph. He’s anxious to organize a large body of recorded material he has accumulated into a format he hopes the Bruce County Museum and Archives will be able to use for a Gaelic heritage exhibit. Last week’s column was prompted by an article written by MacKinnon that I found by chance in a copy of the Bruce County Historical Society’s Centennial Book, published in 1967. In it the former Dean of Education at Simon Fraser University stressed the importance of recording what remained of Bruce’s fast-disappearing Gaelic language and heritage before it was lost completely.
All the people who contacted me this past week shared my amazement at how little is known about The Clearances. Most of us were never taught anything about it in school, despite the emphasis on British history. I think it’s fair to say that, even to this day, relatively few people of Scottish ancestry in this area and know a lot about those events. It wasn’t that long ago that most Canadians were of Scottish descent; so much so, visitors from other lands thought thought they detected a Scottish accent in our way of speaking. Much of Grey-Bruce was settled by poor pioneer families “cleared” from the Highlands and the Islands in the early 1850s. As MacKinnon wrote in his 1967 article, Gaelic language and culture was once a predominant feature of life in Bruce County. But little evidence of it remains, though there are some hopeful signs of revival. And what I heard from the people who called me this week suggests any project that sets out in search of this area’s Gaelic heritage might just find quite a bit of buried treasure.
Still, there’s that nagging question I’ve asked MacKinnon, and Angus McLeod, the modern-day bard of the Lewis Settlement, and everyone who called this week. How could a people let so much of their heritage slip away? It’s a troubling question most found hard to answer.
McLeod thinks it has a lot to do with the terrible reality of The Clearances. It traumatized a nation, and in the end all many of the Highlanders wanted was to forget, to leave it all behind. “I think they came to the new world and they just wanted to forget about what happened on Lewis and get a new start,” he said, referring to the island where the cleared Highlanders who established the historic Lewis Settlement near Ripley were shipped from in 1851.
Then “they really, really wanted to fit in,” McLeod added, because “they didn’t want the same thing to happen to their children.”
In the Scotland increasingly dominated by English after the battle of Culloden in 1746, the Highlanders were made to feel that the Gaelic language and culture was the mark of an inferior, even barbaric, people. Sadly, it appears that sigma was also exported to the new world.
The impoverished state of the Highland immigrants coupled with the challenges they faced just to survive, was also an important factor in the gradual decline of the Gaelic language and culture in this area. “In the process of simply surviving they lost that culture,” said MacKinnon.
No doubt it’s all very complicated. Maybe somebody should write a thesis, make it part of a project to revive and celebrate the Gaelic heritage of Grey-Bruce, while explaining why so much was lost. Does anybody else find it curious that an area full of Scottish place names, where the pipes are still heard and the tartan worn on special occasions, an area that speaks so often of pride in its heritage, has somehow forgotten the most important parts?
The two counties have recently spent many millions building or rebuilding new museum facilities. Various aspects of local heritage have pride of place, including Aboriginal at the Bruce County Museum and Black at Grey Roots; rightly so. But in all the planning and spending how much thought was given, I wonder, to investing a little of that money on a Gaelic heritage project and exhibit?
Last week I drew a parallel between the Aboriginal experience in this area and the “cleared” Gaelic-speaking Highlanders who settled here in pioneer days. I confess, my hope to some extent in passing was to build a bridge between two cultures by pointing out their similarities. Did anybody notice?
People often ask, why bother caring about history and heritage? What good does it do? Is it worth spending a lot of money on? Yes it is. The people who called me this week realize that knowledge and appreciation of one’s history and heritage is good for the soul.
I will add it’s especially valuable if, by placing various cultures side by side, everyone can see how much have in common. In an age of misunderstanding and cultural strife that kind of knowledge and understanding is priceless.
Originally published in The Sun Times in 2005.