Gaelic In The Bruce Part 3

Not long ago in this space I talked about that tragic and neglected period in British history known as The Clearances. Over a period of more than 100 years, beginning in the middle of the 18th Century and lasting well into the latter half of the 19th, many thousands of poor Scottish Highland farmers, known as crofters, were evicted, or “cleared” from the Highlands and the islands off the western coast of Scotland by wealthy landowners. Many immigrated to Canada. Some found their way to this area. Gaelic-speaking Highland refugees were among the first non-aboriginal people to settle in Grey and Bruce counties. 

Little remains of this area’s Gaelic heritage, even in local museums. But that will likely change as interest continues to grow.

I got a lot of feedback from readers after my first two columns appeared. One caller from the Hanover area drew my attention to a book titled, John Ramsay of Kildalton, written by Freda Ramsay and published in 1968. My thanks to James Golem and his father Harvey Golem of Owen Sound for lending me a copy of the book.

Occasionally during the clearances the misery of the Highlanders was mitigated by acts of generosity by sympathetic people with the means to help. John Ramsay was one such person. Born in 1815 in Stirling, north of Glasgow, Ramsay made his fortune in the distillery business on Islay, one of the islands off the west coast of Scotland. He acquired a large estate, became a member of parliament, and tried in many ways to alleviate the growing poverty on his overpopulated island in the mid 19th Century.

In 1862-63 Ramsay paid the fares for many of the 400 people, out of a total population of about 11,000, who immigrated to Canada from Islay that year. The vast majority were families with children. The names of those on one voyage, aboard the S.S. Damascus, are listed on a copy of a handwritten document that appears as an appendix in the Ramsay book. Their surnames include Matheson, Beaton, McArthur, McTaggart, Smith, McEwan, Gilchrist, McNab, McCuaig, Johnstone, Mckenzie, and McCormick. Most were bound for Toronto, some to Montreal to join earlier Islay emigrants who had settled in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. Many who landed in Toronto settled in the Lake Simcoe area north of the city, especially around Beaverton. Others found their way to many parts of Grey-Bruce, including the Collingwood, Owen Sound, Southampton and Kincardine areas. Anxious to find out first-hand how they and others he had helped emigrate were doing, Ramsay came to Canada in 1870 and tried to find and visit as many as he could. His detailed diary of the trip takes up about half the book.

On one stage of his long journey, Ramsay took passage from Collingwood on board the steamer “Frances Smith” bound for Owen Sound by way of Meaford on August 29, 1870. It left Collingwood about 4 p.m, and by 10 p.m. that night it had docked in Owen Sound and “I was safely lodged in Coulson’s Hotel,” he wrote in his diary.

The diary also notes Ramsay talked to a member of the steamer’s crew, a man named “McCuaig” who was from Islay. He told him where to find Neil Gilchrist and others who had settled near Keady.

Another steamer, the “Wabuno” arrived in Owen Sound during the night. McCuaig, aware that the mate on board that vessel was also from Islay, told him about Ramsay. The next morning bright and early the enthusiastic young man, full of good news about Islay immigrants who had settled and prospered in the Owen Sound area, came to see him at the hotel. The diary identifies him as William Black, but mostly refers to him as “the young Black,” possibly to distinguish him from another, older William Black who Ramsay met in Keady later that same day.


In Owen Sound he and “young Black” visited “the house and workshop of James McKerrel . . . whom we saw, and was pleased to learn that he is doing well.”

James McKerrel told Ramsay his brother William had a farm near Owen Sound. But with his plans to travel to Keady and Southampton already in place, and because the McKerrel farm was in the opposite direction, Ramsay decided not to go there, but “to rest satisfied with the very satisfactory report of his prosperity which I received from the others.”

The “young Black” went back reluctantly to the Wabuno, which was scheduled to steam north. He would have preferred accompanying Ramsay on the next leg of his journey. Ramsay noted the young man’s parting comments: “He spoke very warmly of the advantages (his family) had gained by coming to Canada; and said that though his father in winter sometimes expressed a wish that he had never left the old country, yet that in summer he is always well pleased for the sake of his family, adding ‘You see, Sir, every one of us can get on well here if we only will it, and be steady and pay attention.’”

On the rough wagon ride to Southampton, with a lengthy detour to Keady, someone the diary refers to only as “Sambo” helped Ramsay with the team of horses. I take from that word – commonly used for a long time, but now long considered derogatory – that he was of Afro-Canadian or Afro-American descent, likely a descendant of escaped slaves from the southern U.S. who also settled this area in pioneer times.

In Keady Ramsay met and got further directions from James Gilchrist, the local postmaster and storeowner. He was warmly welcomed by Neil Gilchrist and his family, and then by William Black who hurried to the Gilchrist farm when a messenger was sent down the road to tell him of Ramsay’s unexpected arrival. They talked for a long time, and before parting the two settlers summed up their feelings about having come to Canada:

“I wish you to understand,” the diary records Gilchrist saying, “that I feel I have acted rightly in coming here, however willing you might have been to give me more land. You could not make land; you could not eject others to please me. I could not have wished you to do it, and therefore I could not have had my family settled near me as they all are here; and I feel in my old age that this is so great a comfort that it more than compensates for any inconvenience I have suffered, either from our long winter or the hardships endured when we first settled here, and for some years past we have really been very comfortable, and have now ample means.”

William Black agreed. “Sometimes in winter, when I am annoyed with the severe cold, I say to the young folks that I would prefer to live at home, even on one meal a day than to live here on the most abundant and richest fare,“ he said; “but, after all, when I think how comfortably and how well my family and we all are getting on, I really know that, instead of grumbling, I should be grateful for the numerous blessings we enjoy.”

There is no mention in Ramsay’s diary of the aboriginal people who, not that long before, had occupied the land being farmed by the Islay settlers he visited.

Time passes, attitudes change and hopefully we learn a thing or two from history. From the point of view of now, the similarity between the Gaelic Highland refugee experience in Scotland and the Saugeen Ojibway experience in this area strikes me as clear enough, and sadly ironic:

Both were rooted in an ancient clan tradition in which land wasn’t owned in the modern sense of private property; rather, it was occupied for long periods of time by people who came to regard it as theirs by well-understood clan tradition – to the extent that it became an integral part of their sense of who they were. And both were “cleared” from their land in a manner that history for a long time largely ignored.

The story of the Highland refugees who managed, occasionally with help from benefactors like Ramsay, to reach, settle, overcome adversity, survive and prosper in this area is a story that deserves to be remembered and told to the full extent possible. But the ending does not in any way justify the means that, in the beginning and along the way, led to much pain and suffering for the Highlanders of Scotland and the Saugeen Ojibway.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2006.

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