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The Gael in Canada
An Article from the Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness

16th MARCH 1899.

At this meeting Mr Thos. Gibson, of Messrs Mactavish & Gibson, Inverness; Alister Macpherson-Grant, Esq., Ballindalloch; and Mr J. Matheson, Ordnance Survey, Edinburgh, were elected ordinary members of the Society. Thereafter the Secretary read a paper by Mr A. Fraser, of the “Toronto Mail,” Toronto, on “The Gael in Canada,” which is as follows: —


There is no ethnological problem in Canada. Such questions as “Who were the Picts?” “Who the Feinne?” we have not to solve. We begin with a clean and new leaf: with Englishmen, Irishmen, Scotchmen, Germans, etc., with their well-defined race divisions; and beyond the colonies which swarmed to our shores during the period from one hundred to one hundred and fifty years ago, there is but little inclination to push research. Our prehistoric Indian races excite an interest scarcely greater in Canada than in Inverness. Yet there is genuine pride of race. The severance from the .Fatherland has not loosened the ties of blood. The Englishman is more loyal to Lancashire or Devonshire—that he has left it behind, or that his father or grandfather left it behind—than the average resident of Lancashire or Devonshire is. So with the German, the plodding Lowland Scot, and so in a very special degree with the Scottish Gael. The progress of racial homogeneity must needs be slow. It is interesting to watch it grow in new soil. The wonderful commercial and industrial development of the United States has carried with it a rapid process of assimilation of race, and a distinctive people, or it may be more correct to say distinctive peoples, are being formed in a marvellously brief period of time. In Canada it is different. The sparser population, the quieter modes of living, and the greater segregation of the people geographically have been less favourable to change from the original types. Thus, in Nova Scotia, considerable sections of the country are inhabited by Gaelic-speaking people from various parts of the Highlands of Scotland, who for three generations have preserved not only the language, but the peculiarities of dialect and pronunciation of the district whence their people emigrated more than a hundred years ago. Many years ago I met a gentleman in Glasgow, who spoke Gaelic fluently and well, and with a pronounced Mull accent. He asked me to guess, from his mode of speech, what part of the Highlands he hailed from. I thought the guess easy; I replied, “From Mull.” I was wrong. He had been born and brought up in Nova Scotia, where his grandfather had been born also; and was only on a brief visit to the land of his fathers. His forefathers, however, had been Midi people, which accounted for his accent. This is a fair example of the condition of things in many parts of Canada, and it shows how long a time the peculiarities of speech, and I might add of manners also, cling to a people in a strange land.

French Canada, or the Province of Quebec, affords an example of a different kind. There the first European settlers were from Normandy, Brittany, and Wolfe’s soldiers, especially the soldiers of the Forty-Second, Montgomerie's, and Fraser’s Highlanders, were given the option, at the close of the war, to remain in Canada as colonists, or to return home to be discharged on the disbanding of the regiments. Many of them settled on the banks of the Lower St Lawrence, below Quebec. They intermarried with and soon were absorbed by the French-Canadians, so that it would be almost impossible at the present day to trace their Highland names or Highland features in their “Frenchified" surnames and puny physique. Mackintoshes, Macdonalds, Mackenzies, Frasers, and Macleods have undergone curious transformations, and to-day a Beddoe or a Brooa might pick out a Fraser as a typical French-Canadian, although Fraser’s ancestor might have been, so recently as 1758, a crofter in the Aird of Lovat, while the Gaelic language, of course, passed away with the first mixed generation. Where two races meet and intermingle, the mother’s language usually prevails, and it would appear that the mother rather than the father influences the physical characteristics. This Province of Quebec excepted, the Gael in Canada has lost but comparatively few of his old national traits.

If the Dominion offers a hospitable home to the Highlander to-day, it is because Highland soldiers practically won Canada for Britain from the French years ago. The Highland broadsword went before the ploughshare. At Louisburg the Highland regiments covered themselves with glory, but at Quebec—the key to the country—it is questionable whether Wolfe could have got within reach of Montcalm at all, were it not for the coolness of Captain Simon Fraser, younger of Balnain, who afterwards, as Brigadier-General, fell at Saratoga, in answering the challenge of the French sentry, as the Heights were being reached from the river. As related by Smollet, the story is as follows: —“The first boat that contained the British troops being questioned, a Captain in Fraser’s regiment, who had served in Holland, and who was perfectly well acquainted with the French language and customs, answered without hesitation to ‘Qui vive?’ the challenging word, ‘La France'. Nor was he at a loss to answer the second question, which was more particular and difficult. When the sentinel demand—‘A quel regiment?’ the Captain replied, ‘De la reine?’ which he knew by accident to be one of those that composed the body commanded by Bougainvilla. In the same manner the other sentries were deceived, though one, more wary than the rest, came running down to the water’s edge, and called, ‘Pour-quoi est ce que vous ne parlez pas haut? ’ (‘Why don’t you speak with an audible voice?’). To this interrogation, which implied doubt, the Captain answered, with admirable presence of mind, in a soft tone of voice, ‘Tai toi nous serens entendues!’ (‘ Hush, we shall be overheard and discovered’). The sentry retired without further altercation.” If the sentries had not been thus deceived the troops could not have effected a landing, much less have succeeded in scaling the precipitous heights, and had the British failed in doing that, then Quebec, the key to Canada, would have remained in the hands of France. The “Plains of Abraham" on which this fateful battle was fought, were named after a Highlander, Abraham Martin, a Perthshire man, who owned the land, and whose name figures often in the annals of that time. The end of brave Simon Fraser, whose tact gave the Highlanders a landing, was a sad one, although his death was glorious. He was second in command of the British forces, under General Burgoyne, during the Revolutionary War, and was an officer of great ability. His skill in tactics was conspicuous at Saratoga, at which battle his management of the army baffled every attempt of the enemy to carry the day. This was the more noticeable, as it was evident that General Burgoyne had lost his grip of the situation. General Morgan, on the American side, observed Burgoyne’s blunders, and how they were retrieved by Brigadier-General Fraser, He called two of his riflemen, and said, “You see that fine fellow on the white horse? It goes against my heart to do it, but you must pick him off, or we lose the battle.” The riflemen watched their opportunity, and it was not long before Simon Fraser fell mortally wounded. It was an easy victory then for the Americans.

The Macdonalds claim that the officer who rendered this signal service was Captain Donald Macdonald of Clanranaid, who wag undoubtedly an accomplished officer, and most useful to the officer commanding. I have been unable to dear the point from doubt to my own satisfaction. In the Aird the tradition favours Captain Simon Fraser. In Quebec the same opinion holds. Indeed, so far as I have been able to find out, the general opinion of Highlanders is in favour of Captain Fraser. I have, therefore, adhered to it in this paper. At the same time, the question is worthy of, and admits of, further investigation. I believe some correspondence which passed between soldiers of Fraser’s Highlanders has been deposited in the Canadian archives, and interesting information may be forthcoming when it shall have been examined.

As already noted, many of these Highland soldiers, drawn largely from Inverness-shire, settled in Canada, on the Lower St Lawrence and in Nova Scotia. They were heard of again as the 84th Royal Highland Emigrant Regiment in the Revolutionary War. This may be taken as the beginning of Highland colonisation in Canada. Afterwards came the settlement of Glengarry, that of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton, then the Selkirk Colonies. To a later, or intermediate, period belong the Argyleshire and Sutherlandshire Colonies, which settled in Western and Northern Ontario.

It would be interesting to trace a stream of emigration from its source to its destination. A large number of Highlanders from Glengarry, Knoydart, and adjoining places settled in the beautiful Mohawk Valley in the Province of New York, under the leadership of the Macdonells of Aberchalder, Leek, Scottos, and Collachie. Their lands were about thirty miles from Albany, and were under the protection of Sir William Johnson, of Indian fame. When hostilities broke out between Great Britain and the American Colonies in 1775, these Highlanders remained loyal, and about two hundred of them crossed country to Montreal, and formed the nucleus of the King's Royal Regiment of New York, with Sir John Johnson, son of General Sir William Johnson, as Colonel. The list of officers contains the names of the following gentlemen, who afterwards settled in Glengarry, Canada: — Captains Alexander MacDonell (Aberchalder), Angus MacDonell, John MacDoneU (Scotos) Archibald MacDonell (Leek), Lieut. Hugh MacDonell (Aberchalder), Ensign Miles MacDonell (Scotos); and of the second battalion of the same regiment, Capt. James MacDonell, Lieut. Ranald MacDonell (Leek). In the famous corps known as Butler’s Rangers the following MacDonells held rank:—Captain John MacDonell (Aberchalder), First Lieut. Alexander MaoDonell (Collachie), Second Lieut. Chichester MacDonell (Aberchalder). These names are of singular interest, not only as those of the pioneers of Highland emigration, but of men who, being men of standing and substance in Inverness-shire, were among the first victims of the evictor there. In Dr Fraser-Mackintosh’s “Antiquarian Notes,” second series, p. 125, is the following reference to their eviction. Describing the conduct of Duncan MacDonell of Glengarry and of Marjory Grant, his wife, he says: —

“The first step was to give notice to the wadsetters, every one of whom it would have been noticed were Macdonells, and connected more or less with the chief. Being of old date, and prices advancing rapidly, their position was excellent, for it may be taken as certain that, besides sitting in their own personal occupancies free, the interest of the wadset moneys was more than paid by their numerous subtenants, crofters and cottars. Further, being men of education with an assured position in the country, it was galling for them to think of subsiding into the new position of tenants, burdened with a large increase of rent, and hence they nearly all emigrated, taking along with them the choicest of their followers. The emigration which was to the New England States, was the wisest step for them to pursue, and .proved beneficial to them; but it drained the cream of manhood of Glengarry, to the great detriment of the district.”

Here we see how these Macdonells came to leave their native land, and we see also that loyalty to that land and to the British Crown was not left behind, but that the people who gathered to the Jacobite standard in 1745 drew the sword in America for the House of Hanover in 1775, and in consequence suffered hardships at the lands of the United States as severe as were endured by their fathers after Culloden, at the hands of Cumberland.

We have seen that the Royal Highland Emigrant Regiment was composed largely of the veterans of Fraser’s and Montgomerie’s Highlanders and of the Black Watch, who settled on the Lower St Lawrence and in Nova Scotia. That regiment bore a distinguished part in the Revolutionary War, the 1st Battalion under the command of Lieut.-Colonel Allan Maclean, and the 2nd Battalion under Major-Commandant John Small. Colonel Maclean with his Highlanders defended the citadel of Quebec from the attacks and siege by the American General, Arnold, and saved the stronghold from falling into the hands of the Americans. And here again it is to be noted that to the Highlander is due the credit of saving Canada from the Americans, as of previously winning it from the French. The 2nd Battalion settled, in 1784, in Nova Scotia, and the 1st in Quebec. Many of the men who settled in Nova Scotia moved westwards, eventually settling in Glengarry, above Montreal. Although soldiers, they had acquired a rare experience of such life as was suited to the forest wilds of an unopened country. They were hardy sons of the hills, seasoned by the winters and wars of Quebec, and inured to the toils of pioneer life in Nova Scotia, at a time when the tomahawk and musket were as necessary in the field as the spade and the plough. They travelled long distances to their new homes, through trackless forests, swamps, and rough broken land. The Nova Scotians went through the fastnesses of New Brunswick to the St Lawrence, and by its waters up to Montreal. Some came from the Carolina^—Skyemen, men from Lochbroom and Kintail—for, earlier than to Canada, Highlanders settled in South Carolina.. As Murdo Macleod’s song has it—

The mode of travel varied. The people from the South— such as those from Carolina—travelled mostly in covered vans, driving their cattle before them; those from In ova Scotia had no waggon paths, and had to use pack horses and oxen. Referring to the difficulties of travelling in those days, the late Sheriff Mackellar, of Hamilton, Ontario, had this anecdote to relate:— “Among the settlers in Glengarry were some not conversant with Scripture, one of whom listened with incredulous astonishment to the story of the children of Israel’s wanderings’ through the wilderness. At the close of the service he taxed the minister with drawing the long bow. Being assured that the Israelites took forty years to reach Palestine, he warmly exclaimed: ‘Cha robh ann am Maois ach an t-amadan; threoraich mise cuideachd de mhnathan agus chloinn bho Halifax gu Glinne-Garaidh, troimh choilltean ’us suampaicheau gun chunntais, ann an seachdainean, "s cha do chaill mi ceann no cas diu/ ” He alluded to the parties of women and children that were conducted from Nova Scotia to Glengarry after the war. In many cases the women and children had to be left behind, and they endured persecution and cruelties almost incredible at the hands of the victorious Americans. Petitions are on file from soldiers who had served in the Highland regiments, and afterwards in the Royal Emigrant Regiment, to the ‘British authorities, imploring protection for the helpless families held as prisoners by the United States Government. One of these petitions is from John and Alexander MacDonell, captains in the King’s Royal Regiment of New York, who complain that the former’s family are detained by the Americans, destitute of every support except such as they receive from a few friends. The family was thus held from 1777 until 1779. Another petition is signed by twenty-four soldiers of the same regiment, whose families were similarly treated for several years. A letter of more than ordinary interest was written by John Fraser to General Baldimand, dated 31st May, 1784, reporting the ill-treatment of his sister-in-law’s family in the United States, in consequence of their loyalty to Britain. John Fraser, the writer of the letter referred to, was of the Frasers of Guisachan, Strathglass. His mother was Margaret, daughter of John MacDonell of Ardnabi, and grand-daughter of Glengarry. It was she who possessed the manuscript of Gaelic poetry that figures in the Ossianic controversy.

While the Revolutionary War was in progress, and while the Highland regiments were contributing so much to the strength of the British army, the Highland people were being driven off the land of their fathers, and matters coming to a head on the Glengarry estates in 1786, a second colony hived off, under the guidance of a notable man, Alexander MacDonell, of the Scotos family, a priest, whose ministrations extended beyond things spiritual. About five hundred and fifty people comprised this party, which naturally made for Glengarry, attracted by the first settlement there of their countrymen. The name of the ship they sailed on from Greenock was “Macdonald.” Their leader, Rev. Alexander MacDonell, was one of the earliest priests in Upper Canada. He was the founder of the parish of St Raphael, Glengarry, where he built the first church in what is to-day Ontario, viz., the Blue Chapel of St Raphael, on the site now occupied by the Cathedral Church of the diocese of Alexandria, built by Bishop Alexander MacDonell, even a greater pioneer than he of Scotos.

This year (1786) witnessed also the arrival in Canada of another man of note, whose lifework will not be forgotten among the Gael of Canada. Rev. Dr James Macgregor, the GaeUc hymnist, was born in 1759, at Portmore, in Perthshire. Having been appointed missionary to Nova Scotia, he sailed for Halifax in 1786, and settled at Pictou among the Highlanders, to whom he preached in Gaelic. The people were chiefly from Lochbroom, which they had left in 1763 in the ship “Hector.” Dr Macgregor thus describes his early experience as a Canadian minister: —“In November I received the first money for preaching in Pictou, a part of the first year's stipend. I lived a year and a quarter here without receiving a shilling, and almost without giving any. I ought to have received forty pounds of cash for the preceding year, with forty pounds' worth of produce, but twenty-seven were all that I received. The truth is, it could not be gotten. The price of wheat was then six shillings, and some of them offered wheat at three shillings to make up their share of the stipend, but could not obtain it. Almost all the twenty-seven pounds were due by me to some necessary engagement of charity which I was under. My board, which was my chief expense, was paid from the produce part of the stipend, which was not so difficult to be obtained as the cash part. But even of the produce part there was nigh ten pounds deficient. I plainly saw that I need never expect my stipend to be punctually paid; indeed, scarcely anything is punctually paid in this part of the world. It is a bad habit, ill to forego. But my mind was now so knit to them by the hope of doing good to their souls, that I resolved to be content with what they could give." A contingent of emigrants from Dumfriesshire settled at Pictou, and intermarriages between the Gaelic-speaking people and the Lowland Scotch were frequent. But Dr Macgregor made it a rule at the marriages to speak only in one language, according as a preference was indicated. One exception to this rule he thus refers to — “In one instance only of marriage had I to speak in both languages, telling the man his duties and engagements in English, and the woman hers in Gaelic. How they managed to court, or to converse afterwards, I know not; but they declared to me, and the neighbours confirmed it, that they could hardly speak a single word of each other’s language.” But love laughs at language as at locksmiths, and the difficulty referred to by Dr Macgregor exists in many cases where people of different nationalities meet, in our own day. Dr Macgregor's hymns have been popular in Canada, and copies of them may yet be found in the homes of Highlanders who can read Gaelic.

The settlements above referred to were practically all that took place down to the close of the last century, with the exception of one of three hundred Highlanders, led by an Irish priest named McKenna, who settled in Upper Canada in 1776. Whence they came I have not been able to trace. They may have been from Carolina, but more likely direct from Scotland, as they reached Upper Canada from Montreal after the outbreak of the war, which made it very dangerous for fugitives to travel in large bodies on American soil.

The beginning of the present century found emigration active, notwithstanding the restrictive measures against it taken by the Government on representations by Highland landlords, who operated to a great extent by means of the Gaelic Society of London.

Twenty years had almost passed away since the war, when an event happened which marks an historic era in Upper Canada, and may be ranked as the most remarkable in the annals of Highland emigration. I refer to the raising and emigration of the Glengarry Fencibles. An emigrant ship, which had sailed from Barra with emigrants, had been wrecked, and put into Greenock, landing her passengers in a most helpless condition. It was in the spring of 1792. Alexander MacDonell, a native of Inshlaggan (the Bishop MacDonell above referred to), then a priest in the Braes of Lochaber, repaired to their aid, and succeeded in obtaining employment for them from manufacturers in Glasgow. He became their priest, and. his experiences as such in Glasgow were quite interesting. The factories had, in the course of two years, to be closed on account of the war between Great Britain and France, and the Highlanders were once more shelterless. Their priest conceived the idea of forming them into a Catholic regiment, with MacDonell, of Glengarry, as Colonel. He, with unusual address, procured a Letter of Service, and the Glengarry Fencibles were soon embodied, the priest becoming chaplain. In 1802 it was disbanded, and the men were left in as helpless a condition as ever. The resourceful chaplain then conceived the idea of settling the corps in Upper Canada. His negotiations with the Government of the day might be read with profit by everyone interested in the Highland clearances. Briefly, he succeeded in obtaining an order from -the Secretary of the Colonies for a grant of two hundred acres of land to every one of his Highlanders who should arrive in the Province. The Highland landlords then opposed the project, and a hot agitation arose over the whole question of emigration. The Prince of Wales offered waste lands in Cornwall, England, to the Highlanders to keep them at home. An Act of Parliament was passed, placing restrictions on emigration. The Glengarrv Fencibles, however, had got away before the bill became law. With them came a number of people from Glenelg and Kintail, and other parts of the West Highlands. There were in all about eleven hundred emigrants in the party, and after a voyage of four months they reached Canada in 1804, and settled in Glengarry. Their leader was a remarkable man. He attended to the material welfare of his people, and was probably the most powerful force in public life in his Province for many years.

To the last century also belongs the Canadian work of the intrepid and famous explorer, Sir Alexander Mackenzie. He was born in the Island of Lewis in 1755, and early in life settled in Montreal, making a connection with a firm of merchants engaged in the North-West fur trade. He became a partner in the business, with headquarters on Lake Athabasca, and from that advanced post began the explorations which resulted in the discovery of the Mackenzie River and the North-west passage, a problem of interest to the prospector and capitalist now, as it was in 1789. An undertaking of greater danger was the finding of a route westward by the Peace River to the Pacific coast. This he accomplished in 1793, the journey taking eleven months. He inscribed on a rock facing the sea: “Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada by land, July 22nd, 1793.” In 1801 he published an account of his travels of 1789 and 1793, and produced a book not only of interest, but of scientific value. He was knighted as a reward for his explorations and for services rendered to H.R.H. the Duke of Kent while the latter was travelling in America. Sir Alexander did not make Canada his home, but, returning with well-earned wealth, bought the estate of Avoch, and died in the Old Land.

Restricting this paper mainly to the last century settlements, Earl Selkirk’s interesting work as a colonizer does not fall within its scope. His Prince Edward colony, 1803, was eminently successful. His Red River and Kildonan settlements were the scenes of hardship and bloodshed, and no small mystery still hangs over the motives and causes of effects which fell heavily on the poor Highlanders. In a second paper might be given a description of these events, of the Strathglass, Sutherland, and Ross-shire settlements, of others from Perth and Argyle shires. The condition of the Highlander in Canada at the present day might follow, and would prove an interesting sequel. A census lately taken by Clerks of Presbyteries and others computes the number of Gaelic-speaking people in the Dominion of Canada at more than a quarter of a million; 250 congregations require the services of Gaelic-speaking priests and ministers for preaching Gaelic each Sabbath, and seventy more for visiting and pastoral purposes. The Gaelic language is spoken in daily life in many sections of the country, Gaelic is taught in two or more colleges to young men studying for the ministry; the music and dance of Caledonia—the bagpipes and Highland fling—are heard and seen at Scottish gatherings throughout the land, and there are a few Gaelic societies in a flourishing condition. In this state of Gaelic affairs much interesting material might be found by the Gael at home. But what would be of great interest to the Gael in Canada would be to learn from his kinsman across the sea as much as possible about the conditions under which his forefathers were forced to leave the old clan lands, to seek a home across the deep.

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