Robbie Burns Night in
Quebec City, 2004. A stalwart remnant of Quebec Scots brave the
minus-thirty-degree weather to make their way across town, including
Quebec City’s Fraser Highlanders regiment, sporting their kilts and
hairy- and by the time they get there, hoary- bare knees.
A descendant of the first captain of the cold-kneed Fraser Highlanders,
whose legendary fierceness won Quebec for the British in 1759, is
toasting the haggis alongside descendants of a pure laine Quebecer,
whose Scottish ancestor fled to France in the sixteenth century. The
setting is the basement not of a Presbyterian but of a Catholic church,
the stabbing of the haggis is fittingly bloodcurdling, and the litany of
toasts is riotously bilingual.
What were Highland Scots doing fighting in the British army? What were
the Scots doing in Quebec before the Conquest? And what impact did Scots
have on the way the British treated their new subjects?
We tend to think of the Battle on the Plains of Abraham in 1759
resulting in the replacement of a French Catholic regime with an English
Protestant one. But Quebec was conquered not by England but by Britain,
an entity that had come into being only fifty-two years earlier, when
the Act of Union brought Scotland into the fold.
The first three British governors of Quebec were not in fact the least
bit representative of the rather homogenous English public at all. The
first was Scottish, the second was Irish, and the third was Swiss. They
all understood the realities of ethnic diversity only too well, and how
quickly and disastrously things can go wrong.
Throughout August of 1759, Wolfe’s troops burned crops and houses all
the way up and down the St. Lawrence River from Murray Bay to Kamouraska.
When the city fell to the British in September, the first commander was
one of Wolfe’s brigadiers, Robert Monckton, who only four years
previously had carried out orders to expel more than a thousand French
Canadians, the Acadians, from their homelands downriver. The Canadiens
dreaded what would happen next.
In 1760 the post of governor switched to another of Wolfe's brigadiers,
James Murray. To the growing surprise of the Canadiens, they found
themselves living under the command of a man who stood up for them
against the repressive laws of imperial Great Britain.
He seemed personally to favour the local French-speaking population,
whom he called “the best and bravest race on the globe,” over his fellow
British colonists, whom he described to a friend as "the most cruel,
ignorant, rapacious fanatics who ever existed.”
Murray's orders were to establish a British-style legal system and an
elected assembly along the lines of the British Parliament. He did
neither. He refused to establish an assembly because under British law,
Catholics could not vote, so most of the population would be
Under his rule, French Canadian citizens sat on juries, lawyers pled in
the lower courts, and property owners continued their French system of
land tenure. And perhaps most consoling to the Canadiens, against
express orders to do everything possible to Anglicize and Anglicanize
the colony, Murray ended up recommending his friend Jean-Olivier Briand
for election as the Catholic bishop. This meant that priests could be
ordained, and to the outrage of the Protestants who wanted to convert
everybody, the Catholic religion would not die out in the land.
The “rapacious fanatics" did manage to remove Murray from office in
1766, but his tolerant rule of Quebec laid the foundation for the 1774
Quebec Act, guaranteeing religious freedom to the Roman Catholic
majority. Murray’s disobedient practice of cultural continuation, rather
than Anglicization, set a precedent that changed Britain’s future policy
towards its colonies, and ensured that the unique character of Quebec
survived to this day.
The traditional explanation for Murray’s behaviour is that he feared the
French would join the American Revolution and therefore treated them
kindly. But the seeds of the Quebec Act were sown long before winds of
the Revolution reached London. And in any case, there were plenty of
other reasons to do with Murray himself, who was not an Englishman but a
Scot and, moreover, a Jacobite Scot.
The Jacobites - those
loyal to the deposed Catholic king, James II - were the most subversive
political element in the British Isles, and they had a particularly
dangerous liaison with France.
One of the many differences between England and Scotland was their
relationship with France and with Catholicism.
The English and the French had been at war with each other since 1689,
and at the time of the Conquest, English Protestants saw Catholics as
enemy aliens, almost the devil incarnate.
Catholics in England were not allowed to vote and were excluded from all
state offices, forbidden to possess weapons, taxed punitively, and
treated in law as potential traitors. In 1714, the Crown had passed over
fifty rightful heirs because they had the misfortune to be Catholic,
landing^ finally on an uncharismatic middle-aged German from Hanover,
George Lewis, the first of the King Georges. (Catholics cannot become
kings or queens of England to this day.) Anti-Catholic sentiment was so
strong in 1778 that when Britain proposed a Catholic Relief Act (that
allowed Catholics to sign up for the fighting in America), it took
10,000 soldiers to put down the Protestant rioters. The Gordon Riots
were the longest, most widespread, and the deadliest ever seen in
A tiny Protestant island within the sea of a militantly Catholic Europe,
England saw the French as superstitious, decadent, democratically
backward, and profoundly threatening. While the Protestants considered
themselves as the elect of God, they considered the French the biblical
equivalent of the heathens: a sermon preached at the Peace of Paris in
1763 was entitled “The triumph of Israelites over Moabites, or
Protestants over Papists.”
Murray’s strongest competitor for the post of first civil governor of
Quebec was a man who embodied many of these English sentiments, John
Wilkes. He was a passionate Scots-hater, so much so that Scottish
children burned effigies of him on the king’s birthday. As for the
French, he liked them even less. As a member of the Laudable Association
of Anti-Gallicans, founded in England in 1745, he believed that French
contamination had been an evil since the Norman Conquest. One of the
association’s mandates was to rouse the English public to boycott French
imports, and another was to fight gallicisms in the English language. To
his fury, the job went to a grasping Scots nobleman with suspicious
French connections. Wilkes’s consolation prize was being appointed the
Lord Mayor of London.
Claret in the oyster house: The Auld Alliance
The Scots had quite a different relationship with both Catholicism and
with France. The Scots and the French had formed their first formal
alliance (known as the Auld Alliance) in 1295 to fight their common
enemy, the English. Throughout most of the sixteenth century,
reciprocity treaties made Scottish and French nationalities
interchangeable. Plenty of Scottish lairds settled in France, blending
comfortably into French seigneurial society, and it was de rigueur for
the sons of Scots nobility to undertake part of their education in
The Highlands of Scotland were largely Catholic, as were its kings and
queens. The College ecossais in Paris (founded 1313 by Robert the
Bruce), attached to the Sorbonne, turned out Jansenist Scottish priests
during the Counter Reformation as theologically rigid in their own way
as their Calvinist enemies back home.
Scots bodyguards, the Garde de la Manche, protected the person of the
French monarch from 1419 until 1844. When Mary Queen of Scots married
the French Dauphin in 1560, a regiment of Scots soldiers became a
fulltime component of the French army.
Although the political alliance was over by the mid-eighteenth century,
the French connection still played an important role in the Scottish
Enlightenment, which was in full swing. The books of Voltaire,
Montesqueiu, and Rousseau were smuggled across the Channel and reprinted
in Edinburgh and Glasgow. So many Scottish philosophers visited
Voltaire’s house in England, where he was in exile, that he called
himself “l’aubergiste de l’Europe.” He in turn declared himself a
devotee of the Scottish philosopher David Hume, whom he called “Saint
Many details of Scottish daily life were still full of French influence.
The Scottish intellectuals who debated politics, philosophy, theology,
and literature in Edinburgh’s oyster houses did not oil their
discussions with beer or wine, contrary to legend, but on claret, the
favoured Scots table wine dating back to an ancient link with Bordeaux.
The Lowland Scot spoke Scots, which was almost unintelligible in England
(and full of French), and the Highland Scot spoke Gaelic, which had
common roots with the Celtic languages still spoken in France. The
Scottish legal system, based on reason more than on precedent, was far
closer to the French legal system than to the English, and Scottish
lawyers were routinely sent to study in France or Holland for two years.
While there was plenty of marine traffic and marriage between France and
Scotland, the latter was still cut off from England, physically and
culturally. The English finally did get around to building a road, just
in time for Bonnie Prince Charlie (Charles Edward Stuart) and the Scots
Jacobites to use it to invade England in 1746.
Catholics, kilts, and Culloden: The fight for the House of Stuart
The Jacobites began agitating when James II fled England after the
Glorious Revolution (1688), and the Protestant William of Orange and his
wife Mary took the throne. The Jacobites tried for nearly a century to
restore the Stuart Catholic monarchy to the British throne, with the
backing of the French army. Among the Jacobites were English and Irish
Catholics, Scots Highlanders, and Scottish Lowland Episcopalians,
including the Murray family.
Just fourteen years before the British took Quebec, in 1746, Prince
Charles Edward Stuart and his Jacobite supporters made it to within 175
kilometres of London. A 7,000-strong French army were held back by a
storm in the English Channel, and without its support the Jacobites were
badly beaten at Culloden Moor. Brutal reprisals by British troops were
legendary, although one young officer, Major James Wolfe, offered to
give up his commission rather than obey his commander’s orders to kill a
survivor, the twenty-year-old Charles Fraser of Inverlochy.
Charles Stuart escaped back to France. Highland clansmen who had fought
for the Prince disappeared back into the glens. But now the British
government was determined to rid itself of the Jacobites. Thousands were
jailed. Highland clansmen were no longer allowed to carry weapons, play
bagpipes or, worst of all, wear tartans or kilts.
Protestant England was triumphant. Handel wrote his oratorio Judas
Maccabaeus to celebrate the victory at Culloden, once again depicting
the Jacobites as the heathen Moabites and the Protestant Hanoverians as
the Chosen People.
Culloden was a turning point for the Jacobites. Most of the surviving
Highland chieftains now saw restoring their king as a lost cause and
blamed their failure on the French.
The 78th Fraser Highlanders, Quebec, in 1759. Watercolour by John H.
McNaughton, 1896. Raised by the British to fight in North America, some
of the Highlanders had fought against the British at Culloden. But
following their defeat, many Scots fighters, feeling betrayed by the
French who had failed to come to their aid in the battle, shifted their
loyalties to their conquerors. Under the command of their former enemy
James Wolfe, the Highlanders played a major role in the siege of Quebec
in 1759. After the regiment disbanded in 1763, many soldiers of Jacobite
background remained in Canada, and with their Catholic religion and
knowledge of French, assimilated easily into Quebec society.
They were persecuted and desperate, and to get back into British good
books they used their ancient prerogative to call up their men for
battle, this time on behalf of the House of Hanover.
Thus Simon Fraser, who called up the Seventy-eighth Fraser Highlanders
to go and fight in Quebec, had seen his own father hanged for treason
after Culloden. Many of his troops had fought on the other side at
Culloden, including the brother of Charles Fraser of Inverlochy, whose
life Wolfe had spared twelve years previously. Some say it was at Quebec
that the Highlanders took their revenge on the French failure to support
The last attempt to restore the Catholic Stuart monarchy was an
unsuccessful plot to kidnap King George and put Charles Edward Stuart
(Bonnie Prince Charlie, or the Young Pretender) in his place. It was
organized by the notorious Jacobite Lord Elibank, or Alexander Murray,
just five years before his younger brother James Murray arrived in
Bare Betty and the Jacobites: Murray’s unfortunate connections
Murray’s family were Scottish lowland nobility. Once impoverished by
their association with the ill-fated Stuart kings, they were struck low
a second time by the eighteenth-century equivalent of the dot-com
bubble, known as the South Sea Bubble. Murray was the fourteenth child,
and his mother Bare Betty was possibly none too happy to have another
bairn to deal with just when their fortunes were in mid-plummet.
Bare Betty, or Elizabeth Stirling, was so called because of an incident
at school. When an examiner addressed her as Betty, she drew herself up
to her full height and retorted, in colourful language, that she might
be addressed as Mistress Betty, or as Miss Betty, but “not bare Betty.”
As if to prove that the Scottish sense of humour has never changed, she
has come down to us through history as Bare Betty.
After the loss of their fortune, her husband Lord Elibank promised his
wife, as so many husbands have promised so many wives since, that “nor
you may depend on it will I venture a groat more that way.” Realizing
that the only asset he had left was a parcel of rather neglected and
unprofitable land around Ballencrieff, their ancestral home, he turned
his energies from the stock market to agriculture and founded The
Society of Improvers in the Knowledge of Agriculture in Scotland, and
then sat back to watch his unruly children make their way in the world
on their own.
Scots settlers were quite happy to fall into the seigneurial system,
both as seigneurs and as tenants, in Canada. Scottish tenants were used
to swearing fealty to a laird, and the lairds were used to ruling over
private dynasties of vast tracts of wilderness.
One of their sons, Patrick, became an Edinburgh intellectual and was
known for his savage wit and his “inexhaustible fund of Jacobite humour
and argument." He founded the Select Society, a group of men who were at
the centre of the Scottish Enlightenment, and who included philosopher
David Hume, the great Lord Kames (whose last words to his legal
colleagues were “Fare ye weel, ye bitches!"), and Adam Smith. Although
Samuel Johnson called Patrick Murray “one of the few Scotchmen whom he
met with pleasure and parted from with regret,” he and his brother had
been fingered as fanatical Jacobites by none other than Horace Walpole,
the British writer, aristocrat, and devotee of George II.
Another son, Alexander, had been jailed for insulting the King’s
ministers at the Westminster election in 1751. When invited to accept an
admonition on his knees before the House of Commons, he refused, saying
he only ever knelt before God, and back he went to jail. When he was
released in 1751, the London mobs hailed his release with cries of
“Murray and Liberty!” He immediately began plotting to restore the Young
Pretender once again.
James had entered the British army as a young man with the help of a
relative, but he wasn’t getting promoted very fast. Although Scots
aristocrats generally made a point of refusing to socially ostracize
those on the other side of the Stuart-Hanoverian divide, the same was
not true of the English. Neither Patrick nor Alexander, twice in Newgate
jail and now in exile in France, were good for James’s reputation with
the Hanoverian authorities. After twenty-three years of military
service, he was still only a captain, while many of his peers were
True to ancient aristocratic tradition, James Murray used a strategic
marriage to rescue himself from obscurity. When stationed in Hastings to
catch smugglers, Murray fell in love with the daughter of a staunch Whig
Englishman, John Collier, with excellent connections in the British
establishment. Collier conquered his misgivings about this impecunious
soldier from a notorious Jacobite family, allowed him to marry his
daughter, and promoted his cause tirelessly.
Murray knew only too well that Collier had saved him from the stigma of
his brothers’ reputation. "I’m sure time and opportunity,” he wrote to
him, “if fortune favours me with any, will convince all the world that I
have no share in their guilt, tho’ I am likely to have the whole
punishment of it unless protected by your influence. Hitherto I am very
sensible it has been that alone that has procured my rank and good
With his new patron’s help, James Murray set sail for Canada.
The best and the bravest: Murray in Canada
Professionally speaking, Quebec was the making of Murray. But with the
baggage that he carried, we should not be surprised that he understood
and empathized more with the Canadiens than with the English merchants,
who were already making predations in the new colony.
Jacobites tended to be nostalgic for rural life and the authority of
traditional hierarchies, and according to historian Arthur Herman,
“detested the new rising competitive capitalist society, with its
getting and spending, its greedy merchants and vulgar upstarts ... as
much as any Marxist.” Murray would have found many people who shared
these attitudes amongst the Canadian clergy and seigneurs.
He had grown up in a culture with more sympathies towards the French
Catholic mindset than towards a Protestant English Hanoverian mindset.
No wonder he refused to obey his orders when it came to establishing a
The indignity of the
Act of Union still rankled with many Scots. But out of their own
subjugation at the hands of the English, they had managed to preserve
their own legal system, which was closer to the French than to the
English, and their traditional system of land tenure, which was more
like the seigneurial system than the British system. These two
distinctly Scottish institutions were precisely the elements that Murray
excised from his orders about how to treat the new French subjects of
the British Empire.
This also explains why Scots settlers were quite happy to fall into the
seigneurial system, both as seigneurs and as tenants, in Canada.
Scottish tenants were used to swearing fealty to a laird, and the lairds
were used to ruling over private dynasties of vast tracts of wilderness.
They quickly intermarried with the Canadiens, and many Gaelic-speaking
families moved directly to French. They were also used to the weather:
Orkneymen who came over to work as Hudson’s Bay Company factors used to
add that thev came to Canada “to warm up."
His cultural history also explains Murray’s attitude toward the Catholic
Church, which was far from the kneejerk middle-class English attitude.
In Scotland, Catholics were a minority, but he had also served in
Ireland, and he knew what a violent mess Catholic repression could
result in if applied to a majority.
Murray himself had also had firsthand experience of religious exclusion.
Scots Episcopalians and Catholics were shut out under Presbyterian, and
then English Protestant rule.
Now the English merchants of Quebec and settlers from New England wanted
to impose a similar kind of exclusion on the French. “If... the Popish
[anti-Catholic] laws must be exerted with rigour in Canada, for God’s
sake procure my retreat,” he wrote to his friend Archibald Montgomery,
"as I cannot be witness to the misery of a people that I love and
John Wilkes, his rival back in England, wasn't the least surprised that
Murray was behaving in the colonies in a way that was so "fatal and
hostile to England.” He was, after all, a Scot, so no wonder he was
batting for the enemy.
The Franco-Scots in Canada
Murray must have known that there were fellow Scots in Quebec long
before the British conquered it. There were bound to be, as France was
crawling with Scots refugees. Cartier’s navigator, John Rotz, was a
Franco-Scot, as was the first pilote du roi on the St. Lawrence River,
Abraham Martin dit lecossais. The field where he kept his herd of cows
was known as the Plains of Abraham. Scots settlers thrived among the
Acadians in Nova Scotia.
Early on the morning of September 13,1759, General James Wolfe landed
his men at Anse-Aux-Foulons below Quebec. The French troops above were
not expecting the British to land there, and Highland Scots members of
the advance party replied to their sentries in fluent French. Thinking
the landing craft were actually French supply boats from downstream, the
sentries let down their guard, allowing the soldiers to scale the cliff.
Later that day, Quebec fell to the English in the Battle of the Plains
In 1759 there were Scots on the French side as well as the British side
who had fought together against the English at Culloden only a few years
Chevalier de Johnstone, for example, Major-General Lavis’ aide-de-camp
and the son of an Edinburgh merchant, had also been Bonnie Prince
Charlie's aide-de-camp, and had escaped with him to France after
Culloden. He was justifiably nervous at the thought of falling prisoner
to English soldiers whom he had helped to capture at Prestonpans. But
after his side lost at Quebec, he stayed on with a cousin who was in the
British artillery, and no doubt shared a good bottle of claret in
celebration of their reunion.
The man who relinquished the keys of Quebec, the Lieutenant du Roi, was
another Franco-Scot, Jean-Baptiste-Nicholas-Roch de Ramezay, whose
ancestor, Sir John Ramsay, had been exiled to France in the early
seventeenth century. One of his sisters was a seigneur who ran a
successful sawmill, and the other sister, Louise, was a powerful
six-foot tall nun who paid her convent dowry in boards and planks.
Louise was so passionately patriotic, and so tall, that Murray
threatened to conscript her into a grenadier company.