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The McGregors

The McGregors. by Robert Laidlaw, is like a good country meal. It’s not fancy, but the ingredients are pure and fresh and it’s something to be savoured. A lot of practical knowledge and affection went into the writing about the Scottish people (‘the Scotch’’), Lowland and Highland, who left their mark in that part of the province of Ontario snuggled up to Lake Huron south of the Bruce Peninsula. Many of their descendants are still there, and place names such as Kincardine, Lochalsh, and Lucknow are their memorial.

I know the country well. I grew up in Huron County, just south of the Bruce. In that area my forefathers had a habit of dubbing their crossroad hamlets with the names of saints, while our Ulster brethren used ones like Donnybrook, Dungannon, and Belfast. Scotch or Irish, Catholic or Protestant, the early settlers tamed the land and the taming marked them all. I like Laidlaw’s perception when he tells us of James McGregor and Janet Ellis courting in a cutter and says wryly, "There was never a chaperone to equal a Canadian winter."

If you were born and raised in the country, and if like me your first home was a log cabin built by a grandfather in the middle of the eighteen-hundreds, you’ll be fascinated by this story, and especially by the way the author has dealt with the experiences and hardships and joys of people who had to ‘‘make do’’. These people had little, could afford less, and somehow found the skills to make what they needed. The next time you encounter a pioneer’s cradle, cabinet, or chair, collected to decorate a modern house, remember how it was made. Objects like these are perfect illustrations of how an early settler was forced by necessity to discover skills he had never been aware of—and, in doing so, made articles of genuine artistic worth.

Laidlaw captures the quality of strong men, shy in the presence of women. He portrays the quiet, iron determination of women faced with unending work, who also had to cope with disasters such as a sudden accident crippling a husband forever, with trying to make certain that their children captured some education, and with the loneliness of their isolation in the bush. Remember, these were women capable of fending off wolves and bears coming to prey on precious livestock. It was all in a day’s work.

The McGregors is genuine. In fact it reads like a true chronicle. Laidlaw knows about barn framings, about the value of good land, about rowdiness and rough pleasure and stern, long— winded preachers. He delineates the pride of workmanship in a Scottish stone—mason, descended from a line of men with the same principles, summed up in the words: "When you build with stone you build forever: it must be true, it must be right, or it is there to shame your memory forever and a day."

The forever and a day is only a figure of speech, but those houses are still around in Western Ontario. Travel the back roads and concessions of Bruce or Huron counties and you’ll see them, as true and right as the day they were finished.

In a sense this book is something like those products of the early stone-masons. Solid anf substantial, with a rough grace, it is a volume that will last ‘forever and a day' in your memory. It’s not a flossy love story and yet it’s touching. The language is unpretentious, but that’s in keeping: they were unpretentious people.

For those of my vintage this book is like a tonic. I hope younger Canadians will read it, because it is one of the most straightforward and unbiased accounts of the particular time in our country that I can recall. If you want to know what it was like living on a cleared farm in the middle 1800s in Western Ontario, through into the next century, you’ll get a splendid account in The McGregors. It was a time when English, Irish, and Scotch, who had fled their homelands because of privation, were beginning the slow assimilation into being Canadians.

If you’re a Canadian literature buff, you’ll also get a clue to the perceptive, incisive way Alice Munro portrays the characters she grew up with. Her father, Robert Laidlaw, wrote The McGregors. She has every reason to be proud and grateful for her heritage.

Harry J. Boyle
Toronto, Ontario
October 17, 1978

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