How The Scots Invented Canada

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Title: How The Scots Invented Canada
Published by: HarperCollins Canada
Release Date: 2010


Canadians of Scottish descent, who today total over 4.7 million, have never made up more than 16 per cent of Canada’s population. Yet they have supplied thirteen of twenty-two Canadian prime ministers, and have made proportionate contributions in exploration, education, banking, military service, railroading, invention, literature, you name it.

Award-winning author Ken McGoogan has written a vivid, sweeping narrative showcasing more than sixty Scots who have shaped Canada. They include fur traders Alexander Mackenzie and the “Scotch West-Indian” James Douglas, who established national boundaries; politicians John A. Macdonald and Nellie McClung, who created a system of government; and visionaries Tommy Douglas, James Houston, Doris Anderson and Marshall McLuhan, who turned Canada into a complex nation that celebrates diversity.

McGoogan toasts Robbie Burns, recalls the first settlers to wade ashore at Pictou, Nova Scotia, and celebrates such hybrid figures as the Cherokee Scot John Norton and Cuthbert Grant, father of the Métis nation. In How the Scots Invented Canada, Ken McGoogan uncovers the Scottish history of a nation-building miracle.


“McGoogan’s How the Scots Invented Canada is certainly an inspired work and its author is rapidly becoming the rightful successor to populist historian Pierre Berton.”
The Toronto Star

How the Scots Invented Canada provides a pleasurable way to get to know many of the most colourful men and women in our history . . . . There’s indeed much fun here, as well as instruction (Scots always like that), and your name doesn’t have to begin with Mc or Mac to savour this book.”
The Globe and Mail

How the Scots Invented Canada should win the award-winning author busloads of new fans. . . . McGoogan takes a [Bill] Bryson-like approach to his topic, jumping in with both feet and spinning out on a journey beyond any at which the staid cover might hint . . . Despite the delicious levity in entirely appropriate places . . . the author has done his research and shares it skillfully.”
January Magazine

“This new book on Scots in Canada will appeal to a wide audience who want to learn about the abundance of Scots who helped to invent a new nation. Perhaps best enjoyed over a wee dram of whisky.”
The Edmonton Journal

“Not all the Scots and Scottish-Canadians McGoogan writes about were nice people. The pious, sanctimonious, ruthless, overbearing, conceited and nasty are represented, as well. But, all in all, there are about five million good reasons to read McGoogan's book.”
The Winnipeg Free Press

“Part of what makes this book different and even essential, apart from the sheer amount of research that has gone into it, is just how far [the author] moves into modern times, citing more contemporary Scots as an ongoing influence.”
Rob McLennan


Canadians in Scotland

A visitor driving into the Scottish town of Mauchline cannot fail to notice a singular, towering monument that looks out over the landscape. This is the Robert Burns National Memorial, a three-storey edifice built in 1896 to honour Scotland’s most celebrated poet. Constructed of red sandstone and soaring sixty-seven feet (20 m) into the air, the memorial features diverse window treatments, unexpected balconies, and a curious turret that, taken all together, render it unforgettable: clearly one of a kind.

For me and for my wife, Sheena Fraser McGoogan, this memorial provided one of the greatest moments of our eight-week ramble in Scotland. Canada is home today to almost five million people of Scottish descent. We wanted to know more about where they came from. Why did so many Scots emigrate in the first place? And how was it that, once in Canada, they had proven so influential?

Robbie Burns was an extreme case. He never set foot in Canada. Yet every January, throughout the country, tens of thousands of Canadians gather to celebrate his birthday.On arriving at Glasgow Airport, we had made a beeline for Burns country, a one-hour drive to the south. Within two days, we visited the farmhouse in Alloway where Burns was born. We stood on the Brig O’Doon, the bridge over the River Doon where his fictional Tam O’Shanter narrowly escaped the pursuit of furious witches. And we marvelled at a mural glorifying his life from birth to death.

Before long, we travelled southeast to Dumfries and sat in the pub chair where, in his later years, Burns himself had often sat read-ing newspapers. We visited the upstairs bedroom where he sometimes slept. And down the street, in the humble home where he lived for three years, we visited his study and the bedroom in which he died.In driving from Alloway to Dumfries, from one end of Burns coun-try, a one-hour drive southwest, we followed the scenic route, wind-ing along the coastal highway to Kirkcudbright (pronounced Kir-coo-bree), a town of great significance to Scottish Canadian history.

From this harbour in 1622, the first boatload of would-be Scottish settlers sailed for North America. They failed to establish an enduring colony. But before harsh conditions drove them home to Auld Scotia, or Old Scotland, they did name the place where they landed: Nova Scotia.More than a century later, in 1771, Kirkcudbright became the birth-place of Thomas Douglas, fifth Earl of Selkirk. He was the great early champion of Scottish emigration to British North America. His native town is probably the loveliest in the Scottish Lowlands.

Here you find stone-built Georgian houses, a harbour crowded with colourful boats, and, on the outskirts, the ruins of an abbey and a castle.Near the centre of town, behind a stone wall that encircles the parish churchyard, we found a plaque erected by Manitobans in 1978. Ded-icated to the memory of “one of Kirckudbright’s greatest sons,” it rightly credits Selkirk with creating Scottish colonies in three prov-inces: Prince Edward Island, Ontario, and Manitoba.From that plaque, well instructed by locals, we drove to the south end of town, swung off the two-lane highway and followed a tree-lined road to a bay that opens onto the Irish Sea.

In the 1700s, the Selkirk estate, more accessible by boat than by horse and carriage, could be found at the tip of this peninsula, called St. Mary’s Isle. The grand mansion was lost to fire decades ago, and today there is not much to see: many trees, a few grazing horses.Yet later, after we had explored Dumfries, I found myself juxtapos-ing Robbie Burns and Lord Selkirk, the beloved poet and the visionary colonizer. Both made a mark on Canada. But the one was a plough-man born in a croft, the other a nobleman who inherited an estate. What could these two figures possibly have in common?

The question brought only one answer: the Scottish Enlightenment.Born just twelve years apart, Burns and Selkirk were both products of that magical period in the late 1700s when Scots surfaced as world leaders in science, literature, philosophy, engineering, and economics. . . .

Finally, what of Mauchline? The Robert Burns National Memorial pro-vided special excitement for Sheena and me because her grandfather, an architect born in Lochgilphead, Argyll, designed it. The red sand-stone monument grows wider as it gets higher and features several odd angles and circular substructures. Experts describe it as exemplifying the “Scottish baronial style” of the late nineteenth century. According to a 2004 article in the Scotsman, the monument is “regarded world-wide as a shrine central to the poet’s life and times.”

The memorial is remarkably evocative of the wild and original spirit of Robbie Burns. It is also sufficiently intricate that the editor of the online journal Scotland One suggested that stonemasons who worked on it must have wondered “what was going through the mind of Willie Fraser the Glasgow architect who designed it. ”That we will never know. Prob-ably he was thinking of Robbie Burns, as he should have been.

We do know that on July 23, 1896, when he was twenty-eight years of age, William Fraser visited Mauchline to attend a celebration mark-ing the hundredth anniversary of the death of Burns. Having won the commission in an architectural competition, he had designed not only the memorial but also a dozen nearby cottages, and he had travelled south from Glasgow to witness the laying of the foundation stone.

Five days before, Black and White magazine had described the cottages as “intended for the benefit of old couples, ploughmen or cot-tars [peasant farmers] in ill-health, or persons not quite destitute, to whom, when misfortune comes, such a haven, with an endowment, will be a veritable godsend.” When Sheena and I visited the memorial, a light rain was falling, yet a cottager named George Mitchell was tending his garden.

On learning of our connection with the monument, he showed us around the beautifully kept grounds and dwellings, which together function as a convivial seniors’ centre. He told us that the monument is open to the public on only two or three days a year. Then visitors can climb a circular staircase to the roof, gaze out through a telescope and, if the weather is clear, see all the way to distant Ben Lomond, a mountain in the Highlands.

At some point, William Fraser would have savored that view. Two years after watching masons lay the first stone, he married his sweetheart, Maud Marion Timpson, and moved to Dunoon, a train-and-ferry ride west of Glasgow. There he designed an imposing red-brick school and a landmark hotel before creating the Dunoon Pavilion, which, accord-ing to a local newspaper, gave the town a focal point in the “free classic renaissance” style. The pavilion included shops, reception rooms, and an octagonal concert hall that could accommodate 3,500 people.

In 1907, with commissions drying up locally during one of those economic downtowns, William Fraser received an invitation to join C.M. Miller and Company, a thriving firm of architects based in Canada. With his wife, son, and daughter, the designer of the Burns National Memorial packed up and moved to Toronto. Soon enough, by father-ing a second son, Frederick, the architect set in motion that sequence of events which would see him become the grandfather of my wife, the great-grandfather of our adult son and daughter, and an ancestor of future generations.