The Story of Scottish Gaelic Settlers in Quebec


Chapter 1
chapter 2
chapter 6
Table of Contents

CHAPTER I ( 4 of 40 pages)

A Background to Emigration

The landing of the famous ship, the Hector, at Pictou, Nova Scotia, in 1773, has almost become symbolic of Highland emigration to Canada. The idea of emigration as a solution to difficult living conditions was not new to Scotland, however, as the first Scots sailed for New York in 1732. The years in between were, to say the very least, unsettled, with turmoil and political upheaval and a complexity of issues which eventually led to mass emigration throughout the Highlands. The vast majority of these early emigrants were destined to settle in North Carolina, but following the American War of Independence in 1776, immigration of Scottish Highlanders into the South was actively discouraged, and Canada became the destination of heavily laden emigrant ships.

The year of the Hector’s sailing was significant to the Isle of Lewis, for it was in 1773 that the Island felt the effects of the first major wave of emigration, when over eight hundred people are reported to have set sail for the New World. Many, in those days, chose to emigrate, as they saw it as an opportunity to rid themselves of the increasingly tyrannical effects of the Acts of Sederunt which, after 1746, sanctioned the landowner’s rights over his property, regardless of the effect on the livelihood of his tenants. Some emigrants, especially among the young men, simply regarded it as an opportunity for adventure. In view of the harsh evictions that were to follow, no doubt most of them were soundly convinced they had made the right choice. In his article, 'Highland Emigration', W.C.A. Ross suggests that 'broadly speaking, in the eighteenth century people go from the Highlands, in the nineteenth, they are sent.' As far as emigration to Quebec is concerned, this was the case for the majority of emigrants, as will be seen shortly.

By the turn of the nineteenth century there was steady traffic of emigrant ships between Scotland and Canada. The River Clyde saw most of the departures, with Glasgow and Greenock the most popular ports of embarkation, though three ships are recorded to have sailed from the town of Stornoway to Nova Scotia in 1803. Many others followed the same route from a number of west coast ports, and for over thirty years people from the Outer Hebrides joined the passenger lists of emigrant ships, mostly to Cape Breton. During this period, however, many departed without any choice in the matter, having fallen victim to the ever-increasing policy of eviction adopted by, or on behalf of, many of the landowners.

From the mid-1700s to the early 1820s the kelp industry had been a very lucrative source of income to landowners, albeit at the expense of subjecting tenants to miserable, unhealthy conditions created by long hours of inhaling the noxious smoke from the burning, to say nothing of the effects of enduring perpetually cold and wet feet. Its rapid decline in the late 1820s, and eventual collapse in 1836, put pressure on island landowners to find alternative sources of income, and as a result, they began to clear land to make way for large, profitable sheep farms. Tenants were under perpetual threat of eviction, and lived a precarious existence. Not even faithful payment of rent could guarantee immunity against notoriously unscrupulous tacksmen, many of whom are reported to have employed cruel and aggressive measures to gain their own greedy ends. Reports from that era contained in the Seaforth Muniments, and other accounts, give a stark and savage picture of the situation that faced the poor tenants. If the records of the evictions make gruelling reading (and they certainly do), then reality must have been unbearably hard.

Poverty and deprivation already characterised life when the year 1837 brought famine to add to the hardships. Again, emigration offered a solution, and the next year, 1838, sixteen families sailed for Quebec. Over seventy people formed this group of emigrants which began a Quebec-Hebrides link that was to endure for over a century and a half, and still remains to this day. On the Hebridean side, the vast majority were from the Isle of Lewis, with a very small number from Harris and fewer still from North Uist; on the Quebec side they all settled in the area known as the Eastern Townships.

By far the most significant episode in the history of Hebridean emigration to Quebec is the Potato Famine of 1845-50. The disease and resulting failure of the potato crop in 1845, accompanied by impoverished grain and fishing harvests, heralded a five year struggle, the results of which affected the destiny of a considerable number of Lewis people. Once again, emigration to the New World became the solution—the only choice for those who wanted to survive. Commenting upon the effects of the famine throughout the Highlands, Michael Lynch states 'It was, by any measure, Clearance on a huge scale ... carried through with a mixture of brutality and conspicuous philanthropy.'

It is at this point that the story begins for most Eastern Townshippers of Outer Hebridean descent, although it goes without saying that the history of their ancestral home goes back much further than 1850, and is chequered by disasters that could arguably claim more lasting effects than the Potato Famine. Nevertheless, it is a fact of human nature that one is affected forever by trauma that directly hits the family, and the poverty and starvation of a great-grandparent is, for the Quebec-Gaels, the most memorable factor to have affected their fate.

Donald MacDonald’s Lewis: A History of the Island deals with the pre-history, the Norse invasions, the shift to Scottish sovereignty with its accompanying complexities, and every stage of development to the present day. Among Eastern-Townshippers of Lewis descent, the book is looked upon as a handbook to the 'Old Country', as it is the best known of many books about the Outer Hebrides. The author had a personal link with Quebec, and is warmly remembered by those who met him and corresponded with him. Christie MacKenzie who was born in 1898 and was a contemporary of his, remarked upon what she considered to be an outstanding contrast between the educational opportunities afforded to those who emigrated and those who remained in Lewis, citing Donald MacDonald’s family as her example. She was proud that her kinsman should be so learned and eloquent, ' agus sgrìobh e History of Scotland' [and he wrote the History of Scotland.] His Lewis: A History of the Island, has become the key reference book to keep in touch with the way of life in the twentieth century, and as such, the real interest begins on page fifty, with the sixth chapter, 'The People'.

Long forgotten are the trials, tribulations and even tortures of the early landlords, the MacLeods and the MacKenzies. These names have managed to shed any disgrace or outrage that could be attributed to them from the fourteenth to mid-eighteenth centuries. In modern times they are honourable names and proudly borne on both sides of the Atlantic. A certain ambivalence creeps in, however, with the name of Sir James Matheson (though by comparison to his predecessors, the MacLeod and MacKenzie landlords, he was a paragon of virtue), for it was during his ownership that the Potato Famine occurred, the turning point in history, as far as Quebec is concerned. There is an occasional acknowledgement of the fact that he was reported to have helped some of the emigrants pay for the passage from Scotland to Quebec, but beyond that, relatively little seems to be known about him in the Eastern Townships.

Because of his signficance in the history and traditions of this area, it seems appropriate to offer the following brief summary of James Matheson’s involvement with the Isle of Lewis. Born and brought up in Sutherland, James Matheson entered the world of trade and commerce as a young man in London. He travelled to India and then to China as a tea and opium merchant where he amassed a considerable fortune. In 1842 Matheson returned to Scotland an extremely wealthy man, and in 1844 he bought the Isle of Lewis for the sum of £190,000 from the widow of the Earl of Seaforth, the last of the MacKenzie landlords.

It seems clear that Matheson aimed to raise the standard of living on the island, which, at that time, was very low. Aside from the lack of material goods, the population at that time was also struggling to emerge from the tension generated by the Disruption of the Church of Scotland. Donald MacDonald suggests that Matheson 'could not have bought Lewis at a more unfortunate time'. His plans for improvements (many, it must be noted, were ultimately for his own comfort rather than that of his tenants) were scarcely under way when the potato crop failed and the crofting population had little or no means of sustaining their families. The plight was common to the entire area of the Highlands and Islands, and, in order to alleviate the situation, the Highland Relief Board was established. For three years Matheson’s factor avoided applying to the Board for aid, as he set up an intensive programme of road-making and land improving, which gave paid employment, and therefore a means of support, to the tenants. He set up schemes which offered credit on seed potatoes to be paid as a supplement of rent (after harvest) or in cash, or (the only option open during these years of failed crops) to be paid for in labour.

After three years under this scheme, the factor retired and was replaced by a much stricter individual, J. Munro MacKenzie, who changed the system of labour and relief. Lewis became included in the allocation of oatmeal by the Highland Relief Board, but the food did not by any means reach the population as 'direct aid'. Under the supervision of MacKenzie it was issued in exchange for labour, thus affording Matheson’s estate further improvements paid for by the hunger of crofting families. Ironically, it was for his efforts during the years of the famine that a baronetcy was conferred upon James Matheson.

    • CHAPTER 2 ( 2 of 24 pages)

    • The Townships

      Today’s visitor to the Eastern Townships is sometimes confused by the use of the word township. Situated about a hundred and twenty miles south-east of Montreal, the entire area comprises eleven counties. [Map 2] Only three of these counties were settled by immigrants from the Outer Hebrides, namely, Compton, Frontenac and Wolfe. A fourth county, Megantic, was, as already mentioned, settled at an earlier stage by immigrants from the Isle of Arran. To add further confusion to defining the area under study, three of its main landmarks, Lake Megantic (now usually referred to as Lac Mégantic), the town of Megantic, and Mount Megantic, are all in Compté Frontenac, and not, as one might expect, in the county of Megantic. The eleven counties, which may be regarded as administrative blocks, are each sub-divided into townships, which have administrative powers delegated at a local level. It is to these townships that the first immigrants came, and, out of what could have more appropriately been labelled wildernesses, they gradually carved out small hamlets, villages, and towns. [See graph of settlement pattern, Fig. 1]

      The interminable stretches of thick forest leave a lasting impression on the visitor from Scotland,. Although there are reports and old illustrations of virgin forests consisting of enormous coniferous trees, what remains today is secondary or tertiary growth. Spruce, fir, larch and pine grow so thickly in some places that their branches seem to be knitted into one another, leaving little space for light to reach the ground, far less a path for any human being to walk through. While almost all of the largest trees have been cut down for timber many years ago, the rate of secondary growth is astonishingly rapid. Many second growth forests consist of large areas of hardwoods such as birch, maple, oak, ash, cherry and beech, as, needing more light, they were better able to flourish once the tangle of soft-woods had been cut back. Fruit trees and bushes also grow rapidly, often creating a pattern of raspberry and bramble blackberry) bushes straggling along the borders of roads and woods. Bill Lawson, visiting from Harris, remarked that ‘coming from an area where trees can be grown only with the greatest difficulty [he] found it hard to adjust to the idea of trees as large weeds.’ One is constantly reminded of the enormous challenge that must have faced the first settlers.

      Although very few species of wildlife were familiar to the first Hebridean immigrants, they soon learned to recognise a wide variety of animals and birds in the area—weasel, fox, wolf, muskrat, beaver, mink, lynx, wolverine, marten, otter, moose, red deer, black bear, caribou, raccoon, red squirrel, rabbit, hare and skunk are relatively common in the region, while species of birds include the blue-jay, chickadee, finch, hawk, robin, redwing-blackbird and thrushes. The rivers have trout, salmon, and perch and swampy areas abound in frogs. There is also a profusion of wild-flowers, some of which are recognisable to the Scottish observer, such as buttercups, daisies, bluebells, yarrow, goldenrod, thistle, vetch, to mention but a few. While this description is more of a sketch than a detailed painting, it depicts the kinds of features a visitor immediately notices, and is given not only to acquaint the reader with the landscape, but also to serve as a reminder of the observations that may have struck the new immigrants. Undoubtedly any of the settlers interested in fauna or flora would, in his or her own time, become acquainted with the species peculiar to the area, or perhaps, like Catherine Parr Traill, adopt the attitude of considering herself 'free to become their floral godmother and give them names of my own choosing' when she could not ‘discover the Canadian or even the Indian names’ of plants.

      Surrounded by what the emigration agencies referred to as 'wild lands', the townships that were largely settled by immigrants from the Outer Hebrides are Bury (established in 1803), Lingwick (established 1807), and Hampden (established 1867) in Compton County; Weedon (established 1822) in Wolfe County; and Winslow (established 1851), Whitton (established 1863—64), and Marston (established 1866) in Frontenac County. [Map 2.] As the newer townships were established, there was considerable secondary migration within the area, with records showing that most settlers in Weedon moved to Whitton, Winslow or Marston within two decades, thus eliminating one of the three counties, Wolfe, from the group. Secondary migration sometimes depended on the relative success of the first settlers, some simply giving in to the fact that the land they were allocated was 'almost impossible', while others moved to be nearer the nucleus of the Gaelic community. By the turn of the century, a significantly high number of 'Scotch' farms were well established in the counties of Frontenac and Compton, with Gaelic as the prevalent (and in many cases only) language of the population.

      The area under study may strike today’s visitor as a complex network of small towns, villages and farms strung out along main roads, and interconnected by backroads of varying quality. The latter are usually referred to as 'gravel roads' for the wider, better ones, and 'dirt roads' for the less used, and at times impassable, routes. In the past ten years, town- and road-signs have been erected to help travellers locate directions, and, while they succeed in that, they are also misleading as far as other aspects of the area are concerned. For example, large signs, such as 'Bienvenu à Scotstown' and 'Stornoway Vous Acceuille' [Plate 39] welcome visitors as they enter these towns, while new, neatly manufactured road-markers have been erected on back-roads that were once known only to the people who lived there. Signs, such as 'Ch. Dell' or 'Ch. Tolsta', meaning 'chemin' or 'road', may simply announce the name of a country road to the visitor, but to the people whose forebears cleared the land and helped to build the road, the new sign gives the message that they no longer belong. The signs are, however, in keeping with Quebec’s unilingual legislation, which came into force in the 1980s. With French as the only official language of the province, it is perhaps understandable that the new generation of Québecois, many of whom are monoglot French-speakers, fail to understand that the towns and villages they now inhabit, and the farms they cultivate, have a colourful past that has helped to shape their present. And unless the story of that past is recorded, there will be many aspects of the present which will be difficult, if not impossible, to understand.

CHAPTER 6 (Total  17 pp)


Visiting, usually referred to as ‘going for a céilidh’, or ‘céilidhing’ even when speaking English, was of central importance in the social lives of the Gaelic communities. Possibly the earliest written record of the taigh-céilidh in this part of the Eastern Townships is by ‘home-boy’ John J. Mullowney who lived with the MacLeod family in their two-room cabin in Spring Hill from the mid 1880s to the early 1890s. Though he started life in Liverpool, he had learned Gaelic with the local children, and quickly fitted into their way of life. As he was observing everything for the first time with the eyes of a nine year-old, his experiences may have made a more lasting impression on him than if he had been born into the lifestyle. Though he does not use the word céilidh (for he was, by that time, writing largely for an American readership), what Mullowney describes is a lively portrait of what once was characteristic of every village in the area:

Occasionally, when winter conditions would allow, little Katie MacDonald and her brother Dan would come over to the McLeods’ to spend the evening. Then, as the blazing logs chased Winter’s cold away and the flames painted eerie shadowgraphs upon the walls, we would gather around the wood stove and listen, spellbound, while our elders spun their tales. Sometimes these tales would take on the guise of ghost stories, sometimes becoming so awesome that we youngsters would creep off to bed with our hair literally standing on end...

The Scotch are rich in folk-lore and the most earnest believers in premonition... our elders, especially the women, were strongly possessed of the powers of divination or premonition...I could cite many incidents to attest to that statement... [He tells a story of Mary MacLeod hearing continuous unexplained knocking; she sent the children to the door; nobody there. The next day her husband was called to help a Frenchman who was snowed in; they carried him back to their house, almost frozen stiff. As they passed the door with him, they replicated the knocking sound of the door. He died shortly afterwards.] ...Coincidence? Maybe. But I have seen so many similar incidents, so many like prophecies come true that it has often caused me to wonder deeply. It has made me, candidly, credulous.

Night after night, during the long winter evenings, people would gather, first at one place, then at the other. Around a crackling brush fire they would congregate...and would swap stories, joke and sing the folk songs of their old homeland. In the meantime the women would prepare vast quantities of food... [Some evenings] the women quilted... [other times] all the moveable pieces of furniture would be thrust out of the way, and, as the fiddlers ground out their gay Scotch melodies, all hands would temporarily abandon their cares to join in joyful dances.

Well over a century later, Muriel Mayhew recalled her childhood memories of winter evenings when her father and some of the neighbours would enjoy the stories in a very similar setting: ‘We sat in the kitchen by the stove... you could see the flames of the wood burning... that was before we had stoves that were entirely closed in. And I believe that before his day they were even more open in style.’

To anyone who grew up before the advent of electricity, memories of the old style taigh-céilidh are as familiar in this part of Quebec as they are among the older generations in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Muriel's neighbour of many years, Bill Young, gave a typical description:

Visitors were always dropping in. You never had to be invited, eh? The teapot was always on the stove. People’d just come and walk right in—there were no preliminaries, no... That was the pastime in the evening, you see. We had no TV or anything like that. We had to be quiet, of course. Children were to be seen and not heard in those days, and we were allowed out into the living room to sit. And of course visiting was a big thing, wasn't it? Everyone came around and visited...

Time meant nothing, really—quieter type of life, and us children’d sit around and the old folks’d tell these ghost stories. They didn't believe them, I suppose, but it used to scare us and we'd be afraid to go to bed, and—[laughs]... Oh, there were those that believed in the second sight.

Telling stories was popular no matter whose kitchen offered hospitality, and an evening visit might be spent entirely on one subject, or, more usually, might cover a wide range of topics—emigration stories, historical legends, anecdotes or comical stories about local characters, ghost stories or other accounts of the supernatural. Some of the men would tell about their own adventures ‘out west’ or ‘up north’ and when they ran out of adventures of their own they would recount stories they had read. No two sessions were alike, and people never tired of hearing variations of a story they had heard many times before.

Sitting by the fireside in Milan on a winter’s evening in 1976, it occurred to me that the small group that had called to visit me had probably had many a céilidh together in the past. There were my neighbours, Duncan and Kay McLeod, who had walked through the crisp snow, and Hilda and Harvey MacRae from Gould, who, along with Annie and Donald Morrison of Scotstown, had driven more than ten miles. ‘Just like old times,’ someone remarked, giving the perfect cue to ask the company about the céilidhean. Donald responded:

It would depend on what happened. Probably one night they'd get into ghost stories a lot, and another night—I can just remember on the Red Mountain [where I was born and brought up], sometimes they'd get talking about the West. You know, they'd pick a different subject about—probably Donald Morrison the Outlaw story; and they'd probably get onto something that happened locally. Sometimes it'd be a comical thing, like when they caught the two robbers that supposedly robbed the bank in Scotstown.

Hilda picked up from Donald's remarks as naturally as she would have done at countless céilidhean in the past. Close to eighty, she and her husband had a fund of stories about local characters, most of them ‘long-since gone’, whose wit and wry humour lived on in the spirit of the Township Gael. Eyes sparkling, Hilda began, oblivious of the fact that her own razor sharp wit mirrored the main feaature that made her ‘characters’ so memorable.

Do you remember Johnnie Norman who had the store, the grocery store right up above the Baw Baw's? ...And A.D. came in. And the very same thing, a great many people tried to make out he was rather backward, A.D. Morrison, but he was nobody's fool. But a lot of people would try and poke fun at him. And one of them was this smart-aleck traveller that came in. And he had seen him before, and he was asking him all sorts of questions to catch him out and make a fool of him. Finally, A.D. turned to him, and said: “You know, we both made a mistake. When you came in, I took you for a gentleman. And when you came in, you took me for a fool. We were both mistaken.”

No sooner had the laughter subsided than Harvey, without introduction, picked up the thread:

The woodchucks were digging in the cemetery—there were thousands of them there, digging holes! Peter Buchanan was the mayor of the town, so the Baw-baw went to the council and he wanted them to buy some traps so he’d catch the woodchucks. And Peter Buchanan said ‘No, we’re not going to buy traps.’

‘Alright then, we'll let the woodchucks eat your father!’

It was like unravelling a ball of coloured yarn as one story led to the next in what turned out to be a string of anecdotes. And, as with every successful céilidh, the dynamics of this one were such that participants created just the right amount of tension as they drew upon themes, expanded ideas and bounced quick retorts off each other. With split-second timing, they seemed to steer the evening’s entertainment along its unique course, as stories, discussions, poems, sayings and songs elicited highs and lows of emotion, laughter, nostalgia, even sadness and regret.

The Story of Scottish Gaelic Settlers in Quebec


    • Acknowledgements ii
    • List of Plates v
    • I N T R O D U C T I O N x
    • Quebec Revisited x
    • The Scope of the Present Study xxi
        • The Thesis xxi
        • Aims and Objectives xxi .
    • c2.Methodology xl
        • Approach xl
        • Fieldwork Methods xliii
        • Research procedures xlvi
        • Problems of documentation xlviii
        • Key of standardised conventions used li
        • A Background to Emigration 1
        • From the Outer Hebrides to Quebec 14
        • Allocation of Land 27
        • The First Homesteaders 30
        • How Are Things Back Home? 39
        • The Townships 1
        • House and Home 8
        • The Year’s Work 2
        • Animal Husbandry and Hunting 18
        • Lumbering 32
        • Railroad Work 52
        • Quarrying 55
        • Milling 57
        • Wood-Carving and Snowshoe-Making 64
        • A Well-Stocked Larder 1
        • Baking 18
        • Preparing and Preserving Meat 37
        • Preserving Fruit and Vegetables 45
        • Maple Syrup and Sugar 48
        • Taste and Tradition 52
        • Soap-making 2
        • Wool-Working 4 Dyeing 6
        • Carding 11
        • Spinning 15
        • Twisting and Winding 20
        • Knitting 22
        • Weaving 23
        • Fulling 28
        • Home Crafts 31
        • Sewing 31
        • Quilting 34
        • Rug Making 41
        • The Cycle of Life 1
        • Early Infancy, Baptism and Naming 1
        • Nicknaming 4
        • Childcare 9
        • Courthsip and Marriage 14
        • Death and Burial 21
        • Calendar Customs 27
        • Hallowe’en 27
        • All Saints’ Day 31
        • Christmas 31
        • New Year 33
        • Candlemas Day 34
        • Easter 34
        • Local Events and Organizations 50
        • Box Socials 51
        • Agricultural Shows 52
        • The Annual Picnic 55
        • Old Home Week 57