Guide to Scotland
   Gateway to the British Isles since 1996
A Brief History of Scotland

Presented by Peter N. Williams, Ph.D.

Chapter 17: Scots in Canada

It should be no surprise that a literary man became Governor-General of Canada, for the Scottish element in the dominion has always excelled in matters of education. After all, the Scottish enlightenment of the late 18th century was an outstanding achievement and Scotland's emphasis on free education, open to all, was adopted in Canada. Scottish ideals of scholarship and intellect also spread to the new lands; most of the leading universities were established by Scots, even those not connected with Presbyterianism. The founder of the Universities of Toronto and Trinity was Rev. John Strachan, educationalist, divine and statesman. Strachan also founded the first collegiate school in Upper Canada where he also set up the first grammar schools.

It was Strachan who was intended by its founder to be the first Principal of McGill.

World-famous McGill University, one of Canada's largest, has become renowned for its work in chemistry, medicine and biology; thus, it continues long-practiced Scottish traditions in these fields. It was founded in 1821 with revenue from the estate bequeathed by James McGill, merchant and politician who had emigrated from Glasgow. Its first head was Scotsman John Bethune, a pupil of Strahan (who was prevented from assuming the position only by a delay in its foundation). Another wealthy Scot, Mr. Peter Redpath was responsible for financing the Museum, the library and a University chair. Another educational institution of Scottish origin is Queens, the Presbyterian University of Canada, situated in Kingston "the Aberdeen of Canada," founded largely through the dreams (and hard work) of noted scholar George Munroe Grant.

The list of Scots who influenced Canada's history is indeed a long one. We can only mention a few more that contributed in so many different areas. Born in the Outer Hebrides in 1755, explorer Alexander Mackenzie completed the first known transcontinental crossing of America north of Mexico. John Sandfield Macdonald (1812-1872) became prime minister of the province of Canada in 1862 and the first prime minister of Canada in 1867. Sir John Macdonald (1815-1891), who emigrated in 1820, became the first prime minister of the Dominion of Canada, leading the country through its period of early growth. Under his leadership, the dominion expanded to include Manitoba, British Columbia and Prince Edward Island. Sir Richard McBride (1870-1917) was premier of British Columbia from 1903 to 1915, where he introduced the two-party system of government and worked tirelessly on behalf of the extension of the railroad.

The list seems endless: immigrant Alexander Mackenzie was the first Liberal Prime Minister of Canada (1873-78). Another Scot, William Lyon Mackenzie, who led the revolt in Upper Canada against the Canadian government in 1858, became a symbol of Canadian radicalism. His rebellion dramatized the need to reform the country's outmoded constitution and led to the 1841 Confederation of Canadian provinces. Another Scot, William McDougall was known as one of the fathers of the Confederation and Sir Richard McBride was the Premier of British Columbia from 1903-1915.

In this century, perhaps the most well-known Canadian politician, particularly revered in Britain for his contribution to the allied cause in World War II, was William L. Mackenzie King (1874-1950) who was so proud of his Scots background. King was three time Prime Minister of Canada, doing much to help preserve the unity of the French and English populations in his vast country. The first full time minister of Labour, King was the leader of the Liberal Party for over 30 years. His last years as Prime Minister were from 1935-48.

Established as one of the major ethnic components of the Canadian population during the period 1815-1870, Scots dominated in many areas other than education and politics. Economic affairs also took their interest, and they largely controlled the trade in furs, timber, banking and railroad management. Almost one quarter of Canada's industrial leaders in the 1920's had been born in Scotland, and another quarter had Scottish-born fathers.

As pointed out by historian J.M. Bumstead, it is important to remember that the Scots had a long tradition of struggle to maintain a separate identity in the face of a simultaneous pressure to integrate into a foreign society. Thus over the years, they had gained considerable experience in the ambivalence of being both accommodating and distinctive. Substantial numbers of Scots continued to immigrant to Canada after 1870 thus, keeping this "other-Britishness" (for want of a better word) alive. The early 20th century saw a great boom in the numbers leaving Scotland for Canada.

As one of many ethnic groups in Canada, the Scots have managed to retain their separate identity. For over 200 years, they have entered the country in a constant flow. Their presence has been powerful enough to influence most strongly the dominant Anglo-Canadian culture; their numbers alone do not reflect their enormous influence on Canadian politics, education, religion and business. Never intimidated by the majority, the long, long history of their struggles in the homeland made the Scots an indominatable race in the new lands that they did so much to mould. As you will see, Scots were also prominent "down under."

Chapter 18: Scots Down Under