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Fergus: Rural Ontario's Scottish Town
October 29th, 2012
"There's mauny a day I dream of the braes and the lochs of my auld land. Then I look to the waters, the trees and the stanes; and I keen I am hame in Fergus, in Upper Canada." -Thomas Young, July, 1836
After driving past the sprawl of the twenty-first century and ascending the hills beyond the city of Toronto then descending into the valley of the Grand River, I feel like Thomas Young. I am "hame" in Fergus, a wee bit of Scotland in the heart of Southern Ontario. Founded in 1833 by Adam Fergusson and James Webster, the settlement was originally called "Little Falls". Whether it was eventually named after Adam Fergusson or after Fergus, the first King of Scotland, is debatable, but the community's Scottish roots still run deep almost two centuries years after its founding.
As are many early Celtic settlements, Fergus, which now has a population of about twenty thousand, is a river town, set on the banks of the mighty Grand River. In the heart of town, standing on an iron footbridge, one can look upriver at the rushing waters of a narrows as they race over a limestone bed. An anomaly there always catches my eye, flowstone, beneath a fossil-filled wall of limestone and the ruins of an old mill. Once a huge mill complex on the north side of the river, it is a reminder of the industry that made Fergus so viable and visual as a Scottish village so many decades ago. A recent restoration of the mill buildings reflects the desires of many to keep that heritage alive. Beyond is the High Falls, where the Grand River begins its journey through an ancient gorge that was carved into the bedrock some ten thousand years ago during the retreat of the last ice age, and where fossils and the tracks of ancient deer-like animals can be found in the limestone rock.
Downriver, the steps of Templin Gardens - a public garden named for John C. Templin, who built it in the 1920s as a gift to his wife- lead to the water's edge, where the narrows open to the wider where on a clear day the sky reflects into the perfect round circle with its whirlpool. Further along is a grotto (there are also many secret caves in the cliffs of the gorge) and beyond it, the river narrows again as its waters tumble through the Needle, two natural limestone abutments that support Tower Street bridge, past the old sheep-washing green where the sheep used to be herded for washing before shearing, and on to the western reaches of the gorge. This is my Fergus, known for the river that runs through it, and for the Scottish heritage that defines it. This is the town that speaks to both my body and my soul.
If you knew nothing of its heritage upon arrival in Fergus, you'd quickly come to realize it as the Scottish ties are abundantly apparent, not just in the names of streets and businesses, but in the fares and wares offered up. Running parallel to the river is St. Andrew¹s Street, the high street of the town¹s heritage area of nineteenth and twentieth century architecture, where one might feel as if you crossed through a time warp and wandered back to 1860s Aberdeen, Scotland. From one building to the next, the architectural details reinforce the sense of being in long ago eras, as do the modern-day shops and businesses.
Tucked behind a bank on the corner of a main intersection, where Highway 6 (the route to the North) passes through the town, is a c1835 stone stable that was once part of the homestead of one of the earliest buildings, and now the oldest remaining building. Made of logs and limestone, the predominant building material of the time, it was called The Cleikum, which translates to "Bachelor¹s Hall," and was something of a long-term hotel where bachelors resided during construction of their own homes. Across the street a c1860's emporium houses, among other interesting businesses, the Bentley House Tea Room where more than two hundred different teas are sold. A building from the 1850s houses a Celtic-themed bookshop café, The Bookery, with a great selection of used books and Celtic items; an 1860s structure is home to The Corner Scottish Shop, which is packed to the rafters with all things Scottish and in an 1880s building a jewelry store named for its proprietor, Ron Wilkins, displays a selection of Scottish wares in cabinets that date to the same century.
Scottish ales are on tap in at least five pubs, where there¹s always an impromptu céilidh, a "social gathering," to welcome friends and strangers alike. Stop in at The Breadalbane Inn which is located on St. Andrew St. W. The building was at one time the c1860's home to one of the sons of Adam Fergusson. Stop in for a pint and meat pie at the Inn's Bistro, make reservations to dine in its main dining room which now incorporates the parlour and dining rooms of the original Fergusson Home.
Positioned prominently, on a north hill overlooking the Auld Kissing Stane in James Square is St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, built during the early 1860's to replace an original frame structure. If you steal a kiss while seated on the Kissing Stane, among the mature maples in the little park just below the church, the legend is that luck will forever be with you. Two blocks away on lower ground, with the river just beyond it, is Melville United Church, built in 1900.
Fergus has its secrets too. Dotted with ancient, crumbling headstones, is Belsyde Cemetery, where there's said to be a phantom piper who plays the auld tunes of warm summer evenings. No one knows where the music comes from but some have definitely heard it but never found the source. In an older section of the cemetery, one can pay respects to Thomson Beatty, a Fergus resident who was lost on the Titanic. In the Auld Kirk Yard Burial Grounds, behind St. Andrews, there¹s a monument to George Clephane, whose sister, Elizabeth C. Clephane, penned the poem, "The Ninety and the Nine." The poem was later set to music by Ira Sankey to become a popular hymn.
During the summer months, in preparation for the annual Scottish festival, the streets are aflutter with colourful flags, both the white and azure Saltire (national flag of Scotland) and the bright gold and red Scottish Royal flag, the Lion Rampant. Always held on the second full weekend in August, the Fergus Scottish Festival and Highland Games is one of the largest and longest-running Scottish festivals in North America. When it originated in 1946 as a local festival it was a one-day event; but it was elevated to international status in 1988 by becoming a three-day celebration. From the Friday evening Tattoo, when clans gather, pipe bands play, and the festivities begin, until the final strains of pipes and drums at the closing ceremonies late Sunday afternoon, a Scottishness invades everyone with the remotest bit of Scottish blood in their genes or Celtic lore in their hearts.
Do come to Fergus for a look-see. Be sure to visit at night for the "Lightin' of the Gorge," which illuminates the gorge and river and can be seen every night from dusk until midnight, rain or shine. Enjoy a wee dram at the pub. Try some traditional Scottish fare, perhaps a bridie, a meat pastry, a buttery scone, or some haggis, a pudding of sheep's pluck. Take up temporary residence in the historic digs of a modern bed-and-breakfast. Stay a while and you may na wish tae leave. You may be lured to return and rekindle your hearth in a very special town - Fergus.
From the eastern blue of the spring's new moon -
From the western red of the summer's sun -
From the southern gold of the autumn's leaves -
Come coals from the hearth's flame,
Entrusted to the hands of friends.
Though the fire has died in the ancestral home,
Its spirit remains alive.
When touched to wood in the new laid hearth,
The warmth is rekindled again.
For warmth is friendship,
And friendship is love,
And love is bestowed up on all.
Let the door fore'er be open -
Let the cawther run free.
It is sung far and wide,
That this e'er may be.
The home is the hearth.
The hearth is the flame.
The flame is the spirit of love.
Let all know, from whence they came,
They are warmed by this hearth and this flame.
Pat Mestern c1984
IF YOU GO:
Go to www.elorafergus.travel.com for further information about Fergus, or contact Fergus Information Services at 877-242-6353
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