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My Beloved Highlanders

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By Pat Mestern
December 3, 2005

Mention of a Highlander brought questions about the Scottish Clearances and their impact on Southern Ontario, in particular the Queen’s Bush which as you know comprises today’s Huron, Bruce and to a certain extent, Grey counties. The Clearances also had an effect on our area of Wellington County.

Queen Victoria, during her romance of the Highlands period, was fond of calling her Scottish subjects “My Beloved Highlanders”. She may have had a soft spot for the Highlanders but she turned a blind eye to “The Clearances”. What were “The Clearances”? To quote Francis Thompson, author of “Crofting Years”, “The decades up to the 1880's were amongst the busiest for wealthy English and Scottish nouveau riches who vied with each other in the purchase of Highland estates to play God over deer, salmon, grouse and human beings.

Most of the Highlanders were crofters, who worked for a wealthy landowner that allowed the man and his family to live on property that didn’t belong to him. The crofter tithed the landowner with hard work and produce that he grew in his little patch of land. He used common pasturage for a cow and several sheep. The crofter was always indebted to someone and most indebted to the wealthy, quite often absentee, landowner. For the purpose of this write-up, consider the words “Highlander” and “Crofter” as one and the same person.

To put a complicated situation into simple terms, by the early 1840's powerful landowners in Britain and Scotland saw Queen Victoria’s “beloved highlanders” as excess baggage and systematically removed more than 500,000 of them from the Scottish Highlands. The potato famine, beginning in 1846, fanned Clearance flames. Potatoes had gradually replaced oats as a source of food until crops failed after which thousands of people, in both Ireland and Scotland, faced starvation. The crofting areas of Shetland, Orkney, Caithness, Sutherland, Inverness-shire, Ross, Cromarty and Argyll lost the most people through voluntary and enforced emigration. Who were the beneficiaries of those resourceful people? North and South Carolina in the U.S.; Nova Scotia, Southern & Eastern Ontario in Canada. Some went to Australia too.

The Highland croft house has been described as one of “nasty simplicity, a dark, dingy hole often shared with a cattle beast and a sheep or two.” The place was, for the most part, built of two stone walls, filled between with rubble, wooden roof timbers and thatched roof. Because wood was scare, the roof rafters were the only valuable commodity in the place. An 1850 report states that - “A crofter’s capital consisted of his cattle, his sheep and his roof rafters.” The floor was earth, sometimes mixed with sand that resulted in a hard-packed surface. The fire was in the middle of the room with iron pots hung over it on a “slabhraidh” - a long chain hung from a rafter. Beds were built into a corner. Light was provided by a “cruisgean” known later in Canada as a cruise lamp - a shallow pan filled with oil and wick.

Canada’s log cabin was not so different in some ways to the croft house. Rather than a central fire, a fireplace was built into the end of the structure, replaced quickly by a cook stove. Beds were still built into corners. Many early log cabins had dirt floors. Windows were few and far between until glass became a cheap commodity. Candles were the primary light source. What was different between being a crofter is Scotland and a settler in Canada, was the amount of acreage one could own in Canada. Used to hard work, Highland folks settled into their new life, knowing that any work they did to improve their lot was for themselves. In their wildest dreams, they’d never thought they could be so wealthy of land and freedom.
The Highlander was an outdoor person who viewed a home only as a shelter against inclement weather. When a highlander spoke of “home” he meant his village, not his personal dwelling. The mind-set in Canada was different and at the beginning, hard to accept. Here, people lived so far apart in the Queen’s Bush and little-settled rural areas that “home” was literally one’s house.

For the most part the Highlanders were healthy believing that good health was an inheritance. This fact did not stop that many during The Clearances, 1840 - 1850's, died of starvation and disease which they picked up aboard ships that carried them to their new home. The language of most of the Highlanders was Gaelic which grated in some refined ears. Their dress included the plaid a visual reminder of a defiant people. Some of the newspapers printed during the time period railed about the “laziness of the Highlanders” but this tirade usually stemmed from personal prejudices, left from a class system that Canada hadn’t yet quite managed to wrestle to the ground.

Even in Canada, food choices for the Highlanders remained constant. Oatmeal, in gruel or baked as oatcakes on a “greadeal”, barley, coarse wheat flour, and potatoes were the main stay of the diet. One of the first purchases was a cow whose milk provided butter and cheese. An old recipe, written in Gaelic calls for - “aran tiguh, im nas tiugle agus caise nas tiugle na sin - thick bread, thicker butter and cheese thicker than that”. Pigs quickly became the meat of choice. Sheep were difficult to raise, due to the large number of wolves roaming Canada’s forests. Fish, for those Highlanders who settled near Lake Huron, were an important part of the diet. But fish in our area were almost non-existent in large quantity.

Piping, singing and fiddle playing were an important part of a Highlander’s life. They sang while working. They sang through both joy and distress. There were songs, in Gaelic, for waulking, spinning, churning, milking, grinding meal; songs about love and tragedies. Ceilidhs were a weekly affair in Scotland. In our area, Malcolm McLennan the Crieff piper, would “appear out of the woods, and from the swamps, he would appear at every funeral and every wedding, he would appear out of the blue and there would be a party right there. He would stand on a hill between Lots 5 and 6, at the rear of the Gore, and blow his pipes on a wild, stormy night.

Used to burning peat, plentiful wood for both building and burning seemed a God-send. Liza MacDonald wrote that for the first time in her eighteen years, she was “warmed through by a hearth fire”. Some highlanders missed the smell of burning peat - the highland perfume - so much they tried cutting peat in local bogs. This practice proved impractical and, except for periods of depressive homesickness, peat was rarely burned. Peat reek was an acquired smell but some people believed that the constant burning of peat had “antiseptic property and thus kept at bay typhoid, typhus fevers and other diseases.

Alex D. Fordyce Jr. recorded some of the trials of the Highlanders in his journals. In early 1847, realizing that many would make their way through Fergus toward the Queens Bush, a meeting was held in Black’s Tavern to form a relief committee to collect money for “the destitute Highlanders”. On August 24, 1849, a great number of Emigrants arrived in the area on their way to Owen Sound and Georgian Bay - “All from the Duke of Argyle’s property, very poor and some sick”. By 1850, the trickle became a torrent of humanity, all stretching the community’s generosity with food, clothing and medical needs. In 1851, Fordyce wrote that a group from Stornoway “cannot get into the Tavern for want of money.” The group was assured that they would be fed. During the next few weeks many died from bowel complaint. And worse yet, many had the Small Pox. The dead were buried in unmarked graves in St. Andrew’s Auld Kirk Yard, twenty-seven by the end of 1851, many without a name. The living were housed in sheds and stables, in the ashery, in the kilns, at the mill and in lean-to’s built against outbuildings. “They seemed to have nothing, and not to realize the severity of the winter they would have to go through.” They had heard of the Fergus settlement “thro publications in Scotland and by word of Mouth. By the end of 1851, their ranks were swelled in the Fergus area by 250 people. They were a proud group of people who detested having to take charity, even when they were starving to death.

Some of these people were set up by generous local folk as harness-makers, stone masons, blacksmiths and weavers. Most, once they were better and fed, journeyed to Huron, Bruce and Grey counties where their descendants still live today.



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