Scots in Canada could reinvent themselves. Class and the traditional hierarchies were less important in the New World. Well-educated, hard-working and determined Scots made an incredible impact on the history of Canada.
Canada’s first two Prime Ministers were of Scottish origin, but before they came to represent the new country, they were ordinary working men.
Sir John A Macdonald was born in Glasgow in 1815. His family fled financial ruin in Scotland in the 1820s and remained poor in Canada. Macdonald left school to work at 15 years old, but later managed to scrape together enough money to pay for law school. In 1867, John Alexander Macdonald became the first Prime Minister of the Dominion of Canada.
It was John A Macdonald that founded the Canadian Mounted Police, 'the Mounties'.
Alexander Mackenzie, Canada’s second Prime Minister, was a plain-spoken, modest man who had worked as a stone mason in the 1840s. MacDonald and Mackenzie showed that you didn't have to come from a great family to make a real difference in Canada.
The Glengarry Fencible Regiment, organised in 1794 by a young priest named Alexander Macdonell, became the first Roman Catholic regiment since the Reformation. Macdonell went on to become the first Roman Catholic Bishop of Upper Canada.
Scots soldiers were among the Canadian troops that repelled the American invasion in 1812. In 1815 the Canadians marched south on Washington, capturing the American capital and torching the White House. To this day, Canada is the only country that has ever successfully invaded the United States.
Many of Canada's universities, banks and hospitals were established by Scots. Canada’s first bank, the Bank of Montreal was established in 1817 by a group of wealthy Scots. In 1832, the Bank of Nova Scotia, managed and dominated by Scots immigrants, opened its doors for the first time.
Sir George Simpson, a Scot known as 'the Emperor of the Plains', became a hugely successful businessman. Simpson supervised the integration of the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821, and was named Governor of Rupert’s Land.
Simpson’s keen business sense helped to make the new company more profitable. Unprofitable trading posts were quickly shut down, with personnel relocated to the more successful sites.
Even in the depths of the Canadian wilderness Simpson was always formally dressed and sported a top hat. Simpson was accompanied by a full entourage of clerks and servants, with an armed escort, a doctor, and even his own private bagpiper to announce his presence in the Canadian wilds!
With a single-minded devotion to profit and efficiency, Sir George Simpson governed Rupert’s Land and the Hudson’s Bay Company for 40 years, eventually re-establishing the Hudson’s Bay Company's monopoly on the Canadian fur trade.
Robert Michael Ballantyne left Scotland at age 16 to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1848 his book 'Hudson’s Bay; or, every-day life in the wilds of North America' was published. He went on to write more than 90 books, including books for children and young people like 'Snowflakes and sunbeams; or, the young fur traders'.
Letitia MacTavish was born in Edinburgh, in 1813. She married James Hargrave, the Hudson's Bay Company's Chief Trader, and lived in York Factory for more than ten years. Her letters were saved by her family and made into a book.
Letitia noticed tiny details of women's lives in 19th-century Canada. She described the large gold earrings, turquoise ring, green tartan gown, moccasins and blanket that one woman wore. Today, Letitia MacTavish Hargrave's letters are an important and rare primary source.
The Scots in Canada became fur traders and settlers, explorers and adventurers. They became successful politicians, led rebellions and incited uprisings. Scots built businesses, communities and were instrumental in the founding of the Canadian Confederation.
Scotland was just one of the countries that contributed to Canada's history, but for such a small nation it had a large impact.
The images used above are licensed under Wikimedia Commons.
The image of Sir George Simpson is used courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.