Scots wha hae – Scotland’s gifts to Canada


Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922)

This article omits Edinburgh-born Alexander Graham Bell, who invented the telephone at his parent’s house in Brantford, Ontario (about 100 kim west of Toronto), NOT in Boston as most Americans were taught and mistakenly believe.

“The conception of the Telephone took place during that summer visit to my father’s residence in Brantford in 1874, and the apparatus was just as it was subsequently made, a one-membrane telephone on either end … The experiment of August 10, 1876, made from Brantford to Paris [Ontario – the distance between them is about 15 km or 10 miles], was the first transmission, the first clear, intelligible transmission of speech over the real line, that had ever been made.” – A. G. Bell at Boston, Massachusetts, March 13, 1916 ( )

January 25, 2012

January the 25th is Burns Night, an anniversary globally celebrated. It’s right and proper, therefore, to reflect for a moment on the Scottish contribution to Canada.

I was given a book the other day, modestly titled: How the Scots Invented Canada, by Ken McGoogan.

It points, not without evidence, to the seminal contribution made by Scots to Canada’s exploration, politics, economy, education and literature. It claims that almost 5 million Canadians, a goodly quantum, identify themselves as Scottish. That’s as large as the entire population of Scotland!

Early arrivals included explorers Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser and James Douglas, pushing West and North, giving their names to mighty rivers and trees.

On the east coast, Scots landed at Pictou, and named a new Province: Nova Scotia.

Encouraged by Lord Selkirk and John Galt, thousands of Scots moved to the Maritimes and Upper Canada, in search of wide-open spaces, new lives and opportunities, and as much distance as possible from the Sassenachs.

In their wake came the nation-builders like Donald Smith, George Brown and perhaps the greatest of them all, Glasgow-born John A Macdonald, in whose Ottawa house British High Commissioners have lived for 80 years.

And Scots continued, in modern times, to contribute to Canada’s present and future.

They include the media guru and philosopher Marshall McLuhan, who introduced us to the concept of the global village;

The impassioned writer and naturalist Farley Mowat;

Alice Munro, winner of both the Booker Prize and the Governor-General’s Award;

And those Ken McGoogan calls “hybrid Scots”: including Bill Reid, the Haida-Scottish carver of monumental sculptures; John Diefenbaker, with a German name from his father, but a Scottish Canadian mother, whose destination was “one Canada”; and another Prime Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, also the son of a Scottish Canadian mother.

But in addition to this splendid human capital, Scotland’s gifts to Canada include not just good malt and the plaid. Consider:

As you slice and hook your way across the fairways of the Royal Ottawa, wondering how a small, non-moving ball can be so confoundedly difficult to hit, just remember who sent you this glorious affliction, and spoiled a good walk.

And as winter bites, and you seek another unlikely diversion, try curling large stones across ice, with a small broom lending a splendidly bizarre and domestic touch.

A final reflection on Scotland’s Bard himself, Robbie Burns, who has more statues to him than any non-religious figure other then Queen Victoria and Christopher Columbus (how does anyone know this?!).

Born into poverty in 1759, he briefly considered emigrating to Jamaica. Instead, he published “Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect”, and changed his life – and ours, with lines and lyrics that are part of our shared culture: “a man’s a man for a’ that”; “the best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft agley”; and his great plea: “Oh wad some power the giftie gie us, to see ousel’s as others see us”.

Let’s raise a dram, for auld lang syne.

 Robbie Burns statue, Victoria Park in downtown Halifax, Nova Scotia. The statue was erected by the North British Society of Halifax in 1919. Sculpture by G.A. Lawson.

Robbie Burns statue, Victoria Park in downtown Halifax, Nova Scotia. The statue was erected by the North British Society of Halifax in 1919. Sculpture by G.A. Lawson.

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