Scottish Canadians are the third-largest ethnic group in Canada and among the first to settle in Canada. Scottish people have made a large impact on Canadian culture since colonial times. According to the 2001 Census of Canada, the number of Canadians claiming full or partial Scottish descent is 5,219,851, or 15.10% of the nation’s total population, however this is said to be a major underestimation.

Scottish settlement of Canada

Scottish people have a long history in Canada, dating back several centuries. Many towns, rivers and mountains have been named in honour of Scottish explorers and traders such as Mackenzie Bay and Calgary is named after a Scottish beach. Most notably, the Atlantic province of Nova Scotia is Latin for New Scotland. Once, Scots formed the vanguard of the movement of Europeans across the continent. In more modern times, emigrants from Scotland have played a leading role in the social, political and economic history of Canada, being prominent in banking, labour unions, and politics. The first documented source of Scots in what would become Canada comes from the Saga of Eric the Red and the Viking expedition of 1010 AD to Vinland (literally, the land of meadows), which is believed to refer to the island of Newfoundland. The Viking prince Thorfinn Karlsefni took two Scottish slaves to Vinland. When the longships moored along the coast, they sent the slaves ashore to run along the waterfront to gauge whether it was safe for the rest of the crew to follow. After the Scots survived a day without being attacked, by either human or animal, the Vikings deemed it safe to spend the night ashore. The expedition was abandoned three years later; the original sagas were passed on in an oral tradition and then written down 250 years later.

New Scotland

The first attempts in earnest to entice Scottish settlers to Canada began as early as 1622, when Sir William Alexander obtained permission from King James VI of Scotland (James I of the England) to establish a “new Scotland” — the origin of the name Nova Scotia. However, only a small number of Scottish families settled in Canada, prior to the conquest of New France in 1759. Those who did make a home on Canadian soil were Highlanders who sought political and religious asylum following the failed Jacobite uprisings in Scotland in 1715 and 1745. Most of these Scots settled in what is now the Atlantic coast.

Large-scale migration

Bumsted (1981) notes that between 1760 and 1860, millions of people emigrated from Great Britain. Before 1815, emigration was discouraged, but emigration from Scotland to the Maritime Provinces constituted one of the principal components of the exodus; by 1815 Scots formed one of the three major ethnic groups there. Most of the emigrants were unskilled Highland farmers, who gathered in isolated communities. The Maritimes attracted them because of the opportunity there to be left alone to pursue the traditional way of life; more populated and better organized jurisdictions did not provide this chance. A large group of Ulster Scots, many of whom had first settled in New Hampshire, moved to Truro, Nova Scotia in 1761. Their descendants have provided many of the country’s leading justices, statesmen, clergymen, businessmen and scholars. In 1772 a wave of Scots began to arrive in Prince Edward Island, and in 1773 the ship Hector brought 200 Scots to Pictou, beginning a new stream of Highland emigration — the town’s slogan is “The Birthplace of New Scotland”. At the end of the 18th century, Cape Breton Island had become a centre of Scottish settlement, where only Scottish Gaelic was spoken. A number of Scottish Loyalists who had fled the United States in 1783 arrived in Glengarry (in eastern Ontario) and Nova Scotia. In 1803, Lord Selkirk, who was sympathetic to the plight of the dispossessed crofters, brought 800 colonists to Prince Edward Island. In 1812 he also founded the Red River settlement in what is now Manitoba. Prince Edward Island (PEI) was also heavily influenced by Scottish settlers.

One prominent settler in PEI was John Macdonald of Glenaladale, who conceived the idea of sending Highlanders out to Nova Scotia on a grand scale after Culloden. The name Macdonald still dominates on the island, which received a large influx of settlers, predominantly from the Catholic Highlands, in the late 18th Century. Another large group of Gaelic-speaking Highlanders arrived in 1803. This migration, primarily from the Isle of Skye, was organized by the Earl of Selkirk. New Brunswick became the home for many Scots. In 1761, a Highland regiment garrisoned Fort Frederick. The surrounding lands surveyed by Captain Bruce in 1762 attracted many Scottish traders when William Davidson of Caithness arrived to settle two years later. Their numbers were swelled by the arrival of thousands of loyalists of Scottish origin both during and after the American Revolution.One of the New Brunswick and Canada’s most famous regiments was “The King’s First American Regiment” founded in 1776. It was composed mostly of Highlanders, many of whom fought with their traditional kilts to the sound of the pipes. The regiment distinguished itself when it defeated Washington’s forces at the Battle of Brandywine. When it disbanded after the War, most of its members settled in New Brunswick. A continual influx of immigrants from Scotland and Ulster meant that by 1843 there were over 30,000 Scots in New Brunswick. Today Canada is awash in Scottish memorabilia, as Rae (2005) shows. The Tartan days, clan gatherings, highland games, and showings of films like “Braveheart” indicate a sense of Scottish-ness that is informed by stories, narratives, or myths of the homeland’s rural, resistant past.

Troubles back in Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries generated a steady flow of emigrants. Some sought political and religious asylum following the failed Jacobite uprisings in 1688, 1715 and 1745. Those immigrants who arrived after 1759 were mainly Highland farmers who had been forced off their crofts (rented land) during the Highland and Lowland Clearances to make way for sheep grazing due to the British Agricultural Revolution. Others came as a result of famine. In 1846, potato crops were blighted by the same fungal disease responsible for the Great Irish Famine, and most Highland crofters were very dependent on potatoes as a source of food. Crofters were expected to work in appalling conditions, and although some landlords worked to lessen the effects of the famine on their tenants, many landlords simply resorted to eviction. In particular, John Gordon of Cluny became the target of criticism in newspapers when many of his crofters were reduced to living on the streets of Inverness. Gordon resorted to hiring a fleet of ships and forcibly transporting his Hebridean crofters to Canada, where they were conveniently abandoned on Canadian authorities. Some more sympathetic landlords supplied a free passage to what was hoped to be a better life.

Crop failures continued into the 1850s and famine relief programs became semi-permanent operations. During the ten years following 1847, from throughout the Highlands, over 16,000 crofters were shipped overseas to Canada and Australia.

Canada had plenty of land and jobs and new opportunities, which created a pull factor.

The government made certain potential immigrants knew of the advantages, sending agents to recruit Irish and Scottish emigrants to settle in western Canada between 1867 and the 1920s. The Canadian government hoped to develop the economy in the sparsely populated western part of the country. It set up offices in towns in Ireland and Scotland, and agents went up and down the land pasting up attractive posters, giving lectures, handing out pamphlets and trying one-on-one to persuade farmers and labourers of the virtues of life in Canada.

Although many people agreed to emigrate, the agents faced competition from the United States, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa, and opponents of emigration warned of hardship in Canada. The agents did not create ’emigration fever,’ but they did tap into a sense of restlessness that, if nurtured, could result in a decision to emigrate.

The Scots have influenced the cultural mix of Nova Scotia for centuries and constitute the largest ethnic group in the province, at 29.3% of its population. The name of Nova Scotia literally means “New Scotland” in Latin, and its flag was designed as a combination of the Scottish Saltire and the Royal Standard of Scotland.

Nova Scotia was briefly colonized by Scottish settlers in 1620, although by 1624 the Scottish settlers had been removed by treaty and the area was turned over to the French until the middle of the 18th century. Scottish settlement greatly accelerated during the resettlement of Loyalists in Nova Scotia following the end of the American revolutionary war, and especially following the Highland Clearances in Scotland.

The Gaelic influences of Scottish immigrants continue to play an important role in defining the cultural life of the province, especially in its music. According to the 2006 census about 900 Nova Scotians are fluent in Gaelic languages (the census does not distinguish between Scottish Gaelic / Canadian Gaelic and Irish Gaelic), and about 6,015 in all of Canada. However, the Nova Scotian Office of Gaelic Affairs estimates there are currently around 2000 Scottish Gaelic speakers in the province and notes the enduring impact of institutions such as the Gaelic College in Cape Breton.

Murdoch (1998) notes that the popular image of Cape Breton Island as a last bastion of Scottish Highland and specifically Gaelic culture distorts the complex history of the island since the 16th century. The original Micmac inhabitants, Acadian French, Lowland Scots, Irish, Loyalists from New England, and English have all contributed to a history which has included cultural, religious, and political conflict as well as cooperation and synthesis. The Highland Scots became the largest community in the early 19th century, and their heritage in music, folklore, and language has survived government indifference, but it is now threatened by a synthetic marketable ‘tartan clan doll culture’ aimed primarily at tourists.

Scots have long and historic ties with the province of Quebec. The early Scots who arrived in the province were crofters and fishermen. When the Don de Dieu sailed up the St. Lawrence River during the first wave of colonization of French Canada, it was piloted by a Scot, Abraham Martin. The first British governor of Quebec was also a Scot, James Murray. He received the keys to the city gates from the French commander, Major de Ramezay, who was himself of Scottish descent, as many Scots had been employed by the French since the time of the Auld Alliance.

Large groups of Scots, chiefly from Ross-shire, arrived on the ship Nephton in 1802 to settle in Quebec. Many of their descendents have become prominent in the business, financial and religious activities of Montreal. Many early settlers from Tryon County, New York came here, in what was then wilderness. They were joined by many Highlanders during the Revolution, and after the War had ended, by a whole regiment of the “King’s Royals.”

Glengarry County in modern day-Ontario is a historic region with lots of Scottish background. This is because it is the site of where many Scottish Highlanders settled after the Highland Clearances. Scottish Gaelic / Canadian Gaelic is a spoken language in the county, but the number of speakers has declined to a great degree. Maxville Public School in Maxville, Glengarry still teaches the language to its residents if they are willing to learn. Also known in the region are the Glengarry Highland Games where many Scottish competitions are held to celebrate Scottish Culture. The chief Scottish town in Glengarry was Cornwall, located in modern-day Ontario. It was reinforced in 1786 when The McDonald arrived at Quebec from Greenock with 520 new pioneers. Soon immigrants came from all parts of Scotland to make it one of the most important Scots-Canadian communities. The Glengarry clansmen managed to get away from their homelands before the British Government’s embargo during the war with Napoleon.

Many other retired officials from the Hudson’s Bay Company joined the Glengarry Settlements. Another famous Scottish area that came to exert great influence in Ontario was the Perth Settlement, another region of purely Scottish and military origin.

Unemployment and suffering following the end of the Napoleonic Wars caused the British government to reverse its former policies and actively encourage emigration. In 1815, three loaded transports set sail from Greenock for Upper Canada: the Atlas, the Baptiste Merchant and the Borothy. After the War of 1812 ended, many soldiers from the disbanded regiments joined them. In 1816, more arrivals from Ulster helped swell the Scottish element. Many Perth families became prominent in both provincial and national governments.

An educational institution of Scottish origin is Queens University in Kingston “the Aberdeen of Canada,” founded largely through the dreams (and hard work) of noted scholar George Munroe Grant. Numerous educational institutions including high schools can be attributed to Scottish influences one being the Sir John A. Macdonald Collegiate Institute is a secondary school located in Scarborough, Ontario. The crest contains a map of Canada and the symbols of the Macdonald clan: a white coronet, a mailed fist, and crossed crosslets. Red, Royal Purple, and White, which predominate in the tartan of Sir John’s family clan, Clanranald.

Scottish influence has been an important part of the cultural mix in metropolitan Vancouver and British Columbia. The St. Andrew’s and Caledonian Society of Vancouver was founded in 1886, the same year as the city. On St. Andrew’s Day, 1887, the society held a grand St. Andrew’s Ball in McDonough Hall at the southeast corner of Hastings and Columbia and almost half the city’s population attended. The city still celebrates Scottish Heritage week which concludes with the BC Highland Games.

Many local place names are of Scottish origin. The district of Dollarton was named for Captain Robert Dollar. West Vancouver’s first European settler, John Lawson, planted holly by the side of the “burn” or river flowing across his property; he coined “Hollyburn” as the name for his place. Iona Island was formerly called McMillan Island, after a pioneer Scots settler, Donald McMillan. Part of West Vancouver is named after Dundarave Castle in Scotland. In 1905 at what is now West 41st Avenue in Vancouver, a young Scottish couple named MacKinnon who had recently settled in the district were invited to name the new station. She adapted the name Kerrisdale from her old family home, Kerrysdale, in Gairloch, Scotland. Kerrysdale means “little seat of the fairies.”

Other evidence of the Scottish influence on the development of Greater Vancouver can be found in the names of parks, creeks and other geographical features throughout the metropolitan area, the most notable of which is the Fraser River.

Over the past 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 Lyon MacKenzie King (1874–1950), who was very 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 term as Prime Minister was from 1935 to 1948.

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 1920s had been born in Scotland, and another quarter had Scottish-born fathers.

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 immigrate to Canada after 1870. 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 indomitable and formidable race in the new lands.