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Montrealers of Scottish Origin in the 19th Century

By Pierre Wilson, Heather McNabb and Annick Poussart

Whether they left the Scottish Highlands or the Lowlands, with the rest of the clan, as a family group, with friends, or with a kist, or trunk, as their only companion, Scottish emigrants all shared the same dream: to better their lives.

The fur trade: successful partnerships

The lucrative fur trade of the 18th century in Canada was interrupted by the Seven Years' War but, after the Conquest, it was taken up again in earnest. The French-Canadian traders or coureurs des bois, now called voyageurs, formed mutually profitable partnerships and trading agreements with the Scots. Not only were these shrewd merchants and lawyers unafraid to brave the wilds in search of furs, but they had access to the vast markets in the British Empire. As for the voyageurs, they knew the land better than did the beaver themselves. The fur trade did for Montreal what the tobacco trade had done for Glasgow in the late 18th century: it brought in tremendous reserves of capital that served to fuel the Industrial Revolution.

After 1780 a group of Scots in Montreal, seeking to break the Hudson's Bay Company's (HBC) monopoly on the fur trade, founded the North West Company (NWC). By hiring mainly French-Canadian voyageurs, who travelled deep inland to trade for furs, the NWC quickly captured two-thirds of the market. The HBC was not amused. After years of conflict and the occasional outbreak of violence, the two companies finally merged in 1821.

Many Scotsmen spent the winter in the trading posts, and these long stays created opportunities for exchanges of all kinds. Some of them took country wives - a polite name for Aboriginal mistresses. Such mixed marriages became so common that a new mixed-blood group gradually appeared - the Métis. With a foot in both cultures, these individuals were long sought after by fur traders as voyageurs, interpreters, guides and clerks.

Success stories... Scottish style

Canada offered opportunities for social advancement and land ownership that were no longer available in the mother country. Leading the way in the drive for industrialization in Canada in the 19th century was a new generation of Scottish immigrants who chose to settle in Montreal, Canada's metropolis at the time and a major continental hub.
The Scots in Montreal were generally better educated than their fellow citizens. With their acute awareness of the importance of a good education, they quickly took the lead in developing English-language institutions such as McGill University. Founded by Scots, McGill expanded thanks to generous donations from members of Montreal's Scottish community.

In 19th-century Montreal, trade and industry created the individual wealth that enriched society as a whole through philanthropic endeavours in many fields, including that of education. Trade and industry in turn drew on science, which was advancing through research and the sharing of knowledge in the educational institutions. While John Redpath made generous contributions to religious and social charities, Peter Redpath supported education. McGill University was the main beneficiary.

Bolstered by their solid education, well-honed business sense, valuable contacts in the worlds of finance and politics and, above all, a will to succeed that was actually encouraged, rather than discouraged, by their religion, these men of often modest origins went on to build empires and fortunes. Under their guidance, vast red brick factories sprang up like mushrooms along the Lachine Canal and near the harbour. In addition, it was Montrealers of Scottish origins who headed the companies that built the two great railroads linking Canada from east to west, the ICR (Intercontinental Railway) and the CPR (Canadian Pacific Railway).

Dozens of institutions and associations

Montrealers of Scottish origin founded dozens of institutions and associations, including:

  • The Beaver Club: To become a member of this institution founded in 1785, one had to have completed one fur-trading voyage and spent at least one winter at one of the posts in the Pays d'en haut, as western and northwestern Canada were called at the time.
  • The Royal Montreal Curling Club: The first curling club in North America, founded in 1807.
  • The Montreal General Hospital: The hospital was founded in 1822. The team of doctors at the hospital began lobbying its directors to create a school of medicine along the lines of the one at the University of Edinburgh. The Montreal Medical Institution opened its doors in the following year. An agreement was struck with McGill College authorities (although the college existed only on paper at the time), making the institution its first faculty.
  • The St. Andrew's Society of Montreal: The St. Andrew's Society of Montreal, created in 1835 by a group of Tory Scots, offered aid and advice, and even scholarships, to people of Scottish birth or descent, and organized traditional celebrations and get-togethers.
  • The Caledonian Society of Montreal: The association was formed in 1855 by the St. Andrew's Society of Montreal for the encouragement of Scottish athletic games and sports, history, poetry and song, an annual Halloween concert and other social activities.
  • The Black Watch of Canada: To counter the threat of raids by Fenian regiments (made up of old Civil War soldiers and Irish soldiers who fought to free Ireland from English rule), a number of influential Scots businessmen in Montreal responded by forming the 5th Battalion Royal Light Infantry in 1862, which would become the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada.
  • The Royal Montreal Golf Club: The first golf club in North America, it was founded on 4 November 1873 in Canada's metropolis, home to influential business barons, including several either born in Scotland or of Scots descent.

Source: "The Scots, Dyed-in-the-Wool Montrealers" Exhibition Text, 2003-2004


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