A Victorian View Into Scottish North America: Part Two Of Lady Isabella Bird’s Encounters With Scots In Canada And America

Isabella BirdA few weeks ago, we took a peek into the late nineteenth-century world of frontier Colorado with a most remarkable little Victorian era explorer named Lady Isabella Bird.  On one of her many adventurous journeys around the globe, Englishwoman Lady Isabella introduced us to the Chalmers family in the foothills of the front range in territorial Colorado, and it was a revealing encounter.

As Lady Isabella described them, the Chalmers were a quirky frontier family with remarkably strong Scottish covenanter ancestral ties. Through Isabella’s letters home, we were able to explore those uncommon Scottish ties, albeit through the eyes and pen of a very particular Englishwoman loaded with her own opinions about the world.

In her thoughts about the Chalmers, Lady Isabella described the settler experience on the edge of the western frontier in 1876. She had other much different experience with North America however, as she had visited more than 20 years prior.  So to continue our exploration of early Scottish immigrant life, we are going to travel backward in time and place to a much different frontier to meet Isabella Bird in 1854. She is about to disembark the paddle wheel steamer Canada of Cunard steam lines at Halifax Harbor following a “nine-day and five-hour voyage” from her Liverpool departure. We pick up the story in Isabella’s remembrances of the trip published as The Englishwoman In America.

Backward In Time To Halifax 1854.

In 1854 Halifax is the bustling capital of Nova Scotia (New Scotland), which is itself a self governing British province. It would not become part of the Canadian Confederation until 1867.  Nova Scotia had originally launched in 1621 in part as a Scottish scheme to occupy and settle the Crown’s lands in Canada but mostly to financially and socially benefit one Sir William Alexander, 1st Earl of Stirling.  By 1625 Sir William and the Crown were actively selling newly sanctioned Nova Scotia Baronetcies in exchange for a vow to arm, apparel and victualize six colonists for two years (or Buy Now! for a one time payment of 2,000 Merks to the Crown and Boom, you’re a Scottish Baron – Sir Whatnot - True story). There is also, of course, the 1,000 Merks that were payable directly to Sir William for his prior services in ‘discoverie’ of the area. Because there is ever so much ‘discovering’ that has to occur before Crown subjects can be turned loose on a wild land.

Unfortunately for Sir William, and the Crown, and the newly minted Nova Scotia Barons, the French snatched the entire province for their own over the course of three battles between 1629 – 1632.  By 1633 Scots in Nova Scotia were rare as hens teeth. The province had been melodiously renamed Acadia, French not Scottish.  Things remained thus until the worm turned again in 1763 at the end of the French and Indian War and Scotland, now Britain, once again claimed large portions of Canada in the Treaty of Paris.

616XJm3YSFL._AA240_QL65_Fast-forward ninety-one very fast paced years and Isabella Bird steps onshore at Halifax Harbour. It doesn’t take long before she reports contact with exiled Gaels.  During the course of less than 100 years of British rule, the Canadian land mass had become soaked with Scottish immigrants and most of those were Gaelic speaking exiles from the highlands and islands, sometimes by way of intermediate immigration to the Scottish lowlands or even England.

On the international superpower market, lands and towns switch names, allegiance, and sovereignty quickly with nothing more than the scratch of a pen across treaty parchment.  Following the official transfer of Canada to Britain at the Treaty of Paris in 1763, there was a period of practical transition of everything French to everything British. Interestingly, however, almost immediately after the practicalities would have occurred, Nova Scotia began receiving the human overage that Scotland was actively casting off.  From the end of the 18th century through the end of the 19th century, Nova Scotia, together with what was then called Upper Canada – generally southern Ontario on today’s map – served as a type of Gaelic refugee camp for the Highland exodus that was following agricultural improvement and weaponized land use policies of the post-Culloden era.

Halifax and Pictou began accepting hundreds of Gaelic refugees in the early 1770s as clearance, famine, hopelessness – and hopefulness – drove Scots toward the New World.  Although North American history is peppered with bursts of Scottish immigration emanating from various parts of Scotland, those who arrived in the mid to late 19th century were largely Gaels, displaced directly by eviction notice or indirectly by loss of ancestral way of life and relentless cultural oppression in their homeland.

Isabella’s Scots.

The North American lands and towns that Lady Isabella visited during this particular adventure were far from exclusively Scottish of course.  Yet mentions of immigrant Gaels, Scots, Highlanders and “Anglo-Saxon” Lowlanders are numerous and contemporary census numbers bear out the inference that Canada was fairly soaking with Scots in the middle part of the 19th century.  Nevertheless, Lady Isabella perceives successes in Canada as tribute to the Anglo-Saxon English blood and way of life.  Indeed, she rarely uses the terms Britain or Great Britain, or the United Kingdom, but prefers plain old England, as in her mind, England is the kingdom.

At this time in her life, Lady Isabella Bird had acquired a limited respect and affection for the “highlander” and the Gaelic language and culture, but largely by virtue of her English family’s capacity to send a sickly daughter to the Scottish Highlands for a landscape and environmental cure.  In that role, Isabella knew Gaels only so far as she was allowed to know them. With the threat of upper class punishment or retribution always present in the Highlands of the day, it is likely that most Gaels showed Isabella and her vacationing family only those aspects of Gaelic life and culture that pleased them, and then, only in a very congenial not to mention deferential delivery. It is not surprising that Lady Isabella came away from that limited introduction to Gaelic world with affection and a certain degree of respect.  It is, however, somewhat surprising that she also came away with at least a conversational level of knowledge of the Gaelic language.

While Lady Isabella paints a fun introduction to the early Canadian Scottish immigrant, there is much more to be learned about the world that the emigrant Scot actually faced by listening closely enough to discern the gross stereotypes and social hierarchy that color everything that our lady does and says.

She came to the New World well armed with the stereotypes of the Old World.  Perky and determined, Isabella is also the product of a Victorian world view in which nothing can really measure up to England and the English way.  This yields a clear ‘us and them’ approach to the world and like many during her time, Isabella is eager to ensure that everyone is placed well within their proper social spot in life, with the appropriate life story hung around their neck.

“The Irish are the noisiest of the enemies of England, and carry with them to Canada the most inveterate enmity to ‘Sassanach’ rule.  The term ‘slang-whangers’ must have been invented for these.”

“The Irish are a turbulent class, forever appealing to physical force, influencing the elections, and carrying out their ‘clan feuds’ and ‘faction fights.’”

Slang-whangers? That’s a new one to me but clearly, Lady Isabella does not speak reverently about the Canadian Irish immigrant.

While in North America on this trip, aside from her own English countrymen and women, Isabella generally described four groups of people:  Irish, Scottish Gaels, Indians and Americans.  To Isabella, the Irish and Indians were distasteful but endurable and occasionally could be capable of performing useful service, although inevitably not very well.  Scottish Gaels met along the route in Canada rated better in Lady Isabella’s reflections likely because of her affectionate memories of summers spent with them in the Highlands.  But also because Scottish families often came with some wealth and had been able to establish a vigorous mainstream base for themselves and their Gaelic community. Gaels, on the whole, did not come to Canada as servants but as farmers. Isabella seemed to accept that more readily.

 Isabella Had The Gaelic.

Having spent summers in the Scottish highlands as a child, it is not entirely surprising that the young English woman would have been encouraged to learn the local language.  It is somewhat more surprising that she had maintained some fluency in the Gaelic language into her twenties at least but then, Isabella Bird had her reasons. Sometimes, speaking Gaelic provided the keys to the kingdom:

“Crossing the suspension bridge we arrived at the VR custom house, where a tiresome detention usually occurs; but a few words spoken in Gaelic to the Scotch officer produced a magical effect, which might have been the same had we possessed anything contraband.”

Lady Isabella remarks on many occasions during the Canadian part of her journey regarding the use of Gaelic in social situations.  She regales in Gaelic with the lonely Highlands widow in the Canadian wilderness and exchanges clever quips with the Captain of the ship Peerless, a vessel that the good “Scotch” Captain brought from the Clyde to the Niagara country in 6,000 pieces. At least in the middle of the 19th century, Isabella makes it clear that Scottish Gaelic maintained a significant and respectable role in Canadian Scottish society.

On many occasions while in North America, Lady Isabella found the benefit of breaking the ice with Gaelic strangers using their native tongue.  More than anything else, to the Gaels hearing Gaelic spoken, there was the possibility of news from home. It’s not that news was scarce. Given the strong inflow of immigrants, it was common. Nevertheless, things were changing very rapidly in the highlands in the 1850s and each day might bring news that some dreadful thing had happened to some one or some family or some village that was loved and missed.

Why You Should Read Isabella’s Account. 

A great deal of The Englishwoman In America sheds light directly on the life of the immigrant Scot of the Victorian period and for that it is valuable. But it is also valuable for its descriptions of the world in which those immigrants lived. Lady Isabella was curious as well as plucky, determined and creative and she visited slums in Quebec as well as Governor’s mansions. She traveled by land and sea in comfortable vessels and deadly ones and she describes her adventures with a dry sense of English humor, a forever bright outlook and a stiff upper lip. Her accounts are charming and effective in conveying the look, smell, sound and feel of the mid 19th century North American Scottish immigrant’s environment and society. It’s a fun read, very educational and available on Kindle e-reader for not all that many Merks.

Epilogue: Listening To Gaelic Immigrants In Their Own Words.

51ccnVeO+LL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Gaelic was widely spoken on Prince Edward Island until the turn of the 20th century.  In the 2011 census, 10 individuals on the island reported that Gaelic was their mother tongue with less than 100 claiming to speak the language.

Lady Isabella Bird’s account of Scottish and Gaelic immigrants in mid 19th century Canada is intriguing and a great way to begin to get a feel for life in a different place and time while learning about Scottish and Gaelic heritage.  But the story told by Isabella and others like her fails to explain the tragic statistics like those in the paragraph above regarding the drastic, almost complete, loss of Gaelic language and cultural markers in a place where previously they flourished.  The best place to look for answers to such a question is in the words of the Gaels themselves.  Those words are out there but they have, until very recently, been forgotten by historians and social commentators particularly because the language and the culture is incomprehensible unless carefully and specifically studied.

We now have an initial resource, based upon Gaelic language resources and translated for English readers, that will help begin to unravel the story of the Gael in Canada more clearly. Published just last September, Seanchaidh na Coille: Memory Keeper of the Forest is an anthology of the Scottish Gaelic literature of Canada.  It is edited by Dr. Michael Newton, an outstanding researcher, scholar, writer and fluent in Scottish Gaelic and entirely comfortable translating and interpreting Scottish Gaelic language resources of all kinds.. This book complements his earlier work on North American Gaels We’re Indians Sure Enough: The Legacy of the Scottish Highlander in the United States (2001).

The poems, songs and narratives included in Seanchaidh na Coille offer new and important insights, for the English language reader as well as the Gael, into the mind and experience of the North American Gaelic immigrant.  Indeed, in one small but instructive instance, the reader is placed directly at the moment of Gaelic diaspora when a Gaelic family that had travelled together from the Highlands disburses into the vast Canadian world:

 ”From Quebec we came by boat right into the heart of Upper Canada.  The Tiree people went their own way to Brock.  The Perthshire people to other places on the way, but the majority of the Kilmartin people stayed together until they arrived at Port Stanley.  From there they branched off among the rural townships of Yarmouth, Dunwick, and Southwold.”

We have so few resources that allow us to get to know our Gaelic ancestors through their own Gaelic words.  Seanchaidh na Coille is one little resource with an enormous effect that should be on the desk of every member of the Scottish North American diaspora who is serious about understanding their Gaelic diaspora heritage.

Dr. Newton’s work is grounded in existing scholarship, where it exists on the subject, but because the story is told through careful analysis of Gaelic language literature, his work tends to explode old myths and assumptions of the Gaelic experience and supplant them with the voice of the Gaels themselves. You may believe you know the story of Gaelic immigration to North America. If you haven’t yet familiarized yourself with Dr. Newton’s work on the topic, you simply do not fully understand that story because you haven’t heard it from the Gaels themselves.

So dig in! A copy of Lady Isabella Bird’s An Englishwoman In America paired nicely with Seanchaidh na Coille: Memory Keeper of the Forest, a nice glass of wine, er .. whisky, and a quiet snowy weekend. Got one coming up! How’s that for a plan for a weekend without Outlander?



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