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Thoughts of home at Christmas

Set down in backwoods Ontario this group of old country immigrants braved the rigours of isolation and the drudgery of hard work to lay the foundations of the province. And on Sundays they wore their best.

“Away wi’ Canada’s muddy creeks
And Canada’s fields of pine
Your land of wheat is a goodly land,
But oh, it is not mine
The heathy hill, the grassy dale.
The daisy spangled lea, the purling burn and craggy linn, auld
Scotland’s glens give me.

William Berry (back row) left his young family behind to seek a new life in Canada in the spring of 1914. He sent back money for their passage a year later -- but it vanished when the Empress of Ireland sank in the St. Lawrence. They had to wait another year to be re-united.

The remoteness and vastness of our land had an almost overwhelming effect on our early settlers and for many — like the individual pining for the loss of the familiar and welcoming home in Scotland, the first years in the new land  must have been an ordeal.

Just listen to the late Stan Rogers — to me our greatest folk singer ever — and the emotion he brings to the  Scarborough Settlers Lament written in 1840   catching  the longing so many felt for a return to their roots.
Since my relatives also settled in Scarborough in 1792 coming north from Pennsylvania, there is some recognition of their tribulation also.

For most newcomers regardless of their country of origin few had an opportunity to return again to their homes and their dear ones.

The trauma experienced by our early settlers being transported far away from home and family has always had  an interest for me.  I saw it first hand on a misty morning on the river Clyde in December, 1957.

Light was just breaking when I left the lower deck cabin and climbed the steel steps to the rickety stern deck.   We were nearing the end of the Empress of Scotland’s last voyage — steaming quietly down the Clyde to her retirement — past the mist shrouded height of Alisa Craig, the Cloche Lighthouse and a dream-like sequence of castles and ruins.

I was alone on a vantage  point I had frequented often on this wild and stormy voyage.  That day a menacing-looking  submarine followed us closely up the river.  When we reached the harbour at Greenoch a small ferry left the wharf and came toward us, a piper playing lustily on the bow.  Like the pied piper of old, his  notes brought people running on deck  and they stood in awe, arms around each other overcome with nostalgia.

These folks had also been Scottish immigrants and were home from Canada just before the holidays.  It was an experience that has  remained  imprinted on my mind.  Some would come back — but many told me they wanted to return to their native land.

Oh, I would like to hear again the lark on Tinny’s hill
And see the wee bit gowany that blooms beside the rill.
Like banished Swill who view afar his Alps with longing e’e.
I gaze upon the morning star that shines on my country.

Tea strainer from the Empress of Scotland is all that remains from the last voyage of the stately old CP Liner.

Christmas in the 40’s Dad invited a new Scottish immigrant to join us for Christmas dinner.   He was  a good looking man in his early 40’s  brought to Canada because of his tool and die-making skills.  He had a deep Scottish accent — so much so I was hard pressed to follow his words.  About half-way through dinner his eyes filled with tears of home sickness.  He apologized and we went on with dinner — but we were all feeling his loss acutely that day.

And I think of wife Judy’s family who bid her grand father farewell when he sailed for Canada from England in 1913.  He worked for a year in Toronto and accumulated enough money to pay for the passage of the rest of his family.   He put the draught for the tickets on the Empress of Ireland which sailed for the old country from Quebec — but while still on the St. Lawrence it collided with a Norwegian collier and sank with 1012 souls and her relative’s hard-won passage money..   So it was another year before he could save enough money to finally bring them over.

No more I’ll win by Eskdale glen or Pentland’s craggy comb.
The days can ne’er come back again of thirty years that’s gone,
But fancy oft at midnight hour will steal across the sea.
And yestereve, in a pleasant dream, I saw the old country.

The Empress of Scotland in better days brought and returned immigrants.


This is the time of year we should remember the people who came before.  We should recall their stamina and determination and forbearance in opening up a new life in an unforgiving and vast land, and for laying down a firm foundation for those who followed. For all of their pluck and determination we should give our heart-felt thanks.

Filed Under: Donald McClurehome improvementUncategorized

About the Author: He can tickle your funny bone or tug at your heart strings. County people may know him as a chronicler of everything that happens (or should happen) in the garden, but his interests stretch across the natural world. His unique sense of observation takes in a wide expanse of living and may even point out some truths about our own condition as managers of the world around us. With Loyalist antecedents in his family tree his roots go deep into the Ontario countryside.

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  1. Donald says:

    Thank you David. Coming from you — a man who has spent many days away from home in many exotic locations around the world — you certainly must understand
    the feeling. From this end of the spectrum, whenever you and your wife are not around our Christmas table, we always imagine your smiling presence in our midst and send a fond blessing. Keep well the road my lad. Donald

  2. David McClure says:

    Great article, Donner!

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