The 1907 Historical Review of The County of Wellington

Editor-in-Chief — W. F. MacKenzie


“Reminiscences of the Badenoch Settlement”

(Written by Donald Grant for the Mercury newspaper, July 22nd 1907.)


As the oldest, if not the only, survivor of the contributors who wrote for the Mercury in the early eighteen sixties, when it was still struggling for its place among Ontario journals, which it obtained and still retains by sheer force of merit, I hope that you shall grant me a small portion of your space for a few recollections of the settlement of Badenoch, as a sequel or rather extended footnote to the notice given it by W. F. MacKenzie, the careful and painstaking historian of the County of Wellington.


I am under the impression that very few of the families who emigrated from the secluded Parish of Insch, in the Valley of Spey, had been residents of that part of Scotland for many generations.  After the expulsion from their mountain stronghold of the Comyns, that powerful and turbulent race that contested the supremacy of the North with the Lords of the Isles and of the South, with the Bruces and Baliols, Badenoch fell into the hands of the MacPhersons, the senior branch of the great Clan Chattan (the children of the cat). 


But that wild, hill-hemmed region was the most inaccessible and inland part of the kingdom and on that account became a haven of refuge to many who in those stormy times found it inconvenient to remain at home.  Such refugees were cordially welcomed by the astute chiefs of the MacPhersons who saw in them so many sturdy recruits who would buckle on targe and claymore with the rest of their following when the great war pipe shrieked forth its fierce invitation to the wolf and the raven, and the fiery cross sped through the mountain pass and glen summoning the clansmen to the fray, and the banner of the Cat with its motto “touch not the cat, but the glove” was unfurled from the topmost turret of Cluny Castle.


The Kennedys were of Ayrshire stock, some one of the name having fled northward to escape the persecuting zeal of a Beaton or Lauderdale.  The McEdwards, whose name, “sons of Edward”, betrays their Saxon origin, were descendants of an English soldier, probably one of the Ironsides of Cromwell, left behind when Monk evacuated Scotland.  My father, the late Peter Grant, of Fernsdale, who had some taste for genealogy, traced his descent through five generations in a direct male line from Grant of Rothiemurchus, while the McLeans who came originally from the west coast claimed kinship through a younger son with the House of Duart.  The Martins were an off-shoot of the Cameron Clan and descended from one Martin Cameron, said to be a relative of the celebrated divine who founded the sect Cameronians.  The Clarks appear to have settled in the Valley of Spey earlier than the others, as all trace of their arrival there is lost in the mist of antiquity.  The name indicates descent from some member of the religious orders, broken and disbanded during the fierce storm of the Reformation and it is certain that they were numerous and influential throughout Badenoch before the close of the eighteenth century.  From the steading of Clark, of Dalnavert, a relative of the emigrant Clark, there known as Clark of Tomphat, Sir John A. MacDonald brought his first wife.  His mother also came from the same neighbourhood.  She was a Miss Shaw of the House of Tolms.


The Puslinch settlement, which the pioneers named after their far-distant mountain home was, though essentially Highland, by no means exclusively so.  The Gregors, lot 33, rear of conc. 9, Watson lot 37, front of 9, M. Elliot, lot 35, front of 9, W. Simpson, lot 36, front of conc. 9, Alex Nichol, lot 35, rear of conc. 8, Peter Idington, father of Judge Idington, of Stratford, lot 36, rear of concession 8, with the Darlings and Buchans who dwelt on the Gore, near Flamboro, were Lowlanders, and Linderman who erected two sawmills on the large creek which passed through his property, was of Dutch origin. 


Nor were all the Highlanders Badenoch people, though they vastly preponderated.  Duncan McKenzie, one of the most energetic and respected farmers of the district who located at a very early date, on lot 29, front of conc. 9, Peter Campbell on lot 23, front of Conc. 9 and his brother Dugald, on lot 28, rear of conc. 10, were Argyleshire men, and Donald Campbell on lot 28, front of Conc. 10 hailed from Perthshire.  But all were considered to be part and parcel of the same settlement and with very few exceptions every family was well represented in the crowd of juveniles of all ages and sizes who sixty years ago thronged the old Badenoch schoolhouse, built in 1830 or 1840 on the corner of lot 33, front of concession 9, then and for many years after, with the adjoining half of lot 34, the property of the late James Kennedy.


It speaks volumes for the intelligent zeal of the community in educational matters that as early as 1850 a first-class library was placed under the care of then teacher, William Dutton.  Advantage was taken of the terms offered by Ryerson, then at the head of the Educational Department, to supply such libraries at half price, and a collection of books was brought together, which for number and quality, even at the present day, is rarely to be equalled in a rural district. 


The retired and lonely nature of the land of their birth was doubtless to a great extent responsible for the amount of Celtic superstition that was prevalent amongst them.   Ghosts were seen flitting through the forest aisles before a body should pass that way, and corpse lights glimmered along the trails where a few days or hours later a coffin was to be carried.  An old and estimable lady assured me that on one occasion she was very much terrified by seeing one of those uncanny glims rest for some time on a sleigh in their barnyard.  The explanation of the phenomenon came next day when two men carrying a coffin passed that way and laid their burden for a few minutes on the sleigh so as to rest their weary arms. 


An old gentleman, not long deceased, told me the following story and his earnest and serious air left no doubt upon my mind of his own entire conviction of the truth of his tale.  One night, near the witching hour, when returning from a visit to the lady who shortly afterwards became his wife, he found himself walking among a crowd of shadows which were evidently travelling the same direction with himself.  He could see the dimly outlined forms and could hear, like distant echoes, the hum of conversation, and the sound of their slow and steady tread.  As his pace was rather faster than that of his shadowy companions, he passed through the crowd and noticed that those in front carried the semblance of a coffin on their shoulders.  Thus, he knew that a funeral would soon pass that way, and two or three days after, the body of a young man, the seer’s prospective brother-in-law, who was killed by a falling limb, was borne along that road to its last resting place.


Belief in charms was almost universal.  Though chopping formed their principle vocation, many of them, from want of early training and practice, were awkward handlers of the axe, and cuts of greater or less severity were the order of the day.  When the blood flowed so freely that the common household remedies, such as flour and salt, puffballs and spider webs were of no avail, recourse was had, not to a doctor, for the patient would surely die ere the long miles to and from town could be covered, but to an old man who lived in the German settlement, which stretched for some miles along what afterwards became the Brock Road.  If I remember rightly, his name was Maus.  He did not require to see the patient, but merely asked his given name, muttered his incantation and the haemorrhage immediately ceased.  This seems excessively absurd in these unbelieving days but not very many years ago there would be no difficulty in finding men, whose veracity was beyond question, who would vouch for the benefits received from this German charmer.  After all, when we find so many pinning their faith to the skirts of Mrs. Eddy, and flocking to the séances of spiritualist mediums, one may be permitted to doubt if even yet we are very much further advanced than were those early pioneers.


I have alluded here to their method of carrying the dead.  It was the same as was in use for centuries in their native land, where the rugged nature of the country made the use of wheeled carriages impracticable and was continued perforce in their new homes until roads were made through the forest.  The last one borne to Duff’s Cemetery in this fashion was my grandfather, the late Patrick McLean, of “Pinefield”.  There were passable roads at the time of his death but the sturdy old mountaineer had no fancy for being “trun’led in a cairt”, but would be carried to his grave, “shoulder high, as his fathers were before him”.


As usual, in new settlements, such surgery as circumstances rendered necessary, consisting principally of the sewing, bandaging, and dressing of wounds made by axe or adze, was relegated to the women and performed with an amount of skill and success which a regular practitioner might well envy.  A somewhat eccentric character of the name of Young, “Old Sandy Young”, well known in that neighbourhood, was chopping for Matthew Elliot, on Lot 35, front of Concession 9, when a large limb fell from the top of a tree that he was engaged with, striking him on the head and cracking his skull.  He was taken into the house, and as the broken pieces of bone, pressing on the lining of the brain, were causing intense pain, no time was to be lost.  Mrs. Elliot, one of the kindest and gentlest of women, but with nerve which would be no discredit to an army surgeon, at once took the case in hand, cut away the blood-clotted hair and with shoemaker’s pincers removed the offending fragments, five in number, from the gaping wound.  In a few days, Sandy was able to leave his couch and move about the house, and not many weeks elapsed until he was swinging his axe as lustily as ever.



Part II

“Reminiscences of the Badenoch Settlement” by Donald Grant

July 23rd 1907.


Despite the superstitious beliefs which were rife among them and which their lifelong environment of craggy mountain and shaggy wood doubtless did much to foster, they were not at all destitute of literary culture.  Many of them were omnivorous readers and possessed of great funds of information.  My father and uncle were both of this class, and though the latter was totally blind, they had amassed a store of historical, theological, and political lore which would make the fortune of a professional penny-a-liner.  Men of similar tastes were frequent visitors at my father’s house, and the last read book, the last sermon heard, or the latest move of the settlers’ “bête noir”, the Family Compact, was discussed in the long winter nights as they sat around the fire piled high with maple wood and to whose light was added that of split pine knots placed upon a projecting slab, built into the ample chimney.


In those early days, ere an accident accentuated his natural bias for the church, the Reverend Thomas Wardrope was a frequent visitor, and the blind man, until his dying day, had a kindly recollection of the youth, who with reading, song, and story, wiled away many an hour that might otherwise have passed tediously and slowly. 


Nor did the books read always pass without keen criticism.  I remember, some years subsequent to the time of which I write, when I had grown sufficiently to be able to appreciate such conversations, Malcolm MacKenzie, a man of extensive reading, who resided with his brother Duncan on Lot 29, front of Concession 9, discussing Thomas Macaulay’s essay on John Croker’s edition of James Boswell’s book “Life of (Samuel) Johnson”, with my father and uncle.  They fell afoul of both essayist and critic.  Being thorough Highlanders and well versed in the poetic lore handed down through generations by tradition and manuscript, they failed to see that Johnson, to whom Gaelic was an unknown tongue, could possibly be a competent judge of the authenticity of the “Poems of Ossian”, and declared his attack on McPherson, the translator, to be nothing more or less than a specimen of that coarse and impudent vulgarity in which the great critic was too prone to indulge.  Macaulay was blamed for accepting without question or examination the dictum of Johnson, and for knowing so little of the methods of thought and expression prevalent among his father’s people.  Indeed, those backwoods critics averred that no one would laugh more loudly and boisterously than the “Ursa Major”, and Macaulay’s polished shafts of satire would be quickly on the wing were anyone who could not construe a sentence of Greek or Latin possessed of sufficient temerity to impugn the authenticity of the Iliad or Eniad.  The great historian’s ignorance of actual conditions and lack of sympathy with the people of the north left him open, a few years later, to the trenchant criticism of Hugh Miller.


Like hope, the love of song “springs eternal in the Celtic breast” and the Highland settlements of Puslinch were not without their bards who sang, some of the land of their nativity, others in praise of their adopted home, and still more, on that unending, non-aging theme, the rare charms of lovely woman.  Unfortunately, nearly all of their compositions were in their native tongue and are now entirely forgotten and irretrievably lost.  A song entitled “Canada” by Alex Fraser of Crieff had a wide circulation and a poetical address by Duncan Stewart to the Highland Society on its inception in the City of Hamilton was considered worthy of the prize offered by the association. 


I here append four verses from my father’s pen as samples, not because of any greater merit, which my partiality might cause me to believe them to possess, but simply on account of the fact that they are the only ones that still cling to my memory.  The sturdy independence, coupled with the joyousness, which permeated and inspired those pioneers, finds expression here:


With prince or peer, I can compare,

With vantage on my side,

I’m free as air and nothing care,

For all their pomp and pride.


The flower plains where nature reigns,

To me are far more dear,

Than feasts and balls in splendid halls,

With slavery in the rear.


The next verse, taken from a song, whose Gaelic refrain, “Nul hairis gun deid me”, rings in the ear with all the sweetness of the wild bird’s wooing note, seems to have its melody wrung out by my bald translation.


Over the sea, the wide and foaming sea,

In the glad spring when the song birds are mating,

I haste to greet thee and thou shall meet me,

In the green glen where my love is waiting.


The love of nature finds expression in the following, also a translation.


I seek no other lullaby nor cradle song,

Than the hum of the honey laden bee,

And the murmuring of the stream as it wanders along,

Rippling and brattling in watery glee.


Of the poets, that in later days these Celtic settlements gave the old township, the late Donald McCaig stands unrivalled.  Under the nom de plume “Milestones, Moods, and Memories”, he contributed to the Guelph Advertiser, then edited by the late J. Clearihue, a number of pieces which critics, little disposed to be complimentary, acknowledged to be of no inferior order.  Had he continued his devotion to the muse there can be no doubt that he should have taken high rank among Canadian poets and found a niche beside the “Khan”, the farmer bard of a neighbouring township.  But for some unexplained reason he, at an early age, ceased to woo the fickle goddess and devoted his energy to his profession.  Yet, those who knew him best shall always regret that the poet was so completely merged in the teacher.


There are many things which memory re-summons from the depths of other years, as I write, which might tempt one to extend these “footnotes” indefinitely but this communication has already stretched far beyond the limits that my intention had assigned it and I must refrain from many allusions which might not be without interest to those who inherit the lands and labours of the early pioneers.


The political life was somewhat strenuous in the early days, but owing to the decided preponderance of the Liberal, or as it was then designated, the Reform Party, its rougher features were fairly well eliminated at an early date.  I think that it was in the winter of 1856, 57 that David Stirton first became the standard bearer of the Liberals of South Wellington.  During the score of years that he represented the constituency, a strong support was given him from every part of the township but the vote of Badenoch always went solidly, without a single exception, in his favour.  “Oer Dauvid” as he was commonly called by them, was a great favourite and the settlement would consider itself deeply disgraced if a single vote was left un-polled, or the name not placed on the right side.


 I must now, for the present, bid Badenoch and its varied memories a reluctant farewell.  It was a typical Highland colony such as may be found scattered here and there throughout the length and breadth of Canada, and to the delineation of whose characteristics two of our greatest writers have devoted the best work of their pens.  Ralph Connor has given us pen and ink portraits of the Glengarry people and Marian Keith, in the Maple Leaf, has made us familiar with similar characters under different conditions on the shores of Lake Simcoe.  Their strong affections and scarcely less strong antipathies, their genuine friendliness, and boundless hospitality, are simply traits of the race, and may yet be found more or less fully developed among the descendants of the old settlers.  I have wandered far since first I turned my face toward the setting sun, and in this cosmopolitan western land, where there are more languages spoken than caused confusion among the builders of Babel, have rubbed shoulders with men of many nations and from many climes, but nowhere, and among no class of people, have I found a man’s duty to his neighbour so readily acknowledged and so cheerfully performed as in the Badenoch settlement.