Generation of Emigrants and Their Values
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A Generation of Immigrants and Their Values

These were troubling times in Scotland at the dawn of the nineteenth century. A proper study of the many factors -- including poverty, unhealthy work and living conditions, political unrest, rebellion, smooth-talking emigration agents, desperation -- that would shortly lead to the emigration of many of them would fill another volume.

Suffice it to say here that government-assisted emigration from Lesmahagow to Canada began in earnest in 1820 through the Lesmahagow Emigration Society. Of particular interest to us, however, are the later independent unassisted emigrants to Scarborough, most of whom succeeded modestly, and many tremendously, in their new home. This, in spite of the fact that practically all of the land in Scarborough had already been taken up, much of it by friends of the government and the Clergy -- the age of free land grants had ended by this time.

Beginning in 1831, government policy was directed to preventing poor settlers from buying land on credit -- the theory being that only those with ample capital could properly improve the land. It was more important to the economic development of the colony, argued Edward Wakefield, to have a ready supply of wage labour than to have a population of poverty-stricken freehold farmers. Land prices were therefore set just low enough to attract the farmer with capital and just high enough to force the poor into a landless labouring class. Wakefield's theory was further adopted into economic policy through the Land Act of 1841.

Even with the deck clearly stacked against them, most of the Lanarkshire emigrants to Scarborough, 1825-1850, succeeded where they could not in Scotland -- they eventually became landowners and masters of their own destiny. The pattern in Scarborough for the Lanarkshire immigrants generally involved several years' farm labour, a decade or so of renting land independently and, finally, the down-payment on a farm. A few examples will suffice.

Robert Stobo became a prominent timber merchant and purchased over 400 acres in the front of the Township. John Torrance' several farms were sometimes used to give newly arrived Lanarkshire Scots a helpful start. James Weir "acquired possessions that have earned for him in the neighborhood the sobriquet of Buccleugh"(1) after the wealthy Scottish borders landlord. Weir and his one-time business partner, James Neilson, also from Lanarkshire:

in that early day were noted bush-whackers. Both boasted of making the foundation of their wealth by clearing land and chopping cordwood in Scarboro. For the cordwood they received $.25 per cord and the price for clearing land was in the same ratio, yet both died wealthy.

A few from Lesmahagow, like William Porteous, moved on, having:

worked first in Scarborough, and for a time was construction foreman on a railroad near Goderich but for a greater part of the past fifty years he was a resident of Scott Township. He was a hard worker and through industry and his native thrift accumulated considerable property and money.(2)

Of that "native thrift", William McCowan in Coalburn, Lesmahagow, wrote to his fatherless neices and nephews in "Scarbourgh" in March 1836: "Your father said that you were well taught the value of a shilling".

Porteous' first cousin in Scarborough, William Porteous McCowan, was "of a rather retiring disposition and pursued the even tenor of his way with that commendable Scotch quality, canniness". (3)

The Lanarkshire Scots were instrumental in establishing many of the early important institutions in Scarborough including libraries, churches, agricultural societies and sporting clubs. Their institutions reflected the values that they had imported from the old country. Their native Lanarkshire lived on in the names that some of them gave to their Scarborough farms: McCowan's Holmcrest, Purdie's Alton Hill, Lawrie's Gladden Hill, Young's Lynnbank, Weir's Green Hill.

The obituary of James Whiteford McCowan is perhaps illustrative of the Lanarkshire Scot experience in Scarborough:

On the 19th Inst. [July 1897] Mr. James McCowan died at the advanced age of his 84th year. In his death his family lose a kind and indulgent father and the Township of Scarboro one of its most honorable and illustrious citizens.

Mr. McCowan was born in Lesmahagow Parish, Scotland, in the year 1814 and emigrated to Canada with his father and mother, three brothers and four sisters, and landed in Little York in the year 1833, and with the family settled on the Kingston Road, near Gates at the Markham Road, Township of Scarboro, at that time comparatively a wilderness.

In the following year the family suffered a severe loss in the death of the father, who was also named James, and of David, one of the sons, from that dreaded scourge, cholera, both dying in one night. Notwithstanding this, the family, with indomitable energy and perseverance, fought the battle of life and, although a severe one, victory crowned their united efforts...

In 1840 Mr. McCowan was married to Miss Martha Weir, sister of the late Mr. James Weir, and they lived happily together for forty-five years, till in 1885, Mrs. McCowan was called to her rest, after having raised a family of 7 sons and 2 daughters...

The deceased was a Presbyterian in religion, and in politics a Conservative. For seven years he represented the Township in the Municipal Council, though he was one who never courted public honors, but preferred a quiet, industrious life. The favourite game of the deceased was curling, and in 1835, he was one of the Scarboro team that defeated the Torontos in that year.

There was scarcely an agricultural exhibition in either county or township in connection with which the name James McCowan did not appear as a prize winner for the last half century.

Mr. McCowan was a kind, Christian neighbor and as such he was loved by his family, his neighbors and all who came in contact with him. A proof of this was found in the fact that yesterday there was an immense concourse of people at the obsequies. A funeral cortege of 200 carriages followed the remains to their last resting place in Old St. Andrew's Church yard, a place dear to the hearts of many of the sons and daughters of Scarboro.(4)

Faith was the strength of the immigrant father, James McCowan. From Springbank, Scarborough, he wrote to friends in Goderich on August 20 1834, eight days before his death:

I should be very happy to see you and to have some conversation with you but have little hope of realizing that gratification for some time at such a distance but if we should never meet in this world or that it may pleas God that we all meet at the right hand of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in that day when He Cometh to Judge the world and hear the best of all aprobations pronounced upon us Well Done Good and Faithful Servants Enter Ye into the Joy of Your Lord... I am Dear Sir, your Sincair old friend with I hope a new face, James McCowan

Few Scarborough immigrant stories can be more moving than the trials of Agnes Hamilton Rae and her family, as told by her son, Robert:

As my uncle, Robert Hamilton, was at this time engaged in chopping a fallow, my father went out to assist him one afternoon. But as he had no experience in felling timber, the first large tree that he undertook to cut down fell in the opposite direction he had intended and, in attempting to get out of the way of the falling tree, he ran in the wrong direction and was struck by the body of the tree and instantly killed, just four weeks after we landed in Toronto, leaving a widow and four small children wholly unprovided for, the eldest being seven years old and the youngest a little over one year old.

We remained in a small house on my uncle's place being Lot 25 in the third Concession of the Township of Scarborough until the fall of that year when the family removed to a small place of about fifteen acres which was rented from one Robert Stobo situated about ten miles east of Toronto on the Kingston Road where they remained about eight years during which time the widowed Mother with her young family by hard work and rigid economy made a fairly comfortable living for herself and children and accumulated a sufficient amount of money to purchase thirty acres of land being composed of part of Lot number 18 in the second Concession of the Township of Scarborough near where the Village of Malvern now stands but in order to accomplish the desirable object of purchasing land for a permanent home, it was necessary that the children should commence work at an early age even before they had acquired the ordinary Common School education that was available under the very imperfect system that existed in the country at that time. When I was sixteen years of age I was unable to write my own name and at that time had acquired no knowledge of arithmetic or grammar but I had completely mastered the Shorter Catechism at the age of seven and by studying at home and attending Sabbath School and Bible Class conducted by the late Dr. George, I was well grounded in Scripture subjects and doctrine.(5)

There are probably similar -- yet unique -- Scarborough stories amongst many of the other immigrant Lanarkshire families, including: Bowes, Brown, Brownlie, Clelland, Core, Davidson, Ferguson, Fleming, Frame, Findlay, Gibson, Hamilton, Lawrie, McCowan, Muir, Neilson, Paton, Porteous, Purdie, Rae, Reid, Scott, Stobo, Tacket, Torrance, Tudhope, Tweedie, Weir, Wilson and Young.

For their successes in Canada, these immigrant Scots owed their thanks to their parents and grandparents in Lanarkshire. Those hardy folk had developed and nurtured a healthy value system during the turmoil of the agricultural revolution. They had crossed a profound -- and very difficult -- economic watershed.


(1) Obituary of George Weir, James' brother, Markham Economist, March 18, 1875.
(2)  Uxbridge Journal, Sept. 16, 1909
(3)  Markham Sun, March 14, 1902
(4)  News clipping in the Fanny Annis Pherrill scrapbook
(5)  Autobiography of Robert Rae.

From the Concluding Remarks to When the Ground Fails: An Economic Watershed
The Scarboro Heights Record  V5 #1