Fairs and Frolics: Scottish Communities at Work and Play
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A Contribution to the
Toronto 200, 1793-1993, Celebration
In Recognition of the Ordinary
Scottish Canadians of Metro Toronto



Dedicated by the McCowan Society and
By the Author, Bruce McCowan, and
By the Sponsor, Beatriz McCowan, to
Jane Beecroft
For Her Inspirational Leadership in the
Heritage Movement in Metro Toronto
And to the
Canadian National Exhibition Association
For Inviting the
Metro Toronto Area Heritage Groups
To Participate at the 1993 "Ex"


An elderly lady with a strong Scottish accent told Bruce a Burns story some years ago...

I was a teenager of decided opinion on proper behaviour [seems odd, but please go on...] When my father asked if I was going to the Burns Supper, I launched "Absolutely not! Burns was an immoral man!" My father then exploded "Young lady, SIT DOWN and listen! Robert Burns lived in immoral times."

To learn more about those "immoral times",
please order a copy of
Fairs and Frolics.


By Mike Filey

This year marks the 115th edition of the Canadian National Exhibition, though a little research work quickly reveals that "The Ex" has a more ancient heritage than just the advertised 115 years. In fact, it can be stated without fear of contradiction that the roots of the CNE can be traced to the year 1792, one year before Toronto's birth and one year after John Simcoe, the Province's first Lieutenant Governor, arrived in Upper Canada (Ontario) to take up his assigned duties. In that year, the Niagara Agricultural Society was established to encourage and help improve the art of agriculture in the young Province. Thirty-eight years later, "An Act to Encourage the Establishment of Agricultural Societies in the Several Districts of the Province" was passed. The Act provided for an annual grant of $400 to agricultural Societies that had been established for the purpose of importing livestock, grain, grass seeds and useful farming implements. With this Act in place, numerous societies came into being, each of which became active and growing concerns leading, in 1846, to the creation of "The Provincial Agricultural Association and Board of Agriculture for Canada West". Officials of this organization soon cultivated plans to hold the first association-sponsored fair which was held on October 21, 1846, on the grounds of Government House at the southwest corner of King and Simcoe Streets. This highly successful event can be interpreted as the genesis of what has evolved over the ensuing years into the modern-day Canadian National Exhibition.

Just as the early editions of "The Ex" brought together groups and organizations with similar interests in the fields of agriculture, arts and technology, so too this year the fair bids welcome to the numerous Metro Toronto Heritage Groups whose goals include keeping the public ever mindful of the people and events that have made our community great.


By Dr. Jean Burnet, York University
Editor, Ontario History

Much has been written about the lives of outstanding immigrants and their achievements as entrepreneurs, scholars, politicians, and soldiers. Little attention has been paid until recently to the lives of the bulk of immigrants, working class men and women. Now it is recognized that to understand immigration it is necessary to engage in "history from the bottom up."

McCowan does so. He examines the cooperative work and the boisterous festivities of rural lowland Scots. He provides rich detail about their lives in eighteenth and nineteenth century Scotland and in nineteenth and early twentieth century southern Ontario, especially Scarborough. Many of those he quotes are apparently members of his own family. In putting their stories in the record he has made a worthwhile addition to the history of Canadian immigration.


By Jim Connell, President, 1993
Ontario Association of Agricultural Societies

Fairs and Frolics is a very interesting account of the eighteenth century need for fairs and frolics in the communities of ordinary Scots. It is now clear to us that the early nineteenth century Scottish emigration to Upper Canada did not diminish that need and fairs sprang up throughout southern Ontario. And the need is still here today. All 236 Fairs in Ontario still have an agricultural flavour with an air of competitiveness. The one major recent change is that Fairs not only relate to the education of the agriculturalist, but now also reach out with education to the urban dweller, some of whom are third and fourth generation from the farm. Fairs are still very much alive in Ontario today and, to continue, there will even be a greater emphasis placed on education. For example, displays will show the growing of wheat right from planting to harvest to bakery and, finally, to bread. And let's not forget the fun -- or frolic -- with a midway ride or two!


Comments / Reviews

This "Toronto 200 Project" published by the McCowan Society was one of the very few publications dedicated to commemorating the 200th anniversary of the so-called "founding" of Toronto, largely by British interests. Within nine months of publication, almost 700 copies were sold. Many favourable comments and reviews have been received, including:

The Multicultural History Society of Ontario salutes D.B. McCowan's witty grass-roots account and celebration of the reality of the daily life of "ordinary" Scottish Canadians. This genre of publication serves both to commemorate the ethnocultural past, and to bring to life the real record of the many people who have taken part in Canadian history.

Lillian Petroff, PhD, Multicultural History Society of Ontario


Fairs and Frolics documents a rich and varied history of Scots both in Scotland and here in Scarborough. It draws on original materials and gives readers a real sense of what it was like to be a first-timer in a new country. For those with a sense of history, it's a delightful read.

The Bluffs Monitor


Congratulations on the publication of Fairs and Frolics. Its lively and entertaining presentation of events in Scarborough's past will be of interest to all who care about Scarborough history.

Myrna Miller-Tait, Executive Director, Scarborough Arts Council


These lively squibs of social history -- in Scotland and in Scarborough -- will be valued by anyone interested in the experience of Scottish immigrants to Canada.

Ontario Historical Society


It is this journey of people through time and place which makes Fairs and Frolics such an exciting read... For every Scarborough resident, indeed for any person elsewhere who is interested in the movement of people and customs, Fairs and Frolics with its occasional flashes of brilliant narrative is highly recommended.

Sasenarine Persaud, Past Director, Scarborough Arts Council


This little book is only 56 pages long but is filled with stories, anecdotes and quotations from the lives of ordinary Scots-Canadians on farms and in villages in rural Scotland and Canada from the 17th century up to the present day. Produced by the McCowan Society as part of the commemoration celebration for Toronto's 200th birthday, it is a useful addition to the social historian's library.

Scottish Studies Foundation


Bruce McCowan has chronicled Scottish social gatherings from 17th century lowland "fermtouns" to early 20th century agricultural communities of southern Ontario with his wry Scots humour. Fairs and Frolics shows us how the members of one specific culture have enjoyed the pleasure of each others company for generations.

R. Scott James, Managing Director, Toronto Historical Board


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Some Sample Excerpts

Introduction What is a Canadian?
Agricultural Society Balancing public service and work on the farm.
Regulating Behaviour The Church and Rural Society
Immigration to Upper Canada The early subsistence economy
Land Clearing and Logging Bees Deforestation
Temperance Influence of the Kirk
McCowan's Phototeria A Canadian Invention
David A. McCowan Overcoming Handicap
Fun On the Farm Threshing, tramping in the mow
Ploughing Match Attempted Bribery
Community Togetherness and Sport Scarborough Fair and School Fair
Metro Heritage Quilt Quilting as Recreation
A Culture Defined The Heritage Learning Resources
Heritage Groups at CNE A Directory
House Raising Bee Origin of the "caber toss"
Glossary of Terms Rural Scottish and Canadian: to 19th century
Concluding Remarks Ordinary Scots achieve full partnership in society