Historical Essay on the Scots
of the Upper St. Francis District of Quebec

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Table of Contents


The southern townships of the Canadian province of Quebec are known collectively as "The Eastern Townships" or "L'Estrie" in French. It is a fairly large portion of the province and consists today of 11 (?) counties, each subdivided into dozens of townships. The southern border of the Eastern Townships is shared with the states of New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine. The terrain varies from very mountainous to flat plains, but it is beautiful throughout. There are many rivers and picturesque mountain lakes that have been favorably compared to those of Switzerland. This comparison is somewhat exaggerated, for though Lake Memphrenog is indeed gorgeous, the highest mountain in the Eastern Townships is only 3,000 feet. Nevertheless, Mount Megantic was high enough to be chosen in 19?? as the cite for an astronomical observatory (the Mount Megantic Astronical observatory?) that touts itself as "the premier observatory in the eastern part of North America."


The Abenaquis Indians

Until the 18th century the only humans in the Eastern Townships were the Abenaquis Indians who lived nearby and used this area for hunting.

The French

Frenchmen seek freedom by immigrating to "New France."

After the initial explorations of the area by Champlain in 1608, the first substantial European presence in the region was that of French missionaries who were sent by King Henry IV of France in 1615 to convert the Indians. Encouraged by the missionary experiences and in order to escape the feudal tyrannies of France, Frenchmen in general began to immigrate and settled on the fertile land along the St. Lawrence River. From 1608 to 1759, when the British won Canada, some 10,000 Frenchmen came to the region. For the most part, the French inhabitants were poor farmers tied to the land along the St. Lawrence under strict control of the French officials of the Catholic Church. The region became an important part of "Nouvelle France" or "New France," with Quebec City as its capitol.

"New France" becomes British territory.

The French immigrants became so numerous that the British, who dominated the rest of Canada, considered their presence a threat to the British plans to colonize this part of Canada too.

After a series of battles between the French and the British over the territory, the British prevailed and in 1763 most disputed parts of Canada became British possessions. Most of the French speakers remained, but they were now officially governed by the British. Many of them, however, moved and resettled in upper New York state on land that the Americans gave them.

In 1791 Canada was divided into two parts: Upper Canada, which later became Ontario, and Lower Canada, which became the province of Quebec. The region known today as the "Eastern Townships," or "L'Estrie" in French, was then referred to as either "The St. Francis River District" or the "domain of the Abenakis (Boisvert, 1987, p. 2, who is quoting Rev. Jean Mercier, 1964).

For many years, the Upper St. Francis District was intentionally left uninhabited because it shared a border with the United States. The Canadian officials thought that if the area were settled, the residents would naturally want to clear roads, which could be exploited by U.S. troops to invade Canada if the American Revolutionary War against the British ever escalated to include hostilities with Canada.

The Americans

British "Loyalists" migrate to Lower Canada from the United States.

The first English-speaking settlers in the St. Francis River District were Americans who migrated north during the American Revolutionary War. The Americans who came during the war to Canada had British ancestry and preferred living under British rule to the revolution-minded American government. They were called the "Loyalists." Though most of them settled in Ontario and New Brunswick, some settled in the southern and western parts of Lower Canada (as Quebec was called then). However, this still left much of Quebec unoccupied, especially the central and eastern parts.

Free land is offered in unoccupied territories.

In the 1790's these unoccupied territories were divided up into small townships, which were all given english-sounding names. The governor of Lower Canada allowed anyone to move into these townships free of charge if they agreed to develop the land. English speakers took advantage of this offer at first and English became the dominant language and culture of the region. These townships became known as the "Eastern Townships" of Canada because they were situated to the east of the English-speaking townships of Ontario, which was the center of Canada's English-speaking community.

During the entire 19th century, the province of Quebec was administered by English speakers who lived mostly in the cities of Montreal and Quebec, which were the only real cities in all of Canada at the time. Despite their political and economic advantage in the province of Quebec, the English speakers were still outnumbered by the French-speakers, most of whom still lived along the St. Lawrence River. When the French-speakers started settling their families in the English-speaking Eastern Townships, the English-speakers prepared a plan to quell the "invasion".

The government encourages British immigration to Lower Canada.

In the 1830's an organization called the British American Land Company (BALC) was sold land in the Eastern Townships by the British government for a pittance on the understanding that the company would use the land for settling English-speakers in those townships before more of the French from the St. Lawrence region moved in.

The first thirty families that the BALC brought into the Eastern Townships were from England and Ireland in 1835. These settlers were given free passage, money to build homes, furnishings, farming tools, clothes, and food for the first year. They were settled in an area about three miles west of present day Scotstown in an area that was called Victoria. Starting the Victoria settlement and supplying it with enough houses, churches, schools, and government offices stretched the resources available to the BALC. Unfortunately, this first settlement disbanded after just a few years due to the hardships the members encountered and the financial troubles experienced by the BALC because of their generosity.

The BALC reduced the amount of its subsidies, but continued to took for people ready to emigrate. There were some parts of Great Britain such as the Scottish Island and Highlands that were good candidates for immigration due to poverty and hunger caused by factors such as lack of property rights, overcrowding of family farms, and failed crops due to bad weather and disease.

The Hebridean Scots

Scottish settlers arrive in the Eastern Townships of Lower Canada.

The first Hebridean Scots to inhabit the Eastern Townships came in 1838 from the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. They were probably unaware of the extreme hardships ahead of them. Their deplorable situation in Lewis, however, drove them to emigration--not the lure of Canada as "the Promised land." This first group of settlers from the Isle of Lewis came from the village of Mealista on the west side of Uig and were settled by the BALC in the township of Lingwick which was in the region known as the Upper St. Francis District. They arrived only "with the clothes they wore, sometimes a piece of furniture, the tools of their trade, and their beloved Bible" (McLeod, 1977:1).

Unfortunately, the BALC could not pay for the passage of these Hebridean immigrants. They had to pay for their tickets themselves, but the BALC sold the land to them cheaply and on very favorable terms of interest. They did not have to start paying the Company back until a year after their arrival. In return the settlers agreed to clear one-tenth of the land within four years and to clear a road 20 feet wide in front of their lots.

This arrangement attracted an increasing number of immigrants from the Isle of Lewis and Harris, with a sprinkling from other Hebridean islands like Skye and the two Uists.

Life is hard for the Scots in the early years.

When first settled, this part of the Eastern Townships had no road, was thickly forested with many swampy areas along the Salmon River which flowed through Lingwick. Some officials considered the area unfit for habitation. It apparently seemed so to some of the newcomers, some of whom went back to Lewis and others moved to other parts of Canada after a few years in Lingwick.

The first few years of the Lewis Scots in Lingwick were indeed difficult ones. The journalist L.S. Channell described the hardships in this way half a century later:

"The first eight families... all settled on the road between Bury and Gould, as close together as they could. This was always the main thought with the Scotch settlers in those days. ... They wanted to have a settlement of their own, where they could live like Highlanders, 'shoulder to shoulder.' None of them in those days thought of owning a larger farm than fifty acres.

"The cabins built by the settlers the first year were very small.... The cabins had no fire places or chimneys the first winter... A hole was made in the roof to let all the smoke out that was inclined to escape. The roof was generally so badly constructed that whenever it rained outside it rained inside also.

"The settlers lived the first year principally on oatmeal, advanced by the B.A.L. Company. They paid for this the following summer at the rate of $5 for one hundred pounds, by grubbing out a road from Bury to Gould." (Channell (1896:256-57)

The climate of the Eastern Townships was unfamiliar.

One of the first things the Lewis Scots would have noticed upon settling in Canada was the difference in the weather patterns from those on Lewis. In comparison to Lewis, Quebec must have seemed much warmer in summer, colder and snowier in winter, and generally drier and sunnier than anything they had ever experienced before. The following figures bear this out.


             MEAN                  AVE. LOW/HIGH
             MONTHLY TEMP.         MONTHLY TEMP.
             JAN.    JULY          JAN        JULY 
Lewis        41      56            26/51      39/69
Montreal     14      70            14/52      52/87


              AVE. MONTHLY
              RAINFALL             NUMBER OF         TOTAL
              JAN.     JULY        RAINY DAYS/YR     ANNUAL 
Lewis        6.61"     2.93"       260               50
Montreal      .61"     4.54"       94                28


              AVE. MONTHLY       TOTAL ANNUAL
              JAN.               SNOWFALL
Lewis         25"                  0"
Montreal      60"                118"

(Figures gathered from Patterson (1883:44,46,47) and Hance (1949:32).)

The Hebridean community begins to take shape.

In 1841 a second group of Lewis Scots immigrated, 27 families in all. These 78 people arrived on the ship "Lady Hood" and 45 on the "Charles" (Little 1992, p. 37). They profited from the experience of the first settlers, but they had to endure basically the same hardships of pioneer life as did the original group.

Despite the many difficulties in Canada, the Scots were happy to be free of the tyrannical landlords of their homeland. The land they lived on and worked was now their own and they were bound and determined to transform it into a community.

By 18xx, there were126 families (552 people) all of which except 19 families were immigrants from the Isle of Lewis. (According to a petition for financial assistance for the inhabitants of the Salmon River region (Little, 1992, p. 38)).

J.I. Little relates that "within the first three years each family had cleared ten to fifteen acres and acquired one to three cows." Their hard work was starting to pay off with successful crops and sale of lumber (Little, 1992, p. 35).

The Hebridean settlement expands to surrounding townships.

Until 1850 most Lewis Scots settled in Lingwick and Bury townships in areas called the Old Settlement, Red Mountain and North Hill (in Lingwick Township), Spring Hill (in Whitton Township, now Nantes), and Ness Hill (near Lake Megantic).

At first there were no roads connecting any of the settlements. In the 1850's the provincial government of Lower Canada started offering 50 acres of land free to anyone who would settle in areas such as Winslow and Whitton, where the land was more suitable for agriculture than in Lingwick and Bury where the Scots had so far been concentrated. To take advantage of the offer some Scots moved into these adjacent townships. In 1855 another group of Lewis Scots arrived and many of them settled in Whitton.

The provincial government hired local men to clear areas for roads. More towns sprang up along these roads such as Gould and Stornoway.

When the the railroad tracks were laid through the region between 1850 and 1880, cities such as Bury, Scotstown, Milan, and Spring Hill sprung up along its path.

At its height in the 1890's, the area settled by the Lewis Scots covered an area of only about 50 square miles between the St. Francis River on the west and Lake Megantic on the east.

By the late 19th century, Hebridean immigrants made up about one third of the population of the entire Eastern Townships. Most of the rest were English, Irish, or French. But because the Hebridean immigrants clustered together, they made up a much larger percent of the population of the few townships in which they chose to live. By 1896 there were around 450 Scottish families living in the relatively small area between the St. Francis River and Lake Megantic.

Hebridean culture in the Eastern Townships

As immigration picked up, the Scots cleared more land of its trees and rocks and built more dwellings. Clusters of farms were given names for that were borrowed from towns back on Lewis like Galson, Tolsta, Gisla, Balallan, and others.

Little money circulated in those days. People lived by bartering services and having "bees" to raise homes and barns, to cut and haul wood, thresh hay, etc. Among the first buildings to go up in a new settlement were a school and a church, which often were shared by several settlements.

The Scots tended to be isolated from the surrounding community at first because most of the Scots spoke only Gaelic and transportation to the next community was limited, but even after roads were in place, the Hebridean Scots did not intermarry with either the English speakers or the French speakers until about the turn of the century.

Along with their Gaelic language, the Lewis Scots brought their religion with them from their homeland. They were staunch Presbyterians. Their Bible were in Gaelic and their music was the Psalms sung in Gaelic. However, no musical instruments or hymnals were ever allowed in the churches. Their loyalty to Presbyterianism contributed to their isolation from both the surrounding Anglican/Episcopal (English) and Catholic (French) communities for many decades after their arrival in Canada.

Most Scots were Presbyterian.

The 1871 census of Canada showed the following distribution of religions in the Province of Quebec:

Presbyterians (& like)      46,165
Roman Catholics          1,019,850
Church of England           62,449
Methodists (& like)          4,100
Baptists                     8,686
Protestants                  4,195
Congregational               5,240
Adventists                   3,150
Universalists                1,937
Swedenbourgians              1,093
Brethren (& like)              672
Jews                           549
Lutherans                      496
Christian Conference           299
Irvingites                     251
Evangelical Assoc.             163
Quakers                        117
No Religion                    376

(Dominion of Canada, 1873, p. 12)

The elders of the Hebridean community were unbending in their insistence on observing the traditions of their culture and religion. Even innovation in the naming of children was discouraged. While non-Gaelic first names were tolerated for girls, it was far more common for them to have one of the names familiar to them back on Lewis such as Catherine, Ann, Mary, Christina (Christy/Kirsty), or Margaret. Boys were almost always named with one of the traditional names like Donald, Angus, Kenneth, Murdo, John, Malcolm, Norman, or Alexander. The range of surnames of the region is equally limited. Most people had one of these surnames: Buchanan, Campbell, McLeod, McDonald, McIver, McKay, McKenzie, Morrison, Murray, or Matheson. On Lewis these "Mc" names were more commonty spelled "Mac" with the patronymic part written in lower case letters as in "Macdonald" (thanks to Angus Macdonald for pointing this out to me).
[Much more on the culture of these Scots can be found in three research articles (see Bennett-Knight (1980), Gmelch (1980), and Prattis (1980)) collected by Doucette (1980) and the book by Bennett (1999).]