Scots in Canada: The Gilchrist-Shearer Letters

The Scottish people have a long history of migration and as a result many Canadians have Scottish roots.

I think there’s a tendency to lump all 18th and 19th century immigrants to Canada and the United States together and think of them as poor, desperate, unskilled workers, in some cases the victims of industrialisation, crop failure, land clearances, etc., and who by leaving for a new country would be abandoning everything and everyone they once knew, never to be heard from again. Some Scottish immigration was absolutely the result of desperation, as exemplified by those who left as indentured servants. There was nutritional and financial devastation at home caused by agricultural disasters, such as the potato blight of the 1840s that struck Scotland as well as Ireland, and the Highland Clearances (the forced eviction of residents of the Highlands and islands from the later 18th century long into the 19th century) overthrew traditional clan society and culture.

That’s a pretty dire picture, but it does not accurately reflect the immigration patterns and experiences of Lowland Scots in the later 19th century.

During this period many Scots from the more urban central belt of the country, with Glasgow at the western end and Edinburgh to the east, moved to Canada and the United States to take up better employment, access thriving markets, and be with their countrymen and women. They joined family and friends who were already established in the new world. They also travelled back and forth across the Atlantic. Canada’s first Prime Minister was from Glasgow. By the end of the 19th century, Scots had played vital roles in the shaping of Canadian culture, religion, education, innovation, and (last but certainly not least) its legal and judicial institutions.

In Autumn 2016 I wrote a series of posts about Loyalists that centred on the Anguishes, one of the German branches of my family who had come to Canada via Pennsylvania as United Empire Loyalists (for example, see A Loyalist’s Request for Assistance or Using The Records Loyalists Left Behind). Today I want to introduce you to some of my Scottish ancestors who arrived in Canada 100 years later: the Davidsons, Gilchrists, and Shearers.

I have eight transcribed letters that my grandmother received from a distant cousin which were written by her Scottish ancestors and their families in the 1860s-1890s. For the purposes of blogging and because I don’t know the accuracy of the transcriptions, I have edited the text with regards to punctuation and spelling (something I wouldn’t normally do). I’m happy to share the original transcription text of any quotations throughout this series – feel free to ask in the comments.

This week’s post is intended to be an introduction to the letters and to demonstrate that familial ties weren’t necessarily broken due to immigration.

My great-great-grandparents, Robert Davidson and Helen (Gilchrist) Davidson (pictured below with two of their children), immigrated to Canada from Scotland around 1870. Their families were originally from Shotts, a small town approximately halfway between Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Robert and Helen Davidson

Helen (Gilchrist) Davidson, Robert Davidson, and two children

Both Robert and Helen already had members of their immediate families living in Canada by the time they arrived. Robert’s parents (my 3x great-grandparents Thomas Davidson and Helen (Shearer) Davidson) and Helen Gilchrist’s sister Janet (Gilchrist) Shearer and her husband were living in Otanabee, Canada West [now Ontario] with their families. These are the origins of the letters.

Helen (Gilchrist) Davidson was from a large family that spanned both sides of the Atlantic. Unlike many of their siblings, her sister Elizabeth remained in Scotland to work and look after their mother. In a letter dated 20 May 1861 that was sent from Springfield, Scotland, to Otanabee, Elizabeth writes,

‘Dear Brothers and sisters, My mother received Janet’s letter about six weeks ago. We were glad to hear that you were all well.’

Elizabeth’s letter therefore tells us that she and Helen have a number of siblings living in Canada who wrote them with news of their location and health.

In the same letter, Elizabeth mentions Robert Davidson who, at the time, was a single man about age 40. She writes,

‘Robert Davidson is living like a bachelor in a house in Muirrelan [sic]. I have not spoken to him for some time but I see him at church. As Brisk as ever.’

This tells us that the Gilchrists, Shearers, and Davidsons knew each other in Scotland, their families attended the same church, and suggests that Janet continued to have connections to the Davidson family now living in Otanabee. Janet could have even passed on this note about Robert to his parents (who, going by her married name, may well have been her in-laws).

It also gives some insight into my 2x great-grandfather’s personality, but more about Robert later. I’m also unclear as to his location — the name of the town must have been mis-transcribed and I have not yet found Robert in the 1861 Scotland Census.

I’m looking forward to writing about some of the themes that emerge from these letters. Let me know in the comments if there are any particular aspects of life in Scotland or North America that you’d like to hear about from the letters!

Suggested Reading:

Peter E. Rider and Heather McNabb, eds., Kingdom of the Mind: How the Scots Helped Make Canada (McGill-Queens University Press, 2014).

Lucille H. Campey, The Scottish Pioneers of Upper Canada, 1784-1855: Glengarry and Beyond (Natural Heritage, 2005).

Marjory Harper, Adventurers and Exiles: The Great Scottish Exodus (Profile Books, 2004).


7 thoughts on “Scots in Canada: The Gilchrist-Shearer Letters

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