Experiences of an SFU Grad Student: Why Study Scottish history?

At press time, Grant Alexander Gillies was an MA student in the Department of History at Simon Fraser University. Grant is the current recipient of the David & Mary Macaree Graduate Fellowship.

When I tell people that I am writing a thesis on the history of “Scotland’s first nuclear station” they often respond with a variation to one simple question: why? Why, in a land of whisky and golf, Jacobite rebels, and Celtic folklore, would you want to study the history of nuclear Scotland? The answer to this question is complex.  Believe it or not, not all graduate students enter their various institutions and programs of study with a clear project or thesis in view. With this post, I hope to not only answer the question, ‘why?’, but speak to some of my own experiences as a graduate student studying Scottish history at Simon Fraser University, which have led to the evolution and development of my project.

While writing a thesis on the history of the Chapelcross nuclear power station was not the prime directive for my undertaking a Master’s degree at SFU, the choice to study Scottish history was.  My original plan was to write a thesis which aimed to explore systems of agricultural production and the cash nexus used under agrarian capitalism in the last quarter of the 18th to the mid- 19th century in Scotland. This very vague thread led me to a moment in Scottish history known as the Highland Clearances, a phase of intense land restructuring that occurred from ca. 1770-1850s, in which a significant number of tenants in the Highlands and Islands were evicted from their homes to make way for increased livestock rearing.  With a time, place, event, and a general theme narrowed down, I felt optimistic about a tenable project to complete for my MA.

ewart library

The Ewart Public Library, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland. Photo Credit: Grant Gillies

However, as many Scottish history buffs already know, the clearances are a well studied period in Scottish history. Admittedly, my encounter with the secondary literature on the topic squashed my initial ambition to undertake it as a topic for my own MA thesis. Instead, I conferred with my supervisors over the decision to take on a project that would be more investigative, thereby reigniting that flame of passion, or at least that sense of discovery I wanted from an MA thesis.

Chapel cross Station

The Decommissioned Chapelcross Works nuclear power station, Annan, Scotland. Photo Credit: Grant Gillies.

The decision to change my research to the history of Scotland’s first nuclear power station was ultimately inspired by one book: Kate Brown’s, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, And the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters, an investigative, transnational, historical study which examined workers’ experiences and managing practices in the Handford plutonium plant near Richland, Washington, and the Maiak plant next to Ozersk in the USSR.   Brown argues that in order to entice workers and their families to agree to the risks and sacrifices involved in plutonium production, American and Soviet nuclear leaders created something new: ‘plutopia’, or amply subsidized communities with visions of middle class prosperity.[1]

I wanted to know more about how these American inspired nuclear villages, that as Brown explains, were strictly monitored and segregated into nuclear and non-nuclear zones in which plant managers were free to run up budgets, embezzle, conceal accidents, and pollute. Taking Brown’s work as a model for my own work, I set out to investigate the history of a Scottish nuclear town.


“The Opening of Scotland’s First Nuclear Station,” The Annandale Observer, May 2, 1959. Ewart Public Library, Dumfries and Galloway.

With some quick research, I learned that in the late 20th Century there were 15 nuclear stations in operation in the United Kingdom, 4 of which were located in Scotland. The first in Scotland was the Chapelcross Works nuclear power station, which opened in 1959.  Located 3km north-east of Annan in the Dumfries and Galloway region of Scotland, Chapelcross’ primary purpose was to produce weapons grade plutonium for the UK nuclear programme, but it also generated electricity for the national grid.  Despite my minor set-back early in the program, this early discovery sparked an entirely new thesis project.

One of the most important parts of the research was to spend as much time in the street talking with people in the town about the station as I did in the judicial and national archives. Before I left for Scotland, I posted an advertisement in The Annandale Observer asking if people were willing to answer a few questions about their memories or experiences with Chapelcross.  Unfortunately, the response was not as I hoped, and I began my research primarily in the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh and the Ewart Public Library in Dumfries and Galloway.


The National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2016. Photo Credit: Grant Gillies

However, my time spent in the archives proved imperative as I dug through over a thousand recently declassified government files pertaining to policies over the authorizations for the disposal of radioactive waste, and letters, correspondence, and meeting minutes between local liaison committees, the Scottish Office, and managers for the station.  Moreover, as locals seemed to be more interested in discussing local landmarks and Robbie Burns, who, as anyone whose visited Dumfries knows, spent his last years of his life writing in a house near the River Nith, I spent many days sifting through old newspapers on a micro-fiche reader that was less than forgiving to use.  It was an experience I think all historians in training can relate with in some way. What might seem as banal or boring work in the archives turned out to be one of the more exhilarating parts of the entire trip.

Devil's porrige

Playing around in the Devils Porridge Museum, Eastriggs, Scotland. Photo Credit: Grant Gillies.

This is not to say that my time in the archives outweighed my persistence to get out into the street and speak to members of the community.  I spent many days biking to the station and snapping photos, siting in cafes and pubs asking people what, if anything, they remembered about the station, and visiting the local war museums such as The Devil’s Porridge Museum in Eastriggs. It was there that I met Edwin Rutherford, a PhD candidate at the University of Liverpool who also works for the museum, who is starting an oral history project for the Chapelcross station.  Unfortunately, his luck was as good as mine at the time, and I was forced to be more creative with strategies for finding sources.

Eventually my patience payed off as mid-way into my research trip I received word that the Dumfries and Galloway Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (D&G CND) were holding a demonstration in the Dumfries town centre.  Due to this wonderful stroke of luck, I was able to set up an interview with a man and his brother-in law, both of whose fathers worked at the station. While a few interviews with long time members of the D&G CND fell through, I was lucky to have the time I had to learn a bit more about people’s reactions to the station.


Photo of the Dumfries and Galloway Campaign for Nuclear Armament Demonstration, Dumfries, Scotland. Photo Credit; Grant Gillies.

Of course, all this would not have been possible without the gracious support from the History Department at SFU, and the Centre for Scottish Studies at SFU and its various supporters.  Currently, I am drafting my thesis which I plan to defend by the end of the summer. What I’ve discovered is that there is not a single history to this station. The Scottish people that worked and lived alongside the station were not only pioneers of a new technology, developing safety standards and protocols for the industry, but also grassroots activists, raising awareness to some of the risks and moral dilemmas which came with the use of nuclear technology for military and commercial purposes.  While there is no single reason as to why I chose this topic, it is clear to me now that the story of the Chapelcross Works nuclear power station deserves its place within the annals of Scottish history, and I was more than happy to be a part of this process.

© Grant Gillies


[1] Kate Brown, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters, (Oxford University Press: 2013) pp. 3.

The Lady Aberdeen Scottish Country Dance Club: Dancing and Philanthropy

This week’s blog comes to us from local historian of Scottish Country Dancing in Vancouver, Rosemary Coupe. Rosemary is an active Scottish country dancer and the author of Scottish Country Dancing in Vancouver: A History (Printed by Minuteman Press, Burnaby 2016).

Another blog featuring Lady Aberdeen appeared last October by Professor Marjory Harper of the University of Aberdeen: ‘Pleasure and Pain in the Okanagan Valley: The Adventures of Lord and Lady Aberdeen.’

In both Scotland and Vancouver, energetic women led the early twentieth-century revival of Scottish country dancing [SCD]. Ysobel Stewart and Jean Milligan founded the Scottish Country Dance Society [SCDS] in 1923. Only seven years later, in 1930, Ella Bingham (a recent immigrant from Glasgow) brought this traditional form of social dance to Vancouver, and in fact to Canada. Ella organized public performances and started dance groups throughout the city, traveling throughout the city by electric streetcar to teach them. The first books published by Miss Milligan and Mrs. Stewart drew on the repertoire of nineteenth-century dancing masters in Scotland, and Mrs. Bingham introduced the dances systematically through demonstrations which she insisted should be “perfect.”


Ella Bingham (Photo courtesy of Vancouver City Archives)

One of these Vancouver groups eventually became the longest-running SCD group in Canada. It stemmed from another of Mrs. Bingham’s passions: the Vancouver Council of Women, a confederation of women’s groups which discussed social and political issues. Mrs. Bingham served as president of the council in 1938-39, years during which the council, among other things, passed resolutions urging the establishment of vocational training schools, a cancer clinic, and a degree-granting school of home economics at UBC. Early in 1938, possibly at Mrs. Bingham’s instigation, the Recreation Committee of the Council of Women started its own SCD class. In May 1938, when the Vancouver Council organized the National Council of Women convention at the Hotel Vancouver, Mrs. Bingham seized the opportunity for publicity, arranging a dance demonstration at the reception. Attendees also listened to a broadcast message from Lady Aberdeen, who, as wife of the Governor-General, had founded the National Council of Women.


Lady Aberdeen at Rideau Hall with members of the National Council of Women, 1890s

By 1939 the dance group had become so well established that it became independent of the council. It held its first Tea Dance at the Hotel Georgia on 22 April 1939. A few days later, the death of Lady Aberdeen was announced from Scotland, and so the newly-fledged dance group was named as a tribute from one energetic and practical social activist to another.


Lady Aberdeen group with Mrs. Bingham (centre, dark skirt), and former Presidents Nellie [Forbes] McKenzie (to L of Mrs. Bingham) and Anne Brakenridge (extreme R)

The Lady Aberdeen Scottish Country Dance Club held classes continuously from 1938 to 2010. The group was at first intentionally all-female, and this may have helped SCD in Vancouver survive the dearth of men during World War II. Through the 1950s, the club held Tuesday classes at the Moose Hall on Howe Street. It also sponsored two annual events: a Christmas dance and an Armistice Day Tea Dance, an event which still continues every November 11.

1942 Tea Dance.jpg True to their name, group members followed a tradition of philanthropy. Following World War II, they supported veterans: the proceeds of their open party in 1956, for example, enabled them to donate a ninth wheel chair to Shaughnessy Hospital, and in 1957 their Tea Dance proceeds brought four table radios for the Hospital. Later, however, they supported a broader range of social causes, including “the Poppy Fund, the Salvation Army, rape relief and women’s shelters, cystic fibrosis, leukemia research, the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation” (Pete McMartin, Vancouver Sun 10 November 2010). Such causes reflected the mission of the Council of Women and the humanitarian concern of Lady Aberdeen herself.

By 1960, the club had 36 members. Mrs. Bingham was succeeded as president by Mrs. Anne Brakenridge, then in 1963 Mrs. Nellie Forbes (later McKenzie) followed. Nellie Forbes was a woman of great vivacity who continued to dance into her 90s; she also taught the Lady Aberdeen class and chaired the Provincial Executive Committee of the SCDS from 1957 to 1961. Her daughter Pat was also a dancer. In 1984, the club had 43 active members taught by Eileen Bennett, who was succeeded by her husband Ken.


Lady Aberdeen Tea Dance, 11 November 2015 (Photo by Kerry McDevitt)


Men’s Reel of the 51st Division, Lady Aberdeen Tea Dance, 11 November 1997

While the Lady Aberdeen Club ceased its classes in 2010, the annual Armistice Day Tea Dance tradition continues, with proceeds continuing to be donated to charity and sponsorship rotating among different Vancouver dance groups. The stress is on continuity: favourite dances reappear on programs from year to year. One frequent dance is Nellie McKenzie’s Jig, devised by Ken Bennett. The high point of every program is The Reel of the 51st Division with its formations bravely representing the Saltire. To commemorate its devising by Scottish prisoners of war in occupied France, it is danced by men only before the assembled crowd joins in.

The dancing starts at 1 pm every November 11 at the Scottish Cultural Centre, 8886 Hudson Street. All are welcome. Tickets are $10.

 © Rosemary Coupe


Mellish, Doris. Vancouver’s Women 1894 to 1986: Based on a Brief History of the Vancouver Council of Women. Vancouver: Council of Women, 1986.

Provincial Executive Committee, Scottish Country Dance Society of BC. Minutes, 1954–64.

Vancouver Branch of the Scottish Country Dance Society of BC. Minutes, 1930–41.

Vancouver Council of Women Fonds. UBC Rare Books and Special Collections.

Vancouver Branch RSCDS. Archival scrapbooks.

Vancouver Branch RSCDS. Newsletter, 1965 to present (became The White Cockade in 1996).

Henry Ogle Bell-Irving: ‘Dean of the West Coast Salmon Fishing Industry’, 1856-1931

This week’s blog comes to us from Ray Eagle, FSA. Scot. Ray was the author of many articles on the topic of the Highlands and the military. He was also the author of  In the Service of the Crown – the Story of Budge and Nancy Bell-Irving (Golden Dog Press, 1998). This blog is in honour of the Seaforth Highlanders Highland Homecoming, a celebration of the regiment’s return to the Seaforth Armory on September 24, 2016. Ray Eagle sadly passed away in August, 2017.

Henry Ogle Bell-Irving (1856-1931) and his siblings came from a wealthy, but later impoverished, family whose estate, Milkbank, was near Lockerbie in the Scottish Borders. A financial catastrophe bankrupted their father when a fire destroyed the warehouse on his West Indian plantation and with it his fortune.  In spite of his father’s financial catastrophe putting his family at risk, H.O. (as he became known) was able to establish himself in one of British Columbia’s early major industries, leading to him earning the title ‘Dean of the West Coast Salmon Industry.’

Soon after the fire, H.O’s father died and his young widow Williamina, mother of seven children, faced reduced finances. She took the family to Germany where the cost of living was cheaper, and H.O. eventually enrolled at Karlsruhe University where he received a degree in civil engineering.


H.O. Bell Irving (courtesy the author)

H.O. arrived in Canada in 1882. Like many young men, in order to make his fortune he joined the Canadian Pacific Railway as a surveyor, progressing westward as it was built.  He was an accomplished water-colour artist and his paintings of the Canadian wilderness are housed in the British Columbia Provincial Archives in Victoria. They were painted under the most primitive conditions, but have survived well.

H.O. left the railway and reached Vancouver in October 1885 where, with his drive and energy, he saw enormous possibilities; at first working as an architect ,and later as a land developer in the growing province. In 1886 H.O. returned to Britain to marry Marie Isabel del Carmen Beattie (Bella), daughter of a wealthy Torquay, Devonshire family. She was not at first taken with a city she considered to be primitive, and it is to her credit that she stayed and became a tower of strength to her husband, despite increasing ill-health. H.O. began looking for more business opportunities and the following year he chartered the 879 ton sailing ship Titania to bring a mixed cargo from London to Vancouver.


Courtesy BC Archives

In these years, the principal industries in British Columbia were fishing and forestry. Salmon runs were on every river from Oregon to Alaska and H.O. organized a return shipment of sockeye to Britain. He was certain that he could excite business people there to B.C.’s investment opportunities. On April 14, 1891 he issued a prospectus and by the end of the year he had raised £200,000 capital and formed the Anglo-British Columbia Packing Company (A.B.C.), acquiring options on nine canneries; seven on the Fraser River, and two on the Skeena River. Ever the astute businessman, H.O. established the head office of the A.B.C. in London while he formed H. Bell-Irving and Co. Ltd. to become the selling agent on the west coast. Instead of taking a salary from the A.B.C., H.O. drew large commissions from international fish sales. The A.B.C., eventually became one of the largest salmon packing enterprises on the west coast, shipping salmon to Britain, France, China, India, Australia, and New Zealand.


H.O. and Bella Bell-Irving about the time of their marriage (courtesy of the author)

In 1887 H.O. and Bella began to raise a family. In spite of a list of ailments, which included arthritis, Parkinson’s Disease, and neuritis, she gave birth to ten children, four girls, and six boys. The first born boy was christened Henry, the third in as many generations and a family tradition for the first-born boy.

H.O. took a great interest in community affairs in the rapidly growing city of Vancouver. He became an Alderman, chairing the Board of Works, and was also President of the Vancouver Board of Trade. In November 1910, together with other expatriate Scots, H.O. helped to found the 72nd Seaforth Highlanders of Canada.

It was inevitable that a man with such energy would upset a few of his fellow citizens and this occurred with the Seaforth’s foundation. One of the founders, Pipe-Major Hector MacKenzie, was interviewed by Major J. Matthews, Vancouver’s first city archivist. Mackenzie told him: “At a meeting to discuss outfitting the regiment, Henry Bell-Irving – you know how important he thought himself – took it upon himself, much to the disgust of many, to steal the whole show and just rode right over  everybody. He was very domineering!”

Since then, the Bell-Irvings have played a vital role in the regiment. When WWI began in 1914 all six boys joined the armed forces. Henry, the eldest into the navy; Richard, Malcolm and Duncan earned their wings in the fledgling Royal Flying Corps, while Roderick and Aeneas went into the army. Roderick, the only one who remained in a Highland regiment throughout the war, was killed in action in the last few weeks of hostilities. Malcolm and Duncan were both wounded in flying combat and later in flying accidents. Between them, Henry, Roderick, Malcolm, and Duncan won nine bravery decorations.


H.O with his sons in WWI. L-R at the back: Malcolm, Aeneas, Roderick, Duncan. L-R at the front: Dick, H.O., Henry (courtesy of the author)

H.O. continued to mastermind his fishing company and it weathered many critical times, but it paid handsome dividends during most years. Despite increasing age H.O. was reluctant to give up the reins to his sons, preferring to make all decisions himself, which did not sit well with the more ambitious ones. It was a shock to many  when, at age 75, H.O. became ill with cancer and died in February 1931. He remained active
almost to the end and was skating in Switzerland just weeks before he died.


H.O.’s grandson Brigadier the Hon. H.P. (Budge) Bell-Irving and his father Henry outside Buckingham Palace in WWII when Budge received a bar to his Distinguished Service Order (courtesy the author)

In WWII three of H.O.’s sons, Henry, Duncan, and Aeneas rejoined the armed forces, one in each of the three services. The most celebrated of the next generation was Brigadier the Hon. Henry Pybus (Budge) Bell-Irving. Budge commanded the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada in Italy and Northern Europe, winning a D.S.O. (Distinguished Service Order) and bar before taking over a Brigade in the final months of the European Campaign. After the war, Budge established a real-estate company, followed in his grandfather’s footsteps as President of the Vancouver Board of Trade, and, from 1978 to 1983, served as B.C.’s 23rd Lieutenant-Governor. Budge’s son, Roderick, also commanded the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, the third Bell-Irving to command the regiment.

© Ray Eagle


The Vancouver City Archives

The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada Museum and Archives

The author would also like to thank the Bell-Irving family for providing access to all relevant papers and images.

Lowland Tycoon: Hugh Galbraith’s Story of Success in the West

This week’s post comes from Alex Anderson. Alex is a second generation Scottish-Canadian who at press time was pursuing a Bachelor of Arts with a major in History at Simon Fraser University. Growing up with a Scottish father and grandparents, he has always been interested in Scottish culture from a young age. Alex is deeply interested in how Scottish culture has impacted the development of British Columbia, and is looking forward to exploring their rich history in his remaining years at Simon Fraser University.

The rain soaked forests and valleys of British Columbia have been a popular destination for settlers since the demand for valuable furs drove traders west in significant numbers to the Pacific Ocean in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1857 the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush ushered in thousands of Americans hoping to make their fortunes, and the need to control the masses of foreign prospectors urged the creation of the colony of British Columbia in 1858 (the colony of Vancouver Island was created in 1849). The Scottish, a statistical minority in both Great Britain and Canada, dominated the economy and political scene in British Columbia to an unprecedented degree. Thousands settled across British Columbia following the Province’s creation, and the city of New Westminster, stands as a testament to the many thousands who made the journey west both across Canada and by ship. Founded with the purpose of creating a new capital for British Columbia, New Westminster was home to a large contingent of Scottish settlers and was only surpassed by Vancouver in population in the beginning of the twentieth century.


Early view of New Westminster, 1862-1866, Item IHP0618, New Westminster Museum & Archives.

One Scottish family in particular has cast a long shadow over New Westminster since the 1890s. Born in West Kilbride, Ayrshire in 1832, Hugh Galbraith moved with his parents to New Brunswick during his early childhood.[1] Canada was a popular destination for Scots in this period. Its inexpensive land, growing industry, and the chance for a new start were too good to pass up for many back in Scotland. It is unknown at exactly what age his parents made the trip across the Atlantic, however it’s clear that he spent his formative years in New Brunswick learning to become a carpenter. He married Jane Lindsay in Beldune who gave birth to Margaret, James Lindsay, John Holmes, David Stuart, William Sutherland, Robert Chalmers, Charles, and Hubert over a 19 year period.[2] Aged 42, in 1884 Hugh took his wife and 8 children across the Northern Pacific Railroad to Portland, Oregon. This route would have been typical for the time, as the Canadian Pacific Railroad had yet to be completed. He then sailed to New Westminster and moved in to their new home, a small house on what is now called Eighth street.


Galbraith Files, People Files, New Westminster Museum & Archives.

Galbraith began his career in New Westminster working as a factory hand with three of his sons at the Royal City Planing Mills. Skilled and ambitious, and after a period of 7 years Galbraith could afford to open his own carpentry business in 1891 which he named Galbraith and Sons. His company produced a variety of finished woods including cedar, spruce, and hemlock, as well as being suppliers of sash and door material.[1] Galbraith and Sons met with glowing reviews from clients, and his work was considered to be very high quality. Galbraith profited hugely and managed to open his own mill along with a factory on 10th street, firmly making himself the latest in a long line of successful Scottish industrialists.[2]


Galbraith Files, People Files, New Westminster Museum & Archives.

Despite his modest working class background, Hugh Galbraith was able to become a preeminent force in the economy of New Westminster at the time, a tale of success which mirrors many other notable Scots in British Columbia, such as Governor James Douglas. Galbraith and Sons was by no means running on Hugh’s efforts alone, however. According to a news report, a directory listing from 1909 shows that Hugh, John, William, Charles, and James were all involved in the running of the business, with different family members active across the various sites which they collectively owned. [3] Close family ties proved to be an invaluable tool for the Galbraith family, a common occurrence among Scottish families involved in business. Members of the family were also active in the local lacrosse community.[4]

A fire would be the end of Galbraith and Sons, burning down their factory in 1932.[1] This was followed by a loss of another one of their factories in Queensborough, effectively ending the company.[2] Though the company has long since been defunct, an enduring testament to the Galbraith family’s legacy is found in the famous Galbraith Manor, situated at 131 Eighth Street in New Westminster. Galbraith Manor was built in 1892 shortly after the opening of the family business.[3] It was intended as a showpiece house that would display their company’s quality design techniques and wood finishing. It has been renovated since this time; however, the original furnishing and style is maintained by the city of New Westminster. Its impressive architecture is unique to its time, and it currently stands as a notable example of New Westminster’s many beautiful old homes.


131 8th Street File, Building Files, New Westminster Museum & Archives.

The legacy left by pioneering early Scottish immigrants such as Hugh Galbraith can still be felt alive and well across British Columbia. Many Scottish social and cultural groups are still active, and Scots and their descendants continue to play a large role in politics. One thing is for certain, that the Scottish story in British Columbia has only just begun.

© Alex Anderson


[1] Document, Galbraith File, People Files, New Westminster Museum & Archives

[2] Ibid

[3] Article, Galbraith File, People Files, New Westminster Museum & Archives

[1] Archie Miller, “Our Forgotten Past.” Royal City Record, April 5, 1986

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Newspaper Clipping, September 21st 1949, Galbraith File, People Files, New Westminster Museum & Archives

[1] Article, Galbraith File, People Files, New Westminster Museum & Archives

[2] Ibid

John Thomas Scott: Adventurer, War Hero, and Public Figure

This week’s blog comes from Jazmin Hundal. At press time, Jazmin was a history major and an International Studies minor at SFU. She has always had a passion for history and travel, often finding that she can travel the world through the lives of those who have made history. Jazmin has some family in Northern Ireland, and on her last visit there, became curious about nearby Scotland. She is immensely excited to have had the opportunity to learn a little about its people through her own research for Scottish history courses at SFU.

John Thomas Scott, a Scottish man born in Dunoon, led a life full of interest. While some of the facts surrounding his life may be questionable, as they come from small-scale newspapers that tended to report local lore as fact, the story that results is that of a real person. While elements may come across as fantastical, most of the events in his story were likely to have happened, and so are worth exploring here in this post.


Scott [n.d.] : New Westminster Archive Subject Files: Scott, File A.

 Born on October 13th, 1821, Scott lost his father at the age of twelve, prompting his mother to leave him under the care of his uncle. With this uncle, he traveled to the West Indies in 1832, returning to Britain two years later. Although there are no available accounts of what Scott did during those years in the West Indies, it is possible that he and his uncle were in some way involved in the sugar or cotton plantation economies that thrived in that area during that time.

Upon his return in 1834, Scott enlisted as a musician in the Thirteenth Argyleshire Rifles, with whom he traveled to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Twelve years later in 1846, Scott moved to Pennsylvania, and enlisted on the American side of the Mexican-American War (a conflict that ran from 1846-1848). Like some of his fellow Scottish volunteers, Scott registered himself beforehand under a different name, as John Thomas Dunoon. This shrewd move allowed him to continue to collect a pension from the American army for the rest of his life, even when he later moved to British Columbia.


Scott in military uniform. New Westminster Archive Subject Files: Scott, File A.

However, in terms of his military career in the American army, Scott was better known for his time spent as a Mexican prisoner of war. Injured at the Siege of Acapulco, he was taken prisoner by the Mexicans. It is not clear how long he was a prisoner of theirs, but it is clear what he claimed to have happened during that time. According to the reports of the newspapers, Scott learned the “Mexican language” (otherwise known as Spanish) from his captors, and quickly gained their trust. After having gained this trust, he led them into an ambush by the American army, through which he was freed and subsequently promoted to the title of sergeant.

While this last part of his story should be taken with a grain of salt, the next few decades of his life were likely to have happened. Scott is reported to have traveled to California to take part in the gold rush there in 1848 (after the Mexican-American War had ended). He didn’t find any gold; however, he did find a wife, a local woman named Elizabeth Ann Williams. Scott would have been thirty-six years old at the time, and his wife nineteen.

In 1858, after having their first child together, Scott and his wife traveled north to pursue the Cariboo Gold Rush along the Fraser River. After arriving in Victoria en route to the gold fields, Scott found employment at the Victoria Hotel before sending for his family to join him (today currently on the corner of Government and Courtney streets).


Col. J.T. Scott’s “Caledonia” Hotel in Port Moody [1886]. Courtesy City of Vancouver Archives AM54-S4-: Hot P19

After having their second child in Victoria in 1859, Scott chose to move his family once again, this time to New Westminster. He set up the Pioneer Saloon there, which was rumoured to have begun as just a tent over a stump. Whether or not this was true has yet to be proven, however, it seems that Scott found success in the saloon business, as he set up another one in Barkerville three years later, named the Scott Saloon. He had moved there to follow the Cariboo gold rush, where he acquired forty thousand dollars.

After making this significant profit, the avid entrepreneur returned to New Westminster and invested a portion of this money into steam boating on the Fraser River. In 1863, he also found a calling in public office, as he was elected the to first New Westminster Health Board.

In 1865, tragedy struck the Scott family, as they lost three of their young children to premature deaths. Their seventeen month old, five year old, and six year old died of spasmodic croup, and were buried in the Douglas Road Cemetery. The drainage was apparently so poor in this area that the coffins had to be stood upon to keep them down while the soil was being shoveled onto them.

Five years later, in 1870, Scott was back in the public eye when he founded the May Day Celebrations in New Westminster. He was a key part in these celebrations, and was until he died.

May Day

Scott presiding over the May Day celebrations [n.d.]. New Westminster Archive Subject Files: Scott, File A.

 In 1884, John moved his family again, this time to Port Moody. In partnership with his son-in-law, Robert Brenton Kelly, he set up the Caledonia Hotel. This was his last business venture, as he died in 1908. His wife, Elizabeth, survived him by three years, passing on in 1911. John and Elizabeth left forty-eight living direct descendants, seven of those being their children, and thirty-six being their grandchildren.


Funeral procession in New Westminster, down Columbia Street, on February 16th, 1908. New Westminster Archive Subject Files: Scott, File A.


Gravestone. New Westminster Archive Subject Files: Scott, File A.

By the time of Scott’s death, he was a well-known public figure in New Westminster. Shown here are images of an invitation to his funeral procession, and of the lengthy procession itself, which went down Columbia Street on February 16th, 1908. His story was well known by the locals there, and he was regarded as an individual who had traveled the world and contributed greatly to the establishment of New Westminster. While it is likely that some elements of his story had been fictionalized (such as the tale of him gaining the trust of his Mexican captors and using it against them), his life tells us how ordinary men became local heroes in the mid to late nineteenth century. In the larger context of Scottish migration to B.C., he represented the adaptability and work ethic of Scottish emigrants to other settlers in the area. In addition, these newly formed communities clearly loved a good story, and were eager to accept one when it came their way. John Thomas Scott is proof of that, and was celebrated for the things he had done and may have done during his North American travels.

© Jazmin Hundal


New Westminster Archive Subject Files: Scott, File A.

“Col. Scott Passed Away Yesterday: Pioneer Resident of Lower Valley Died After Month’s Illness- Funeral Will Take Place Tomorrow.” Vancouver Daily Province, February 17th, 1908.

Green, George. “Early History of Burnaby and Vicinity.” The Advertiser, August 4th, 1939.

McCaig, Mark. “J.T. Scott and the Pioneer Saloon.”

Story, Wanda. “John Thomas Scott: 1821-1908.” December, 1992.



Murdo MacIver

This week’s blog comes with sad news: the recent passing of Murdo MacIver, a pillar of Vancouver’s Scottish community. Through her research and numerous visits to Vancouver, Marjory Harper of the University of Aberdeen came to know Murdo very well and so she offered to write an obituary to celebrate his life. Murdo will be sadly missed by all of us but I hope we can all remember his spirit and laughter in our hearts, always.


Murdo MacIver

The passing of Murdo MacIver on April 27 leaves an enormous hole in Vancouver’s Scottish community. Murdo was a mainstay of the Gaelic Society of Vancouver and an enthusiastic supporter of Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Scottish Studies. His oratorical skills, and the fascinating story of h012 MacIVER Murdo 2is life, made him a star contributor to the Centre’s Oral history project, “Scottish Voices from the West: The Story of the Scots in Modern British Columbia”, for which he was one of the earliest interviewees.

Murdo was born in 1932 in Arnol, a crofting township on the west side of Lewis. Like many islanders, he joined the Merchant Navy, and spent four years sailing the seven seas. In 1953, he found himself in Vancouver literally by accident, when an old back injury flared up and he was hospitalised for surgery. By the time he recovered his ship was long gone, but he had fallen in love with Vancouver and took steps to settle there. He was able to find work with the help of a Highland network which included an Inverness-born emigration officer and the Oban-born personnel manager of a local shipping company. Murdo worked with Straits Towing for two years hauling barges etc. on the British Columbia coast as far north as Alaska. He then embarked on a thirty-seven year career with the Vancouver Fire Department, that saw him rise through the ranks to the post of Battalion Chief. Twenty-seven of those years were spent working as Pilot on Vancouver’s two fireboats.

His social life, meanwhile, revolved around the Gaelic Society of Vancouver, where he met his wife Mary, an emigrant from Acharacle, a village in the Lochaber district of the Highlands. While they were both proud of their adopted land, Murdo and Mary – both native Gaelic speakers – were equally committed to maintaining their Highland culture and heritage. Over the years they made several visits back to Scotland, and Murdo, who was widowed in 1994, continued to return to Scotland to visit many relatives and friends and always to Arnol to visit his sister until her passing in 2011.

It was in order to explore his life history further that I was first put in touch with Murdo, with the help of Ray Eagle, another stalwart of the SFU Centre. In December 2007 we spoke at length on the telephone, a fascinating conversation in which Murdo captivated me with his vivid recollections of growing up on the isle of Lewis, his early career in the Merchant Navy, his emigration to Vancouver, and his involvement with the city’s Gaelic Society, including three stints as Chief.

The greatest pleasure of engaging in oral history is the opportunity it affords to meet individuals with enthralling stories and engaging personalities. Murdo was a wonderful example of both those attributes. On two occasions, in 2012 and 2013, I was privileged to spend time in his company, when he welcomed me warmly to his home, and – in a Hebridean accent that had not been eclipsed by more than half a century in British Columbia – delighted me with more stories from his encyclopaedic memory. We have also enjoyed a number of long-distance phone conversations, and I was looking forward to seeing him on my next visit to Vancouver.

A natural seanchaidh (story-teller), as well as a bard and precentor, Murdo had the ability to draw his audience into the experience he was describing. That might be the Arnol ceilidh-house of his childhood, or his first trip to the interior in 1954, when he encountered fourteen fellow emigrants from his home village living between Procter and Trail. His knowledge of genealogy was phenomenal, and he was equally at home recounting vicarious emigration narratives, not least the story of his father’s cousins, who bought a hotel in Nelson around 1900, and his uncle Donald, who, after joining them in 1909, left BC for the USA three years later, worked in Idaho, Montana and the Nevada silver mines, and then became “one of the first people that drilled for oil in Amarillo, Texas, in 1917.”

Murdo told me how, as a young child, he had acquired a global geographical knowledge by listening to homecoming emigrants who visited his parents’ home in Arnol. “It was a great place to grow up”, he recalled. “Everybody knew one another and our house was the centre of the village and there were ceilidhs there every night from Monday to Saturday. And I heard all the stories from Canada, Australia, South America, The Falklands, South Africa.… And I heard about the Kootenay Lakes and the coast of British Columbia when I was five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten years old so I felt quite at home here from the first day I landed here, and I have not regretted even for two minutes that I came here.”

Murdo was a “people person” who enjoyed life and appreciated its blessings. His recollections have provided me with rich seams of fascinating personal testimony which I have used in several publications and presentations. But I am grateful to him not only for the interviews that he so kindly granted me. I was privileged to enjoy the hospitality of a true gentleman, and my recent visits to Vancouver were greatly enriched by my visits to Murdo’s home. His legacy goes far beyond an archive of superb oral testimony. More importantly, he exuded kindness, generosity and an unfeigned interest in others that will leave a lasting impact on those with whom he came into contact.

© Marjory Harper

Professor of History, University of Aberdeen, and Honorary Professor, University of the Highlands and Islands


What’s in a Name? The Evolution of Joan Peebles

This week’s blog comes to us from Kendra Lennie. Kendra is a Vancouverite and cannot remember a time when she was not fascinated with the past, from obsessing about medieval Britain to prehistoric fossils and dinosaurs. Kendra was exposed to Scottish culture at a young age through her grandparents who emigrated from Scotland to Vancouver in the 50s. At press time, Kendra was finishing a bachelors of science (in evolutionary biology and ecology) with a minor in history at Simon Fraser University.
This blog was the result of research undertaken for Dr. McCullough’s History 448 ‘Scots in North America’ course.

Angusta Peebles Jr. was a woman of many names. Born to Scottish immigrants, Angusta and Peter Peebles on January 8, 1899 in New Westminster, she was known to her close friends as ‘Brownie’. She graduated from the provincial normal school in Vancouver BC, and at the age of 15 was offered her first scholarship when her vocal ability was recognized at a church carol service. Recognition of her talent did not end there. In 1923 she won the Hudson’s Bay Company’s gold medal at the first British Columbia Music Festival, and from there her career took off.  Throughout her life Brownie made many decisions that not only appeared for the benefit of her career but also expose her as a modern woman. She never appeared to let fame go to her head, and always maintained a connection with her local community and Scottish heritage.


“Brownie Peebles as a young woman,” item IHP14335-013.

Once it became apparent that Brownie was destined for success she decided to take a stage name. The story goes that her stage name Joan was inspired by the medieval heroine Joan of Arc, a highly intelligent and independent woman. Brownie spent time studying in Chicago as recipient of the Florence Hinkle Voice Scholarship. During her schooling in Chicago she maintained a constant correspondence with her father, receiving letters from him almost daily throughout the summer of 1923.  After Chicago she was awarded another Scholarship, this time from the Eastman school of Music in New York.  While at Eastman she met a young vocalist from Pennsylvania named Norman Oberg. The two married, but this in no way impeded Brownie’s career. She graduated from the Eastman School of music in 1927, a mezzo-contralto capable of operatic performances as well as singing independently in concert.



Carmen costume with New York Metropolitan Opera “Double Portrait of Brownie Peebles,” item IHP14335-022.

Between 1927 and 1929 Brownie performed throughout Canada and the United States, both operatically and in smaller concerts. On July 16, 1929 the first concert was held in Norton Hall in Chautauqua, New York, and Brownie was there. She continued to sing at Norton Hall for 15 seasons. Throughout her career she worked with symphony orchestras and opera companies in New Westminster, Boston, New York, Toronto, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Detroit. Brownie maintained the connection to her Scottish heritage in her song choices for her independent concerts, many of which included Scottish and Hebridean folk music. She also participated for three seasons in the Banff and Lake Louise Scottish Music festivals. She was renowned for her portrayal of the lead role in Carmen, and Brownie was reputedly the first woman to play her as a clever intellectual woman rather than a feeble-minded gypsy girl. Before retiring Brownie made recordings for the Radio Corporation of America of the music in Carmen, but in no way did this signify the end of her involvement in the musical community.


“Brownie Peebles carrying a basket,” item IHP14335-009

At the outbreak of the second world war Norman Oberg was called back to work in a factory in Pennsylvania, and in 1942 Brownie retired from opera and joined him. Norman rose to be a manager for the steel corporation he worked for, and he and Brownie remained in Pennsylvania until his death. Not content to be idle in her retirement, Brownie taught piano and vocal lessons in Pennsylvania for over 30 years. As well as teaching young people with talent, Brownie recognized the benefits of speech therapy and helped children and youth with speech impediments such as muscular dystrophy. While in Pennsylvania she maintained correspondence with her sister Jane Murie, who, upon her death, left the vast majority of her wealth and estate to Brownie. Many of the letters mention how dear a sister Brownie was and how entertaining Jane Murie found her letters. Brownie appeared to be a kind and witty individual who helped people find their voices both figuratively and literally.


“Brownie Peebles dressed as a fairy,” item IHP14335-036.

During her life Brownie came into contact with some of the most distinguished individuals of the time both in music and in general. One newspaper article recounts a story of Miss Peebles singing for her friend Mrs Thomas Edison at her bird, tree, and garden club. Brownie’s humor comes through as she adds details about another visit to the Edison household involving her sitting on the arm of the chair while singing directly into the ears of “the great Edison” himself due to his deafness.

Not only was Brownie a local opera star, she gained fame and reputation throughout Canada and the United States for her singing and acting abilities. She was a woman who knew that women as a group were not feeble, and many who were viewed as feeble simply needed to learn to use their voice. In 1974 Joan (Angusta) “Brownie” Peebles moved back to her hometown of New Westminster. She Died at Royal Columbian Hospital in 1991 at the age of 92.

© Kendra Lennie


New Westminster Archives, Peebles family Fonds, IH 2007.151 C.2, “personal papers.”

All images New Westminster Archives, Peebles Family Fonds.


Developing a City: Scots Kinship in Nineteenth Century Victoria

This week’s blog post comes from Theresa Mackay. Theresa is a second generation Scottish-Canadian who was at press time completing her Master of Letters in Scottish history through the University of the Highlands and Islands in Scotland. She runs Larchgrove Marketing Group, a tourism consulting company for projects with Scotland in their soul.

Located on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, the city now known as Victoria, British Columbia, saw permanent settlement of Scots as early as the mid-nineteenth century. Founded as a trading post and fort location for the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in 1843, Scottish settlers were drawn to the location by promises of HBC employment and land ownership. Hailing from cities such as Inverness and Edinburgh, and departing from HBC recruitment centres such as the Orkneys and the Hebrides, Scots emigrated to Victoria; some for adventure and others in search of a better life.

By 1858, seven years after HBC Chief Factor and son of a Glasgow merchant, James Douglas, had established himself as the first Governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island, five hundred Scots and Europeans lived on the traditional territory of the Coast Salish First Nations. The main surge in emigrants to Victoria came that year with thousands of various ethnicities arriving to seek their fortunes, driven by rumours of gold on the mainland of the colony of British Columbia. In six weeks, 225 buildings were constructed in Victoria, including hotels, saloons and retailers, in order to service the transient gold-seekers stopping for supplies; the settlement’s population quickly ballooned and the landscape responded. [1]


Sir James Douglas, the son of a Glasgow merchant.

Although one of the smaller ethnic groups, Scots in Victoria were a force in local politics, community leadership, and business. In addition to Governor Douglas and the preponderance of Scots-born HBC workers, many Scottish emigrants such as Dr. William Fraser Tolmie, Robert Rithet, and Roderick Finlayson held influential, high-profile positions. Victoria was on its way to becoming a city led by Scots and with this came the founding of Scottish associations, clubs, and societies for the purpose of assisting Scots immigrants and connecting with others from their culture, mainly through dinners, celebrations, and sporting events.

The St. Andrew’s Benevolent Society (SABS) was just such an association. It was founded in early 1860 and later that year it organized a St. Andrew’s dinner for 120 people at the Colonial Restaurant on the east side of Government Street. With many distinguished guests in attendance, including Governor Douglas as the SABS Honorary President, it was touted as the “largest public dinner ever given in the Colony.” The event went long into the night with more than 24 toasts, including one to “The Ladies” responded to by “Mr. Pendergast,” suggesting that women were not in attendance as honoured guests, or at least not invited to speak. [2]


Watercolour painting depicting Fort Victoria, 1860. Title: S.W. Bastion of the Fort with 12 Nine-Pound Guns No. 3 by Sarah Crease (1826-1922)

Three years later, the Caledonian Highland Society of Scotland was the model for the formation of the Caledonian Benevolent Association (CBA) and within six years their Annual Dinner celebrating Robert Burns was “the largest in the Colony” with “their banquets [being] noted for the harmony and good taste which invariably prevail.”[3]

In addition to the socialization of Scots through events, the purpose of both the SABS and the CBA was a charitable one aimed at supporting Scottish immigrants, suggesting that members desired a strong and healthy Scots community in Victoria. Similar mandates caused the two groups to merge in early 1870, forming the St. Andrew’s and Caledonian Society (SACS). Later that year they held a St. Andrew’s dinner at the Oriental Restaurant on Yates Street. Tickets were three dollars each. [4]

CBA Burns Dinner

The Caledonian Benevolent Association began holding annual “Burns’ Anniversary” dinners in Victoria in 1864. Source: Daily Colonist newspaper 1865-01-21.

By the time Vancouver Island joined Mainland British Columbia in 1866 and the province joined Confederation in 1871, the resident population of Victoria – now the capital city – had swelled to 3,270 [5]. Colonial society was in full swing with residents, regardless of ethnicity, enjoying outings organized by the SACS, including the “annual gathering” at the Caledonian Grounds on Cook Street, with foot races, dancing competitions, and a “grand lottery” for ladies only. [6]

In 1889, the Sir William Wallace Society (SWWS) formed and added to the city’s social calendar, focusing on organizing parties and sports gatherings such as Hogmanay celebrations and Highland Games. Its original membership numbered more than fifty, suggesting that some SACS members may have belonged to more than one Scots association in the city. [7]

SWWS Halloween Dance

The Sir William Wallace Society organized parties such as the “Grand Halloween Concert and Dance” in 1891. Source: Daily Colonist newspaper 1891-10-28.

By 1891, with a population more than five times that of twenty years earlier, those born in England and China outnumbered those born in Scotland, and immigrants with Scottish-born mothers and/or fathers were significantly less than England-born.[8] These numbers suggest that those who identified as Scottish were a smaller ethnic group and as a result may have felt the need to exert their Scottishness through organized ethic associations in a way that made other cultures aware of their existence and their difference.

The SWWS responded in August of that year by joining forces with the BC Scottish Pipers’ Association to organize the “Grand Gathering and Games” with a variety of contests including “Best Dressed Highlander in Full Highland Costume.” [9] This and other public expressions of Scottish ethnicity combined with the prominence of Scots leadership in Victoria suggests that Scots felt vindicated in proudly displaying their culture.


Victoria inner harbour in 1897 said to be taken from “cathedral tower,” likely the tower of Christ Church Cathedral.

As a “city led by Scots” with organized associations flourishing at the end of the nineteenth century and a full social calendar as a result, Scottish emigrants to Victoria created a proudly Scottish community. Whether in the hopes of a better life or the allure of a new frontier, Scottish settlers to Victoria never left their culture far behind.

© Theresa Mackay


[1] Terry Reksten, More English than the English: A Very Social History of Victoria (Victoria, 1986), p. 64.

[2] Daily Colonist newspaper, 1860-12-05, p. 3.

[3] ibid., 1869-01-16, p. 3.

[4] Daily British Colonist newspaper 1870-12-01, p. 2.

[5] The 1871 census counted “White Race”, “Col’red Race” and “Chinese Race” only. Census of Canada 1665-1871 Vol IV (Ottawa, 1876), p. 376.

[6] Daily Colonist newspaper 1879-06-24, p. 2.

[7] ibid., 1889-04-25, p. 1.

[8] Country of birth: England 3,869; China 2,080; Scotland 1,166. Immigrants with Scottish-born mothers and/or fathers: 4,310. Immigrants with England-born mothers and/or fathers: 12,416. Census of Canada 1890-91 Vol 1 (Ottawa, 1893), p. 332.

[9] Daily Colonist newspaper 1891-08-09, p. 4. The Daily Colonist newspaper (also known as The British Colonist, The Daily British Colonist, and other variants), various editions from 1860 onwards.


Pleasure and Pain in the Okanagan Valley: the Adventures of Lord and Lady Aberdeen

We are thrilled that our inaugural post comes from Professor Marjory Harper, Chair in History at the University of Aberdeen and Honorary Professor at the Centre for History, University of the Highlands and Islands. Professor Harper has written many books and articles on the history of Scottish migration around the globe, including migration to Canada. Her most recent publication, Scotland No More? The Scots who Left Scotland in the Twentieth Century (Edinburgh, 2012) was in 2013 awarded the Frank Watson Prize by the University of Guelph, and short-listed for the Saltire History Prize. This book includes interviews of Scottish settlers to the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. Her new book Migration and Mental Health: Past and Present (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, will be out early 2016.

Tucked away behind the imposing mansion house of Haddo, stately home of the Aberdeen family for centuries until it came under the care of the National Trust for Scotland, is the Canadian Hall, a visible legacy of the family’s troubled love affair with British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Haddo Hall

Haddo House, Aberdeenshire [image courtesy of the author]

The connection was forged in 1890, when Ishbel and John Gordon, Earl and Countess of Aberdeen, made their first trip to Canada. It continued through the 1890s, when for five years Lord Aberdeen was Governor General of Canada, and ended in 1920, when they finally severed their links with the Okanagan. The story centres initially around Ishbel’s determination to purchase a property in British Columbia which could be managed by her wayward brother, Coutts Marjoribanks. An archetypal remittance man, Coutts was at that time failing spectacularly in the management of his father’s ranch in North Dakota.

Canadian Hall at Haddo [image courtesy of the author]

Canadian Hall at Haddo [image courtesy of the author]

Ishbel Gordon was a formidable personality. Born in London in 1857 and raised in a strongly political household, she is probably best remembered as a campaigner for women’s occupational, social and political rights at home and abroad. Not least among her achievements was the establishment of the Victorian Order of Nurses in Canada in 1897, and for 43 years she was President of the International Council of Women.

Ishbel Gordon on her wedding day

Ishbel Gordon on her wedding day [image courtesy of Lord Aberdeen]

Coutts Marjoribanks

Coutts Marjoribanks [image courtesy of Lord Aberdeen]

The Aberdeen’s first trip to Canada was undertaken partly on doctor’s orders, to allow Ishbel, a Gladstonian Liberal, to recover from nervous exhaustion following the party’s split over the issue of Irish home rule. Towards the end of their three-month visit, they traveled west on the recently-opened CPR to its terminus at Vancouver, and thence by ferry to spend a day in Victoria. Ishbel’s impatience to reach the island was due to her long-anticipated rendezvous with the Scottish theologian Henry Drummond, a family friend who had probably been her lover since at least 1884.

Gusiachan, BC

Guisachan, Inverness-shire [image courtesy of the author]

Back on the mainland, the Aberdeens consulted with George Mackay, a Scottish engineer who had once built roads at Guisachan, Ishbel’s father’s Highland estate, before emigrating in 1887 and establishing real estate companies in Vancouver and the Okanagan. At Mackay’s urging, they bought a 480-acre ranch near Kelowna, which they renamed Guisachan. Coutts was duly installed as manager and – since Guisachan is Gaelic for ‘place of the firs’ – the driveway was lined with rows of Scottish fir seedlings (which rapidly died).

Guisiachan, BC

Guisachan, BC [image courtesy of Lord Aberdeen]

It was another year before the family visited their new property. Their timing was impeccable. Having chartered a special train to take them on the branch line from Sicamous Junction to Vernon, they arrived in time to see Guisachan take twelve prizes in the district’s inaugural agricultural show, before Coutts escorted them down the lake to the Kelowna property. Ishbel was captivated to find ‘mountains looking more like the Inverness-shire mountains of my youth than any others we had seen in Canada’, and she and Johnnie duly instructed Mackay to make another, much bigger purchase at the northern end of the valley [1]. This was the 14,000-acre Coldstream Ranch, the running of which was given to Coutts.

During their five years at Rideau Hall, the Aberdeens relished any opportunity to exchange the pomp and ceremony of office for the freedom and tranquility of the Okanagan. But they were equally determined that the properties should become economically viable through subdivision of the existing cattle ranges into fruit ranches, a development which they believed would benefit the local community as well as themselves. To that end, irrigation systems were installed, and a jam factory was established in Vernon, while small-scale investors who were enticed out from Scotland commemorated their homeland by naming their properties after familiar Aberdeenshire landmarks.

Jam factory

Jam factory [image courtesy of Lord Aberdeen]

Coldstream, BC

Coldstream, BC [image courtesy of Lord Aberdeen]

Perhaps the rapid demise of the Guisachan fir trees was an omen, for sadly, the Aberdeens’ dreams were never fulfilled. For more than a decade they contended with Coutts Marjoribanks’ persistent incompetence, the jam factory’s fraudulent manager, a costly infrastructure, low prices for produce, and all the problems associated with pioneering a new enterprise in an unfamiliar, arid environment.

Eventually, after repeated warnings from accountants and agricultural experts that mismanagement and excessive expenditure were bringing the ranches to the brink of bankruptcy, they sold Guisachan in 1903 and incorporated the Coldstream property, in which Johnnie remained a shareholder until 1921.

In one sense, the Okanagan experiences are encapsulated in Ishbel’s gloomy epitaph when the family finally relinquished their interest in Coldstream. The years came and went, and the golden age predicted always receded. “The results of our investment in BC have been very sad,” she wrote in 1921 [2]. Yet the pain was not without gain, at least for the valley into which they poured their capital and energy. For it was Lord Aberdeen’s visionary pioneering that launched the transformation of the Okanagan into the fruit and wine basket of western Canada, a status it retains to this day.

© Marjory Harper


[1] Through Canada with a Kodak, by the Countess of Aberdeen (Edinburgh, 1893), new edition, with introduction by Marjory Harper (Toronto: UTP, 1994), p. 166.

[2] John Campbell Gordon, 1st Marquess of Aberdeen, ‘We Twa’: Reminiscences of Lord and Lady Aberdeen (London: Collins, 1925), pp. 90-1.