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The Links Between Scotland and Canada

Written by: Doug
Published: 3rd February 2020, last updated: 10th February 2020

The Links Between Scotland and Canada
Scotland and Canada have long shared a special relationship. Though separated by 3,000 miles of ocean, Scot’s have played an important role in shaping the modern Canada of today, historically, politically, economically and culturally. Almost 5 million Canadians claim Scottish descent and Scot’s are the first largest ethnic group in the country. The ties today between the two nations are just as strong as they have ever been.


01. The Historic Background to Links Between Scotland and Canada

Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland
The first Scot’s may have arrived in Canada way back in 1010, carried to Newfoundland in longships by Viking raiders. However, the first links between Scotland and this part of the new world were really forged in the 17th Century, when King James VI claimed an area of land on the south east coast of what is now Canada, and named it Nova Scotia (Latin for New Scotland).

The Kingdom of Scotland established one of the earliest colonies in Canada in 1621, when Sir William Alexander was granted a charter for Nova Scotia. He established small settlements on Cape Breton Island and at the Bay of Fundy but they did not flourish and Scottish claims were surrendered to France in 1632.

French colonists arrived in the region, and formed the first permanent European settlement in the future Canada, living alongside the native Mi’kmaq people. Scottish (and later British) soldiers were involved in a great many separate military clashes as they fought with the Dutch and French (and Mi’kmaq) for possession of the area.

A few Scots immigrated to New France, but the major early movement of Scots into what is now Canada was a small flow of men from Orkney (beginning in around 1720). They were recruited by the Hudson’s Bay Company for service in the west. Scot’s soldiers came to fight for the British Army in the Seven Years War. Many remained in North America, and Scot’s merchants moved to Quebec after 1759, and came to dominate commercial life and the fur trade in the area.

Between 1770 and 1815, around 15,000 Highland Scots moved to Canada. They settled mainly on Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Upper Canada. Most came from the western Highlands and Islands and were predominantly Gaelic speaking and agrarian. Many were Roman Catholic. They were forced to leave Scotland by the Highland Clearances. The first ship of Hebridean colonists arrived on St John’s Island (now Prince Edward Island) in 1770, with many more following soon after. In 1772, the Alexander arrived there, carrying a group of Scots known as the Glenalladale Settlers. A ship called ‘The Hector’ landed in Pictou Nova Scotia in 1773, conveying 189 settlers, most from Lochbroom in the Isle of Skye.

2000 replica of the ship Hector2000 Replica of the Ship Hector. Photo by Dennis Jarvis / CC BY-SA 2.0

In the early years of the 19th Century, Gaelic was the third most common European language spoken in Canada. A few Highlanders were brought by the Earl of Selkirk to Manitoba’s Red River Colony. They were later joined by other Highland Scots from the fur trade and their aboriginal families after 1821. Highland traditions were preserved and these places became distinctive ethnic enclaves.

Scottish immigration increased after 1815 and began to include not only Highlanders but also Lowland Scots, who were encouraged by the British Government to join Highlanders in coming to Canada. Around 170,000 Scots crossed the Atlantic to Canada between 1815 and 1870. The immigrants represented a cross-section of the Scottish population. Most were farmers and artisans, but large numbers of business people and professionals were also included. Most of these newcomers were Presbyterian and spoke Scots/ English. They formed many churches and schools during this period.

Since 1870, patterns of immigration and settlement have altered significantly. Pressures lessened in the Scottish Highlands, and Highlanders no longer immigrated to Canada in high numbers. In the Lowlands, urbanisation and industrialisation significantly lowered the percentage of farmers amongst immigrants. Canada’s Scottish immigrants, however, were still attracted both to its burgeoning cities and manufacturing industries, and to the last great agricultural frontier in Western Canada. The flow of people from Scotland to Canada continued.

Around 80,000 Scots entered Canada between 1871 and 1901, 240,000 in the first years of the 20th Century, 200,000 between 1919 and 1930, and 147,000 between 1946 and 1960. Of course, many Canadians have also made their way to, and settled in Scotland over the years.

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02. Famous Figures That Link Scotland and Canada

William Alexander, 1st Earl of Stirling

William Alexander, 1st Earl of Stirling / Public Domain

William Alexander, Earl of Stirling

Born in Menstrie, Clackmannanshire in around 1567, this Scottish courtier and poet was granted the Royal Charter to Nova Scotia in 1621. (At the time this included not only what is now Nova Scotia but also New Brunswick and parts of the Northern United States.)

While his settlements (led by his son William Alexander The Younger) were unsuccessful, they provided the basis for Scottish claims to Nova Scotia and his baronets provided the coat of arms for Nova Scotia and the flag, which are still used today.


Mary Irwin

Mary Irwin was born in Scotland in 1626 to a noble Catholic family who later moved to France. She chose to dedicate her life to her faith and joined the Hospitaller nuns of Dieppe. She was sent to train in Quebec in 1642-43 and then returned to Quebec in 1657 to enter a convent there. She served at the hospital there until her death in 1687.


Portrait of James McGill

Portrait of James McGill / Public Domain

James McGill

James McGill (1744-1813) was a Scottish business man and philanthropist. He became involved in the fur trade in Montreal and is best known for founding the University that bears his name.


John Norton (Mohawk chief)

Portrait of John Norton (Mohawk chief) / Public Domain

John Norton, Mohawk Chief

John Norton is believed to have been born in Scotland in the early 1760s to a Scottish mother and English father of Cherokee birth. He was likely schooled in Scotland, and later joined the army and was assigned to Scotland, where he married. In 1785, he was assigned to Lower Canada after the end of the American Revolutionary War. While stationed in Upper Canada in 1787, he deserted the army and was discharged.

He developed close relations with the Six Nations of the Grand River and became known to Joseph Brant, the prominent Mohawk leader who became his mentor. He was adopted into the Mohawk nation and given the name Teyoninhokarawen. He became a Mohawk chief and rallied men to support British forces during the War of 1812. The details of his later life are unknown.


Alexander MacKenzie

Portrait of Alexander MacKenzie / Public Domain

Alexander Mackenzie

Born on the Isle of Lewis in 1764, Sir Alexander Mackenzie moved with his family to New York in 1774. Four years later, during the American Revolutionary War, he moved to Montreal and got involved in the fur trade. In 1789, while working for the North West Company, he explored the longest river in Canada, which now bears his name. He also completed the first east to west crossing of North America (north of Mexico) before later returning to Scotland.


Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk

Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk / Public Domain

Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk

Born in Kirkudbrightshire in 1771, this Scottish peer is famous for his sponsorship of immigrants from Scotland to Canada during the Highland Clearances. Most notably, he established the Red River Valley Settlement and signed The Selkirk Treaty with First Nations leaders including Chief Peguis. Tensions arose between the Selkirk Settlers and the Métis aboriginal group – descended from the intermarriage of English, Scottish and French fur traders with First Nations women, which culminated in the Battle of Seven Oaks in 1816.


Simon Fraser, The Explorer

Simon Fraser / Public Domain

Simon Fraser

Simon Fraser was born to Scottish parents in 1776 and served the North West Company as a fur trader between 1792 and 1818. He built Fort McLeod, the first permanent European settlement in what is now British Columbia and explored the Fraser River, which is named for him.


Photograph of Robert Campbell

Robert Campbell / Public Domain

Robert Campbell

Born in Glen Lyon, Perthshire, in 1808, Robert Campbell was another fur trader. He became a remarkable explorer. Amongst other things, he discovered the River Pelly – a route later used by prospectors to reach the Klondike gold fields. He also proved that the River Yukon from Fort Selkirk was navigable to the sea.


Sir James Douglas, Governor of British Columbia

Sir James Douglas / Public Domain

James Douglas

Sir James Douglas was the son of James Douglas, a Scottish planter and merchant from Glasgow (and a Barbadian Creole mother). He worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company and, in 1843, established a fort of Vancouver Island. He became governor of the new colony of British Columbia in 1851 and has been acclaimed as the ‘Father of British Columbia’.


John Rae (explorer)

John Rae / Public Domain

John Rae

Born on Orkney in 1813, John Rae studied medicine in Edinburgh before going to work as a doctor for the Hudson Bay Company in Canada. He worked on designs for his own snow shoes and mounted numerous expeditions surveying Northern Canada and parts of the North West Passage. He was known for his ability to walk great distances and was given the Inuit name Aglooka (He who takes big strides.)


John A. MacDonald

Sir John A. MacDonald / Public Domain

John A. MacDonald

Born in Scotland in 1815, Sir John A. MacDonald emigrated with his family to Kingston, in what is now Ontario. He became the first prime minister of Canada and served as such between 1867 and 1873, and 1878 and 1891.


Sir Sandford Fleming

Sir Sandford Fleming / Public Domain

Sandford Fleming

Sandford Fleming was born in Kirkcaldy, Fife, in 1827. He became an apprentice surveyor and moved to Ontario in 1845. He went on to become the chief engineer of the Northern Railway in Canada. He proposed a railway from the Atlantic to the Pacific and was appointed chief engineer of this massive project. He was one of a number of Scots who played a key role in the Canadian railways.


Alexander Muir, author of The Maple Leaf Forever

Alexander Muir / Public Domain

Alexander Muir

Alexander Muir (1830-1906) who hailed from Lesmahagow in Scotland, is most famous for writing the song ‘Maple Leaf Forever’, which became hugely popular, and something of an unofficial anthem in English speaking Canada.


Donald Morrison, the Megantic Outlaw

Donald Morrison, the Megantic Outlaw / Public Domain

Donald Morrison, The Megantic Outlaw

Donald Morrison was born in 1858 to Scottish immigrants who had moved to Canada from the Isle of Lewis. While defending their homestead from dishonest money lenders, he became known as the Megantic Outlaw, and became something of a folk hero. He shot a constable in self defence and was helped to evade the law for a year before being shot, tried and incarcerated in Montreal. He died hours after his release from jail and is buried close to his parents’ former homestead.


Agnes Deans Cameron

Agnes Deans Cameron / Public Domain

Agnes Deans Cameron

Agnes Deans Cameron was born in British Columbia to Scottish parents in 1863. She was British Columbia’s first female high school teacher and first female principle, also working as a journalist and writer. In 1908 she travelled along the MacKenzie River to the Arctic and wrote a book on the trip. When she died in 1912 she was one of the most famous writers in the country.


John MacCrae

John MacCrae / Public Domain

John MacCrae

Born in 1892 in Guelph, Canada, John MacCrae was the grandson of Scottish immigrants. He is best known for his infamous poem of the First World War – ‘In Flanders Fields’. He wrote it in 1915 before dying of pneumonia in 1918.

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03. Current Trade Between Scotland and Canada

Oil platform in the North Sea
Scotland and Canada’s links are not only historic. Today, Canada is consistently in Scotland’s top 20 export partners. Exports of goods and services totalled £580 million in 2017. Unsurprisingly, the large Scottish diaspora and proud Scottish roots of many Canadians mean that traditionally Scottish products like whisky and haggis are high on the list of exports.

Canada is also one of Scotland’s biggest inward investors. There are around 75 Canadian companies in Scotland, providing Scots with around 6,000 jobs. Canadians holidaying in Scotland also inject around £90 million each year into the Scottish economy.

Energy is a sector where there is much common interest between Scotland and Canada. Close to 30% of the oil and gas produced in the North Sea is covered by Canadian companies based around Aberdeen. This is a partnership that can still be honed for years to come.

Platform Supply Vessel for Oil & Gas in AberdeenPlatform Supply Vessel for Oil & Gas in Aberdeen.

But Scottish authorities are focused on moving to a low-carbon economy – both for economic and environmental reasons. The aim in Scotland to to generate the equivalent of 100% of electricity consumption from renewable resources by 2020. British Columbia also already generates more 95% of its energy needs from renewable or clean sources and the sector is a key contributor to Canada’s green economy, as it is in Scotland. This has led to massive opportunities between the two nations for collaboration, trade and investment.

The two countries also share links when it comes to life sciences, high tech industries, and food and drink. Both Scotland and Canada are leading global salmon exporters and this is a market that can and will increasingly involve sustainability collaboration between the two nations.

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04. Educational and Cultural Links Between Scotland and Canada

Canada's Flag in front of a mountain
Many Canadians come to study in Scotland. There are currently over a thousand Canadian students studying in the country, and many of those who study in Scotland choose to stay on to build new lives, families and businesses. There are many academic links between the two countries.

Culturally, there is still great affinity between Scotland and Canada. In Canada, Scot’s culture is well and truly alive in traditions such as bagpipes and Scottish folk music, Highland Games, clans, tartan, Robert Burns poetry and Burns Night events, and curling – a game invented in Scotland that is popular in both countries. In fact, many traditional elements of Scottish culture have become as much a part of the Canadian national identity as they are part of the Scottish national identity.

Canada Playing Curling in Torino, 2006Canada Playing Curling in Torino, 2006. Photo by Bjarte Hetland / CC BY-SA 3.0

With such strong links, the relations between Scotland and Canada can only become even stronger over the coming years.

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Written by: Doug

Comments on this post

  • Sharron Knight
    20/02/21 - 02:30

    Hi, my grandfather, Robert Knight, and my father, James Merlin Knight were from Halifax, Nova Scotia. How would I find any information regarding both? I saw my grandfather a few times. My sister Linda and I were estranged from our father James. Is there any way to find any information about my grandfather and his family? I do not know my grandmother Knight’s maiden name or where she was born. I’m wondering if I have any family in Nova Scotia. Thank you. Sharron Knight

  • Bryan
    04/02/22 - 05:15

    I’m of Italian descent born and raised in Toronto. I still remember the orange day parade. I grew up hearing bagpipes all the time. I’m in Ottawa Canada now February 3/2022 and something special is happening hear, why don’t I hear bagpipes, where are the Scotts. We need you Highlanders, please come playing bagpipes for support. We can’t win without you.

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