Book review: Celtic Lightning by Ken McGoogan

KEN McGoogan has pulled together a fascinating cast of Scots and Irish who helped Canada become the country it is, writes Dean Jobb
Celtic LightningCeltic Lightning
Celtic Lightning

Celtic Lightning: How the Scots and the Irish Created a Canadian Nation by Ken McGoogan | HarperCollins, 382 pp, online only

North of Inverness, near the village of Rogart, stands a pillar of stones salvaged from the croft of a Macdonald sent packing during the Highland Clearances – the grandfather of Canada’s first prime minister, John A Macdonald.

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This little-known cairn is a reminder of Scotland’s pivotal role in the creation of Canada, and a symbol of the transatlantic transfer of people and ideas that’s the subject of Canadian author Ken McGoogan’s Celtic Lightning, a voyage through centuries of Scottish, Irish and Canadian history.

McGoogan is perhaps best known as a chronicler of the doomed Franklin expedition and other Arctic expeditions of the 19th century, and this is a follow-up to his 2010 book How the Scots Invented Canada. This time he casts a wider net and includes the impact of the Irish and how two peoples, whose descendants account for a quarter of Canada’s population, influenced the development of the country’s institutions and values.

He describes Celtic Lightning as “cultural genealogy,” an exploration of the values and ideas that Scottish and Irish emigrants took with them from their homelands. He zeroes in on five inherited “bedrock” values that he believes form the foundation of modern Canada – audacity, independence, perseverance, democracy and pluralism.

The result is an engaging mixture of history, memoir and travelogue as McGoogan explores his own Scots-Irish roots and visits historic sites across Ireland and Scotland. The heart of the book is a collection of character studies of about 30 historical figures who exemplify one of the five cultural values. It’s an eclectic mix that includes giants of Scottish history – including William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, who personify the spirit of independence – and such cultural icons as Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott.

Many of the Scots profiled never set foot in Canada, of course, but McGoogan introduces others who had a direct impact on Canadian history. John A Macdonald, by far the most important, oversaw the political alliances that led to Canada’s creation as a self-governing nation in 1867. He was also a colourful figure (stories abound of his sharp wit and weakness for the bottle) who oversaw the country’s westward expansion across North America.

Scottish adventurers and explorers put their stamp on the Canadian frontier. Fur trader-turned-governor James Douglas ensured British Columbia and the northern Pacific coast did not fall into American hands. And John Rae, who hailed from the Orkney Islands, ventured deep into the polar wastes of Canada’s north.

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While most of those profiled are men, some remarkable women take the stage. Letitia Mactavish Hargrave left Campbeltown in 1840 to accompany her husband to a remote trading post on Hudson’s Bay. Her letters home recorded her growing admiration for the resilient people and natural beauty around her.

McGoogan makes the most of personal links to people and places as he ties together these disparate strands of history. But a few of his role models have tenuous links to Canada – the 12th-century exploits of Somerled of Argyll, for instance, seem particularly remote – and readers may find some transitions a bit jarring as the author jumps from one subject to another.

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There’s no disputing his bottom line, though. The sheer number of Burns statues, Irish pubs and other trappings of Celtic culture in Canada offer compelling evidence that values and ideas can cross oceans – and the centuries.

• Dean Jobb, journalism professor at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, is the author of Empire of Deception (Algonquin Books), the stranger-than-fiction story of a 1920s swindler who escaped to a new life in Canada,