Book review: Flight of the Highlanders: The Making of Canada, by Ken McGoogan

It’s no stretch to claim that Scots played a key role in the creation of Canada. The country’s first prime minister was Glasgow-born John A Macdonald and George Brown, his ally in establishing a self-governing dominion within the British Empire in 1867, hailed from Clackmannanshire.

Ken McGoogan

But it took more than a couple of visionary politicians to build a new nation. Scottish farmers and their families – driven from their lands by the hundreds of thousands and “packed off to the colonies like so many bales of manufactured goods,” as one contemporary noted – did the heavy lifting. These “persecuted” and “dispossessed emigrants,” author Ken McGoogan reminds us, battled “hardship, hunger and adamant rejection in a New World wilderness” as they “went to work laying the foundations of a modern nation”.

In Flight of the Highlanders, the bestselling Canadian author argues that the Highland Scots – victims of the Clearances and the oppression that followed the Battle of Culloden – were “Canada’s first refugees.” And that makes their story a timely reminder of the contribution refugees and other newcomers have made, and continue to make, to their new homelands. Today, almost five million Canadians claim Scottish heritage (about one in seven, including this reviewer, whose family arrived in Nova Scotia via Ulster in 1820).

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McGoogan, who has chronicled Arctic exploration and Canada’s Scottish heritage in previous books, draws on extensive travels and research in Scotland to trace the origins of these refugees and the injustices that drove them overseas. While this will be familiar territory for Scottish readers, he soon moves to the North American phase of the story. Large-scale resettlement began in 1773, when the Hector – a tiny “coffin ship” crammed with almost 200 people – survived a hurricane and landed at Pictou, Nova Scotia. Waves of “brave-hearted Highlanders” followed, among them some unfortunates who settled in the United States, remained “loyal” during the American Revolution and were then driven northward in a second exodus.

Canadians of English, Irish and French descent, whose ancestors also helped to build their country, may bristle at the focus on Scottish immigrants. And the subtitle is a little jarring, as Canadians own up to an ugly legacy of mistreatment and assimilation of indigenous peoples; the arrival of the Scots and other European settlers, as the author acknowledges, was the unmaking of their Canada.

But in a time of rising intolerance toward minorities and immigrants, Flight of the Highlanders is a much-needed reality check. McGoogan’s chronicle of how impoverished but tenacious Scots built new lives in Canada – and transformed their new country – is a reminder that all of us, regardless of origin or race, want the same things: a better life and a brighter future. Dean Jobb

Flight of the Highlanders: The Making of Canada, by Ken McGoogan, HarperCollins Canada, £20 (only available online)

Dean Jobb’s new book, The Murderous Doctor Cream, recreates the hunt for a Glasgow-born serial killer who murdered as many as ten people in England, the US and Canada in Victorian times. He teaches non-fiction writing at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia.