Summer Reading: History

A Kingdom of the Mind: How the Scots Helped Make Canada

By Margaret Goldik

A review of A Kingdom Of The Mind: How The Scots Helped Make Canada by Peter E. Rider and Heather Mcnabb, Editors

Published on July 1, 2006

A Kingdom Of The Mind: How The Scots Helped Make Canada
Peter E. Rider and Heather Mcnabb, Editors

McGill-Queen's University Press
$29.95
paper
246pp
0-7735-2990-x

“Scotland is a place in the sun and the rain, but it is more than that; it is a kingdom of the mind…The old love for it endures, whatever the reason or necessity for living elsewhere.”

This quote from Frederick Niven sets the tone for this book. In identity, perception is sometimes more compelling than reality. For example, many of us, when thinking of Canada, think of our Northern wilderness and our supposedly distinctive vocabulary. However, most Canadians now live in urban centres, hugging the southern border, and how often has one heard the word “pogie” lately? Still, these myths inform our ideas about ourselves.

Peter Rider and Heather McNabb have edited a series of essays about the Scots in Canada, and one of the questions raised and answered is that of Scots traditions and myths. How much of it was based on reality and how much on the harkening back of exiles who now lived in a land that showed incredible promise? In Marjory Harper’s essay “Exiles or Entrepreneurs? Snapshots of the Scots in Canada” she writes:

…ethnic identity could also be spurious, and it is possible that the Scots in Canada, deliberately or subconsciously, filtered out images of home that did not fit the picture they wanted to create. Inevitably, memories of home became more divorced from reality as the years passed, but in some cases the image and the reality had never coincided.

Whatever the reality, the Scots, in astonishing numbers, did succeed in business, building and developing Canada with Montreal as its commercial centre. One factor important in the Scottish connection was that of clannishness: then, just as now, who you knew was important in getting started in business. Many penniless young Scots came to Canada with a letter of introduction to someone of importance. Likewise, the early banking system was based on connections, and here again the Scottish system of keeping track of each other was useful. Who better to lend money to than someone you knew and trusted? The church and benevolent societies also played active roles in fostering a Scottish identity.

The Scots, a very literate people, wrote about pre-Confederation Canada voluminously. Travelogues, novels, memoirs, poetry, journals, reports, guides for emigrants, and periodical articles from the early days abound.

Scotland had the best system of medical teaching in Europe, and the doctors who came to Canada brought with them their methods and their expertise. And the Scottish connection in today’s military (Scots were fearless warriors) is covered thoroughly by H.P. Klepak in “A Man’s a Man because of That: The Scots in the Canadian military experience.”

Scholarly tomes have been known to be less than exciting, but A Kingdom of the Mind is compulsive cover-to-cover reading. mRb

Margaret Goldik is a former editor of the Montreal Review of Books.

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