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Podcast Episode 6



In today’s episode, we dive into the lives of the early Scottish Settlers in Aldborough township. Scottish immigrants made up a significant portion of the Talbot Settlement. Their hard work and friendliness paved the way for future generations and formed Aldborough into the flourishing township it is today the Municipality of West Elgin.

Historic Aldborough Township is now the municipality of West Elgin so you may hear me use either term throughout the podcast.  Know that either way I am referring to the most westerly area of Elgin County bounded on the south by Lake Erie and on the north by the winding waters of the Thames River.  Through the most elevated portion, it is mostly marshy. From the marshes of the central concessions drain creeks, those on the south finding their way into the lake, and those on the north into to the Thames river. These creeks were useful in many ways; one of which was the draining of the wetlands of the township that made rich land available for agricultural purposes. The surface soil was chiefly a sandy loam, except near the river, which was clay and gravel. The township is very level except near the lake and river, where the streams have for time carved deep channels in the clay and shale, which in some places cover rock to the dept of 150΄ feet. The township is remarkably free from stones on the surface, with now and then a large one, found in beds of streams that were in early days used for millstones.

If the native oak, chestnut, whitewood, white and black ash, and black walnut were standing, it would be worth millions of dollars today. From one oak in 1846, 1,000 pipe staves were made, you would be hard pressed today to find a “good tree” to make one.  Staves are vertical wooden posts or planks fitted to make a hollow pipe. 

Many chestnut trees made 6,000 feet of lumber each and some of the walnut trees were over five feet in diameter. In the early times great quantities of timber were cut down and burned to clear land for wheat and corn. Enough was spared until the lumbering operation era began and was for many years an important industry in Aldborough. The eastern markets received some of the choicest chestnut, black walnut and whitewood from the forests of Aldborough which still adorn many old church and buildings today with there timbers of 2, 3 and 4 feet wide.

In 1796 or 1797 James Fleming, an Irishman was located on Lot 6, Broken Front 1st concession by Lt. Governor Simcoe and until 1816 was the only resident of Aldborough and the first settler in Elgin County.  He brought with him his wife and two children.  Two other children were born in Elgin County.  Their home was destroyed during the War of 1812.  We will be doing an entire episode on the Fleming family in preparation for the 225th anniversary of their arrival to be celebrated at Backus-Page House Museum in 2022.   Aldborough was first named Suffolk Township but  in the survey of 1797 the name was change to Aldborough, a town in the county of Suffolk, England.

Scotland suffered greatly in the late 18th and early 19th century. After the Uprisings of 1715 and 1745 leading to the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the breakdown of clans led to increased rent, new methods in agriculture and business, and lower prices for grain and cattle resulting in agricultural depression. In search of securing better land and life, many Scottish peoples immigrated to Canada, USA and other countries after hearing tales of great abundance of land and work.

Part of Colonel Talbot’s charge was the allotment of land to settlers in Aldborough and for this purpose he issued an invitation to the Scottish Highlanders, who had located temporarily in Caledonia in New York State. In 1816 Captain Archibald Gillies located on Lot 1, on the Talbot Road, then blazed a path through the woods; and in the spring 1817, fifteen families, all Highlanders, left Caledonia, NY and joined Captain Gillies. Among these were John Menzie, Thomas Ford, Donald McEwin and Finlay McDiarmid. In the autumn of 1817, there came direct from Argyleshire, Scotland, three families, Alex McNabb, John McDougald and Peter McKellar.

Peter MacKellar, a highlander, was an uneducated man, despite that he had a tendency to compose poetry, was a man of mathematical mind and was a natural with machinery. He became father to Archibald MacKellar, who was one of the most mischievous boys in the pioneer days, but later became a winning speaker and a witty, progressive politician. In later years he was appointed Sheriff of Wentworth.

-Another family that came from Scotland in 1818 was Duncan MacIntyre along with his three sons, Malcolm, John, and Archie, and several daughters. Archie MacIntyre acquired a farm in Dunwich township, now known as the Peter Gow farm.

-In 1819, a group of 32 families came. In 1820, another large group of twenty families came, also from Argyleshire, Scotland. Many of them were relatives or close friends of previous settlers who desired the new land.

Gillies  In 1819 John Gillies and his family left Argyleshire, Scotland and landed in Port Glasgow. His family eventually acquired 1000 acres of land and later the Gillies cemetery was founded on the corner of their farm.

McColl  Duncan McColl, of Scotland settled on this land in 1819 and died in 1922. His sons, Samuel and Thomas honored their father’s wish and buried him in his favourite spot to think. The McColl cemetery at Brock’s Creek has been a place of beauty and reflection ever since.

The trials of these early settlers, who endured sorrows and suffering, required strong muscles and a stout heart. There were no roads by which neighboring settlements like Dunwich could be reached, no mills nearer than thirty miles on the east and Howard Township on the west was a dense, roadless forest. Families sometimes sustained for a week at a time on turnips anxiously awaiting the return of the “food haulers” with their hand sleighs from Long Point, where the nearest mill was located.

During 1819 Finlay McDiarmid was confined to bed with the fever and unable to do any work or harvest the one and half acres of wheat, his only dependence for his winter bread. More than this, there was no sickle to cut it with, but courage and the industrious will to overcome all difficulties Mrs. McDiarmid cut it all with the butcher knife, threshed it and ground it in a hand mill to feed her two infant children and recovering husband. That heroic woman lived to over 90 years of age of remarkable health and vigor and when the story was told she said, “she would do the same task over again if necessary”. The names, courage, fortitude and abilities of these Scottish families carved settlements in the lonely, isolated wilderness and their legacy still lives on today.

In the early years of pioneer life there was no medical doctor in the area nearer than Sandwich on the west and Long Point on the east. In 1819, 20’ and 21’ bilious fever, associated with excessive bile and causing jaundice, effected the settlers, especially in the fall season. In the last two weeks of September, 1819, fourteen adults lost their lives and had their funerals unattended while the 54 families in Aldborough had to stay at home in their beds and grieve the loss of friends and family alone. When husbands or sons fell ill the women of the community performed wonderfully, taking over the work. They picked wool, carded it, spun the yarn, wove the cloth, and converted it into clothes for men and women. They logged, burned, plowed, harrowed, reaped, binded, hoed, garnered, and thrashed. The women’s indoor work was frequently done by the light of day, a torch, candle, or by the light emitted from a cotton rag burning over the edge of a bowl filled with grease. The success of the early years was largely due equally to the women as it was to the men.

Aldborough in early times was the paradise of game and wild animals. It was the favorite haunt of the cleared dun deer that browsed the fresh cut brush heaps, covering the ground with their tracks. Wolves, bears, raccoons and wild turkey were there, along with the settler’s sheep, pigs and other live stock and all were fair game to the unexpected.

Trade and commerce were of course of a primitive nature. The nearest store in 1818 was that of Hamilton and Warren, in a log building at Kettle Creek (St.Thomas). On the west there was none nearer than Sandwich near Windsor. Trade was wholly by barter until 1827.  In that year cash was paid for wheat and no other kind of grain. In 1829 the first shop with a small quantity of goods was opened at Port Furnival, by Mr. McFarlane of Glasgow, Scotland, who gave goods for produced, and paid cash for wheat at 60 cents a bushel. In 1830 he shipped to Montreal 6000 bushels of wheat, 120 barrels of pork, 300 raw deerskins, 1000 pounds FIRST nATIONS dressed deerskins, 200 raccoon skins, and 50 bushels of flaxseed, the first cargo sent from Aldborough.

In 1837, when the news of the uprising at Little York reached the Aldborough Township, 80 volunteers started at once for Amherstburg, (with out either General or regiment orders) having among them not over a dozen guns. One volunteer carried a Lochaber (provounced lock a bur) axe with a ten-foot pole for a handle, some had old Dirks, and one had a sword of his grandfathers who used it at the battle of the Campbells of Argyles. Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Patterson of Dunwich (who you may remember from previous podcasts), commanding the 1st Regiment of Middlesex, met these volunteers at Amherstburg, where all remained for thirty days expecting a raid from the other side of the river. It never came and soon the uprising settled down again.

The population of Aldborough at this time was but little more than in 1820, when Colonel Talbot ceased to give land as he had been. In selling crown lands, Talbot earned 3% of the selling price. Where he could, he claimed land for his efforts, holding it for speculation. In Dunwich and Aldborough, he assigned the Highland Scots as little of his 5,000 as possible. He set them on 50 acres of reserve and claimed the remaining 150 acres of a 200-acre grant for himself.

Since the early pioneers were predominately Scottish Highlanders, Gaelic language was commonly spoke. Many people, especially wives and mothers, were not able to converse in anything but Gaelic.

Until 1846, the only settlers of Aldborough were Scottish Highlanders, mostly from Argyleshire and Perthshire. Between 1846 and 1855, German settlers arrived. They were good citizens, frugal, temperate and industries and proved a valuable addition to the population. Many bought their land from the original settlers but the majority settled on unimproved land bought from the Crown, the Canadian Company and General Richard Airey, nephew of Colonel Thomas Talbot.  Future episodes may be done on the German settlers of Aldborough and General Airey.

The Highlanders warmly welcomed People of other nationalities making for a prosperous, hardworking community.

-Generally, settlers of any country locate near bodies of water sufficient for domestic and business purposes. Those who came to Aldborough did the same, settling near the river Thames and Big Creek. The first settlers at the river were Elijah Sutton and John Shaw. Then began a large stream of Scottish settlers. In 1851, there was a steady stream of Scottish immigrants until all the available land in East Aldborough was taken. Most of the settlers were old neighbours and friends from back in Scotland. With them they brought their friendliness, hardworking hands, and generous deeds. The first effort after coming to the settlement was to secure land they could own for themselves. Such land they could not obtain in their old home as it was owned by nobility. After obtaining the land, they had to build a home. The home of a pioneer was simple, humble, but comfortable. The houses were almost entirely built out of wood and building was a community affair. Neighbours would assemble to help lift logs and assist in helping out where it was needed. If a person was in need or struggling, a kind neighbour would lend a hand. Aldborough practiced this act of lending a selfless hand so well, that the community became a very trusting, prosperous township.

-after the pioneers got their feet on the ground, building a house and maybe some outbuildings, they would set on building a school house for the education of their children. The first school house erected in East Aldborough was on the north-east corner of Lot 21, Conc. 1. It was not a beautiful building but it did the job of educating and building character in the young kids. The school gave a large number to higher professions. For example, eight men went to the medical profession, furthering their education at schools like Trinity Medical School in Toronto, Kingston University, Ann Arbor University etc.

The first school in Aldborough Township opened in this section in 1818 or 1819. It was taught by Malcolm Robinson in his own house which was located on Lot 7, Concession 12. About the same time, there may have been a schoolhouse kept by Lachlan McDougall on Lot 2, Concession 13. As with all schools of the early 19th century, these would have been paid for through private tuition. 

-In the early years of the township, a considerable amount of land was all swamp. Where the town of West Lorne now stands, was once known as “the black ash swamp”. Before roads were opened, those who had to travel by foot through the swamp covered forest faced a great danger to both themselves and their cattle. If a traveler missed their directions and went astray; they faced great dangers. Many cattle are said to have lost their lives while wading into the water to get rid of flies. In addition to the swampy forest, wolves frequently inhabited the area. Near the now village of Rodney, there was a noted swamp that is said one night an old lady coming through the section was attacked by wolves. She climbed up into the roots of an old tree that was blown over and called for help. She was heard by families living close by, the MacArthur’s and the Paterson’s came to her rescue with torches and scared the wolves away.

Killfinlay is the first cemetery in the township of Aldborough. Located on Lot 7, Con.13, it stands on a little knoll rising between two valleys. It has been mentioned that the first settlers to be buried there were Dugald MacLarty and Jas. Ruthven, who drowned as they attempted to land in 1818. They were not buried inside the boundary of the present-day cemetery but their remains lie at the foot of the hill below the eastern corner of the present-day plot. As years passed, when the cemetery was needed for those who died in the community, they were buried on top of the knoll of the present site.

Thank you for listening.  Sources used in this episode are several family histories shared with us, Pioneer Days of Aldborough Township and From Argyle Scotland to The Talbot Settlement, both available in the museum gift shop and online. 

For more information and to contact the Backus-Page House Museum visit our website

The Backus Page House Museum and Tyrconnell Heritage Society acknowledges the land we are on today as the traditional territory of First Nations People, the Neutral Nations and then the Iroquois.  We value both the significant historical and contemporary contributions of all Original Peoples. 

Life in the Talbot Settlement is a production of Tyrconnell Heritage Society, operators of Backus-Page House Museum, funded by the Department of Canadian Heritage.

Your host has been Angela Bobier.  Music provided by Jack Witmer.  Thanks to our Producer Katlyn Reintsma.

Tune in next week for the Page family farm episode.