One Scot’s Influence on Canadian Education

It is July 2nd, 1833. You are being gifted with a silver epergne, a centrepiece for formal dining occasions. A large assembly of people have gathered in Toronto to present you with this commemorative gift, celebrating your achievements.

While this may not be your reality, it was the reality of Rev. John Strachan.


Born in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1778, John Strachan was the youngest in a family of six. He was raised in a religious household, which led him to pursue clerical studies in university. He taught on the side to support himself.

Strachan hoped to have a career with the Church of Scotland following university. However, the Church was oversupplied with clergy and did not need additional staff. Strachan thus shifted his sights to teaching. He accepted a contract to head a new academy in Kingston, Upper Canada.

Strachan’s move from Scotland to Canada coincided with a major migration movement[1], with approximately 15,000 Scots immigrating to Canada between 1770 and 1815 in search of new prospects.[2]

Upon his arrival to Canada in 1799, Strachan was disappointed to find that the revolutionary institution he had been promised had not been established. He taught nonetheless, starting his career with 12 students under his tutelage. In 1803, he moved to Cornwall where he worked for the church. There, he set up his own school and had 40 students within the year. Strachan’s teaching brought the school distinction and raised it above “anything [the province] had previously been accustomed to.”[3]


Many of Strachan’s students from Cornwall later became affluent members of society. When some of them happened upon each other in 1831, they agreed to contact their old classmates, who by now had spread throughout Canada and the world. They wanted to present Strachan with a gift representing the “esteem and affection in which he was held by them.”[4]

Silver epergne – The epergne’s base is decorated with four robed figures, each representing a key component of Strachan’s teaching: history, religion, geography, and poetry. All 42 names of his students are inscribed beneath the base. (SOURCE: John Strachan fonds, Trinity College Archives, University of Toronto)

We now find ourselves back in 1833. Twenty years after Strachan taught them, fourteen of his students came together at a ceremony where they presented him with the epergne. The remainder of his students were unable to attend. Strachan was incredibly moved by their gesture and tribute.


Strachan went on to become a prominent educational and religious figure in Toronto. He became Toronto’s first Anglican bishop, and was a founding member of King’s College. He also founded Trinity College, which he thought to be “the culmination of his life-long efforts on behalf of education.”[5]

It is within the Trinity College Archives that the epergne is now housed. It is brought out yearly at the Trinity College Christmas high table as requested by Strachan in his will. It seems fitting that Strachan’s students’ gift should be bequeathed to the institution he founded so that future students and migrants alike can learn its history and share in the gift of education. Just as Strachan had an impact on his students’ lives after migrating to Canada, so to, I believe, can any migrant have an impact on their future home.


Amanda McNeil is a graduate student pursuing a Masters of Museum Studies degree with a focus in collections at the University of Toronto. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Classical Studies from the University of Ottawa. A lover of history and languages, she has travelled to many countries in her pursuit of knowledge. Her dream destination: Japan! Until then, she is content to curl up at home with a nice cup of tea.

[2] Burnsted, 1982, p.7.

[3] Bethune, 1870, p. 11.

[4] Bethune, 1870, p. 146.

[5]Corman, 2008, p. 17.

…future students and migrants alike can lean its history and share in the gift of education.