TRINITY COLLEGE ARCHIVES
The Triumphant Canadian
One Man’s Journey from Scotland to Canada
A written account of John Strachan’s early life and journey to Canada in 1799, dated 1865 (page 1 of 3). Courtesy of Trinity College Archives.
Words, Words, Words
The words in a letter tell a story – both on and off the page. The letter pictured above shows a partial draft of John Strachan’s hand-written memoirs of his early life and journey to Canada. Having a hard time reading it? This style of handwriting, once easily understood by readers in the 1800s, is difficult for many modern readers. Give it a try and take note of how many words you can understand. With a shrewd eye, the story of Strachan’s early life in Aberdeen, Scotland begins to form. He writes how he was “mocked and jeered as a Dunce” in grammar school, and “during the summer vacation [he] laboured hard” to make up for his academic shortfalls. If only his grammar school cohort would have known than that he would become the founder of Trinity College and a Bishop of Toronto.
The Triumphant Canadian
“The Triumphant Canadian” – a phrase that has been used to describe John Strachan, founder of Trinity College and first Bishop of Toronto, is an apt description of his migration story. His story is indeed “triumphant,” coming to Canada at the age of 21, alone and poor. His journey over the ocean and into the Canadian wilderness began in Aberdeen, Scotland in mid-August 1799 and did not end until December 31, 1799 when he arrived in the town of Kingston, Ontario. He was so disenchanted with this dreary land that he wrote: “I was so beat down that if I had been in possession of twenty pounds I should have returned at once; but in truth I had not twenty shillings.” He wanted to make a home of this strange country, and began tutoring the children of the locals and writing letters home to his family, detailing his journey and pondering what his life in Canada would become.
The Scottish Exodus
Strachan’s journey from Scotland to North American resonates with my own personal story of Scottish immigration. Like Strachan, my ancestors took a boat to North America in the late 1700s, as did thousands of other Scots, dreaming of becoming “The Triumphant Canadian”. The promise of cheap land and fresh starts was alluring despite the wildness of Canada. My ancestors moved across the country, working the land and paving the path for future generations, including myself. Strachan was an intellectual, however, and spent his early time in Canada as a schoolmaster and later became an ordained priest of the Church of England.
Photograph of John Strachan c. 1855, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Strachan.jpg, Public Domain
The Privileges and Struggles
Although Strachan had a tough journey through the cold Canadian wilderness before arriving in Kingston, he was still afforded the privilege of being male, white, of the right religion (Church of England), educated, and able to speak the English language. Many immigrants (in 1799 or today) were not afforded that privilege, making their journey to become “The Triumphant Canadian” difficult. My own ancestors shared Strachan’s privilege and today, over 200 years later, I benefit from an easier immigration story than many. Would John Strachan or my ancestors have been able to immigrate to Canada as easily today? Would yours?
Marlee Yule is Master of Museum Studies candidate, class of 2018. Hailing from Edmonton, Alberta, she is interested in Western Canadian history and stories of prairie settlement. After completing a BA in Drama at the University of Alberta, she spent several years working at the Alberta Legislature as a Programs Assistant and Interpretive Programming Coordinator. She hopes to continue to combine her love of history and theatrical performance in her future endeavors.