Emanuela Militello | November 27, 2017
While flicking through some traditional Scottish songs, I came across one that caught my attention. The lines quoted above are part of the “Canadian Boat Song”, a poem that first appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine (Edinburgh) in 1829. Being an enthusiast of Scottish culture, I am always interested in every expression of “Scottishness” – be it in literature, film or folklore. Learning about Scots in exile and the ways in which they coped with the loss of their motherland, and tried to keep their culture alive, is a subject that really fascinates me. So naturally, this song instantly captured my interest.
The theme of the song was familiar to me, as I had heard about the Highland Clearances before, but what struck a chord was the nostalgic force of the lyrics. I decided to learn more about the song – the fact that it seemed to be the work of an anonymous author piqued my curiosity. One of the most concise accounts of its origin is Huber Mayes’s article in the Canadian magazine The Beaver. Mayes states how the song has become part of Canadian cultural heritage and how an encounter with a Scottish filming crew in Canada prompted him to go in search of the origin of the text. I discovered that authorship of the poem is disputed and it has been attributed to authors as different as Sir Walter Scott, John Galt, John Wilson and James Hogg – just to name a few. The Canadian Boat song was first published in Blackwood’s Magazine as part of the “Noctes Ambrosianae” — a series of conversations among contributors to the magazine, who wrote under pseudonyms. In the fictional dialogue between North (the pseudonym of Professor John Wilson) and Shepherd (poet James Hogg), North mentions a friend who lives in Upper Canada and who tells him in his letters about the Gaelic songs that Canadian rowers sing. At this point, the Canadian Boat song first appears in the dialogue. As Mayes reports, the friend mentioned here may have been John Galt, but the author of the poem is most likely David MacBeth Moir, a doctor who had a practice in Musselbourgh at the time. Thus the poem was likely the result of the collaborative effort of Doctor Moir and his friend John Galt. Apparently, Galt sent letters to Moir, some of these detailing the songs that rowers of Scottish descent sang. This may have prompted Moir to write the poem, while its inclusion in Blackwood’s Magazine is to be attributed to John Gibson Lockhart, Scott’s son-in-law.
The song may be Moir’s take on the plight of the Scottish communities driven away by the Clearances, through the accounts of his friend Galt. Therefore, it seems that the song was not a translation of a Gaelic text – which was another disputable point regarding the composition of the text — but an original English text, in which Moir adopted the point of view of the Canadian-born rower and his nostalgia for his motherland. Without getting into further detail about the question of authorship, I think that what really matters here is the connection between Canadian communities and their Scottish roots.
As Mayes points out, if the song was composed by two authors (Galt and Moir), one living in Canada and one in Scotland, this shows how a non-Gaelic poet had taken to heart the plight of the Scottish communities driven into exile. The singer seems to be a second-generation Canadian, whose experience of Scotland is limited to his parents’ accounts. Scotland can only be evoked and appear in dreams:
Mountains divide us, and the waste of seas-
Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland,
And we in dreams behold the Hebrides.
The song unites the Canadian and the Scottish communities by a common bond of suffering and a shared heritage. The Clearances represent a dramatic chapter in Scottish history — without getting into much historical detail, it will suffice to say that Highland communities were forced to leave Scotland when significant portions of land were turned from growing crops to rearing sheep. What’s left in the speaker’s words is just an echo of past grandeur, but despite this, a hardy community that does not forget its ties with Scotland lives on.
Only when we consider this chapter in history, can we understand the reference the singer makes to the “sheep” in the poem, as well as his anger and pride:
When the bold kindred, in the time long vanish’d,
Conquer’d the soil and fortified the keep–
No seer foretold the children would be banish’d,
That a degenerate lord might boast his sheep.
I must confess that learning that the song was not a Canadian original but most likely the conscious poetic effort of a Scottish doctor, detracted from the romantic aura of the poem. As you read the text, you can picture an exiled Scotsman bewailing his fate and you would not think of it as anything other than authentic. However, much of its success is perhaps due precisely to the poet’s ability to adopt the voice of those forced away from their land and to convey their nostalgia and their yet indomitable spirit.
Just as strong a bond is still present in Canada among communities of Scottish descent today. Canadians and Scots take pride in their shared heritage and try to keep it alive from generation to generation. Perhaps the song testifies to how this all started. I have recently come across a BBC report on Cape Breton Island in Canada, where Gaelic language and traditions live on thanks to the efforts of local communities. The ceilidh, fiddle music and Gaelic language preserve pockets of Scottish culture away from Scotland – a home away from home. This shows us that roots and a shared heritage are stronger than geographical boundaries and that Scottish identity lives on in its distinctive cultural traits. The Canadian Boat song was written as a reaction to a traumatic event in Scotland’s history but it also testifies to the ever-present bond between Scotland and displaced Scottish communities across the world.
I studied Modern Languages in Milan before moving to Edinburgh to study English Literature.
I’m particularly interested in Scottish history, literature, and culture – I also have a weakness for Medieval Romance and British folklore.
Article edited by Sarah Stewart, Dhanya Baird, and Gina Maya.
Mayes, Hubert G. “A very affectin’ thing: The Scottish origin of the Canadian Boat Song.” The Beaver: Exploring Canada’s History, 71(2), 1991, pp. 22-27.