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By Ryan Taylor

People like to say, "You could have heard a pin drop." They mean an audience was so entranced they didn't shuffle, gurgle or snort. They just listened.

I have been in crowds like that, but less often than you might think. There was a concert when Benjamin Luxon sang "Bring the News to Mother". There was the Shaw Festival's immortal Cyrano de Bergerac when the only sound in the final scene was the audience weeping.

It doesn't happen often at genealogical conferences, I can tell you. It did this year, when the Ontario Genealogical Society met in Cornwall, Ontario. Taking advantage of the eastern Ontario venue, the Society asked Marianne McLean, historian of Glengarry, to give the keynote lecture.

McLean's The People of Glengarry: Highlanders in Transition, 1745-1820 (McGill-Queen's, 1991) traces the journey of Scots displaced by changing circumstances in their homeland who created a new society in British North America. I would like to say it was the first English-speaking settlement in what would become Ontario, except that the Scots spoke Gaelic.

Many of the highlanders who left Glengarry in Scotland to erect a new one north of the St. Lawrence River were being forced out by their landlords, who wanted their land for more profitable agricultural ventures.

She told the story of a piper who joined the British army and was sent to the farflung empire. News came back to Scotland that he had died in India. His family were among the earliest emigrants to Canada.

Twenty-six years after his departure, he returned to Scotland, not dead and searching for his relations. He was told where they had gone, so he followed.

Once he landed here, he asked after his family and was told they lived ten miles north in the bush. He set out on foot.

His family were sitting at dinner when a sound came through the trees. It was the bagpipes, not an expected thing to hear in the Canadian wilderness. They rushed outside and were greeted by their long-lost son and brother, piping himself home.

Having so firmly grasped the hearts of her audience, McLean went on to discuss the adventures of her own researches, which took her to Scotland. She visited the villages whose names were carried to the new Glengarry: Glenshiel, Lochalsch, Locheanan, Strath.

She found herself telling the Scots who stayed behind about the emigrants. The Scottish BBC has a Gaelic component, for the dwindling number of highlanders who still speak the old language. McLean showed them a Gaelic poem she found in a 19th century Ontario newspaper, a lament in which one of the 18th century migrants says farewell to his native loch.

The BBC found it so interesting they set the poem to music, and filmed an elderly man singing the dirge while sailing in the highlands.

McLean ended her lecture by playing a video of the song. It made no difference that the language was beyond us, or that we had no Scottish heritage. The effect was the same - you could have heard a pin drop. For genealogists who find long-dead ancestors as lively (and alive) as the people they work alongside every day, it was a moment of heightened reality. We were all saying a farewell to a land we loved.

It was my job to thank the speaker, and I had a hard time getting my thick throat in gear to do so. McLean had given us an unforgettable moment.

McLean's People of Glengarry is available for those who want to know more about the Scottish migrations. Also recommended is Adventurers & Exiles: the Great Scottish Exodus, by Marjory Harper (Profile Books, 2003).

Posted October 21, 2003
Column copyright © 2003 Ryan Taylor

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