Ryan Taylor To Canada from Scotland, by ship
Ship crossing


About Ryan Taylor

Dave Obee's
tribute to Ryan

Ryan's Columns

Ryan's Books

Devonians in

Back to

By Ryan Taylor

The ships our ancestors used to cross the Atlantic don't have a good reputation. Cramped and unsanitary, they made a long and tedious voyage even worse.

Many of the early vessels were converted whaling ships. Whaling was in decline and the ships had the extra space needed for passengers. Lucille Campey, author of Fast Sailing and Copper Bottomed: Aberdeen Sailing Ships and the Emigrant Scots they Carried to Canada, 1774-1855, says the owners did well by the change, once they had 'shaved all the fat and blood off the walls.'

As the number of emigrants increased in the nineteenth century, there were changes in nautical design. By the 1840s, the ships were better suited to the trip, both faster and roomier.

Campey is Scots, from Dundee, but she says her city was never a big emigrant port. "It was too close to the Clyde," she says, "People went to Glasgow and Greenock."

The early Scots emigrants to Canada followed the timber trade. The boats carried people on the westward journey but logs when they sailed east to Britain. Many of the early colonists went to the Maritimes. The founding of Upper Canada (Ontario) in 1792 opened the inner recesses of the St. Lawrence and Scots made their way to Glengarry.

As well as describing the changing circumstances of the sea voyages, Campey lists many ships, with their date of crossing, captain's name, port of arrival and number of passengers. Names of passengers are not included. She also scrupulously cites all her sources.

Sometimes the ships' itineraries are different to modern expectations. In 1840, for instance, the Osprey of Leith left from Cromarty and landed at Pictou, Nova Scotia, before going on to Quebec. Of the 150 passengers, 60 disembarked at Pictou.

Aberdeen was a considerable port. Campey lists vessels registered there which carried passengers to Canada, including place and year of building, owner, size and numbers of passengers. Although most were built in Aberdeen, some originated in the Miramichi in New Brunswick, where the timber came from.

Her chapter entitled "Emigrant Sea Voyages: A Good or Bad Experience?" tells us that many passengers chose their vessel because of the captain's reputation. She remarks, "The long stint of continuous service that many Aberdeen captains had with either the same shipowner and sometimes the same vessel made them highly experienced on Atlantic routes and thus highly prized by emigrants." Although few sea captains are given a comical reputation, a Captain Barclay is credited with telling his passengers, "Aye good folks, we have now got you out at sea and the first thing we are going to do is to starve you."

With seasickness, storms, other illnesses and boredom, many passengers found the trips heavy going, but people are always able to find some pleasures. There was dancing, romancing, singing, bird watching (even at sea) and endless gossip about fellow passengers.

Much of Canada was settled by Scots, in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, and later in Ontario. Many of the early political leaders at the time of Confederation were Scottish (including our first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald), as were the businessmen who built the national railway.

Campey's book is a useful blend of information about the journeys and facts about the ships themselves. It will be of interest to anyone whose family crossed the Atlantic, especially if they were Scots who came early in the nineteenth century. There are plenty of notes and references for those who want to find out more and the physical quality of the book is high. The publisher, Natural Heritage Books, is known for its attractive products.

Fast Sailing and Copper Bottomed is priced at $23.95 and can be purchased from your local bookseller or directly from Natural Heritage Books.

Column copyright © 2002 Ryan Taylor

Sponsored by Interlink Bookshop and Genealogical Services and hosted by Islandnet.com