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Review

Kilts on the Coast: The Scots Who Built BC

By Jan Peterson

November 4, 2013

Review By Jack Little

Despite the title, this is not a comprehensive history of the Scots in British Columbia. The best overview remains the BC chapter in Ferenc Morton Szasz, Scots in the North American West, 1790-1917 (2000), which the author, Jan Peterson, fails to cite. What we have, essentially, is a series of biographical sketches of Scots who arrived on Vancouver Island as Hudson’s Bay Company employees, some of them to work on the farms established in the Victoria area but most of them as coal miners in Fort Rupert and Nanaimo. Readers will find little new in the biographies of elite figures such as James Douglas and Robert Dunsmuir, but Peterson does make use of the HBC archives as well as the diaries and correspondence of lesser-known individuals such as the coal miner from Ayrshire, Andrew Muir (though we not informed where this journal is located). We learn about what specific community each of these pioneers originated in, the names of the vessels that carried them to the Pacific coast, who they and their offspring married, what jobs they did, what streets they lived on, how they died, and even who attended their funerals, as well as who their more successful local descendants were. The result is an impression of uninterrupted upward mobility (despite a propensity for hard liquor), but there is no attempt to discuss broader social issues found in studies such as John Belshaw’s uncited Colonization and Community: The Vancouver Island Coalfield and the Making of the British Columbian Working Class (2002).

In addition, the title implies that these Scots carried Gaelic traditions to the west coast even though the majority of those examined were Lowlanders from Ayrshire or Orcadians who did not share the language, tartans, clans, or bagpipes of the Highlands. Indeed, apart from the cover illustration of Charles Ross with his First Nations wife and three of their children, there is not a kilt to be found in the book’s many family photographs. Despite the claim that the Scots’ “ability to assimilate new influences enabled them to maintain their culture and give it relevance for the next generation and those to come” (245), one is left to wonder if there was a common sense of Scottishness among these groups of settlers, or was this simply a romanticizing product of later generations? Are Highland games, Burns suppers, and pipe bands sufficient proof that “[t]he Scottish tradition remains strong” (247) in British Columbia, as Peterson concludes, or are they essentially reflections of a lingering sense of anti-modernity in today’s homogenizing urban society?

Finally, the subtitle suggests that the west coast was essentially an empty space, waiting for the arrival of the enterprising Scots to “build” a society from the natural resources at hand. Despite the occasional reference to Native wives and Native labour (overshadowed by descriptions of Native atrocities), this is also the impression created by phrases such as “Vancouver Island remained undisturbed for thousands of years until the Hudson’s Bay Company made its headquarters at Fort Victoria” (16). In short, despite this book’s packaging, it is essentially a local history aimed largely at descendants of the Scots pioneers of Victoria and Nanaimo. As such, it is not recommended for those looking for a comprehensive, balanced, or analytical study of the Scots in British Columbia, nor is it written in the engaging style one might expect from popular history, but it does provide interesting glimpses into the experiences of a number of pioneer immigrants who carved out new lives on Vancouver Island in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Kilts on the Coast: The Scots Who Built BC
By Jan Peterson
Victoria: Heritage House, 2012. 272 pp. $22.95