Tiger Dunlop and the “Canadian Boat-Song

by Gary Draper

     In its time, the controversy over the “Canadian Boat Song” was a heated one. It has cooled considerably. The partisans (for the dispute has engaged more loyal supporters than disinterested researchers) are now, for the most part, quiet. And if the combatants generally are hushed, the champions of William “Tiger” Dunlop maintain a silence that is monolithic. Yet the Tiger has had his advocates, and it is Grating to cast an eye over their ranks.

     Their ammunition was perennially low. The poem, of course, was first introduced in the “Noctes Ambrosianae” section of Blackwoods Magazine, a brew of politics, literary gossip, and wit in the form of a convivial dialogue among the Blackwoodian fellowship. It would be impossible to draw a clear line between what in the “Noctes” was borrowed from life and what was pure invention. When “Christopher North” (who is understood to be John Wilson) introduces the poem, he explains that a friend “now in Upper Canada” has sent a translation of a Gaelic song sung by the Highland boat men of the St. Lawrence. Dr. William Dunlop, who was a friend of Wilson, was in Upper Canada at the time; that, in essence, is the argument for Dunlop’s authorship.

     What constitutes the argument against? William Dunlop is not known ever to have written another line of poetry in his life.

     Dunlop’s earliest champion was W. Cunningham, who wrote to the Times Literary Supplement from Trinity College, Cambridge in 1904. Cunningham is positive in his identification, but his argument is elusive. He speaks expansively of “the considerations which render it probable that Dr. Dunlop was the author,”1 and proceeds to a brief summary of the Tiger’s life and times. It thus appears that the “considerations” include everything from Dunlop’s association with Scots emigrants in Canada to his remarkable physique. Cunningham is not the only writer in whom the debater quickly gives way to the biographer.

     Thomas L. Work, the next writer to make a case for Dunlop, is in one way the most moderate of all. Writing to the Aberdeen Journal Notes and Queries in 1909, Work does not claim that Dunlop wrote the poem, but that he sent his own prose translation of the song to fellow Blackwoodians David Moir and James Hogg who rendered it into verse. This requires Work to read the “Noctes” as “literal fact and not a literary fake,”2 but at least it allows him to avoid the sticky problem of Dunlop’s capability as a poet. It also raises the question of Dunlop’s fluency in Gaelic. That Dunlop had a good ear for language is suggested by his habit of sprinkling his prose with samples of the local idiom, most notably in his “Calcutta” series for Blackwoods Magazine. And though a Lowlander by birth, he would have heard Gaelic spoken not only in his native Scotland, but by the Highland settlers of Upper Canada as well. Nonetheless, that he was not a master of the language is at least implied by an anecdote told of his election campaign in Huron County in 1841. A friend met him travailing to the remoter part of the Huron bush in company with a man named Angus MacK ay. Dunlop, so the story goes, explained to the friend,

I’m off to speak to these Highlanders, and see what I can do with them. I have Angus here to speak in Gaelic, and I’ll take care of the English tongue.3

The question, like most of the factual matters in the controversy, remains open.

     But if Work is a moderate theorist, he is an irrepressible biographer. He misses the year of Dunlop’s birth by three, and says that the nickname “Tiger”, was earned in “some sporting encounter” in India.4   He mistakenly attributes to Dunlop the authorship of the “Autobiography of a Rat,”5 and closes his essay with John Wilson’s sonnet, “On Hearing of the Death of My Friend William Dunlop,” which was in all likelihood written in memory of another William Dunlop, who had been Wilson’s close friend since youth.6 Yet if Work’s information occasionally fails him, his exuberance never does. According to Work, Dunlop was the moving spirit behind the activities of the Canada Land Company,

                 felling timber, founding townships,
                 adjudicating claims, attending sick aid.
                 injured, and shining in private theatricals,
                 and grave assemblies of local dignitaries
                 and Red Indians. He lived the simple
                 strenuous and austere life of a pioneer [sic]
                 with voyageurs, backwoodsmen, trappers, and
                 wanderers — far excelling Henry Thoreau in his
                 Concord environment at Walden.

This is a lengendary, Bunyanesque Dunlop: in the world of superlatives which he inhabits such merely factual matters as his mastery of Gaelic simply do not apply.

     Nine years later, Charles S. Blue did his best to conviince readers of The Canadian Magazine that Dunlop was not just the translator, but the poet. The argument, as usual, is that Dunlop was in Canada at the time, that he was the nameless “friend” of the “Noctes.” Blue offers a host of supporting arguments, ranging from the fact that Dunlop, “a true and typical Celt,” was “quite familiar” with Gaelic, to the observation (true enough, to judge by newspaper reports of celebrations at which Dunlop was present) that “he loved a song and, unlike the staid and stately Galt, could sing one too.”7

     Like Work, Blue moves quickly from literary disquisition to the celebration of Dunlop’s legend, though he seems more attracted to the tales of Dunlop’s literary life in Britain than to stories from the Upper Canadian bush. He assures his readers that “Of [Dunlop’s] work in the Huron district, it is needless to speak” (p. 373). Thus Blue’s Dunlop is the medical lecturer, newspaper editor, litterateur-convivialist, rather than the Backwoodsman, founder of Goderich, gentleman-savage conjured up in the Lizars’s In the Days of the Canada Company (1896). Blue comes back in the end to the “Boat Song,” and sounds a note of qualified assurance:

there seems nothing unreasonable in the view that . . . the claims of “Tiger” Dunlop to be remembered may not improbably include that of having enriched our literature with the “Canadian Boat Song.” (p. 374)

     The last notable advocate of Dunlop’s candidacy is Victor Lauriston. Writing in Saturday Night in 1925, he draws on a novel source of support, oral tradition. Lauriston recalls stories he heard during his boyhood in southwestern Ontario before the turn of the century:

There seems to have been no question in those days as to the authorship of the Canadian Boat Song. That “Tiger” Dunlop wrote it was accepted as a commonplace.8

This is not to say that Lauriston neglects the usual arguments; he is perhaps the most determined of all the writers in his literal reading of the prose context in Blackwoods. With the high seriousness of the true believer, Lauriston declares, “Lockhart had no known reason to lie.” Remarkably, he rejects Galt on the grounds that the poem “is strikingly different from anything [he] ever wrote,” an incautious argument, one might think, in defence of the Tiger.

     Seventeen years later, Victor Lauriston still cared. In an article in the London Free Press, in response to G.H. Needler’s book on the subject of the poem’s authorship, Lauriston shows himself committed to the authority of the “Noctes”: “one prefers to believe that J.G. Lockhart told the truth.”9  He draws on history (Dunlop would have seen oar-propelled craft on the St. Lawrence during the War of 1812), comparative literary analysis (one of Dunlop’s election addresses reveals a sympathy with the downtrodden which is reflected in the poem), and some unclassifiable logic (Dunlop “was the sort of man to build such verses out of a Gaelic boat song”).

Lauriston’s highly rhetorical conclusion is both positive and patriotic:

All in all, the champions of Huron’s claim to the authorship of the “lone shieling song” can safely sheathe their claymores. Tiger Dunlop answers the requirements as no one else does. And, admitting that, his anonymously-published poem was undoubtedly the first writing from Huron county to find a place in literature.

It would be an understatement to say that the claims made on Dunlop’s behalf are shaky. But the periphrastic, tangential, enthusiastic, specious, unshakeable arguments of his supporters form a chapter of our cultural history which is frivolous and delightful.


  1. W. Cunningham, “The Canadian Boat Song,” Times Literary Supplement, 3 (1904), 421.[back]

  2. Thomas L. Work, “The Authorship of the ‘Canadian Boat Song,’” Aberdeen Journal Notes and Queries, 2 (1909), 346.[back]

  3. Robina and Kathleen MacFarlane Lizars, In the Days of the Canada Company (Toronto: William Briggs, 1896), p. 242.[back]

  4. Work, “William Dunlop, M.D.,” Aberdeen Journal Notes and Queries, 2 (1909), 357. In fact, as Carl F. Klinck makes clear (in William “Tiger” Dunlop, “Blackwoodian Backwoodsman”), it was not a sporting encounter but a business venture, the clearing of Saugor Island of tigers in order to make it a holiday resort.[back]

  5. The full title of the work, which was published in Blackwoods in November, 1828, is “Recollections of a Poor Proscribed Animal, Written by Himself.” The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals identifies the author as James Tait, but Work is by no means alone in ascribing the essay to Dunlop: the 1963 edition of the Macmillan Dictionary of Canadian Biography describes the piece as being “typical of the character of [Dunlop’s] work.”[back]

  6. This other William Dunlop had been a friend of Wilson at the University of Glasgow around 1800 (when the Tiger-to-be was a boy of eight), and travelled with him on a high land tour in 1806. See Mary Wilson Gordon’s Christopher North”: A Memoir of John Wilson (Edinburgh: Grange Publishing, 1879), pp. 27, 77-78.[back]

  7. Charles S. Blue, “The Canadian Boat Song,” The Canadian Magazine, 50 (1918), 371.[back]

  8. Victor Lauriston, “‘Tiger’ Dunlop, the Famous Scottish Pioneer Who Wrote ’The Canadian. Boat Song,’” Saturday Night, 26 Sept. 1925, p.3.[back]

  9. Leuriston, “Canadian Boat Song Controversy Goes Back to Famed Huron Man,” London Free Press. 22 Aug. 1942, p. 51.[back]