John Galt and "The Lone Shieling"

by Elizabeth Waterston

     Three Scottish puzzles have intrigued the literary world: the authenticity of the Ossianic Fragment, the authorship of the Waverley novels, and the provenance of "The Canadian Boat Song". The first mystery was cracked by detection, the second by gossip; the third has never really been cleared up. No manuscript, no diary jotting of a gossiping revelation has finally settled the origin of the poignant song of "The Lone Shieling".

     Perhaps only in Canada is there still an interest in this unsolved mystery. The poem still evokes the beauty of our land, and reminds us of the asdness of that beauty for our first settlers. It also reminds us of the unexplored riches of our Gaelic folk-art. Finally it recreates for us the story of that circle so important in our early days: John Galt, Tiger Dunlop, John MacTaggart, John Strachan, Bishop Macdonnell.

     Blackwood's, in May, 1829, tumbling out its best-loved feature, the mish-mash of Noctes Ambrosianae, tucked the "Canadian Boat Song" into an imaginary dialogue on colonialism and clearances. The "Song" had been furnished in "a letter from a friend of mine now in Upper Canada". Was John Galt that "friend"? He was a poet, he was a regular contributor to Blackwood's, he was interested in folk-lore. He was certainly connected with Upper Canada. Above all, he had a warm, susceptible heart, and the capacity for feeling the pathos of exile. The naming of Galt in the preamble was taken by contemporary readers as a typical "Maga" clue— clearly a possible author.1

     The probability of Galt actually being the author was thoroughly explored in 1941 by Professor G.H. Needler, in his fascinating brief book The Lone Shieling.2  Explored, and exploded, on several counts. Galt was actually not in Upper Canada but in England by May 1829. In its regularity of rhythm, the "Boat Song" is unlike every piece of verse known to be Galt's: he is always playful, or perhaps imprecise, in his rhythmic variations. More important, nowhere does he claim the famous poem is his, in spite of his terrible hunger for recognition and for money. His attitude toward emigration, finally, was always affirmative, not melancholy, and his interest in Highlanders was usually ironic rather than sympathetic.

     Nevertheless the link with Galt remains, nebulous but persistent. Professor Needler identified Galt's Upper Canadian experience as the source of the poem, David Moir being the actual poet. Carl Klinck refers to Galt's letters from Canada about "the songs of the boatmen whose echoes in Moir's imagination would produce the 'Canadian Boat Song'."3  But puzzles remain. Nowhere in the voluminous correspondence of Galt and Moir (now in the National Library of Scotland) is there a reference to the soon-famous poem: the same is true of the trunkful of Galt manuscripts and literary re mains in the Public Archives of Canada.4  Nowhere in the two accounts of his own life, The Autobiography of John Gait, and The Literary Life and Miscellanies of John Gait, does Galt strike comparable notes — not even in speaking of the distresses of that group of exiles whose plight so interested him, the La Guyarans. His own notes on Upper Canada, he tells us, were "chiefly of a statistical kind."5 He did travel by boat: around Goderich, where he noted "several pleasant meadows without a tree,"6 across Lake simcoe, with "singing boatmen" (who reminded him of Tom Moore, with whom he was personally linked through Lord Byron), down the Grand River to Brantford, and down the St. Lawrence, where the boatmen who worked through the Thousand Island stretch were mostly Gaelic-speaking men from Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Counties. But never a reference is made in any of these passages to "The Lone Shieling". In the authoritative book on Galt by Ian Gordon, the poem's title does not even appear in the index.7 To me it seems doubtful that Galt played any major part in the genesis of the poem.

     Galt, however, was not the only Blackwoodian Backwoodsman. Tiger Dunlop might have furnished the germ of the poem: he combined the warm heart and the ironic fury which combine in it. He too travelled with High land boatmen. He too noted "rich meadows by the side of the rivers."8  As Professor Klinck suggests, Dunlop may have helped write "more . . . than we may ever know" of the Blackwood's materials.9   Bishop Macdonnell, also named in the Noctes, spoke the Gaelic of his Roman Catholic parishioners in Guelph in 1829. He was an erudite poetic man, and a correspondent of the Edinburgh group. Or, to swing back to Scotland, since we know that Lockhart edited this particular issue of Blackwood's, what if we were to guess that Sir Walter himself may have slipped to his son-in-law one more item in the long list of works whose authorship he hid? Certainly this bitter song of the broken clan forms a perfect counterbalance to Scott's song of clan strength in "The Lady ofthe Lake":

Hail to the chief who in triumph advances! . . .
When the whirlwind has stripp'd every leaf on the mountain
The more shall Clan Alpine exult in her shade!

If we were as playfully inclined as the Noctes circle — or as full of rum punch — we might range further, and make a case for John MacTaggart. In 1829 MacTaggart published Three Years in Canada, filled with anecdotes about the Highlanders in the Ottawa River Valley. The "Rummagen-General", jack-of-all-trades, friend of Galt in Guelph, long-time traveller, MacTaggart also combined a soft heart and a bitter tongue. Perhaps his was the translation that Maga's "friend" sent to Blackwood's and to the world.

     The point is that any of them might have collected and translated the beautiful and haunting Song — and so could Picken, Fergusson, Gilkison, McGregor, and many another. So many of our first settlers were literate in the Scottish sense, carrying with them the rhythms of Burns, of Scott, of the Bible in English or Gaelic. Gusto, sweetness, verbal intricacy, and singing strength — these were elements woven by them into Canadian life and writing of pre-Victorian days.

     I would like to add three points about the song itself, two of minor importance, one more central, all three by way of qualification of points made Needler. Needler says that the "Lone Shieling" is not really a boat song; that it is not likely "from the Gaelic"; and that it is Canadian "only in the sense that the exiles who are supposed to sing it had emigrated from the Hebrides to Canada."10

     Memories of Canadian lakes suggest that Canadian boat songs are of two kinds: the short single-chop rhythms a canoe paddle-song (as in "En roulant, ma boule roulant"), and the slower push-and-pull rhythm of oars men in a bateau (as in "Par derriere / de la petite Rochelle"). The second is the rhythm comparable to Scott's boat song, "Hail to the Chief / who in triumph advances". The metrical pattern, as Needler shows, is that of Integer vitae — "accentual sapphics" — and it was indeed in use in hymns both Gaelic and English; but there is every likelihood of so familiar a strain reappearing in the rougher form of a rowing song.

     What about the Gaelic original? Needler cites Donald Masson, who after seven months among Canadian Highlanders said he had never heard a comparable songs (Not statistically very good evidence, as our Scientific colleagues would remind us.) Further, Neil Munro, the great modern novelist of the Clearances tales, is quoted as saying "It is utterly unlike any Gaelic poem I know." Our conclusion should not be to dismiss the possiility of the poem's being Gaelic in origin, but to push further into the still under-explored reaches of Canadian folk-lore. How interesting to see the way songs sung in Gaelic, to the rhythm of new work and the pressure of new emotions, would differ in content from those of the homeland.

     Now we touch the major, and the final point — the Canadianness of the song. Needler hears two different and unblended voices in it: the melancholy lament for a lost world, and the bitter sense of the social wrong which has broken clan life. To me, the mixture of sweetness and sour irony is a very Canadian blend. It is compounded of a memory of oldtime solidarity, resentment of the encroachment of aliens, a mockery of the pretentious, and a self-torturing amusement at the thought of the impercipience of those who should be our "seers". It is a blend that came into our literature early, precisely through the preponderant Scottish migration — the remem bered sweet and stirring notes of Burns and Scott sharpened and soured in the colder, more fragmented life of the Canadas.

     "Why, as for Canada, it's as Scotch as Lochaber!" cried Christopher North; and, before singing his haunting song, he names Gait the entrepreneur, Dunlop the M.P., Strachan the educator, and Macdonnell the Churchman. All were, in that first generation, setting Canadian lives in a long-continued pattern.


  1. Edward MacCurdy, A Literary Enigma (Stirling, 1936) prompts a review of early criticisms of the poem, and early attributions.[back]

  2. G.H. Needler, The Lone Shieling (Toronto, 1941).[back]

  3. C.F. Klinck, William "Tiger" Dunlop (Toronto, 1958), p. 126.[back]

  4. A typescript of these manuscripts was made by Fred Cogswell in the days before Xeroxing; a copy of the typescript is in the University of Edinburgh Library.[back]

  5. Blackwood's Letter-Books, National Library of Scotland, 4024.[back]

  6. Autobiography of John Galt (London, 1833), p. 80.[back]

  7. On Gordon, John Galt, the Life of a Writer (Toronto. 1972).[back]

  8. Quoted in Needler, p. 82.[back]

  9. Klinck, p. 53.[back]

  10. Needler, p. 64.[back]

  11. Needler, p. 66.[back]

  12. Needler, p. 66.[back]