The story of this Scottish youth
Is filled with tragic woe;
The wrongs that drove him to St. Paul
‘Tis right that all should know;
No desperado steeped in deeds
Of violence was he;
An honest Scot, he stoutly fought
For home and liberty.
– Oscar Dhu
Sherbrooke publisher les Éditions GGC was one of the casualties of 2012, shutting its doors last February after a 25-year run. GGC published some three dozen local history books; one was Jean-Pierre Kesteman’s Les Ecossais de langue gaelique des Cantons de l’Est – Ross, Oscar Dhu, Morrison et les autres… (2000).
Kesteman notes the recent disappearance of the last of the Gaelic speakers born of the descendants of the original Scottish pioneers, just as he remarks that the old names are being erased – roads overgrown, towns with the old monikers now francophone in character. But Kesteman notes that the Scots were integral to the region’s character – Lake Megantic, Scotstown, Milan…
In November 1838, the Montreal Gazette reported on the arrival of 200 Gaelic speakers in the Eastern Townships, the monied buying land in Bury and Lingwick, the poorer digging ditches and harvesting potatoes. As others arrived, they settled in the same area, drawn by the familiar culture and language (as well, Kesteman notes, as Presbyterianism and a particular love of bards and poetry).
Kesteman profiles early local luminaries, such as Compton politician and poet James Ross, who spoke four languages (Gaelic, English, French and Spanish). And he tracks how the hamlet of Gould became a hub for Scottish immigrants and identity. The historian touches on industrial development, the railroad, gold and forestry.
Then there’s the outlaw Donald Morrison, the region’s most infamous murderer.
Morrison, the dutiful son, worked out West to collect cash to pay his father’s debts, but the bills never seemed to stop coming. In 1886, Morrison cut his father off.
Dad then went to see a businessman, Malcolm McAuley, and mortgaged the farm at 9 per cent interest – an almost usurious rate at the time. Morrison, fearing he’d lose the farm he had expected to one day inherit, had it seized, hoping to buy it at auction.
Unsurprisingly, he was outbid by a cranky McAuley.
Oddly, the farmhouse that Morrison grew up in then burnt down, and the son was accused of arson. A whisky runner, Jack Warren, was hired to bring in the scofflaw.
Morrison, claiming self-defence, gunned Warren down, surrounded by witnesses. The storied Outlaw of Megantic was hidden by his neighbours for months until finally caught and sentenced to 18 years.
The bard Oscar Dhu, also known as Townshipper Angus Mackay, published a 118-page poem in 1892, Donald Morrison, The Canadian Outlaw: A Tale Of The Scottish Pioneers.
In the introduction to his work, Dhu wrote: “Upwards of three years have passed since Donald Morrison, the Canadian outlaw, was imprisoned in St. Vincent de Paul Penitentiary for the slaying of ‘Jack’ Warren, at Megantic, in 1888. That it was justifiable homicide, no unprejudiced person, conversant with the evidence adduced at the trial, will deny. And the almost universal sympathy expressed for theaccused before and after said trial, will attest to the truth of our statement.
“It was, therefore, not strange that a general feeling of disgust and indignation was experienced when it became known that the out-lawed Scotchman had been sentenced to 18 years of penal servitude! And why? Simply because he had a sufficient regard for the ‘first law of Nature’ to defend his life against the unscrupulous alien who had sworn to shoot him on sight!”
You can find Dhu’s work online at openlibrary.org (the Lennoxville Library has Internet-connected computers; or you can bring your own tablet or laptop and connect, free, to the Zap network).
As for old-fashioned print, the late local historian Bernard Epps wrote up the tale as The Outlaw of Megantic (1973). If you can’t find it on our shelves, ask!
Kesteman’s book is located at the back of the library, in a section that houses the Eastern Townships Collection. At its peak, Kesteman writes, 3,400 Gaelic speakers lived in the Townships, in 1881. By 1941, Kesteman writes, only 1,000 remained, with the numbers dwindling ever since.
– Eleanor Brown, January 18, 2013