History Corner: A Puslinch Settler’s Story

by Peter Gilchrist (1828-1916)
written c.1914

The subject of this memoir was born in the parish of Skipness, Kintyre, Argleshire, Scotland, in the year 1828. My parents, John Gilchrist and Ann Taylor, were natives of the same place. My grandfather, Duncan Gilchrist and my grandmother, Mary McMurchie, were born in the neighbouring parish of Clachan. My grandfather, Malcolm Taylor and my grandmother, Ann McKinven, were born in the parish of Skipness. When I was about six months old, my family moved to Glen Torrisdale. I was about seven or eight years old before I went to school. Being situated a long way from the parish school, the good people of the glen put up a new school at their own expense. Not being a parish school, it got no government nor any other grant. The schoolhouse was a very modern building, the floor being mother earth. In cold weather the fire was in the middle of the floor and a hole in the roof was for the smoke to escape. Some of the seats were pine boards that floated inshore from some wrecked timber vessel. They could not engage very expensive teachers. Boys from fifteen up, they boarded around with the scholars. There was not a boy or a girl that could read or write and for arithmetic, they had it at their fingers ends. Some of the scholars came to prominent places in society. Among them were your old friend, the Rev. Donald Strachan; Thomas Strachan, his cousin, who was at one time Warden of the county of Huron; Alex Richie, captain and proprietor of a sailing vessel; and last and least your own dad, who was for some years Councillor of Puslinch and Justice of the Peace under Queen Victoria. When I was about eleven years old the family moved to Glen Saddell. Here, we had the parish school but no improvement in teaching. The old schoolteacher and the old kirk minister considered themselves appointed for life. I think this was the happiest time of my life.

The family were all away from home except my sister, Kate, and myself and along with other children, “we ran about the braes and pulled the gowens fine” or at other times along the seashore gathering pretty shells. In the year 1843, the family made up their minds to emigrate to Canada and on the 26th of May, left the dear old glen. We boarded the steamer at Torrisdale Bay and that night landed in Glasgow. Next day, we selected our berths and went to live aboard ship. The boat was not ready to sail for a few days but we had the privilege of living and cooking on the boat. On the beginning of the month of June, a little steamer towed us down the Clyde River and left us stuck in a sand bank opposite the town of Greenock. The tide was out and we could not go any farther. Next day, the anchor was weighed and the big sails unfurled and we started our long journey, moved down with the tide through the firth of Clyde, between the high mountains of Arran and the mainland of Ayrshire. We had the pilot, the captain’s and the first mate’s wives with us. They were two sisters.

When we were opposite the south of Arran, the pilot boat was pulled up alongside, the two ladies handed down into it and away they went. That was our last farewell to dear old Scotland.

Passed Ailsa Craig before dark – a strange island, only one landing place, perpendicular rock all around it and myriads of waterfowl racing along the rocky sides. We stayed on deck until dark, then went down, thinking to have a good night’s sleep but didn’t. In came a storm. The big boat started rolling and pitching and before morning, there was not two dozen of the 365 passengers but were seasick. Brother William and Archie were up on deck. They were experienced boatman. When they came down, they told us it was very stormy indeed. Father went up then. He was the best sailor of them all. He said it was pretty stormy but not at all dangerous. The wind was after us, the broad Atlantic ahead of us, a good ship, experienced officers and a crew of willing sailors.

After six weeks, the first thing took out notice – a flock of little birds about the size of small wild ducks. The sailors called them Mother Carey’s chickens. They were as lively as swallows. The kept following us for a long time. We are now at the banks of Newfoundland. Saw some icebergs, plenty of whales, some porpoise blowing and sporting in every direction. A little seven-year-old girl died. We thought she would be buried at sea but our noble first mate took her in hand, had a coffin made, tied it up on the mast and kept it there two or three days. One morning, we sailed up close to land. A boat was lowered. The coffin was taken down and put in the little boat. The mate, the father of the child and two or three sailors rowed towards the shore. When they came back, the mate went down and sat beside the mother, told her they buried the little girl beside a fisherman’s little girl and that the fisherman was very kind and helped them fix the grave.

We are now in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Picked up the pilot, a typical French Canadian. He had a boy with him that had no English at all but, fortunately for him, our cabin boy was born in the city of Quebec. They made friends at once. It took us a long time up the St. Lawrence. Wind and tide against us. Quarantine at last. Inspectors ordered all passengers on deck, numbered and put ashore. Boats came from the shore and the ship boats were also got ready.

The mate ordered William, Archie and Malcolm captain of each boat. The women had the privilege of taking their dirty clothes on shore to get it washed. We stayed in the immigrant sheds all night. Next day, the same process was gone through in getting us on board again. The same day, we dropped anchor at the city of Quebec. Our passage was paid to Montreal but the ship did not come any farther. We were put aboard a river steamer. We were quite sorry leaving the ship, its brave officers and crew, especially the chief mate, who has before now gone to his reward but has received the Saviour’s welcome of good and faithful servant. “Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of these little ones, ye have done it unto me.” We are now in Montreal. Took passage on a little steamer for Ottawa and Kingston. We had a poor navigation, as captain of the boat took sick and his man was put on as make-shift.

We got stuck on the side of the Lachine Canal and all hands had to go on shore with ropes to pull her off. Next morning, we got through the canal and into a wide sheet of water. This is where the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers join. A boat was coming down the lake and, through mismanagement of our captain, she struck us and made a hole in our side. But, we got to wharf in the little village of Lachine and got her patched up. We are now started up the Ottawa. The Ottawa is a fine, large stream, some of it more than two miles wide and very deep. We are entering the locks at Ottawa or Bytown, as it was then called. These locks at one time were considered one of the best engineering works on the continent. The Beauharnois Canal joins Lake St. Louis and Lake St. Francis. It is mostly lakes and rivers. Kingston at last. It took us four or five days from Ottawa to this place. Here, we took passage on one of the mail steamers, the Prince Royal. A very nice boat ran between Toronto and Hamilton; I forgot her name. Here, we fell in with many old country people. Among them was old Sandy Wilkinson, a brother of Malcolm, “Sailor” McCormick’s wife. My brother, Archie, was the leader of the family. He wanted to go to the west, to what was called the London District but the old country people told us that the settlers were continually shivering with ague and that Puslinch was only thirty miles away and that there was a good many old country people there.

Of course, we knew that Mrs. Neil Wilkinson (Mary Gilchrist) and her husband lived there. So, we hired two teams and struck up the Brock Road. All the swamps and pond holes on the Brock Road were corduroy. We arrived at where Aberfoyle now is on the same day. There was nothing there but a blacksmith shop, kept by a fine old Highland Scotsman. We stayed with him a few days and, although he had a large family of his own, he made us highly welcome.

Next day, some of the boys went out as far as Neil Wilkinson’s. They got a spare house from John McCormick and hired Hector Smith with the oxen and sleigh to bring the women and furniture out. We were glad to get to our journey’s end at last. This was the beginning of harvest time. We all got work at once.
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