Like all history, many whirlpools in time collide to create places we know, live and play in now. Bruce County and Kincardine on Lake Huron, just over 2 hours from Orangeville, is one such spot. In fact, Bruce County itself is a big playground on its own, awaiting more exploration!
Coming of the Scots
Kincardine refers to itself as ‘Ontario’s Scottish Destination’. Scottish place names crop up everywhere in the county. The heritage starts with the county name itself, taken from James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin and 12th Earl of Kincardine, head of the Bruce Clan and Governor General of the Province of Canada (1847–1854). Remember, we still were not a country then and, surprise, both Kincardine and Port Elgin take their name from him too. His father had been responsible for bringing the Elgin Marbles from Greece to England, by the way.
Fur traders were known to visit the area as early as the eighteenth century, but it was the Ojibway who largely occupied this land, and many of their artifacts have been dated to between1000 BCE to 1000 CE. However, in the early 1800’s, the pressure was on from settlers for land.
By 1844, Col. Casimir S. Gzowski headed a party to explore the Saugeen River by canoe. They probably used the Garafraxa Road to access the river and sketch what had become “The Queen’s Bush”. Started in 1843, the 119 km (74 mi) colonization road, was completed by 1848 between Guelph and Owen Sound (then Sydenham). Today, that road is County Road 6 which affords a lovely stress-free Sunday (or any other day) drive through picturesque rolling farm country and small towns.
In 1848, Capt. Murray MacGregor who sailed and fished in the area brought two pioneer settlers, William Withers, an Englishman, and his brother-in-law, Allan Cameron (son of a Scottish immigrant), to the mouth of the Penetangore River there. The town was first called after the river’s First Nations name. This is now the harbour of modern Kincardine. Withers created a dam and mill, anticipating a demand for lumber when settlers arrived. Lands in Penetangore and vicinity were offered for sale by the Crown in August, 1851.
In the summer of 1851, the Durham Road, now County Route 3 and another nice drive, finally reached Penetangore, from Owen Sound, It was another of the “settlement roads” allowing settlers to access newly surveyed areas. In the early years of Bruce County, Kincardine (renamed in 1858) was the only township with any real settlement, and the seat of local government for the county.
The Scots and Their Culture
Immigration to the area was diverse from the beginning. However, what was going on in Scotland at the same time that Canada was opening up? The Highland Clearances were in their last days, pushing Scots out to Canada and elsewhere. Since the eighteenth century, inhabitants of the Highlands and western islands of Scotland were forcibly evicted by their landlords mainly for sheep. Coincidently, the Highland Potato Famine in Scotland also happened from 1846 to roughly 1856, destroying crops of the Hebrides and the western Scottish Highlands, and as a result, about one-third of the inhabitants left. Close to Kincardine, in 1852 a group of 109 families settled from the Island of Lewis and had their way paid by their landlord, Sir James Matheson, for instance. This community is today’s Ripley. Canada offered lots of land, jobs and new opportunities for the Scottish (and Irish) refugees. By 1854 a big land sale of the rest of the Crown Lands took place, which attracted several thousand people to the area.
Scots have had a major influence on Canadian culture, arriving with the first Europeans. Scottish lineage would entrench deep roots into Kincardine’s community identity and become its pride.
Summer nights for the last quarter century, the ‘Phantom Piper’ plays from the top of Kincardine’s lighthouse at dusk, to memorialize Donald Sinclair, an early settler. Legend has it that on a cold October day in 1856, a small boat left Goderich, down the coast, carrying émigrés Donald Sinclair and his family from the Isle of Skye. Close to Kincardine, the family was lost in a storm with night coming. He took his pipes and began playing a lament, fearing for their safety. That sound carried to land and another piper, who heard it and responded. The captain of the boat was able to head for shore and safety, following the sound of the pipes. It is a unique tradition in the world and has attracted pipers from as far as Scotland and Australia!
The piper is actually a member of the Kincardine Scottish Pipe Band. The piping tradition goes back more than a century, with the establishment of the Band. Every Saturday night, the band parades down the main street, brought up from behind by its lighthouse mascot, ‘Blinky’. It is likely the oldest street pipe band with unbroken service in Ontario. In going over the continent to gatherings, and as far as Scotland, the idea of the Scottish Festival was born.
For over 20 years, Kincardine, Ontario has held an annual Scottish Festival and Highland Games to celebrate all things Scottish. The festival aims to preserve, enhance, and celebrate Kincardine’s Scottish roots. It offers three days and nights of celebrating Scottish culture with lively music, exciting competitions, cultural workshops, and friendly small town hospitality. Highland athletes and dancers compete, and people can trace their ancestry, march with the historic Kincardine Scottish Pipe Band down Queen Street, and take in the sights and sounds of over 30 Scottish pipe bands from across Canada and the United States. The next one will take place in 2022. Another event is the fall Gatherings of the Bands.
Kincardine even has its own tartan, partly inspired by the blue waterfront of Lake Huron! This was produced by Strathmore Woolens, registered with the Scottish Tartan Society on August 27, 1987, and is worn by the Kincardine City Pipe Band. You also see the tartan all over the city from its fire hydrants to bunting.
Scottish pride even extends to Lucknow, the name of a town in Uttar Pradesh, India. And why? This town was the site of an important battle of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 against the British Raj, and the Relief of Lucknow seige, which included several highland regiments! A number of its streets are named after prominent Indian Mutiny British generals. At the time the village was surveyed in 1858 the battle would have been a fresh memory.
What Else To Do?
The Kincardine area offers a great deal of different activities. For beach lovers, there are countless miles of sandy beach to roam, including the provincial parks. The area even offers surfing! Accommodation abounds, and for history lovers like me, there is the lovely restored Chepstow Inn, near Kincardine. It is oldest continuously running hotel in Bruce County, since 1869, when it started as a coaching Inn. The Kincardine Lighthouse, built in 1874, is one of 15 wonderful lighthouses spotlighted in driving tours. Hiking trails abound, as do other driving tours to places of interest. Fishing (with derbies), golf and boating of all kinds can all be enjoyed. Shopping, dining and theatre are other pleasures, including a foodie guide to the county. For “techies”, Bruce Power also offers tours starting again in 2022, of its nuclear power station.
Kincardine mottos say it best: “Great energy. Balanced life.” and “Where You’re A Stranger Only Once”.
Written By: Diana Janosik-Wronski