John A Macdonald: Scotsman or Canadian?

This is the text delivered as the seventh in the series of Standard Life Lectures in Canadian Studies at the University of Edinburgh, in October 2004.


JOHN A MACDONALD:

SCOTSMAN OR CANADIAN?


It seems particularly appropriate that a Standard Life Lecture in Canadian Studies in the University of Edinburgh should be devoted to Sir John A. Macdonald. He was born in Scotland in 1815, and was taken by his family, at the age of five, to live in what is now Ontario where he lived to the age of 76, dying in 1891. He was already a central figure in the politics of the province of Canada, modern Quebec and Ontario, for a decade before Confederation, but his vital work in bringing about the new Dominion in 1867 was to make him the dominant figure in the building of a transcontinental state in the quarter century that followed.

Sheer longevity was one of the reasons for Macdonald's stature. Few of his contemporaries lived beyond their early sixties, and hardly any remained active, as did Macdonald, still prime minister when he died at the age of 76. Nineteenth century, Canadians certainly did not expect to live so long. ''No man can tell at what hour death may come and leave his family unprovided for,' the Montreal Gazette lectured its readers in 1866, advising that the man who took out insurance with Standard Life 'has always the comfort of feeling certain that whatever happens to him there is provision against want for his family.' John A. Macdonald certainly agreed, for he had not just one but two life policies with the organisation that he formally referred to in his Will as 'the Standard Life Assurance Company of Edinburgh'. We should also note that although for many years he followed a profoundly unhealthy lifestyle, the fact that he survived to 76 indicates that, in the end, he was a good risk.

John Alexander Macdonald, first prime minister of Canada, was born in Glasgow in 1815. His family emigrated in 1820 and he grew up around Kingston, Ontario - then called Upper Canada. In 1844, Macdonald was elected to the Assembly of the province of Canada, a sometimes awkward union of what is now Ontario and Quebec. In 1854 his party, the Conservatives, formed a coalition ministry backed, in Upper Canada, by moderate Reformers. Hard work and genial skills in people management placed Macdonald at the heart of this new centrist alliance, which was endure in various forms for the rest of his career. In a dramatic about-face, the Tories embraced previously-resisted reforms, notably the secularisation of the 'clergy reserves', lands reserved for the endowment of religion.

By the 1860s provincial politics became increasingly polarised by the virtual unanimity of Upper Canada's demand for 'rep. by pop.', a share of political power that would reflect the rapid increase in its population that had now outstripped that of French Canada. In June of 1864, Macdonald and his ally Cartier joined with Macdonald's foe, the Reformer George Brown, in the Great Coalition, to re-shape Canada's constitution. Confederation in 1867 was the result.

With one five-year break caused by his temporary downfall in the Pacific Scandal of 1873, a row over the granting of the contract for the transcontinental railway, Macdonald dominated the politics of the new Dominion until his death in 1891. The fact that Macdonald died in harness at the age of 76 may seem one of his greatest achievements, but his inability to pass on the leadership was also perhaps his most notable failure. It was in these years that the ebullient 'John A.' acquired the nickname that reflected the cautious obverse of his personality, 'Old Tomorrow'. The transition of power to a successor was perhaps the greatest of the many issues that he chose to ignore.

Early in 1891, Macdonald threw himself into a winter election campaign. offering the triple reassurance of 'The Old Flag, The Old Policy [a protective tariff], The Old Leader'. The prospectus was misleading: exhausted, the Old Leader collapsed in the final days of the campaign. On 5 March 1891, he won his majority. Three months later, on 6 June, he died.

Although Macdonald remains a mighty figure in the pages of Canadian history books, recent surveys suggest that only about half today's adult Canadians can recall his name - even when given the clue that he was a 'Scottish immigrant, trained lawyer and Father of Confederation'. The rest are not sure what to make of him. In 1997, when a panel of twenty five prominent scholars rated him Canada's second in order of greatness prime minister, just behind Mackenzie King, a political science professor called him a 'bit of a rascal, but he understood power'. There is, too, something of a paradox in remembering him as the founder of an independent Canadian nation, for Macdonald himself emphasised a Canada eternally linked to Britain.

Macdonald once remarked, 'anybody can write anybody else's life; you cannot stop them'. His declared principle was that 'so long as I give these chaps no information or encouragement, how can I be held responsible for what they choose to say?' The life of Macdonald is my first attempt at a full-length biography. Like many working historians, I have written a fair amount by way of biographical essay and biographical comment, but it is only by attempting a book-length study of a historical personality that I have begun to confront some of the problems involved. A century ago, Stuart J. Reid began his life of the first Earl of Durham by remarking that a biography was like a building: 'The author, like the architect, need not concern himself greatly about taking the world into his confidence over the difficulties which confronted him'. Well, nowadays, post-modernism seems to make a point in showing us the plumbing, so I might as well admit that I had not previously appreciated just how difficult it is to attempt to divide people's lives into segments, and how arbitrary are the categories that purport to tag what may appear to us to be contrasting strands of their personalities.

We do indeed live our lives to some extent in chronological chunks that can form the raw material for the chapters of a biography, but we do not live them in neatly packaged capsules that can be labelled as 'public' or 'private'. Biographers have to use specific labels, such as 'Scotsman' or 'Canadian', but people themselves are unclassifiable bundles of inextricable qualities.

Each human bundle, the 'subject' of every biography (it is a form that even defies grammar, turning an object into a subject) bears a name, a cumulative label, or perhaps a range of them, baptismal names and formal titles, pet-names used within families and marriage, nicknames in the workplace, abusive epithets. John Alexander Macdonald: how should a biographer refer to him? One of the few shortcomings of Keith Sinclair's life of the New Zealand statesman Sir Walter Nash is his decision to refer to the crusty and remote subject as 'Walter' and sometimes even as 'Wal'. The biographer's characterisation of the subject tends to influence the portrayal that is projected.

Since the publication of Donald Creighton's great biography half a century ago, the middle initial has been firmly set in place: Sir John A. Macdonald. It was not always so. Many of his contemporaries called him 'Sir John Macdonald', and sometimes he alluded to himself in the third person in this way.

Thanks to the massive and largely unrecognised researches of the West Lothian genealogist Donald Whyte, who has identified one in seven of all early Scottish migrants to Canada we can safely estimate that, in the century before Confederation, about 1,400 John Macdonalds emigrated from Scotland to British North America, and many more were born there. (This estimate makes allowance for variant spellings: even the subject of this lecture occasionally signed himself 'McDonald'.) Obviously some means was required to avoid confusion.

John Sandfield Macdonald, variously John A. Macdonald's rival and his ally, hailed from eastern Ontario's Glengarry County where, by 1852, one person in six was surnamed either Macdonald or its closely related form, Macdonell. He became known by a family sub-surname, Sandfield.

Growing up in a 'Scotch' district of south-western Ontario a century later, J.K. Galbraith was struck by their uniformity of nomenclature. 'To call a son something other than John was to combine mild eccentricity with unusual imagination.' In a landscape thick with Johns, the community avoided confusion by the adoption of nicknames, usually unflattering, and often offensive. In addition to the Big Johns and Old Johns, there was Dirty John, Lazy John, Bald John and Nosey John, while a farmer who had the misfortune to resemble his livestock became Piggy John.

Canada's first prime minister seems to have had a narrow escape from a similar fate. In childhood, the local girls called him 'ugly John Macdonald'. His own family did not dissent. When an effusive stranger congratulated his sister on her resemblance to the famous politician, she indignantly commented that 'John Macdonald is one the ugliest men in Canada!'

Perhaps, then, it was self-defence that prompted him, from the age of 20, when he first hung out his shingle as a lawyer, to call himself 'John A. Macdonald'. What began as an identification gradually became a persona: 'John A.', a Kingston newspaper wrote in 1858, 'was the familiar name which all here love to call him'. Even a sworn foe, Richard Cartwright, could say 'He was "John A.", and there was no other like him'.

Being John A. was an integral facet of Macdonald's character- but, I would argue, 'John A.' was only one aspect of the man. To slip into the trap that has beguiled many writers of routinely calling Canada's first prime minister 'John A.' would simply be to endorse a projection of one facet of a complex personality that deserves closer interrogation.

On balance, it seems best to call him as 'Macdonald'. The solution is not ideal. Surnames can be used in two very different ways, to imply both adulation and contempt. Worse still, such a usage may convey an unintended discrimination of gender, which should also be confronted. If surnames are used for the combatants of the male world of public life, there is little alternative but to use first names for the womenfolk of the story who confusingly derive those same surnames from their fathers or their husbands. The danger of this usage is that the surnamed men may appear as the serious players, while the forenamed women seem merely decorative hangers-on. Again, the point can hardly be made too strongly. Helen, his mother, Louisa, his sister, Isabella and Agnes, his partners in marriage - these formidable personalities were anything but airheads and playthings.

Scotsman or Canadian? We need a few words about definitions, but not so many as to spoil our evening. Political scientists make many distinctions, and one of these is between two forms of national identity, the ethnic and the civic. Ethnic identity is acquired by being born in a place and generally by having blood ties with a substantial number of other people who have also been born there, so that, at some point, a sense of extended family merges into a wider sense of patriotism. At the other end of the spectrum, civic nationalism brings together people whose association with a particular chunk of territory may be based upon immigration, either by their own decision or thanks to one recently taken within their family, to associate with the opportunities, values and institutions of that country.

It is not difficult to conclude that, at least until recent times, Scottish identity has been primarily of the ethnic variety, while to be Canadian has much more of a civic component - although Aboriginal Canadians as well as the people of Quebec and of Acadie, not to mention the Canadian Scots to whom we shall come - may insert their own substratum of shared ethnicity.

To suggest that Scottish identity has been based mainly on blood and birthplace, whereas Canadian identity is about shared values, is by no means to discount the strong element of civic culture in Scotland's history, nor even to contest the credible claim that it was the Scots who invented the modern Western notion of civic society. In assessing the Scottishness of John A. Macdonald, it is certainly necessary to take account of two elements, education and the Kirk, that were deeply woven not only into the fabric of his native country but also of its overseas projections.

Scottish identity has been until recently shaped by ethnicity largely for two reasons. The first was that his Scotland had very little experience of receiving immigrants from outside these islands, either as individuals or communities, so that no need arose to evolve an intellectual consensus of values to which newcomers could subscribe to become Scots. (Of immigrants from within the island groups, the English - the anthropological 'other' - have always been by definition unassimilable while the Irish Catholics went native in ways of their own.) The second, of course, was that while modern Scotland has had a vigorous and distinctive political culture, participation in the Union has meant that this has not yet been translated into a specific definition of sovereign citizenship. In any case, when Macdonald was born in 1815, Scottish political life in the form of elections was moribund, and the arrival of communities of Poles and Italians and Asians lay decades in the hidden future.

On the face of it, if Scottish identity derives from birth and blood, while Canadian identity is civic in character, there seems no reason why we should attempt to split Macdonald in two. Why can we not simply accept him as Scottish by background and Canadian by adoption, someone who existed at two separate and distinct levels of being? The complication is that in some respects the two levels are not entirely distinct. They may be different in origin, but Scottish and Canadian identities overlap in curious ways. The uniqueness of being Scottish is proclaimed in a famously defiant question, 'who's like us?' - but a small voice will reply, 'well, actually, the Canadians are a bit like us…'.

The conflation of identity has been a reciprocal process. Historians, such as Dr Graeme Morton of the University of Edinburgh, have argued that Scots saw their country within the Union with England not as a subordinate province, but as a nation state preserved in aspic, fully equal to Spain or Portugal or France or Germany. Because those countries all had empires outside Europe, Scotland too needed to identify its own imperial projection of itself, and Canada served that purpose. Since Scots seem to have been magnetically attracted to cold climates, and countries with severe winters sustain relatively sparse Aboriginal populations, Canada represented for Scotland a form of benign imperialism, the construction of what was perceived to be a larger Scotland overseas without the injustices of racial superiority or large-scale expropriation that normally accompanied European expansion. Such sentiments helped inspire the National Museums of Scotland 'Trailblazers' exhibition in 2003, which has left a permanent record in Jenni Calder's book Scots in Canada.

For their part, Canadians eagerly embraced the notion that their country was a surrogate Scotland. Facing the need to sustain their independence in the face of a kindred but richer, far more numerous and distinctly more assertive neighbour to the south, anglophone Canadians found in the spunky survivalism of the Scots a set of symbols through which to proclaim their own determination to remain separate. Hence even the Director of Canadian Studies from the University of Edinburgh could sometimes be welcomed to Canadian universities by the bagpipes, an experience that a jetlagged Sassanach did not always enjoy. In a 1989 book co-authored with an earlier speaker in the Standard Life lecture series, Jeffrey Simpson of the Toronto Globe and Mail, I sought to encourage visitors to come over and explore for themselves what we called Canada's Heritage in Scotland.

In Macdonald's time, the conflation of identity was even more complex, since neither Scotland nor Canada possessed their own citizenship or, indeed, technically speaking, any citizenship at all. 'A British subject I was born - a British subject I will die,' as Macdonald proclaimed in 1891.

The popular overlap between the external symbols of Scottish and Canadian identity obscures yet another issue, which bears upon the way we think about Macdonald. If Scottish identity is about birthplace and blood, to what extent and for how long is it possible to be Scottish outwith Scotland? The Edinburgh-based folklorist Dr Margaret Bennett has pointed not merely to the vigour of popular culture among communities of Scottish descent in eastern Quebec and south-western Newfoundland, but has also defended their ethnic integrity, arguing that far from being 'new' societies, in some cases they preserved customs lost in Scotland itself. Jenni Calder has recently suggested that Highlanders may have found it easier to maintain a sense of place and tradition in parts of Nova Scotia than they would in the industrial lowlands of Scotland itself. That may explain why they saw no inconsistency in proclaiming themselves to be simultaneously Scottish and Canadian. Writing of the eastern Ontario enclave of Glengarry County, Marianne McLean argues that its people 'came to view themselves not only as Highlanders but also as Canadians'. We might ask whether their claim to be both would have been unquestioningly accepted on the other side of the Atlantic.

Scottish emigrant cultures were undoubtedly dynamic. Did this mean they were entitled to set themselves up in defiance of the homeland model? 'We referred to ourselves as Scotch and not Scots,' J.K. Galbraith wrote of south-western Ontario in the early twentieth century. 'When, years later, I learned that the usage in Scotland was different it seemed to me rather an affectation.' So Scottish were the people of Elgin County that they felt entitled to sit in judgement on the ethnic credentials of the kinfolk they had left behind.

Galbraith in his memoir had much fun with what he saw as the Scottish qualities of the people of Elgin County, generalising from what he called 'certain resemblances in texture, attire and aroma' and celebrating their love of money and stolid indifference to sex. There may be little harm in such caricatures, and we may still smile at the stereotypically canny advice John A. Macdonald received as a young law clerk from his first employer, George Mackenzie, that he should never give a legal opinion without first pocketing his fee. But it is well to remind ourselves that perception plays a large part in the way in which national identity is experienced.

In 1957, the prospects of Canada's struggling Conservative party were suddenly revolutionised by an explosively glamorous leader from Saskatchewan, John Diefenbaker. It was natural to compare the two Johns, and Ontario premier Leslie Frost saw a great deal of difference between the fiery Diefenbaker and the cautious Macdonald. Frost characterised Diefenbaker as an archetypal passionate Highlander. The Highlander, he said, was 'firm in his allegiance and unwavering in his support but he is capable of intense likes and dislikes, of brooding over injustices', and he could be unreasoning in his hatreds. Macdonald, by contrast, so Frost argued, had been born in the Lowlands, where values were presumably different. Of course all this was nonsense. Macdonald was a Highlander on both sides of his family and, from an Edinburgh perspective, we may beg to doubt whether Glasgow was a clinically dispassionate environment. Diefenbaker did indeed wear his kilt on occasion, and his mother's family came out with the Selkirk settlers, but their surname, Bannerman, may suggest a Lowland element in his background. By contrast Richard Cartwright, a bitter critic, once remarked that Macdonald 'was too good a Highlander to forgive readily'.

A yet more bizarre theory came from Goldwin Smith, the one-time professor from Oxford University who settled in Victorian Toronto. It was an odd coincidence, but John A. Macdonald bore a remarkable resemblance to Benjamin Disraeli, leader of Britain's Conservative party, and indeed on his visits to Britain he was sometimes mistaken for the imperial statesman. (Even Disraeli accepted that they looked alike.) Sir Charles Dilke, who encountered Macdonald for the first time at London's Euston Station in 1881, was particularly startled, since Disraeli had died six week earlier. The resemblance was curious because Disraeli was ethnically Jewish and, so his detractors claimed, he was given to emphasising his heritage in his appearance. Goldwin Smith was unfazed and offered a typically grandiose explanation. Ten Jewish tribes vanished from the Old Testament narrative and Macdonald's allegedly Semitic appearance proved that these celebrated 'Lost Tribes of Israel' must have made their way to northern Scotland, where their blood-stock was still generating throwbacks.

We may smile at such theories but it is well to remember that where identity is a matter of self-labelling, as to some extent it must have been in the case of a Canadian Scot, perceptions and stereotypes had a role to play.

All this may give us a key to understand John A. Macdonald's trajectory of self-identification. For him, the real Scotland was but a faint memory from the first five years of his life - and even those memories came from urban Glasgow, at some remove from the Highland world of parental reminiscence. He grew up among Scots, adults to whom Scotland was a reality and a passion, but his own shaping and forming took place within a Scots community that operated more as a faction or social grouping. Gradually he emancipated himself from even that form of derived Scottishness, to move within a wider Canadian and British world.

John Alexander Macdonald was born on January the eleventh 1815 in Glasgow, a fast-growing industrial city, its population of about 150,000 mainly clustered on the north bank of the Clyde. The Macdonalds lived in residential area called 'Lauriestown', just across the narrow river, and it was here, 'in one of a row of stone tenement houses', that the future prime minister Macdonald was born. Unfortunately, the refined atmosphere of Lauriestown was disrupted by the construction of a colliery tramway. The middle classes began to leave for the comfortable districts on the west side of the city and eventually Macdonald's birthplace was engulfed in the terrible slums of the Gorbals. His own family had gone by 1818, but in their case business was evidently not prospering, for they moved to Duke Street, in Glasgow's smoky east end.

Although to the end of his life, Macdonald retained recollections of his early childhood, he would not have subscribed to Sir Harry Lauder's sentiment that he belonged to Glasgow. As we shall see, he planned to visit relatives in Scotland during his first transatlantic holiday in 1842, but there is no record that he ever travelled north of the border again during any subsequent trip to Britain, unlike some other Scots-Canadian politicians who could not resist razzmatazz homecomings in honour of the local boy-made-good. When he died in 1891, Glasgow's newspapers baldly noted that he had born among them, without any suggestion of a continuing connection.

Two stories survive from those childhood days in Glasgow, and it may not be entirely an accident that they reflect two contrasting aspects of his subsequent personality, for one shows the young Macdonald playing to an audience, while the other reveals a shy and introspective child.

At a family gathering, probably in 1819, the adults locked the assembled tribe of children in a room and told them to play games. The four year-old boy climbed on to a table 'and began making a speech'. He was too young to have attended a political meeting, and was probably imitating one of the terrifying Presbyterian sermons for which Scotland was famous: Glasgow's medieval cathedral stood just around the corner. Preacher-like, he supplemented any defects in argument with 'vehemence of gesticulation', in the midst of which he was startled by a noise in the street outside, fell off the table and cut his head on a chair. Macdonald's first recorded oration left him with a lifelong scar which Victorian photographers tactfully brushed out of their portraits.

The second tale reveals the other side of the boy's character. Young John was taken for walks through the city streets by a nursemaid, holding on to her long skirts with his eyes fixed to the ground in deep reverie. One day he accidentally transferred himself to a stranger, became lost and could not explain who he was or where he lived. As a lawyer, he wryly remembered the incident because he ended up in the local courthouse, where he was 'discovered by his father, who took him home and administered a sound whipping'. To modern ears, it is a horrible story, although by the standards of the time the corporal punishment of even small children was accepted practice. Perhaps equally noteworthy is the fact that this is one of the few anecdotes from Macdonald's early years in which his father appears at all.

Hugh Macdonald had been born in a croft at Rogart on the edge of the Scottish Highland glens in 1782. The family soon moved the family to the local town of Dornoch, where his father set up shop and became a prominent local citizen. Dornoch was (and is) a gritty little burgh clinging to the north-east coast of Scotland. Remote from the modern world in every sense, it claims the doubtful distinction of having carried out Britain's last judicial execution for witchcraft back in 1727, after a court of law concluded that Janet Horne had turned her daughter into a pony. (The devil supplied the horseshoes.)

In his early twenties, Hugh Macdonald headed for Glasgow. He tried to make his fortune in the cotton trade, but eventually his business failed, and in 1820 the family emigrated to Canada. Research by Peter Freshwater of the University of Edinburgh in the Glasgow directories suggests that Hugh Macdonald may also have traded as a merchant until about 1816 - may, because it is likely more than Hugh Macdonald operating in Glasgow at that time. The fact that Hugh tried shopkeeping when he first settled in Canada tends to support the theory, while his disappearance from the Glasgow directories (if we have the right person) suggests a lack of success.

Hugh Macdonald was one of life's losers. Embarrassed relatives offered excuses for his bankruptcy. There was talk of 'the knavery of a partner', and some romantic nonsense that his creditors were so sorry for him that he allowed him to keep his library, which he took with him to Canada, and even supplied him with letters of introduction to merchants trading in Montreal. More likely is the family story that they could only scrape together the passage money to Canada by selling their household furniture.

In the life story of John A. Macdonald, emigration to Canada may seem to represent a first step towards engagement with a notable destiny. For his parents at the time, it was a disaster. It is only by grasping the extent of their humiliation that we can understand the pressures that Macdonald's parents, and his mother in particular, put on their son John to achieve some compensating status in the colony.

Yet, in fairness, Hugh Macdonald was probably a victim of the structural vulnerability of Glasgow's mushrooming cotton industry boom. Dozens of small manufacturing enterprises churned out speculative products, a classic case of over-capacity worsened by under-investment. A few entrepreneurs amassed massive wealth; many more collapsed in the post-war economic dislocation that followed the battle of Waterloo in 1815. Competition from the Lancashire cotton industry and the disruption of Latin American markets by wars of independence against Spain took their toll.

Economic and social turmoil went hand-in-hand. In April 1820, as the Macdonalds were packing up to depart, some radical workers actually attempted an armed insurrection, and three Scots were hanged for treason after a brush with troops. The following year, the philanthropist Robert Owen, then one of the winners in this lottery, bleakly announced that the Scottish cotton industry was 'on the eve of bankruptcy'. Hugh Macdonald, it seems, merely managed to get there a little ahead of the pack.

Helen Shaw and Hugh Macdonald had married about 1811, when he was in his late twenties. Hugh was a short man; Helen 'of large frame' and endowed with 'much physical vigour and energy'. The only known picture of her confirms the comment of a tactful biographer that her features 'were of a massive, masculine type'.

From his mother, Macdonald inherited much of his intelligence and force of character - as well as his famously prominent nose. Not only was Helen larger than her husband, she was also four years older - a pattern that Macdonald would replicate first time around, when he married a cousin six years his senior. Measured in the most basic terms, the marriage of Hugh and Helen Macdonald was healthy and successful. Five children, three boys and two girls, were born to the couple, at consistent eighteen-month intervals, the last of them when Helen was forty. William, the eldest son died in infancy. Then followed Margaret (Moll), John himself, James and Louisa (Lou).

Thanks to second marriages and intermarriages, Helen Shaw Macdonald's pedigree rivals those of the royal houses of Europe in its complexity. In a family dominated by forceful women, it is probably simplest to begin with her own mother, who was the one grandparent shared by Macdonald and his half-cousin and first wife, Isabella. Margaret Grant was born around 1745, and lived much of her life close to the shores of the tiny Loch Alvie, under the shadow of the Cairngorms in the central Highlands. She was proud of her membership of the Clan Grant, and handed down vague stories that she was related to one of the clan chiefs.

Dominating the glen of her birthplace was the great rock of Craigellachie, which provided the Grants with both a rallying point and a battle cry. During the desperate battle to complete the Canadian Pacific Railway, George Stephen and Donald Smith, Highlanders both, adopted 'Standfast Craigellachie' as their morale booster, and the point in the mountains of British Columbia at which the railway lines were joined from east to west was given this 'jaw breaker' of a name in celebration of their triumph. All this, of course, lay in the far future. Indeed, Margaret Grant was probably already in her teens when General Wolfe stormed Quebec in 1759. Yet she would survive to emigrate to Canada with her daughter's family.

Margaret Grant was married twice, and here the complications begin. Although apparently not related, both her husbands were called Shaw. It was also a re-marriage for her second husband, Helen's father, James Shaw, who already half a dozen children of his own.

According to family tradition, he had taken part in the Highland uprising of 1745 in support of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the exiled Stuart royal family. As the '45 became enshrouded with an aura of romance, so many Canadian Scots families claimed forebears who had rallied to the Young Pretender. James Shaw must have been a very young man to have fought at the battle of Culloden, as well as a lucky one to have survived the slaughter.

As Hugh Macdonald's business affairs turned sour in Glasgow, we can simplify the options available to Helen by singling out a half-brother in the West Indies, a brother in America, and a half-sister in Canada. Charles Shaw settled in the Caribbean and became a rich merchant. 'He wanted our mother to go to him,' Macdonald's sister Louisa later recalled, 'but she could not make up her mind to leave her mother'. By the time it became clear that the Macdonalds were destined for exile, Charles had died 'and they never recovered any of his money'.

Her brother, another James, had emigrated to Georgia where he married into the family of General Nathaniel Greene, a hero of the American War of Independence. Having no children of his own, James came to the rescue of Helen's nieces when they were orphaned. Helen had a half-sister, Margaret, who had married an army officer, Alexander Clark. Clark died in 1819, leaving eight children. Three of them were boys who were old enough to be sent into the world to fend for themselves.

It seems that James Shaw in Georgia adopted four of the five girls, including nine-year-old Isabella who later became John A. Macdonald's first wife. The fifth daughter, Maria, joined the Macdonalds. At fourteen, she was old enough to help Helen raise the children and, by 1819, the Macdonalds probably could no longer afford to pay a nursemaid.

In taking four of the Clark daughters, James Shaw probably have felt that he had done enough for family casualties from Scotland. In any case, he died soon afterwards, apparently leaving the girls short of money. There was always an element of chance about the destination of emigrants. In John A. Macdonald's case, his parents might have taken him to Charles Shaw in the Caribbean, or to James Shaw in the American South. In both scenarios, he would have grown up among slaveowners. Had they thrown themselves upon the good will of Helen's brother in Georgia, Macdonald might have become a founder not of the Canadian Confederation but of the Southern Confederacy that provoked and lost the American Civil War.

As it happens, by the time the Macdonalds were forced to leave Scotland, neither Charles nor James Shaw was in a position to offer them sanctuary. They turned instead to Helen's surviving half-sister, Anna, and her husband Donald Macpherson, a retired colonel in the British army, who had settled at Kingston in Upper Canada.

The Macdonalds travelled to Canada in something of a miniature mass migration. In addition to the parents and their four children, the party included Helen's 75-year-old mother, her orphaned niece Maria Clark, and a family called McArthur, with whom they shared a house during their first years in Kingston. It made sense to travel in a group. In 1820, on-board facilities for emigrants were rudimentary, and passengers were largely left to fend for themselves.

At 599 tons, the Earl of Buckinghamshire would be small for a modern harbour ferry, let alone a transatlantic passenger ship. Apologists claimed that the Buckinghamshire (its familiar name) was unusually spacious between decks, but the Macdonald family tradition recalled an ageing and unseaworthy vessel, with 'more than usual discomforts'. Thanks to a contemporary plan, we know that the Buckinghamshire was roughly 33 metres in length, although only about 28 metres was available to the emigrants for living space, and just over 8 metres wide amidships.

Below decks, there were 36 compartments - they could hardly be called cabins - along the sides, each of them 1.5 metres square and containing eight bunks. Located handily over the stern the plan shows two tiny recesses, less than fifty centimetres square, marked 'Closets' - the sum total of the on-board washroom facilities.

'The Emigrants would find it much for their comfort,' advised a committee of Glasgow worthies who sometimes hired the Buckinghamshire, 'if their hair was cut quite short, particularly the children's.' This was not a fashion tip.

The partnership with the McArthurs was probably to make up an eightsome, with children sharing beds, and the two families joining forces to cook meals.

Maria Clark's job was to mind her young cousins and ensure that they did not fall overboard. In old age, she related how she had carried five-year-old John around the deck. Her recollections probably lie behind a cameo in another early biography, in which 'a bright-eyed little boy of five years old, with a merry face and a wealth of dark curly hair' stares at 'the blue, hazy hills' of Canada as the ship made its long-awaited landfall.

Even if their voyage had been unpleasant, they were at least lucky to have reached Canada at all, for many emigrant ships went down on the high seas. The Buckinghamshire struggled on through the emigration season of 1821, when another Glasgow passenger to Canada described his experience as 'disagreeable'. But by July 1823, when an Irish newspaper advertised it as '600 pieces of prime timber', the ship had been wrecked on the shores of Galway Bay. Family tradition claimed that 600 passengers had gone down too.

Eventually the Buckinghamshire sighted the blue hazy hills of Canada and began to make its way up the St Lawrence. The emigrants relaxed and at night, now that the vessel was no longer pitching on the ocean swells, they gathered on deck to dance, for every party of Scots emigrants would include a piper. Suddenly, the ship bumped aground on a sandbank, and it was testimony to ancestral prejudices that the Macdonalds remembered that the pilot was a French-Canadian.

In the darkness, other vessels passed by, ignoring their distress signal. Waves pounded the stranded ship, threatening to smash it to pieces. The emigrants were beginning to panic when a ship from Ireland hauled them free. Below decks, young John Macdonald slept through the whole episode.

They had sailed from the Clyde on May 12. After a six-week voyage, the Macdonalds disembarked at Quebec and headed up the St Lawrence: their journey from Montreal to Kingston alone took three weeks. It was not until 17 July that the travellers 'entered Colonel Macpherson's house at Kingston'. The colonel himself had retired to a mansion in nearby Pittsburgh Township, but he owned several properties in the town and it was one of these that her allocated to the newcomers. The Macphersons also helped Hugh get back into business, and by October he was running a store.

Their voyage had been 'long and irksome, even for those days'. The experience rammed home one depressing lesson: emigration was a one-way process. Macdonald might have been born a Scot, but he was going to grow up a Canadian.

Tragedies and setbacks continued. Helen's mother, Margaret Grant Shaw, survived her incarceration in the Buckinghamshire by just a few months, dying in 1821. Far more shattering was the loss of Macdonald's younger brother, five year-old James, in 1822, after being beaten up by a drunken child-minder. For the 7-year-old Macdonald, who witnessed the episode, it was not only an appalling experience. He was now Helen's sole surviving son. The full weight of her frustrated hopes would fall upon his young shoulders.

Those hopes continued to be frustrated. For the next twenty years, the predominant theme in the family was the failure of the father to establish himself and the accompanying shift of responsibility towards the son. Hugh Macdonald's retail business in Kingston did not thrive. By 1824, he had moved to Hay Bay, a village on the Bay of Quinte about forty kilometres west of Kingston, where he tried first shop-keeping and then, after another short move, flour milling. In 1836, family connections fixed him up with a clerk's job in the Kingston's Commercial Bank

.Meanwhile, the parents determinedly set their only surviving son on the road to the success that eluded the father. From the age of ten in 1825, young John A. Macdonald was sent away to school in Kingston, spending much of the year living in boarding houses. In 1830, when he was fifteen, he began his legal training, with such success that from 1832 to 1835, he was in charge of law offices in Napanee and Hallowell (now Picton), within a few kilometres of his family home. Nonetheless, when he struck out on his own at the age of 20, it was the bright lights of Kingston that called him back. Hugh Macdonald's inglorious return to a borrowed house on Rideau Street that same year completed the symbolic transfer of the family's centre of gravity from father to son.

No doubt Hugh Macdonald was unlucky. In the retail business, he would have faced established competition. As with cotton manufacturing in Glasgow, he got into milling at just the point where the sector had become over-supplied with small-scale plant. In 1836, there were 356 grist mills in Upper Canada, roughly one for every thousand people - but just one giant mill at Brockville had the capacity to produce ten percent of the province's entire export of flour.

It is to Hugh Macdonald's credit that he remained and on the lookout for success. However, Macdonald's first official biographer discreetly remarked that he was 'unequal to the responsibilities of the head of a family'. More bluntly, an unofficial biographer said that Hugh was 'addicted' to whisky. John A. Macdonald's later problems with the bottle may have been hereditary.

In old age, Macdonald recalled that it was his mother, Helen, 'who kept the family together' during their early years in Canada. 'She was one of those women whose very presence indicated the possession of strong opinions and great will-power,' her nephew recalled. An indomitable matriarch who survived thirteen strokes to live into her eighties, she was also remembered as 'an exceedingly kind & hospitable woman of marked ability' who fascinated visitors to the house with her stories of Scotland. Reading a novel aloud, she could be suddenly overcome by a sense of the absurd, and be reduced to tears of mirth by the hero's antics. She needed her sense of humour.

It would be easy to draw together scraps of reminiscence and paint a picture of an idyllic childhood. 'I remember well when I ran about this district a bare-footed boy', was the characteristic opening to one of his electioneering speeches in later years.

Yet there was another side to the story. 'I had no boyhood,' Macdonald would say in later life. The pressure was on him from the moment his abilities became clear. Indeed, some accounts of him as a child prodigy seem so formulaic as to arouse suspicion. He seems to have begun his formal education in Kingston when he was about six years of age, at a school run by a Scotsman called Pringle. 'Johnny Macdonald had a heid on him like a mon!,' Pringle was said to have exclaimed when his former pupil began to shine in the world. On the Bay of Quinte, at the age of the nine, Macdonald and his sisters had to walk five kilometres each way to the local log-cabin school which was run by 'a crabbed old Scotchman called Old Hughes' whose special skill as an educator lay in his 'adroit method of taking a boy by the collar and giving him a lift off his feet and a whack at the same time'.

By May of 1825, not long after his tenth birthday, Macdonald was attending the Midland District Grammar School in Kingston. Although for most of Macdonald's time there the master in charge, George Baxter, was a Scot, the school itself was a projection of the Anglican provincial elite, nicknamed the Family Compact. In 1829, for his final year of schooling, Macdonald was transferred to a new and uncompromisingly Scottish academy established by John Cruickshank which even admitted a few girls - although more out of the need to maximise fees than from any commitment to gender equality.

Opening a gymnasium in Ottawa in the 1880s, Macdonald joked 'when I was a boy at school I was fighting all the time, but I always got licked'. If private school education is intended to provide a lifetime network of influential contacts, Macdonald lost out. He seems to have made few close friends from his schooldays, and two of his contemporaries, John Hillyard Cameron and Oliver Mowat, were to be numbered among his most determined opponents. There are indications that his relations with the country children were also bad.

Bring sent away to school in Kingston meant that the young Macdonald spent much of his early teens living in boarding houses away from his family. He spent much of his free time hanging round the house of his uncle by marriage, Colonel Macpherson, a soldier who had risen through the ranks to high command in the British garrison in Canada. It is likely that Macpherson supplied the boy with the inspiring role model that he would not have found in his father. It was a lonely life. A cousin recalled that Macdonald fell in with the precentor at the Scots church, 'a queer old character' whose role was to lead the congregation in singing the psalms. Oddly enough, the precentor was 'a freethinker of the worst kind', and it throws some light on the defensive nature of the local Scots community that an agnostic should have been a Kirk official. He was an unlikely companion for a teenage boy, but 'took a great fancy to the clever lad, and frequently asked him to his room … and there engaged him in controversy respecting the Bible'. Macdonald enjoyed these verbal joustings. 'I don't know that it did him much good,' recalled one of his cousins, 'but it taught him to argue'. The story gives a glimpse of bored, bright, lonely boy: to a modern reader, the dangers of such a life are obvious enough. In later years, Macdonald often internalised his feelings behind a stoical mask as he had to cope with the setbacks and humiliations of Canadian political life. This is a side of his personality that may be traced back to his isolated adolescence in Kingston.

'From the age of fifteen I began to earn my own living', John A. Macdonald once remarked, and Joseph Pope suspected that he had to support his family as well. He was apprenticed to a Dingwall man, George Mackenzie, who was in his late

thirties by the time the teenager came to work with him. Macdonald also boarded with the Mackenzies, and his first employer, a kindly man, may have become a kind of substitute for Macdonald's lost elder brother. George Mackenzie was a moderate conservative in politics, and was planning to run for the Assembly at the time of his sudden death in the cholera epidemic of 1834. Macdonald probably imbibed much of his centrist political philosophy and very likely also acquired his first experience of political organisation from Mackenzie.

Evidently, John A. Macdonald was growing up in an environment with a pronounced Scots element around him. His teachers - Hughes, Pringle, Baxter, Cruikshank - his first employer, George Mackenzie, the close friends of his early adult life, Charles Stuart, Tom Ramsay, Tom Wilson, his first two law pupils, Oliver Mowat and Alexander Campbell - all were Scots even if some, like Mowat, were Canadian-born.

Tom Ramsay was an enthusiast for heraldry, and he and the teenage Macdonald organised a colourful pageant, based on upon a mock order of chivalry, the Société de la Vache Rouge. The Knights of the Red Cow owed their inspiration to the novels of Sir Walter Scott, seasoned with an element of sarcasm directed against Louis-Joseph Papineau, the radical seigneur and leader of a confrontational French-Canadian party in Lower Canada. Macdonald persuaded one of his cousins, who was rewarded with the grandiloquent title of 'The Lady Helen O' That Ilk' (which, interestingly enough, she claimed not to comprehend), to produce a banner, embroidered with the motto 'Sans Peur et Sans Reproche'. (In contrast to modern politicians, Macdonald claimed that he did understand French, but this was almost certainly an exaggeration.) One Christmas they organised a special staging of the pageant in honour of Macdonald's mother, who was placed on a throne, with a paper knife as her sword of state. The knights knelt around her to be invested with an insignia made from a length of knotted wool, which was hung around the neck of each knight in turn as a chain of office 'with appropriate ceremonies and prescribed formula of words'. John A. Macdonald, the master of the revels, wisecracked his way through the proceedings until his mother, tears of laughter running down her face, could only exclaim, 'God help us for a set of fools!' Notably, there seems to have been no role for Hugh Macdonald in the fun.

It almost seems to be taken for granted that most of the personalities he encountered in his early life were Scots. Late one summer night, he and his friends spotted a pile of limestone blocks on a Kingston street. Macdonald persuaded the group to use them to wall up the doorway of a grocery shop run by an elderly Scotsman, Jemmy Williamson - a prank that took them a couple of hours of silent hard work. Then, from a nearby hiding place, they threw pebbles up at the bedroom window to rouse the old man from his sleep. Eventually Williamson came downstairs to investigate, and delighted his hidden tormentors by loudly concluding that he had been walled up by a stern deity as a punishment for his sins.

Some years later, when Kingston had acquired its own university, an outspoken professor called John Stewart diverted some of his eccentric energy into running a scurrilous newspaper, in which he ferociously denounced respectable local citizens. Eventually one of them, called Kenneth MacKenzie, sued Stewart for defamation, and John A. Macdonald undertook the defence. With superb tact and ingenuity, he managed to please both parties. Through cross-examination, he proved that nobody took his client's newspaper seriously, and hence no-one could possibly believe any ill report of such a widely admired man as the plaintiff, even if they had bothered to read it. Stewart was pleased when he won the case, but MacKenzie was delighted with the vote of confidence in his integrity.

But if Macdonald could smooth down internecine Caledonian quarrels, he was ready to defend his own national honour. One Twelfth of July it was said that he got into a furious row with a local doctor who disapproved of the Orange Order and its marches. Macdonald was a Scot but he was also a Protestant, and in his early years he was an Orange partisan. The choleric doctor evidently queried Macdonald's credentials to involve himself in Irish quarrels and rebuked him as 'a lousy Scotchman', an insult to his country which the future prime minister of Canada insisted merited the use of his fists.

As he entered into adulthood, Macdonald was still a Scot, and almost every surname from his early life story confirmed that he moved in an expatriate Scottish world. Yet in Kingston the Scots were a faction rather than a nation, and Macdonald's Scottish identity was already second-hand. His mother told tales of the Highlands, but he retained only fleeting memories of the industrial town of Glasgow. Her first language was Gaelic, but it was a sign of her ambitions for his success in an English-speaking world that she did not pass it on to her son. Research by Professor Charles Withers of the University of Edinburgh indicates that Dornoch, where Hugh Macdonald spent his childhood, was also largely Gaelic-speaking until well after 1800, and so it is likely that both parents understood the language. If so, their decision to raise their son wholly in English suggests that, however much they themselves cherished the memory of their Scottish heritage, they were pointing him to a Canadian future.

In 1842, Macdonald took a long holiday in Britain to recover from a bout of ill-health. Only one letter that he wrote home is known, and it was written early in March, barely a fortnight after he had arrived in London. It is in fact the first extended personal document of any kind from his pen to survive,

He had already seen many of the sights in London, and had made an excursion to Windsor Castle, where he peeped into Queen Victoria's private apartments, which h he reported were 'as plain & snug as in the family of a private person'. He was making plans to 'roam around' the English Lake District, and to visit the university towns of Oxford and Cambridge.

But perhaps the most striking feature of Macdonald's travel plans was the relative unimportance of Scotland in them. One of his Macpherson cousins had married an army officer, Major Bruce Gardyne (Macdonald thought the name amusingly pretentious) and he planned to visit them at their home in Arbroath. He then planned to wander 'wherever my fancy leads me thro' Scotland'. There was no suggestion of a return to his birthplace in Glasgow, and even the country's famed capital city aroused little enthusiasm. 'Unless Edinburgh detains me longer than I anticipate, I shall not remain in Scotland more than a fortnight'.

In 1842, there was no rail link between Scotland and England, and no long-distance lines within Scotland itself (indeed there were no railways of any kind outside the Lowlands). For just a few years longer, most travel would still be by stagecoach, slow, time-consuming and not very comfortable. All this underlines the fact that Macdonald seems to have intended to pay little more than a token visit to his homeland.

Macdonald, in short, already saw himself as a Canadian Scot rather than a nostalgic exile. His lack of enthusiasm for Edinburgh was remarkable: the city was the headquarters of Scotland's legal system, and its university was the model for Queen's, Kingston project for a university which he warmly supported. Indeed, his visit to Edinburgh may have been important chiefly in relation to his position as a citizen of Kingston. He was in line to become President of the St Andrews Society, the main social organisation of the Kingston Scots, and he wanted to look the part.

We do know that he headed for Buckmaster's, the fashionable 'Tailor and Army Clothier' on George Street ('Ladies' Habits. Servants' Liveries. Shirts made to order'.) There he spent his money like a gentleman, and was outfitted accordingly. In mid-April, after he had left the city, Buckmaster's despatched to Canada an outfit that included 'a fine Macdonald Soft Tartan Kilt with Green Riband Rosette', along with a 'fine wool Glengarry Bonnet with Plume of Eagles Feather Cockade'. 'We have furnished you with a Silk Velvet Highland Jacket, instead of tartan as mentioned by you,' the customer from the colonies was tactfully informed, because 'they are more generally worn by gentlemen as strictly in character and, of course, much richer'. Still, the overall price was within Macdonald's budget, and Buckmaster's even threw in 'an airtight coat case' as a precaution against 'damp and dust'. The outfit was clearly intended for the ceremonial purposes of a Canadian Scot in Canada. Yet, oddly enough for a man who often sat for his portrait, it seems that Macdonald never had himself photographed in Highland dress.

There is one other respect in which his planned visit to Scotland seems totally and surprisingly incurious. His father had died just six months earlier, but his son seems to have made no effort to contact any paternal family relatives, nor did he speak even of visiting his father's birthplace in Dornoch. Even if Hugh's six siblings were all dead (and the youngest of them would only have been fifty), to be born a Macdonald was to be not so much a member of a nuclear family as a fragment from a nuclear explosion. Had he made the slightest effort, surely John A. Macdonald could have met people who would have told him about that side of his background: even in the early twentieth century, memories lingered in the north-east of Scotland of Hugh's own father. Not only was Hugh Macdonald one of seven children, but his mother - John A. Macdonald's maternal grandmother - had been a Macdonald by birth as well as by marriage. We have to conclude that he did not make the effort because he did not wish to know. His evident indifference of Scotland seems to have formed part of his attempt to distance himself from the failings and failures of his own father.

Although Canada's first prime minister was perhaps the most celebrated Macdonald of his generation anywhere in the world, he seems to have shown curiously little interest in those who shared his surname. When he was contacted by a namesake from South Carolina in 1871 who thought they might be related, Macdonald politely hailed a fellow clansman but refused to explore any blood connection with his father's family. 'I never heard from him that he had any relations on this side of the Atlantic.' (In later years, an Arkansas Macdonald also claimed to be a cousin, but he seems to have been a con-man.) Although he once claimed that as a 'Scotchman', he was 'given to genealogy', John A. Macdonald appears to have been incurious about possible kinfolk who shared his surname back in Scotland. He tried to keep in touch with his mother's family, who had moved to England and distant New Zealand, but there is no evidence that he ever sought out any relations on his father's side. It is all in striking contrast with his namesake John Sandfield Macdonald, for whom the three thousand Macdonalds and Macdonells of Glengarry County constituted not so much an extended family as a political machine.

It is likely that John A. Macdonald was ashamed of his father, and that to this we may trace the beginning of his disengagement from his own Scottish identity. It was certainly the case that the dynamic forces that sustained the family were all drawn from his mother's side. It seems almost as if he visited Scotland in 1842 because he had to go there, to buy his kilt and see his cousin, but that he travelled north with an obvious resolve to get out as fast as he could. Although he was to visit England on ten further occasions, there is no evidence that he ever crossed the border again.

But perhaps he spent longer in Scotland than he had at first planned: we simply do not know. Family legend claimed that 'amidst the romantic scenery of the Highlands [he] met his fate in the person of his cousin, the lovely Isabella Clark' and, surely, falling in love with Isabella would justify more than a fortnight of being jolted around Scotland on stagecoaches. Alas, we now know that family legend was discreetly covering up an embarrassing circumstance. In 1842, Isabella and her sisters were living not in the romantic Highlands but on the more prosaic Isle of Man, and it is almost certain that Macdonald took the steamer to Douglas, in response to their invitation, to meet his cousins. There was only one reason why genteel ladies were to be found living on the Isle of Man in those days - they were hard up.

John A. Macdonald and Isabella Clark were married in September 1843 not, as the biographies state, in St Andrew's kirk in Kingston but at the home of Maria Clark Macpherson, Isabella's sister and Macdonald's one-time nursemaid on the Buckinghamshire. Marriage in a family home was a very Scottish institution: a few years later, Macdonald's great political foe George Brown was to marry Anne Nelson of the Edinburgh family of publishers at Abden House next to the modern University of Edinburgh Pollock Halls. The Macdonalds were married by the Reverend John Machar, an Angus man and Aberdeen graduate who had briefly studied theology at the University of Edinburgh.

On his wedding day, Macdonald also entered into a business partnership with his former law pupil, Alexander Campbell. In a sense this day was the highpoint of Macdonald's Scottish identity, although even so, his Scottish bride had grown up in Georgia and his Scottish partner had been born in Yorkshire where Campbell's father was practising medicine.

Thereafter, the Scottish context gradually fell away. Isabella died in 1857, and his mother in 1862. Although he continued to represent Kingston in parliament, by the end of the 1850s Macdonald no longer regarded himself as living there. His sisters maintained a pied-à-terre for him, and here at least the Scottish ambience continued and was even reinforced. In 1852, Margaret married a widower, the Queen's Professor James Williamson, who was a graduate of the University of Edinburgh. (He had tutored members of the French royal family after Charles X fled the revolution of 1830 to exile in Holyroodhouse.) The brothers-in-law remained on cordial but formal terms for the next forty years, Macdonald showing a wholly proper sense of respect in always addressing Williamson as 'Professor'.

In the public sphere, the Scots names become fewer, and more and more of them political embarrassments or outright opponents, such as the Edinburgh man George Brown of the Toronto Globe. (Brown had lived for a time at 31 Buccleuch Place, in more recent times the home of the University of Edinburgh's Department of Politics. Canadian politics would have worked a good deal more harmoniously had there been such urbane and learned people in 31 Buccleuch Place during Brown's formative years who could have explained to him the merits of consociational compromise and elite accommodation.) Brown's political side-kick, Alexander Mackenzie from Perthshire, became Canada's second prime minister for five years after Macdonald was ousted in the Pacific Scandal of 1873. That imbroglio grew out of a feud between David Macpherson of Inverness and Toronto, and Hugh Allan of Saltcoats and Montreal, and it was Allan's reckless behaviour, not Macdonald's, that created the smell of corruption. Macpherson, however, as a lacklustre Minister of the Interior bore much of the responsibility for the next great crisis of Macdonald's career, the North-West rebellion of 1885.

True, one of Macdonald's greatest achievements, the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, owed much to two Speysiders, George Stephen and Donald Smith, but the relationship was sensitive. Macdonald found it hard to forgive Smith for deserting him in 1873, as revealed by the last words the caught by the Hansard reporters as the parliament was dissolved in 1878: 'That fellow Smith is the biggest liar I ever met.'

The close friends of his early life, Ramsay, Stuart and Wilson, had either died or moved away. As premier of Ontario, Oliver Mowat became an implacable foe. Even his long-time relationship with Campbell was often soured, probably because Campbell had refused to renew their law partnership in 1849 in protest against Macdonald's lackadaisical business methods. In what suggests at least one enduring Scottish quality, Macdonald sometimes privately vented his dislike for Campbell through unflattering references to the massacre of Glencoe.

Macdonald, then, gradually moved away from the Scottish environment of his early youth. When he remarried in 1867, his new bride, Agnes Bernard, came from an English family of Jamaica planters. The wedding ceremony was Anglican, not Presbyterian, and it took place not in a family home but in the fashionable London church of St George's, Hanover Square.

The process of disengagement from his background can be traced in Macdonald's own references to his Scottishness. In 1860 he told a public meeting that he was 'a Canadian, heart and soul', adding that 'though I have the misfortune … to be a Scotchman … I was caught young, and was brought to this country before I had been very much corrupted'. The allusion is to a celebrated remark by Dr Samuel Johnson, an Englishman who carried on a persistent vendetta against the northern half of the United Kingdom, although he was happy enough to be known by his St Andrews doctorate. 'Much may be made of a Scotchman,' Johnson remarked in 1772, 'if he be caught young.' To this day, there are many people in Scotland who do not find this amusing.

On occasion, Macdonald could even mould his Scottish origins to strike a bond with an audience of non-Scots. In 1869, to please his political ally Sir Francis Hincks, a Corkman, he agreed to attend a charity concert in Ottawa organised by the Irish Protestant Benevolent Society. The audience demanded that he give them a speech, and he banteringly reminded them that Scotland had been settled by immigrants from Ireland. Bushes and trees, he argued, were improved by transplantation, and hence by extension he could claim while Hincks was 'a specimen of the wild Irishman', Macdonald, as 'a Scotchman', was a 'refined Irishman'. To say the least, it was an ingenious reversal of the usual characterisation of Irish Protestants.

Surely no true Scotsman would have joked, as Macdonald sometimes did, about what was worn, or not worn, under the kilt. (He was noted for a salty and indeed mildly juvenile sense of humour.) Here are three examples.

On a visit to London (but not Scotland) in 1857 he ordered Highland dress for his 7 year-old son Hugh John, expressing the hope that 'he will bare his bottom with due Celtic dignity'.

In 1881, the Canadian House of Commons indulged in a little badinage about the Chaudière bridge over the Ottawa river, linking the two provinces of Ottawa and Quebec in the Dominion capital. The opposition leader, Edward Blake, was concerned by the stability of the structure. Blake was the great-grandfather of the late and much lamented Professor Rosalind Mitchison of the University of Edinburgh: she strikingly inherited something of his impressive features but, happily, nothing at all of his glacial and ponderous personality. Macdonald jokingly responded that he was not surprised that the bridge should have swayed to and fro under the weight of Blake's stately form. Another member pressed the prime minister to abolish tolls on the bridge, jokingly urging him to follow the 'predatory dispositions' of his 'brave and gallant' Highland ancestors who were alleged to have taken little notice of such restrictions. Macdonald not only entered into the joke about his forebears, but threw in the kilt theme: 'I fear they did not have much to do with either bridges or breeches', he riposted, suggesting that in the absence of both they simply waded through rivers. (There was a good deal of bantering humour in the early Canadian House of Commons, but not much real wit.)

In 1886, Macdonald's sole trip to the Canadian West coincided with a fact-finding tour by a Catholic bishop from Belgium (there was some Belgian emigration to French-speaking Manitoba). At one place the local Catholic community consisted of Highland Scots and the bishop was surprised to find himself welcomed by men wearing what appeared to be skirts. Macdonald is said to have assured him that their appearance was a mark of respect: in some cultures, men doffed their hats in honour of a distinguished visitor, but in Scotland they took off their trousers.

Would a true Scotsman have made such jokes?

If it was the case that Macdonald gradually divested himself of his Scottish identity, how was this possible and why did it happen? Three elements may be discerned in Macdonald's distancing of himself from Scotland.

The first is that he grew up at least one remove from the Scotland of his parents. His mother told tales of life in the Highlands; his own memories of Scotland were slight, and confined to Glasgow. His parents did not pass on the Gaelic. It is not surprising that, for a young man growing up in Canada, Scotland became a misty conflation of Walter Scott, kilts and bare bottoms. Then, too, we must factor in the apparent ambiguity of Macdonald's attitude towards his father. 'Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland,' so ran the words of the Canadian Boat Song, with its grudging tribute to Canadian abundance:

Fair these broad meads, these hoary woods are grand;

But we are exiles from our fathers' land.

This was tear-jerking stuff for people who had been driven out by landlord greed, but it was probably less inspirational if it happened to be all-too-obviously your father's fault that you lived in exile from your father's land. In 1879, Macdonald asked his sister Louisa to supply him with information about relatives whom she called, in a traditional phrase, 'our friends in the Highlands'. Louisa consulted Maria (Clark) Macpherson, the cousin who had accompanied them to Canada in 1820. The two women came up with the vague allusions to a relationship with a clan chief, a female relatives with a titled husband, and even a vague link to Ossianic bard, James Macpherson - no doubt the stuff of many family legends. What is striking is that how little information Louisa and Maria could pool together. When even the womenfolk knew so little of ancestry, it is evident that the links had been virtually severed.

Secondly, while the Kingston Scots community in which Macdonald was reared may have seemed to emigrant adults a cross-section of the old country, in practice it operated more like a party or faction than as a displaced nationality. Between 1830 and 1834, the years in which Macdonald was training in local law offices, the Presbyterian Scots and the Tory Anglican elite joined forces to secure the charter of the Commercial Bank, Kingston's vehicle to project itself as a financial centre. The Scots had thus achieved a measure of partnership in local affairs, with several of Macdonald's own connections holding influential positions (he himself became the Bank's solicitor in 1839). A quarter of a century later, Macdonald perhaps unconsciously pointed to the moral as he urged English-speaking Conservatives to work in partnership with French Canadians. 'Treat them as a nation and they will act as a free people generally do - generously,' he argued. 'Call them a faction, and they become factious.' Macdonald, the Canadian Scot, had entered adult life at precisely the moment when the Scots of Kingston ceased to have so much need to fight their corner on factional lines.

The third element in his disengagement is perhaps the most important, if also the hardest to pin down. It was, of course, possible to be Scots and a member of the Church of Rome: Kingston was the see of Alexander Macdonnel, the splendidly titled Catholic Bishop of Regiopolis. It was also possible to be Scots and an Episcopalian. As befitted an Aberdonian, John Strachan had been reared in both streams of Protestantism. In 1802, soon after his arrival in Canada, he considered seeking a Call from Montreal's leading Presbyterian church, before opting to take Anglican orders in Toronto a year later. To Strachan, who was not a modest man, it seemed axiomatic that the Church of England should respond to this boon by creating a diocese of Toronto and making himself the first Bishop, all of which eventually came about. None the less, the mainstream vehicle for expressing a civic and personal Scottish identity was and would long remain membership of the Church of Scotland. And here, in this intensely private realm of personal belief, we know very little about Macdonald's opinions.

It seems that he was a conventional Sunday churchgoer but there is little beyond that to show that Macdonald was deeply involved in Kirk affairs. His visit to Scotland in 1842 came as the Ten Years' Conflict was coming to a head. The Disruption at the General Assembly, in the same Edinburgh street where he had bought his Highland dress a year earlier, and its slow-motion sequel that split Canadian Presbyterians into rival churches, all took place during 1843-44, at the same time as he was preparing to run for the Assembly. His subsequent partnership with a quasi-clerical French-Canadian Bleus obscures the fact that he got into politics backed by a pan-Protestant electoral machine based on the local Orange Lodge. On political grounds alone, John A. Macdonald could hardly have welcomed an intra-Presbyterian dispute. The Kingston Scots seem to have been predominantly pro-Establishment, but it was at a provincial Synod in the city in July 1844 that the formal split actually occurred. A conservative lawyer with a strong respect for property rights, Macdonald is unlikely to have sympathised with the Free Church outcry against patronage, nor did not much like the democratic views of Free Church people, whom he privately referred to as 'Covenanters'. It was the Free Kirk that underpinned the revival of political radicalism in English Canada, and it was the Disruption that introduced to the province his most bitter foe, George Brown, once memorably described (not by Macdonald) as 'the mercenary of religious warfare', who was lured up from New York to launch the first secessionist newspaper within weeks of the crisis breaking in Scotland.

Two of Macdonald's early biographers defensively lifted a Victorian veil to portray the private piety of this politician so reviled by his opponents as totally unprincipled. But nobody, it seems, has ever identified Macdonald as an elder of the Presbyterian church - an office which his father had held within two years of arriving in Canada - and we may be sure that if Macdonald had been active in Kirk affairs, it would have suited some apologist to have told us about it. Although throughout his life Macdonald collected, or acquired, many books on religion, he seems to have owned nothing at all bearing upon the Disruption. For instance, the only work in his library by the prolific and provocative Thomas Chalmers was a largely secular text, the Political Economy.

The one Kirk-related project in which he is known to have been involved, the founding of Queen's University, probably tells us more about his sense of having been cheated out of the higher education that his ability clearly merited. Indeed, the only recorded occasion on which he failed as a public speaker was at a meeting in support of the proposed college in December 1839. The town's Scots community was launching a great fund-raising drive to establish their own college. They employed the standard campaigning format of the time, a mass meeting - held in the solemn building of St Andrew's Presbyterian church - at which pre-arranged speeches were delivered in support of a series of resolutions drafted to form an attention-grabbing platform. The young lawyer with the gift of the gab was an obvious choice to second the opening resolution which deplored 'the limited means afforded the youth of this country of acquiring a liberal education, founded on religious principles', which of course were defined as those of the Church of Scotland. Fifty years later, when Queen's celebrated its jubilee, Macdonald recalled that 'being a Kingstonian and a Presbyterian, I was exceedingly anxious that my native city should have the honor of being a University city', and that he had prepared himself to deliver 'an eloquent oration' to that end. But when the moment came for him to speak, he failed altogether: 'I was in such mortal fright that I did not say a single word. … I just placed the resolution in the chairman's hands and sat down.'

The real reason for his silence was probably the emotional content of the subject. His 'eloquent oration' would almost certainly have drawn upon his own struggle to acquire a liberal education, the sense of cheated childhood that had left him, behind the confident mask, inwardly persuaded of his own deficiencies. Happily, no harm was done. The massed audience cheered him sympathetically and, later in the evening, Macdonald recovered his 'pluck' and moved various procedural motions and votes of thanks. Before the meeting broke up, the traditionally canny Scots had challenged one of the less attractive cultural stereotypes of Scottishness by collectively subscribing a massive $4000 to launch their college.

Kingston's Scots had built themselves St Andrew's in 1820, but outside the main towns, Protestant brand loyalties of necessity became blurred. Hay Bay on the Bay of Quinte had an old-established Methodist church, and it is likely that the family worshipped there on a Sunday. Years later, John A. Macdonald, who was a superb mimic, could produce a totally convincing impersonation of an eccentric Quaker preacher from the same district. Macdonald attended school in Kingston for five years, but for four of them the school was uncompromisingly Anglican. For a year in his late teens, he managed a branch law office in a village called Napanee, a place so tiny that it had no churches at all. A visiting Anglican minister read service on Sundays, and the young Macdonald not only took part but sang in the choir as well. The clergyman who endured his musical talents would later say that the young chorister had made the right career choice in becoming a politician. 'A Protestant,' one obituary remarked of Macdonald, 'it was never very certain which sect he adhered to.' If Macdonald seemed eclectic in his religious affiliation, we should bear in mind the patchy provision of worship in his early years.

But in 1875, he took a step that symbolically drew a line under his Scottish identity. On a visit to the Centre of Canadian Studies some years ago, a great Prince Edward Island Scot, Senator Heath Macquarrie, commented that it was the only act in Macdonald's long career that he could not approve. On 2 March 1875, Sir John A. Macdonald quietly adhered to the Church of England. His second wife, Agnes, was a staunch Anglican. The sudden death of her mother, who had lived with the Macdonalds, on 26 February 1875 hit her especially hard. On the evening of the funeral, 1 March, the local Anglican Rector, the Reverend Thomas Bedford-Jones, invited Macdonald for a private talk. The following morning, he took communion alongside his wife at a private service organised by Bedford-Jones in their Ottawa home.

There are some unexplained elements in all of this. The Anglican Prayer Book provides an Order of Service for 'the Baptism of those of Riper Years', to spare the blushes of those, like Jack Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest, who 'don't see much fun in being christened along with other babies.' But the Prayer Book specifically requires the recruit to be confirmed by a bishop before receiving communion. Perhaps the explanation is to be found in Macdonald's days at the Midland District Grammar School in Kingston fifty years earlier. It was a publicly-funded Church of England establishment which reflected the arrogant self-confidence of the Tory elite. Could it be that the school had marched all its boys automatically through the passage rites of Anglicanism, whether they liked it or not? But Macdonald had often attended his wife's church before his formal adherence to the Church of England without claiming membership of it. Although his official biographer noted that Macdonald 'cared little for external forms of worship, and was at times ready to accept the ministrations of the Presbyterian and Methodist churches,' the particular congregation that he joined in 1875 suggests something more than a consumerist switch in Protestant brand loyalties. The dedication of the church served by Bedford-Jones, St Alban the Martyr, identifies it as 'High', and the congregation was not always united on liturgical issues.

The stunning nature of the family bereavement is no doubt enough to explain the timing of Macdonald's decision to become an Anglican. We may, however, note that it was also a convenient coincidence. The year 1875 would see the reunion of most of Canada's Presbyterians. The Synods that ratified the reunion did not meet until the summer months of June and July, but the issue had been widely debated and appeared to be heading towards a successful outcome. Not only were most Free Church people Macdonald's political opponents but, in the fevered factionalism of the times, they were inclined to regard him as Satan's principal ally in the Dominion. In the eighteen months before he joined the Church of England, Macdonald had been ousted from power in a corruption scandal and routed at the polls by the incoming Liberal government. He could have been forgiven for finding the prospect of worshipping alongside censorious 'Covenanters' less than pleasant.

Whatever the circumstances of Macdonald's adherence to the Anglican Church in 1875, we may take it as the point of his symbolic disengagement from his Scottish origins. He was still intermittently interested in his background, for instance, as we have seen, in 1879 he collected such family lore as survived about his forebears. Occasionally, too, it suited him to speak with a Scottish persona. In 1885, he pushed through a Franchise Act that granted the vote to aboriginal people in eastern Canada who were still living on reservations - groups previously excluded because they were deemed to prefer the collectivism of traditional tribal life to the individualism of European-style citizenship. Macdonald's opponents assumed that the 'Indians' would be duped into voting Conservative and unleashed a barrage of racist resentment that somewhat belied their party name as 'Liberals'. In response, Macdonald suddenly became the Highlander who understood the powerful pull of clan loyalties. However, he made extended visits to Britain in 1879, 1880, 1881, 1884 and 1886, partly to seek medical attention but also on political business. By this stage in his career, he kept almost all copies of his correspondence and, since he was in effect running the government of Canada from across the ocean, we can be reasonably certain of his movements during these five trips. This was the High Noon of Britain's Age of Railways. It would have been easy to have travelled north to Scotland. He did not do so.

If had gradually ceased to be a Scotsman, does this mean that he had necessarily become a Canadian? Do we mean by this a Canadian in speech and demeanour, or should we identify some set of values that are quintessentially Canadian and were reflected in his outlook and behaviour?

In one sense, he does seem to have become a Canadian, and that was in the way in which he spoke. John A. Macdonald learned early in life to fit in with his Canadian environment. Producers of docu-dramas about Canadian history have tended to endow their Macdonald character with a Scots accent (although rarely with one redolent of Glasgow itself), no doubt gratefully seizing upon so specific an identifier. But, according to his lifelong associate Alexander Campbell, Macdonald 'was in tone of voice & manner as thoroughly a Bay of Quinte boy as if he had been born there'. The British prime minister, Disraeli, who met him 1879, found his Dominion counterpart 'gentlemanlike, agreeable, and very intelligent, a considerable man, with no Yankeeisms except a little sing-song occasionally at the end of a sentence'. Disraeli's comment is confirmed by some verbatim evidence to show that John A. Macdonald rounded off his sentences with that harmless but distinctively Canadian interrogative 'eh?'. Canada's humorists have got it right: he was indeed Sir John Eh? Macdonald.

But in another sense, Macdonald did not conform to a requisite of modern Canadian public life: he was not bilingual. Here, indeed, there is a slight mystery. Nowadays, anglophone Canadian politicians tend to emphasise their ability to speak French, and there are legendary tales of the embarrassment that can be caused when these skills are exaggerated. In his era, John A. Macdonald was the obverse. He almost certainly understood more French than he cared to let on, insisting rather that he did not speak the language at all. One suspects that Macdonald liked to be in control of situations. His Quebec ministers rarely wrote to him in French: when Chapleau did so in the thick of the 1887 election campaign it was to blackmail him with a threat to resign unless his patronage demands were met. Some undoubtedly found the use of English a challenge: Narcisse Belleau's description of the discontented province of Nova Scotia in 1867 as 'that naughty black speck rising at the horizon' was splendidly Shakespearean but not altogether colloquial.

Even in the nineteenth century, it would have been of some advantage to have been able to operate in French. In 1856, when Macdonald first became leader of the English-speaking wing of the provincial ministry, his rival, the Montreal lawyer Lewis Drummond, laid claim to the position, citing 'his intimate knowledge of the French language, which [Macdonald] has not so mastered as to be able to speak in the house.' Indeed, not only did he make no effort to master French (unlike his second wife, Agnes, who took lessons from the nuns in Ottawa), but he did not even bother to hide his deficiency, even to the point of sitting at his parliamentary desk and writing letters while Quebec members addressed the House in their own language. There was a notable example in 1875, during the debate on the Address, the parliamentary set-piece following the Throne Speech. The Quebec intellectual Louis Frechette made a point of speaking in French as a mild protest against the pressures that forced his compatriots to express their views in what the Hansard reporter clumsily recorded as 'un language qui n'est pas le nôtre'. The gesture was lost on Sir John A. Macdonald, who insouciantly admitted that he could not offer the usual parliamentary congratulations to Frechette: 'This arose from not being very familiar with the language.' It was an occasion when a small amount of organisation coupled with a no doubt larger dose of hypocrisy might have been politically useful to him in the province of Quebec.

The oddest aspect of Macdonald's doggedly proclaimed unilingualism is that he did indeed have some basic grasp of French - enough, certainly, to contribute to a parliamentary discussion in 1878 on whether 'Puissance' was the best translation for the term 'Dominion'. He scattered a handful of French phrases through his private correspondence, although since he also occasionally used Italian clichés we should not make too much of this. Indeed, he attributed one of his favourites, 'nous verrons', to an anglophone Montreal newspaper editor, the Edinburgh-born David Kinnear, an interesting example of the Auld Alliance at work in his life. It would be impossible to be certain of the matter, but it does seem that he spoke French in the House of Commons on just one occasion. It was the first of May 1891, and Macdonald was taunting his opponents on their failure to unseat him at the recent general election. With a flourish no doubt directed at the opposition leader Wilfrid Laurier, he proclaimed: 'I tell my friends and I tell my foes; J'y suis, J'y reste.' Five weeks later, he was dead.

By our standards, then, Macdonald's attitude to the French language seems very un-Canadian. However, we must allow for the values of his time. In the quarter century after Confederation, Canadian politics passed through a transition stage in which an emerging national party leadership co-existed with a coalition of provincially-organised regional interests. During general elections, for instance, Macdonald never campaigned outside Ontario. Quebec, in particular, operated at Dominion level through what a later generation would dismiss as 'le roi nègre' system, in which a handful of power-brokers (the contemptuously termed 'Negro kings') upheld the interests of their province and simultaneously channelled the benefits won through their own vote-generating patronage networks. It suited these baronial figures to operate Ottawa politics almost exclusively through English, since by this means they could limit the number of compatriot competitors who gained direct access to the golden fountain. Equally, it was convenient to Macdonald to remain at a slight distance from Quebec faction-fighting, especially in the two decades after Cartier's death in 1873 when his francophone lieutenants fought out messy personal and regional turf wars for internal control. When Hector Langevin's enemies confronted him in 1890 with strong evidence that his senior French-Canadian minister was implicated in a corruption scandal, Macdonald is said to have responded: 'The Province of Quebec has its leader and I cannot do anything else than let things go.' To us, that does not sound a very Canadian way to exercise honest leadership in public life. But if being 'Canadian' was about making Canada work, then Macdonald's attitude, for the times in which he operated, was very Canadian indeed.

If we take as our defining 'Canadian' value a commitment to making Canada work, then we are talking about a flexible recognition of diversity. Here we need to confront two apparently contrasting aspects of John A. Macdonald's personality, one that emphasised legality, a key element in his portrayal of himself, and the other that was alleged to have cynically traded principles and opportunistically switched policies in the ruthless pursuit of power, as alleged in the demonology of his opponents.

If there was a side of Macdonald that was the genial and easy-going 'John A.' of legend, there was also a balancing strand in his personality that believed deeply in law and order. That is a phrase that nowadays is taken as a coded reference to someone who believes in hanging and flogging and who may not be over-particular about who is on the receiving end of such social medicine. In Macdonald's case, such a pastiche would be a severe distortion. He wanted an orderly society, but he believed even more passionately in one that was run through due process of law. In the long run, the British North America Act of 1867 may not have worked out as the centralising instrument that he hoped he had helped to design, but it most definitely did bequeath to Canada a political culture in which constitutionalism was ultimately decided by an independent judiciary. As he insisted in 1860, 'whatever happens… the administration of the affairs of the country should be according to law'. He illustrated his point with a revealing simile: 'when you see a murder committed before your eyes, you haven't the right to hang the murderer at once, but must send him to the appointed court'.

This side of his personality tends to be submerged under the memory of his more spectacular exercises in political volte-face. He defended public endowment of religion, and then presided over the secularisation of the clergy reserves. He opposed the federation of the provinces an obstacle to their eventual fusion, but hi-jacked the movement for Confederation to emerge as the Dominion's first prime minister. He adopted protection with the cynical apology that protection had done so much for him he was obliged to do something in return. For somebody who believed in the rule of law, he certainly turned a blind eye to much that was undesirable, and stooped to methods of political warfare that were unedifying and unethical. From very early in Macdonald's ministerial career, Oliver Mowat, a well-placed observer, concluded that he lacked 'any higher motive than the love of office with its prestige and power'. Can we bring together these two aspects of Macdonald, and reconcile them under a label that identifies him as 'Canadian'?

It is a reasonable assumption that most of formative events in a person's life must take place in youth or early adulthood. Alas, it is also probable that there are precisely the years for which the least biographical evidence will survive, since the person concerned was probably too poor and mobile to establish a personal archive and not famous enough to be remembered by others. Hence in biography there is a danger of pigeonholing people into a later period than the one in which their ideas were actually formed. I recall being very startled by a conversation with Dr Paul Addison of the University of Edinburgh when he remarked that the key to understanding Winston Churchill lay in appreciating that he was a Victorian. I can just remember the general election of 1951, in which somebody painted 'Vote for Churchill' on a wall that I walked past on my way to primary school (there were no school runs in those days). Memorably, I actually set eyes on Winston Churchill, in the House of Commons, on the occasion of his 75th birthday in 1959. Victorian? That made me think. But Churchill was 26 when the Queen-Empress died. The entire British university system works on the assumption that by the age of 26, most people are educated up to their eyeballs. So, yes, Churchill was a Victorian and basically he went on being a Victorian for the next half a century.

How does Dr Addison's insight relate to John A. Macdonald? I began this lecture by identifying him as somebody who entered politics with his election to the Assembly in 1844. By 1844, Canada was on the verge of responsible government, and some historians would assert that the system was already in tacit operation. The issues that would lie at the heart of Macdonald's career throughout the next half century - the political role of French Canada, the challenges of the railway age, relations with a transcontinental United States - all these were to the fore in the years immediately following his first election. John A. Macdonald, it seems, entered upon the political stage at exactly the moment when Canada was first being confronted by the great challenges that his own career would seek to resolve.

But let us suppose for a moment that a key moment in his political formation had occurred a few years earlier, during the upheavals of 1837-8. We have to rise above the natural inclination of hindsight to belittle the comic opera skirmishes of William Lyon Mackenzie's uprising in the hinterland of Toronto, and assume instead that the 22 year-old Kingston lawyer was shocked by the violence of the rebellion and - perhaps even more - outraged by the lawless repression and abuse of authority that followed. If we take 1837 as the starting point for understanding John A. Macdonald, then some at least of his later convolutions may begin to look less like cynical manoeuvres to hold on to power and rather more like the mature concessions of a political leader who appreciated the essential fragility of Canada's diverse society. Speculation, maybe, but the publication in 1968 of hitherto unknown correspondence discovered by Dr J. K. Johnson of Carleton University inserted a new element into the story of Macdonald's early life, and one that still has not been fully assimilated into the way we think about him.

1837 was a disastrous year for Upper Canada, one in which the province was thrown into turmoil by forces beyond its control. Locally, the pace was forced by William Lyon Mackenzie, the Dundee-born rabble-rousing radical whose talent for vituperation considerably exceeded his aptitude for constructive thinking. In the first week of December, Mackenzie began to gather his supporters in menacing fashion at Montgomery's Tavern, a well-known radical meeting place on Yonge Street, just outside Toronto. Sporadic clashes with government supporters followed. On December 7, a militia force of about 1500 men marched out of town into the countryside (in fact as far as modern Eglinton Avenue) to challenge about 400 rebels. A brief artillery barrage and a handful of casualties were enough to end Mackenzie's rebellion. Montgomery's was burnt to the ground. Revenge attacks on rebel property followed, triggering the protest resignation of the eccentric but upright adjutant-general of the militia, Colonel James Fitzgibbon. For months afterwards, suspected sympathisers were rounded up with little regard for the rule of law that was so precious to John A. Macdonald. What part did he play in the crisis and what effect did these events have upon him?

To answer this question, we must fast-forward precisely half a century, to a winter day in 1887, and home in upon an elderly Senator in whimsical mood as he penned a letter to his friend the prime minister. James Gowan had been a judge in Barrie when he first got to know Macdonald in the mid-1850s. He had rapidly become a confidante and a hero-worshipper. In 1885, two years after Gowan had retired from the bench, Macdonald brought him to Ottawa where he became that rare and precious political commodity, a working Senator.

'I do not know how you were engaged fifty years ago,' Gowan wrote on December 7 1887, 'but this day, half a century since, I was with the party who came to Montgomery's house through the woods where the shooting was done.'

Back came a surprising reply. 'Well we are comrades, in a Military as well as a Civil sense,' Macdonald wrote. 'I was there too. I was in the Second or Third Company behind the Cannon that opened out on Montgomery's House.'

We have become accustomed to thinking of John A. Macdonald as someone who began his long career in public life in the eighteen-forties, as Canada stood on the brink of self-government and the age of railways. The exchange of letters with Gowan (and remember it did not become known until 1968) forces us to revise our ideas about the influences that shaped him. Macdonald had a part in the crisis that brought Canada to edge of civil war. He was present when shots were fired and blood was shed at Montgomery's Tavern. As he himself would say in later years, 'I carried my musket in '37'.

Yet even the faithful Gowan, a friend for thirty years, had no idea that they had been comrades in arms. In three decades of drinking and yarning with Gowan, it seems that Macdonald had never mentioned his rebellion experience. But in 1887, he did recall to Gowan his fatigue in the aftermath of the attack on Montgomery's Tavern. 'I was never so tired in my life as I was on the march back.' In retrospect, the engagement on Yonge Street may seem tame enough to us - a contemporary newspaper estimated eleven killed and seventeen wounded, mostly rebels - but the experience and especially its apprehension were terrifying enough: the same newspaper had predicted a full-scale rebel assault on Toronto with hundreds of dead. For his part, Gowan recalled that he won no glory, but was principally proud that he 'resisted a strong inclination to run away'.

Macdonald, too, may have been horrified by the experience. Certainly it is curious that he apparently made so little of his service to the Crown. The first decade of his political career was marked by struggles with the Tories whose infuriating arrogance claimed a monopoly on loyalty to the Crown. To have projected himself as a veteran of 1837 would have been a political asset. For decades after the American Civil War, Republican politicians waved 'the bloody shirt' during election campaigns, and even in 2004, to have served in Vietnam seems to be an asset for a would-be President. Canadian politicians briefly re-fought the battles of 1837 during the Rebellion Losses affair of 1849, but their conflict, though heated, was confined to words. Thereafter, through decades of Upper Canadian campaign dinners and Ontario political picnics, we do not hear of the rebellions, neither in pride and nostalgia, nor in anger and indignation.

Presumably it was the fact that he had carried his musket that qualified Macdonald to become Canada's first Minister of Militia in 1862, as the province began to accept a larger share of responsibility for its own defence. But one of the greatest personal crises of his career occurred when the militia went into action to block the invasion of the Niagara peninsula by the Fenians, an Irish terrorist organisation, in 1866. Macdonald collapsed into a drunken stupor and was incapable of handling military business for days on end. There were plenty of demons in his life at that time, but perhaps it was memories of 1837 that pushed him into his despairing binge.

A decade and more after Confederation, there was a minor political campaign in Ontario to reward the veterans of 1837 with land grants on the prairies. The whole thing was a farcical scam: Canada already operated a free grant scheme to genuine settlers, and the few survivors from 1837 were hardly likely to opt for pioneer life out West. When the issue was raised in 1877, Macdonald, then in opposition, cheerfully stirred the pot. Identifying himself as 'one of the volunteers who served in 1837-8', he hoped 'I shall get a substantial recognition'.

But when he returned to government, he deftly dismissed the annual calls for special compensation. In 1884, he added a jocular personal allusion. 'This is a disappointment to myself, as I was one of the volunteers, and carried my musket, and I suppose I fought as bravely as my confreres.' But three years later, deploring attempts to stir up 'the unhappy event of 1837', he resorted to a standard political device of referring the House of Commons to his earlier answer, which he read from the pages of Hansard. Perhaps he had forgotten his little joke, for he stumbled into the sentence just quoted but broke off half way through, as if not wishing to revive the recollection.

When the Liberal orator Edward Blake reminded parliament that 1887 was the fiftieth anniversary year of the uprisings, Macdonald responded in unusually passionate terms. For Canada, it had been humiliating 'to see, rightly or wrongly, the people of the same race, of the same country, and subjects of the same Government, flying at each other's throats. Thank God! Those days have long passed!' A fusillade of 'Thank Gods!' followed, ending with the reflection that 'we can all look back and respect those men who fought on one side or on the other, for we know there was a feeling of right and justice on both sides'.

A cynic might respond that this was precisely the line we should expect Sir John A. Macdonald to have taken, in the later years of his career when his majority rested upon support in Quebec, where sympathy for the rebels had been far more widespread than in English Canada. Indeed, his later political ally George Cartier had been one of those who took up arms against the government. Indeed, in the run-up to the hotly contested election of 1878, Macdonald had angrily defended Cartier's memory against the charge of cowardice at the battle of St Denis. But if it was good politics to play down the tragedy of 1837, that was partly because even those who fought for the Crown had come to see both sides of the rebellion story. As Gowan put it: 'We were on the right side, yet we but followed an instinct, without question or doubt. … The rebels had grievances and were not without rights to maintain, but their method of vindicating them was a blunder and a crime'.

Such were the sober reflections of fifty years on. But to a surprising extent, they seem to reflect Macdonald's response to events at the time. This, at least, was the recollection of a Kingston radical, who was arrested a few days after the armed clash at Montgomery's. He was quickly released but only after friends had pledged large sums of money to stand bail for him. He sought out Macdonald's advice, and found him in a gloomy mood. The young lawyer's advice was blunt: jump bail and 'get away from the city as quickly as you can…. You are not safe here.' The rule of law would eventually be restored, but meanwhile the state of affairs was 'intolerable'.

There is contemporary evidence pointing to Macdonald's sense of alienation. When a newspaper report in February 1838 announced that he was to be promoted to junior officer rank in the Frontenac county militia, he sent a curtly worded letter to the authorities asking to have his name removed; 'I cannot accept of an Ensigncy in that Corps.' Since Frontenac is the immediate interior of Kingston, he could hardly have objected to the locality. Perhaps his emphasis indicated that he was too ambitious to be fobbed off with such a lowly rank. Perhaps he was making a principled stand, refusing to put himself in a position where he might have to obey orders that violated his sense of legality. True, later in the year he was reported to have served in the spontaneously formed Loyal Scotch Volunteer Independent Light Infantry Company, which was long remembered for its handsome tartan trews. But by the end of 1838, the province was threatened with cross-border invasion, and Colonel Macpherson's nephew would never be backward in defending his country. It is also worth noting that the first assignment that he did accept from the government, in November 1840, was a place on the official commission established to consider compensation for losses incurred during the rebellions.

That John A. Macdonald disapproved of the illegality of repression is also suggested by three spectacular cases in which he was involved during 1838. In the Midland District treason trials in July, the 23 year-old barrister successfully defended eight Kingston-area dissidents who were prosecuted by one of the province's leading lawyers, John S. Cartwright. Cartwright's task seemed easy enough, since the accused had already signed confessions of their guilt. Macdonald succeeded in having these set aside, and the trials collapsed.

Then there was his sensational victory in Ashley vs Dundas. Colonel Dundas, the commander of the local British garrison, was the grandson of Lord Melville, the political grandee who had run Scotland for William Pitt, and whose statue still looks down upon the city of Edinburgh from its pillar in Charlotte Square. Kingston society was awestruck at the thought that Dundas would one day sit in the House of Lords. When a group of rebel suspects escaped from custody, the colonel arrested the garrison jailer on suspicion of collusion. In Tory eyes, the fact that the arrest was not only unjustified but illegal was wholly irrelevant: people like Dundas were put on earth to exercise authority and people like Ashley existed to be on the receiving end. But Ashley did not see that matter in that light. He hired Macdonald to sue for damages and, to the horror of respectable Kingston, he won his case.

Finally, and less successfully, Macdonald advised at the defence at the court martial of Nils Von Schoultz, a Swedish-Polish adventurer who had led an unofficial invasion from the United States.

For a lawyer to represent clients does not prove that he was personally committed to their cause, and he most certainly abominated what Von Schoultz had done. (So, to his credit, did Von Schoultz himself when it dawned on him that the people of Canada were not downtrodden peasants awaiting liberation). On the other hand, his personal feelings do seem to have engaged in Ashley vs Dundas. He handled witnesses for the defence with markedly less respect than army officers thought themselves entitled to receive, and in retaliation was ostracised by the garrison elite for some years afterwards.

Macdonald was just a month short of his twenty-fourth birthday when the Kingston court-martial closed with a grisly batch of hangings. In the previous twelve months the provinces had been torn apart. Canadians were forced to define their own political position, and none more so than the junior barrister suddenly thrust into prominence by the legal fall-out from unstable times. Half a century later, he was to deplore the rebellions as 'a war of fellow-subject against fellow-subject, which should, as much as possible, be forgotten'. We may, however, be reasonably sure that those memories did remain in the background of his own political career. Caution and compromise might not always provide the inspiring and principled leadership, but they came naturally to someone who had appreciated that there were limits to the strains that could be imposed upon a diverse and fragile society. Never again must Canada be driven to endure the 'days of humiliation, days of injustice' that had engulfed the province in 1837.

We may thus re-examine the charge that he put power before principle in the light of what we can reconstruct about his experience of 1837. First, we should note that John A. Macdonald was a conservative and not a reactionary. He recognised that a time would arrive where public feeling on an issue was so strong that change was inevitable. When that time came, he believed - no doubt indeed with a touch of arrogance - that it was better for him to manage the transition than to hand over power to extremists. There were respectable historical precedents for his course of action. He explained his change of front over the clergy reserves to 'the very principle that induced the Duke of Wellington to grant the Catholic Emancipation Bill for fear of revolution in England'. (It is one of the signs of his fading Scottishness that he used the term 'England' loosely even where, as here, he meant Ireland.) In 1829, in the face of Daniel O'Connell's mobilisation of Catholic Ireland, the Duke refused to face civil war and abandoned restrictions that had prevented Catholics from sitting in parliament, despite the fact that he himself had been until then one of the most rigid upholders of Protestant supremacy.

Indeed, Macdonald took pride in having settled a divisive issue. 'Whatever questions might in future be discussed,' he said in 1855, 'this of the Clergy Reserves, which had involved so much of religious prejudice, and strong feelings, would not be one of them.' In 1860-61, he went further, recalling that the clergy reserves had helped cause the 1837 rebellions, and claiming that the atmosphere of 1854 had been dangerously similar. 'Parties were again divided, household against household, father against son, relative against relative.' That was probably an exaggeration, but it reflected a distinctively Canadian attitude, based on the experience of 1837. It was one of the elements that divided him from his enemy, George Brown: Macdonald alleged that the vituperative Brown did not understand the difference 'between liberty and licentiousness'. More to the point, Brown had not arrived in Canada until 1843, when the wounds of the rebellions were beginning to heal.

Macdonald's philosophy can be summed up in a little-known exchange with George Brown in the Assembly in 1854. Ministers were proposing to recognise eleven public holidays through the year. Brown retorted that the Catholic Church was up to its old tricks, using its political power to force Protestant shopkeepers to close on saints' days. Pointing out that 5 of the 11 dates were also honoured by Protestants, Macdonald deplored Brown's 'fanatical attempt to wound the feelings of our Roman Catholic friends' adding:

… it was if the very greatest importance for the mutual comfort of the inhabitants of Canada to agree as much as possible, and the only way in which they could agree was by respecting each other's principles, as much as possible, even each other's prejudices. Unless they were governed by a spirit of compromise and kindly feelings towards each other, they could never get on harmoniously together.

…even each other's prejudices - that was a notion that George Brown could never grasp. Other people had prejudices, he had principles. Therefore other people must bow to his demands, but he would have been positively wrong to bend before theirs. 'Unless they were governed by a spirit of compromise and kindly feelings towards each other, they could never get on harmoniously together.' John A. Macdonald was Scottish by background but he became Canadian by principle.

Earlier in this lecture, I suggested that one difficulty in distinguishing between the labels 'Scottish' and 'Canadian' is that, at a certain level, they have become conflated, each being implicitly appealed in support of the embattled identity of the other. In his Canadian persona, Macdonald also constructed his own political Scotland, but his motive was not to reinforce Canada against the United States but rather to give some colour of plausibility to the theoretically contradictory amalgam between centralisation and federation that he helped to design between 1864 and 1867, and tried to implement in the early years of the Dominion. When the Canadian Assembly debated Confederation in 1865, he appealed to the model, at any rate, his model, of Scotland's relations with England. 'The union between them, in matters of legislation,' he told the Assembly in 1865, 'is of a federal character, because the Act of Union between the two countries provides that the Scottish law cannot be altered, except for the manifest advantage of the people of Scotland.' Indeed, he went further and insisted 'that no measure affecting the law of Scotland is passed unless it receives the sanction of a majority of the Scottish members in Parliament'. The implication was that French Canada had nothing to fear from the built-in anglophone majority of a British North American union. The argument was Scottish (and, in the context of 1865, not entirely fallacious even if no doubt exaggerated) but the intention behind the argument was Canadian.

However, his experience of running the Dominion was to feed back into an interesting if speculative proposal to adapt Scotland's position within the United Kingdom. In the early 1870s, there was an upsurge in Irish opinion for the revival an Irish parliament. This movement bore the folksy title of 'Home Rule', which at first served to mask degrees of ambiguity, uniting outright separatists with those who merely wanted devolution within the United Kingdom. In 1871, Macdonald turned his hand to drafting a scheme that might head off discontent into harmless channels. This he submitted to the governor-general, Lord Lisgar, who, as Sir John Young, had previously held the office of Chief Secretary for Ireland, a sort of shadow prime minister who ran Ireland through the Dublin bureaucracy. Macdonald argued that the Irish MPs at Westminster should be formed into four Grand Committees, one for each traditional province of Ireland, a device tacitly intended to ensure that Ulster, with its slim local Protestant majority, would not be swamped by the island's Catholic majority. At first merely local business would be devolved to these Grand Committees, leaving open the option of widening their powers if the experiment succeeded. This approach, he argued, would avoid the Dominion-provincial jurisdictional turf wars that were already bedevilling Canadian politics. In any case, Westminster would retain the right to ratify local legislation, and the institutions could be suspended if they misused their powers. We may guess that Macdonald was projecting on to the United Kingdom his own ideas about an ideal constitution for Canada.

His scheme for Ireland was inspired by the way in which the British Parliament already handled local legislation for Scotland. 'The Scotch Members manage Scottish affairs at present in a Committee Room at Westminster.' As in 1865, Macdonald attributed this to 'the pledge given in the Act of Union, that the laws of Scotland should not be altered except for the manifest advantage of the people of Scotland…. no matter how important the alteration of a Scottish Law may be to Imperial interests'. He had already speculated that devolution of local Irish matters to four Grand Committees might be accompanied by the establishment of two similar bodies for England, north and south of the Humber. From this, it was a short step to proposing that Scots MPs might supervise the affairs of their country not from Westminster but in their own historic capital city. 'It would, however, I suppose gratify Edinburgh and the Scottish Lion, if a Grand Committee such as I have mentioned, with like powers, were to assemble there. The Scotch Members could still attend to matters of a general nature as they do at present.' In a follow-up latter, he added that it would probably be most convenient for his English Grand Committees to meet at Westminster but, as for Scotland, 'I should think that the old national feeling would be gratified by seeing the ghost of a Parliament reassemble at Edinburgh.'

Lord Lisgar did not enjoy the warmest of relations with Britain's prime minister, W.E. Gladstone, and it seems unlikely that he passed on this Canadian scheme to redesign the United Kingdom. (He also thought the Home Rule movement was 'a bottle of smoke'.) Nonetheless, it is an interesting example of the way in which Macdonald, in becoming a Canadian, felt entitled to remodel the institutions of his old homeland. From a modern point of view, his scheme may seem a very watered-down form of devolution. However, we should remember that in 1871, hardly anybody in Scotland hankered after reviving any form of ghost of a national parliament, and virtually nobody had Macdonald's experience and grasp of the way in which a federal system might be adapted to the United Kingdom.

Of course, it is always possible to riposte that there is nothing very surprising that the boy of five who left Scotland should gradually take on the characteristics of his adopted country throughout the seven decades that followed. It was certainly politically convenient, and no doubt politically appropriate, that someone who aspired to govern Canada should act and think as a Canadian. For a time in his later years Macdonald's hold on his Kingston parliamentary seat was shaken, and in 1882 he retreated to a nearby rural riding where he spent part of his early life. Political opponents jeered that he had a new birthplace at each election. Even his loyal secretary, Joseph Pope, 'used to get puzzled as to which was really his native place'. 'He was colorless in nationality and denominationalism,' said one obituary. 'A Scotchman, it was long a moot question were he was born.'

Yet to say that he became less obviously Scottish is not to say that he should be forgotten or disowned in the land of his birth. As a Scotsman, John A. Macdonald may have been 'caught young', but he was still to a considerable extent shaped by his heritage. The experience that robbed him, in his own opinion, of his boyhood, that of being sent away to school in Kingston, was very much the product of a Scottish emphasis upon education. Despite his switch in denominational allegiance, so far as we can penetrate his most private world it would seem that he retained throughout his life the simple Bible-based religion that he presumably imbibed from the Kirk of his childhood. His belief in the absolute rule of law can be traced to Scottish as well as to English historical roots. An inventory of his personal library appears to confirm the impression that the Scottish Enlightenment made little impression upon him. His tolerance of diversity seems much more likely to have been the product of his Canadian experience: in the politics of his era, some of the staunchest and most bigoted opposition to Catholicism and French Canada generally came from those, notably George Brown, who had spent more of their formative years in Scotland. Yet while we may define a portfolio of shared experiences and characteristics that constitute a Scottish identity, there is no reason to assume that this compels a monolithic Scottish outlook, and far less does it imply any inability among individuals born in Scotland to respond, adapt and develop in response to new circumstances. If in becoming Canadian, Macdonald gradually ceased to be a Scotsman, Scotland may still claim him, remember him and maybe even honour his achievement.
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