Scotch on the BruceBy Jeffrey Polet for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
Owen Sound, ONT
The Bruce Peninsula extends like a claw off Southern Ontario’s main land mass into the Great Lakes basin. Forming a long arc with Manitoulin Island, the Bruce separates Lake Huron from Georgian Bay, a body of water locals insist is not part of Lake Huron but forms a veritable sixth Great Lake. The peninsula stretches 100 km from its base in Owen Sound to Tobermory at the tip and is home to various nature preserves and a National Park. It is relatively unpopulated, making its rolling landscape an ideal venue for bicyclists, who will observe the bright yellow blossoms of the sprawling canola farms as well as the rock farms which belch large landscape rocks out of the soil. These views may be short-lived, however, as a development group plans to install some 275 wind turbines across the spine of the peninsula (each with a blade whose diameter is roughly the size of a 747).
The area had been settled by various Native tribes, including Wyandottes and Hurons, both of whom were forcibly removed by the Iroquois. While the latter established their presence on the peninsula, the Ojibways (Chippewas) annually passed over the land on their way to trade with the French in Montreal, often leading to violent conflicts between the two tribes. Peace treaties between the tribes failed, and the Ojibways reached out to allied tribes to aid them in an invasion of the Bruce, marshaling seven hundred fully-loaded canoes to attack the western shore. A bloody battle occurred in the area now known as Red Bay, so named because the blood from the battle turned the water incarnadine. Today the bay provides a perfect spot for kayakers and rowers and spectacular sunsets in the late evening. The Ojibways, meanwhile, held the territory for over a century until British explorers began slowly to inhabit the area known to the Brits as “The Queen’s Bush,” a large swath of land including Waterloo, Bruce, and Huron counties.
The story of the interactions between the British and the native tribes is a familiar one. Norman Robertson in his thorough and loving The History of the County of Bruce and of the Minor Municipalities Therein, a 552-page testimony to the area written in 1906, observes that “during the period that has elapsed since the red man of this continent came first in contact with his pale-faced brother, he has experienced at the hand of the latter a process whose general trend has been toward the extinction of his race and the spoliation of his territories.” The gradual and piecemeal surrender of land concluded in 1885, done peaceably enough, but to the advantage of the white man who manifested a “liberal and honorable spirit” to the “simple-minded Indians” who “surrendered their territories for a comparative trifle.”
1847 witnessed the first wave of British immigration into “The Queen’s Bush,” the majority of the very early settlers working as fur traders or Methodist missionaries. Many of these immigrants were Scots: Alexander MacGregor, who began aggressively fishing the area, and Capt. John Spence, also attracted by the ripe waters surrounding the peninsula. Robertson describes the life of these early pioneers thusly:
“Only those who have experienced it know the intense feeling of loneliness that oppresses the solitary backwoodsman, dwelling alone in the bush – no one to speak to, or ask for the most trivial assistance, the sound of the human voice is longed for, but vainly. Inanimate nature in the forest gives forth sounds in the minor key, both soft and soothing; the ringing sound of the axe as it makes the white chips fly is cheery; the rush and crash of some giant of the forest as it falls before the blows of the woodman is exciting, yet these voices of the backwoods fail to dispel the sense of loneliness which is one of the most trying experiences of pioneer life.”
To encourage settlement, the Crown offered a 50-acre plot of land to those willing to inhabit and cultivate the area, meaning the back-breaking clearing of trees and removal of the large boulders from the soil. Will Carleton, one of these early settlers, poetized:
When the hill of toil was steepest,
When the forest-frown was deepest,
Poor, but young, you hastened here;
Came where solid hope was cheapest –
Came – a pioneer.
Made the western jungles view
Grasped a home for yours and you
From the lean tree arms.
Toil had never cause to doubt you –
Progress’ path you helped to clear;
But today forgets about you,
And the world rides on without you –
Sleep, old pioneer!
That the land was primarily settled by Scots can be seen by observing the names of the small towns that litter the countryside: Kincardine, Tobermory, Fergus, MacGregor, Angus, Turnberry, among others. Many of the current inhabitants of the Bruce, itself named after James Bruce, the Earl of Elgin and Kincardine, trace their ancestry back a century and a half to this mid-century immigration. But the waters of time have not eroded their sensibilities or their sense of heritage. And so it is that once a year a number of them get together for a celebration of their Scottish traditions, replete with a Scotch tasting.
I was happily numbered among the guests at this year’s tasting (as a Frisian with a French name, blending in proved most difficult). The celebration took place at Tom Gordon’s house on the eastern shore of the peninsula. We were greeted at the opening of the drive by a large statue dressed in kilt and a tartan sash, and made our way down to the main house, which was guarded by a British solider in full 19th-century dress regalia. This is, of course, the 200th anniversary of the commencement of the War of 1812, a war viewed by Canadians as a great patriotic rebuffing of American imperialists. Major General Dearborn, in charge of the invasion of Lower Canada, predicted that the Canadians would be easily overtaken; indeed he believed they would readily welcome their invaders as liberators. Jefferson thought the annexation of Upper Canada would be “a matter of mere marching.” While Americans for the most part have no coherent mythology about the war, it stands for Canadians as the definitive moment of national formation in repelling its powerful neighbor to the south. (And I must say, I have sympathy for this interpretation, even if I frequently find the knee-jerk anti-Americanism of Canadians as reflexively annoying as American jingoism.)
The guard didn’t check my passport, so I was admitted as a Frisian-cum-American into the celebration of Scottish Canada. Our evening began as we milled around the grounds and ate appetizers of smoked salmon and a lobster-fennel salad roll, while consuming an all-too-carefully poured 25 year old Speyside with a full nose and a medium body – sort of the Sara Jessica Parker of scotches. Our communications were cut short by the howling of bagpipes, played expertly, if one can tell the difference, by Glen Walpole of Tiverton, himself fully regaled from sash to sporran. As he marched across the lawn he was followed by a woman carrying a plate covered by a bright silver cloche, and behind her Scott Duncan, a heavily tattooed Scotsmen with a brogue as thick as ink. As we made our way to the water’s edge, the cloche was placed on a ceremonial rock, and was lifted to reveal the haggis underneath. Mr. Duncan thereupon brandished a small knife and recited Robert Burns’ “Address to a Haggis,” expertly thrusting the knife into its center upon “His knife see rustic Labour dight,/ An’ cut ye up wi’ ready slight,/Trenching your gushing entrails bright,/Like onie ditch; /And then, O what a glorious sight,/Warm-reeking, rich!” While the gushing entrails of a haggis may not be the most glorious sight in the world, it beats a lot of the peasant food I grew up eating. But I’m willing to concede that any soul brave enough to eat it (which I did) is probably well set to grab a knife and make it whistle, cropping off people’s heads like a thistle. But such screwing of courage didn’t prevent any of us from lifting our glass and shouting a toast to the haggis.
We thereupon retired to a nicely appointed barn where we sat around large tables and enjoyed a five-course meal, each accompanied by a different scotch, and each scotch introduced in high-fashion by its donor following Mr. Walpole squeezing his screeching calf to the front, whereupon we were informed of the history and taste complexities of each scotch we were about to drink. The haggis was accompanied by a Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix, a speyside that I found a little unctuous but rich in dark flavors and with a very long finish.
Our next course featured Highland game paté with a Scottish egg on top of Scottish oatcakes. After restoring our hearing equilibrium following another round of plangent squawking from the hapless piper, we were informed that we had in front of us a parsimonious helping of Locke’s Irish Whiskey, a rather unexceptional brew that tasted highly alcoholic and left one reaching for a glass of water to rinse the palette.
The third course brought a beef filet in a Yorkshire pudding, a classic British dish that, in my experience, always sounds better in theory than it tastes in execution. Still, it was well-turned, and the accompanying Penderyn rounded-out the tastes nicely without overwhelming them.
The next course was the star of the evening. Some perfectly medium-rare lamb chops in a delicate mint sauce danced on the tongue and were perfectly complimented by an excellent Caribbean Cask speyside from the Balvenie distillery. The scotch was bold and rich with just the right sweetness to it and a lovely finish that hung on without souring or flattening. In the midst of the welcome silence after Mr. Walpole regaled us with another chorus of “Cacophonous Flatulence,” we were treated to Peter Little’s gentle singing of Robert Burns’ “A Man’s a Man for A’ That,” a lovely paean to human worth and dignity and a perfect counterbalance to the scotch he presented. Upon the conclusion of his song a hearty round of toasts filled the air as we, Canadians and Americans, Frisians and Scots, Dutchmen and Irishmen, with scotch in hand, began to
“…pray that come it may
(As it will come for a’ that)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, and a’ that,
It’s comin yet, for a’ that,
That man to man, the world o’er
Shall brithers be for a’ that.
As if to sum up the movement from Scottish self-possession to the sense of universal brotherhood, the concluding Chocolate Hazelnut Torte was served with a bottle of a purely distilled Kentucky bourbon, a perfect balance of spiciness and sweetness that awoke all the buds on the back of the tongue. We lingered for awhile with our new-found Canadian acquaintances: a member of parliament who confessed it didn’t take him long to enjoy backbencher hooting during PMQ time; a personal-injury lawyer with a sardonic wit; a doctor; a schoolteacher; the manager of a Canadian Tire store; and an investment banker who gave it up to build rowboats and sculls. The conversation all night was lively and engaging, in part because topics of politics, with their hardening calcifications, were studiously avoided. Instead we strangers came together, broke bread and drank heartily and enjoyed that we would brithers be, for a’ that.