Poetry book reflects strong local literary heritage

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.


A little while ago Brenda Day loaned me a fascinating little volume entitled Scottish Canadian Poets.

Edited by Dr. Daniel Clark, a Toronto medic, it contains the work of some 37 authors living all over Canada, and was published in 1900 by the Caledonian Society of Toronto.

What is remarkable about this book is that eight of the poets – almost a quarter of them – have strong connections with Wellington County, and three of them were Elora residents.

The name most likely to be recognized locally is John Mortimer. I wrote about him some four years ago.

To summarize briefly, he was born in 1856 in Woolwich Township. The family moved to a farm in Pilkington (Lot 2, Concession C), which John eventually took over, farming until he retired to Elora in 1922. Mortimer attended the old Middlebrook School when David Boyle was the teacher.

By contemporary standards, John Mortimer’s poems are hopelessly sentimental. He drew heavily on reminiscences and nature for his subjects. More than the other poets in the book, he displays a reflective and philosophical turn of mind.

There are 11 of his poems in the volume, a greater representation than most of the other writers. Dr. Clark must have had a high opinion of his work, because Mortimer had published only the occasional poem in local papers and was a virtual unknown.

His collected poems, Daydreams of a Pioneer, appeared a decade later, in 1911. It enjoyed only sparse sales. Mortimer gave away copies to family and friends, and in a fit of depression, threw over half of the printing of 500 copies down an old well.

Mortimer’s son Jack and his daughter Mabel Armstrong, both inherited his literary talents and taste.

The second Elora poet in the volume is John Simpson. He was born in 1855 to Peter Simpson, one of the important carpenters and contractors in 19th century Elora, and his wife, Janet Cattanach. Simpson attended the Elora schools, but dropped out to work for a time as a carder in Bain’s woolen mill.

He acquired a teaching certificate in the 1870s and taught at several rural schools. In his late 20s, he enrolled in the University of Toronto, earning an MA in 1887. His teaching career included stints as high school principal at Markham and Port Dover. He later moved to California and then British Columbia.

Simpson’s poems exude the same excessive sentimentality of the others in the book, but with a strong patriotic streak. Simpson had a tendency to employ heavy, ponderous rhythmic patterns. One of his poems in the book has a local theme, “The Banks of the Irvine.”

These are two of the 11 stanzas:

The banks of the Irvine! the home of my childhood!

What feelings of joy from my heart ever well,

When rambling again as of yore in the wildwood,

And culling the fern and the fairy bluebell!

Enthroned on its banks are Elora’s fair bowers,

O’erlooking the spot where the clear waters meet;

The cedars, the waters, the cliffs, and the flowers

Becharm every eye with their harmony sweet.

I have not previously encountered John Simpson’s work, and do not know what other poetry he published, if any. He did work for a time as a journalist in San Francisco, so more of his work may turn up.

Of the three Elora poets, I was most intrigued with Agnes Tytler, though she has only three poems in the book.

I had been completely unaware of her work, and spent most of an afternoon piecing together information on her. Other researchers have not encountered her either. She is not mentioned in Gerald Noonan’s Guide to the Literary Heritage of Waterloo and Wellington Counties.

Agnes Tytler was born in the Bon Accord settlement near Elora in 1837. Her mother Jane had been married to Robert Melvine, a Bon Accord pioneer.

After his death, she married William Tytler, but she was again widowed when the family was young. Agnes was needed at home, and consequently had only a couple of years of schooling.

In 1854 Jane Tytler, along with daughters Agnes and Barbara, moved to Elora and started a private girls school, specializing in music and fancy needlework.

The concept was a hard sell with the practical Scots of Elora, who preferred to give their daughters the same basic language and mathematical skills as their sons.

Mrs. Tytler later operated a boarding house, assisted by Agnes. By 1870 it was the favoured spot for teachers in Elora. The Tytlers had seven boarders, including the high school principal, teachers in the separate and public schools, and three high school students.

Agnes Tytler undoubtedly completed and extended her education by contact with these people. Her younger sister Barbara became a teacher and was on the staff of the Elora High School from 1879 to 1885.

Jane Tytler died in 1885, and Agnes moved to Toronto shortly afterward. I do not know what occupation she pursued. She was a friend of A.W. Wright, the editor and historian. He based his account of the Bon Accord settlement, published in the Fergus News Record in 1900 and reprinted in his Pioneer Days in Nichol, on a sketch she had written, supplemented by notes from her sister Barbara.

The three poems in Scottish Canadian Poets by Agnes Tytler are all religious in nature and melancholy in tone, not surprising for someone who had suffered many trials in a life spent largely in service to others.

Her portrait shows her as a strong-willed women, and her eyes suggest a thoughtful and intelligent mind.

The five other local poets in the book have associations with Guelph, Puslinch and Eramosa Townships.

Malcolm MacCormack was born at Crieff and pursued a career in teaching in various locations around the province. Better known at the turn of the century was Donald McCaig, also a teacher, who was associated with the Rockwood Academy from 1864 until 1871. He eventually published a book of poetry which was reviewed by David Boyle in the Canadian Magazine.

Three of the poets had associations with the Paisley Block in Guelph Township. Robert Boyd emigrated there about 1830 and farmed until 1876, when he retired to Guelph. Several of his poems are in the form of song lyrics, and he favoured Scottish dialect in some of his work.

George Pirie is best remembered for his 22 years as editor of the Guelph Herald, but he also wrote poetry.

Of the local poets in this volume, Thomas Laidlaw was best known in his day. He published three small volumes of poetry, and all sold quite well. Laidlaw also wrote prose, including historical reminiscences, for the Guelph Mercury around the turn of the century.

Why did Dr. Clark select so many Wellington County poets for this book?

I wonder if the hand of David Boyle is not involved. We usually think of Boyle as a scientist and teacher, but there was also a literary side to him. He wrote humorous pieces in Scottish dialect under the name of Andrew McSpurtle, and mixed extensively with literary and academic people after he moved to Toronto.

He may well have offered suggestions to Dr. Clark.

In any case, this book is a fine example of literary tastes almost a century ago, and a reminder that we have a strong literary heritage in our local communities.

*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on Oct. 22, 1997.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015