Author: Janice H.

Settling in Scarborough

The Scottish settlers of Scarborough were known as heavy drinkers, but not so Robert Hamilton. My great-great grandfather, who settled in this Upper Canadian farming community in 1830, was a “pioneer total abstinence advocate,” and his opposition to alcohol almost prevented his barn from being built.

Between 1796 and 1826, the government granted land in Scarborough to Loyalists, military officers and a few other settlers. Most were absentee landowners, however, and the population only began to grow after 1815, with the end of the Napoleonic wars. The height of immigration occurred in the 1820s and early 1830s, with a huge influx of settlers from England, Scotland and Ireland.

Most of the Scarborough’s Scots came from lowland counties such as Lanarkshire and Dumfriesshire. Many had friends or relatives who had already settled in the area and encouraged others to follow. Robert was no exception: he was a weaver from Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire, and his in-laws, the Stobo family, were said to have been the first Lanarkshire settlers in Scarborough in 1824.

Robert and his wife, Elizabeth Stobo, and their six children stayed with the Stobo family when they first arrived. Soon they found a farm of their own, lot 25, concession III, and started to clear the trees so they could plant crops. 

Felling trees wasn’t as easy as it looked, however, as the Hamiltons learned. In 1832, three weeks after arriving in Scarborough, Robert Rae, Robert Hamilton’s brother-in-law, was helping clear the Hamilton farm when he was killed by a falling tree. The widowed Agnes Hamilton Rae brought up four children alone and eventually managed to purchase thirty acres of her own.

One of the traditions the settlers brought from Scotland was the custom of holding “bees,” in which neighbours helped each other with major projects, such as barn raisings. The person whose barn was being erected normally provided whisky to the volunteers, so when abstainer Robert Hamilton refused to serve any alcohol, the volunteers refused to help with the barn. The deadlock was broken when Robert gave the head carpenter the authority to oversee the barn-raising as he saw fit, and the carpenter approved the whisky.

Eventually, alcohol was no longer so central to the social lives of Scarborough’s Scots. Rev. James George, of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, founded the first recorded temperance society in the community in 1834 and, by the turn of the 20thcentury, no liquor was allowed at barn raisings.

Research notes: When I started to research this post, I just wanted to find out more about my ancestors’ lives, and I was excited to find references to Robert Hamilton on the website of The James McCowan Memorial Social History Society, This website gives an account of Robert Rae’s fatal accident. I wanted to learn more, so I ordered a couple of the booklets published by the society. When I read the footnotes, I realized that the McCowans are descendants of Robert and Agnes Hamilton Rae – and therefore distant cousins of mine!

Another excellent resource for the early history of Scarborough is The Township of Scarboro, 1796-1896, edited by David Boyle, Toronto, 1896, available online at Written to celebrate Scarborough’s first centennial, this is the source of the story of the barn-raising.

Scarborough produced another book to celebrate its second centennial anniversary. The People of Scarborough: A History, by Barbara Myrvold, published by the City of Scarborough Public Library Board, 1997, gives a comprehensive overview of the community’s history. It is also available as an online PDF at

Finally, I discovered that Robert Hamilton took part in a curling match between Scarborough and Toronto on a frozen Toronto Bay in 1836. This little anecdote didn’t fit into my article, but I wanted to mention it anyway because it led me to a charming painting of Toronto Bay (now called Toronto Harbour) in winter:

See also: 

The Skating Rink Scene

To me, theoretically at least, Christmas is all about family traditions. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a big family, nor did we have a lot of traditions. I was an only child and so was my mother, while my father’s family lived in far-away Winnipeg, so we seldom saw them. 

When I was little, we lived in southwestern Ontario. Every year, we took the overnight train to Montreal to spend the holidays with my mother’s parents. They were a quiet, elderly couple even when I was a child, and Christmas dinner was a rather formal event, although things livened up when everyone opened their Christmas crackers and put on the silly paper hats that came inside. 

What I loved best was the skating rink scene that decorated the dining table. (Don’t ask me where we ate if the scene took up half the table; I don’t remember.) It was made with cotton wool snow, a mirror transformed into a skating rink, a plastic church on a hill of cardboard boxes, and tiny skaters and children sledding. I thought it was amazing that the street lights around the rink, originally from a toy train set, actually lit up, and I loved to ask my grandfather to wind up the music box movement inside the church so we could hear its tinny version of Ave Maria. I especially liked to look at the figurines, and to pick them up and put them down again.

I was probably about six when this was taken with my mother, grandfather and grandmother.

After my grandparents died, my parents carried on the tradition of assembling the scene every year. By that time we lived in Montreal, and my mother enjoyed showing it to the children of her friends and extended family, and eventually to my children. 

The scene evolved over the years. New porcelain animals and a Scandinavian-style wooden Mary and Joseph joined the antique crèche figures in front of the church, and modern reproductions replaced some broken snow babies. It seemed to me, however, that the new figurines were never as nice as the originals, even if they didn’t fall over as often. 

For the past 10 years, I haven’t put out the skating rink scene. The cat likes to curl up in the cotton wool, and I am afraid she’ll break something. But some day I’ll get it out again, perhaps to charm another generation.

Have a lovely holiday, everyone. I will be back with more stories in the New Year.