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Chapter II

Home and People

Donald Alexander Smith, named after his grandfather on his mother's side and his father, was born on the sixth of August, 1820, in Forres, a little town in the county of Elgin, one of the four shires—Aberdeen, Kincardine, and Banff being the others—which have always formed the inner ring of the satellites of Aberdeen city and university. "How far is't call'd to Forres?" asked Shakespeare's Banquo. A very long and steep way indeed from the humble house there on the Mosset burnside where Donald A. Smith first saw the light of day, to the House of Lords and the headship of the university between the Dee and the Don at the late harvest-home and climax of its glories in 1906!

The Smith family were very poor people, so poor that in England, or indeed even in almost any other part of Scotland than this, not one of its members could well have missed the doom of a hopeless obscurity. The father, Alexander Smith, a convivial Scot who had in him more of the spirit of Burns than of John Knox, was an unsuccessful tradesman in a very small way of business, whom even the Scots would scarcely have called a "merchant," and apparently not a people in any sense conspicuously superior to his station. The mother, whose maiden name was Barbara Stuart, a Grant by maternal descent, was manifestly of quite different stuff; a Spartan mother, too, as these Highland dames are apt to be, with much ambition for her sons and a withering contempt from any signs of softness in them. Ere ever they could fly it was her way to push at least the young cockbirds out of the too-narrow nest to catch their early worms for themselves. Two such precious ones there were among her brood, John Stuart, named after an adventurous fur-trading uncle, and Donald Alexander; there was a third boy, James McGregor, but he died in 1826 at the age of three. John as the elder had the pick in careers and was packed off (who knows by what painful efforts?) to the medical school in Aberdeen. No decent family in that country could hold up its head properly if it did not send at least one son to college to end, if it were morally possible for him, and the wickedly wise professor in arts did not deflect him, by "wagging his pow in a pulpit" and causing his mother's cup of joy to run over. John did not strike the stars quite to that extent. But he became the next best thing—a good doctor. A very fine gentleman to boot! who did, in short, extremely well for himself all round and died at last in Edinburgh at an age almost as advanced as Donald was to reach, attained after drawing many yearly instalments of a handsome pension from the East India Company's medical service, of which he had been a very efficient and even distinguished member.

The daughters, of whom there were three, all died young. Margaret and Marianne were carried off during an epidemic of smallpox in 1841, but Jane lived on to comfort her mother in her declining years. Margaret, a bonny lass with lustrous yellow locks, was Donald's favourite in the family; quick of apprehension, eager to learn, and fond of books, her memory bore fruit in the gift of one million dollars which it cost her brother to erect and endow the Royal Victoria College in Montreal, for the women students of McGill University. Behind the somewhat mid-Victorian statute of Queen Victoria, executed by that artist princess, her daughter, the Duchess of Argyle, which stands in front of the massive pile, one sees the fair face of this sweet Highland maid, whose beauty melted away in her twenty-seventh year to rise again there in lasting stone.

John had squeezed out to the very last dregs the moderate wherewithal indispensable for a student even in Aberdeen. One may guess it was rather a sore point with the younger brother. He always fancied himself considerably in the medical profession, from which he was thus disinherited, and, as we shall see, did it in spite of everything wrest from fate, on a fairly large scale, if on somewhat rough lines, a licence to follow his natural bent in this direction. Undoubtedly a great doctor was lost in him. Yet the traces stand. Sister Margaret's monument, as it was said, is Victoria College. From memories not all so sweet of John springs an even finer structure, to the writer's eye the best thing in architecture in Montreal. That is the perpendicular Gothic of the medical college standing on a noble site with the birches of Mount Royal for its background, at the top of the steep turfed slope of the campus and dominating the herd of meaner edifices which cluster on the low level at its feet. Just across the road from it is another expression of this aspect of Lord Strathcona and of his tenacious adhesiveness to the impressions stamped upon his youth, as well as of his cousin Lord Mount Stephen's warm and manly heart which provided the suggestion and half the funds—the Royal Victoria Hospital with its Scotch baronial towers. Everything Lord Strathcona did for Montreal in the way of money—he brought her Sir William Peterson, who was worth more than money to Canada and to the Empire—grew out of his life-long interest in medical science and goes back by an unbroken filament of life to those dim far-off days in Forres.

But to return to the bare and Mother Hubbard-like beginnings. Unpromising though they seemed, the "but and ben" upon the Mosset burn was a good start in life. It was really rich in the germs of a mellow and opulent fruitage all the better in the long run for the delaying nip of the frost of "chill penury" which made it slow to ripen. This poverty-stricken home was a good place to be born in. For one thing it was Celtic, of the Scotch-Highland variety on both sides. Stuart and Grant speak for themselves. The name Smith was really Gow1 which means the same but is, so to speak, quite another pair of boots.

People used to wonder where Donald A. picked up his manners. Up to an age when most human beings might under the circumstances have excusably been dead, he had lived at the back of beyond on the lee-side of the north wind among peatsmoke and blubber, in a remote Scotch village or among the most unwashed of savages, and yet nobody at all on this side of the water was his superior in personal dignity. It shone like a light in a rather dark place. How did he come by it? There was no mystery at all in the matter. He came quite honestly by it. It was part of his inheritance along with his oatmeal brose and milk on holidays in Forres. There were very poor gentlemen in the Highlands, but no one ever called them Tony Lumpkinses or doubted their powers to fight, to talk, to sing, to make love, to wear their rags with an air. A game-keeper or an old shepherd in that country has the grave courtesy of a Spanish hidalgo and the Biblical lore of an ancient Jewish rabbi.

If, therefore, a man's forbears and begetters and not merely his parents but the inner texture and resulting traditions of his race, then in spite of his "scanty furniture of fortune" Donald A. Smith was well-born—scarcely less so than his predecessor in the chancellorship of the University of Aberdeen, whose bassinet had been carved with strawberry leaves and who had always had his castor-oil out of a gold spoon, with a miraculously upholstered piper, all ablaze on belt and plaid and dirk and skian-dhu with cairngorms, standing by to drown his ducal yells. The generous heritage of his people was passed on to this Highland lad in an unusually concentrated and accessible form through his own immediate family. He had the best of all inheritances, "the healthy mind in the healthy body." He started life with a frame of whip-cord and heart of oak; a massive and vigorous though far from subtle brain, slow-growing but sound and well-balanced, with an inner hearth of Celtic fire deep down in it—not very readily or variously impressible, but like his native granite, indelibly retaining a print once cut there, and then above all, to spur and hearten to the uttermost all his powers, not only "needs must and the devil" driving, mighty advantage as that is, but also kindling and beckoning examples of fortune and even of fame, not hidden far away in dull books but all alive and glowing in his mother's eager talk around the peat-fire, and achieved by close relatives on both sides of his seemingly cramped house.

The father even, unequally yoked together as he was, according to the strange law of matrimonial compensation, with his much better half, was a channel of good stuff of heredity slumbering in his own people, though seemingly in a state of suspended animation.

Young Smith's patrimony was not much in the way of coin, but there were indications that it was a good deal in the even better shape of capacity. Nor had foreshadowings of that been altogether wanting in the past. The well known Grants of Manchester, penniless immigrants from the Smith's home country, who had risen to a high place among the captains of industry, were the sons of his father's aunt. Now if these second cousins of Donald's were, as there is good evidence to believe, the originals of Charles Dickens' Cheeryble brothers, then he was not the first of his kindred to make money or achieve immortality. For among all the delightful old fellows created by the sweet-natured English genius of our most popular novelist there ware none more amiable than the quaint shadows of these two old Highland Scots. There was a Cheeryble side in "Uncle Donald" too, but his enemies knew that there was another side that showed the darker tinge of the Highland blood.

But even in the matter of antecedents as well as of present influence it was the distaff mainly which shaped this young life. Several of the mother's kindred had gone across the sea and done well. Donald was at one time on the point of accepting a desk in the office of his Manchester connections, but he ended by following the star that called him westward. Certain Grants on the mother's side, especially one Cuthbert Grant, had become better known on the Saskatchewan than ever they had been on Speyside. But above all two of her brothers, Robert and John Stuart, had found their way to the wild Canadian west, wild indeed in those days when it was still Rupert's Land. Like so many other Highlanders, they had joined that band of supermen, the North West Company of Montreal, who were then in the thick of a fierce struggle with the English Hudson's Bay Company of London for the priceless furs of that immense wilderness—to the imminent extinction of the latter. Even among these mighty men of valour the two brothers of Mrs. Smith had signally upheld the reputation of their clan. Robert for a time deserted the North West Company and joined the forces of John Jacob Astor, the greatest of United States fur-traders. With his uncle, David Stuart, Alexander McKay, and Duncan McDougal he sailed, in 1811, from New York on the Tonquin of tragic memory to assist in establishing Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River. He was little more than a boy then, but in 1812 he was chosen for the hazardous task of carrying despatches overland to his employer. His adventures in the difficult mountain passes and his perils among Crow and Snake Indians have been thrillingly told by Washington Irving in his Astoria, and had no doubt been communicated to his sister and related by her to her children by the ingle side. He was to return to the North West Company and to lose his life in its service. He and three companions were sweeping down the upper waters of the Columbia in a light canoe, fearlessly risking the fierce rapids and whirlpools. The canoe was overturned and its occupants thrown into the water. Robert cried to his comrades to be of good cheer; if God willed he would save them. Twice he took a man on his back and carried him to safety; the third time his strength gave out and both went down. A character worthy of imitation! No doubt the nephew yearned for an opportunity to emulate the heroic conduct of the uncle. But the decisive impulse causing young Smith to turn his face westward came from this hero's brother John, whose name stands among the foremost in the list of Montreal North-West explorers and resounds forever in the waves of the waters that keep it, Lake Stuart and Stuart River in British Columbia. He was the companion and bosom friend of the celebrated Simon Fraser, next to that fur-trading Columbus, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, the most daring of all that heroic band of Highland pathfinders, the first to thread the fierce waters of the mighty river which perpetuates the memory of his dauntless spirit. By those who knew both well, John Stuart, who was with Fraser on his perilous journey, was generally believed to be the better man of the two. He certainly could drive a harder bargain for his employers. He was present when Astoria was treacherously sold to the North West Company in 1812 and it was he who fixed the standard for its purchase. His nephew Donald inherited not a little of the bargaining spirit of the canny, hard-gripping service of his company. When their rivals of the Hudson's Bay, who honest John could never bring himself to trust or like, finally absorbed or were absorbed by the bold Nor'-Westers, he joined the combination, retaining all his dignitaries. He had never forgotten Forres or dropped the regular exchange of letters with his like-minded sister Barbara, whose boys, we may be sure, were never allowed to forget their uncle.

Donald Alexander Smith was, thus, far from being a "kinless loon." Disraeli was fond of saying that "everything is race." It is not everything, but it is doubtless a great deal. This youth had all the advantages of it in the purest and most effectual form. He could not afford to shine by the light of ancestors whose efforts he did not imitate. Bitter need goaded him on to reach up to and transcend his antecedents. He and his cousin George Stephen, as we shall see, did so. To Lake Stuart and Stuart River they added new monuments of their stock's quality—Mount Sir Donald, the highest peak of the Selkirks, and Mount Stephen of the Rockies. Mountains this time, observe—not lakes or rivers. It was right in their case to make that choice. Their faith had well nigh literally moved mountains, the last obstructions, by most men held to be insuperable, in the titanic work which the valour of their kindred had passed through raging floods to begin. That work was all of a piece, to make Canada and build the keystone of the British Empire. It was from first to last a struggle against the most terrific powers and impregnable barriers of nature, as well as against the still more heart-breaking cowardice and malice of man. The birch-bark canoe of those Highland paladins, John Stuart and his peers, had conquered in the first battle. Robert Stuart had found a hero's death in it. When the pair of cousins, their kinsmen Donald Smith and George Stephen, had subdued the Selkirks and the Rockies by playing the leading part in imposing upon the necks of those giants the steel lines of the Canadian Pacific Railway and had won their topmost crowns of everlasting snow for monuments, the long campaign had ended in decisive victory. A family with such a churchyard lot, one that has engraved its names upon the grandest features of a great country's landscape, which are also the milestones on the road towards the consummation of an Empire, has some right to be called noble.

Young Donald learned his three R's, some elementary Latin, and mathematics at the Anderson Institution, an unpretentious school founded in 1824 by pious old Jonathan Anderson, who bequeathed valuable lands he had acquired in Cowlair's, then a suburb of Glasgow but now a part of the city, to feed with what is more than bread the needy lambs of his own scant early pastures in Forres and the neighbouring parishes of Rafford and Kinloss. Donald Alexander Smith was to pay his dues of nurture to good Jonathan Anderson a hundredfold and in the right way—by carrying on old Jonathan's work to some purpose. In Montreal and elsewhere the muses have some handsome temples, weaving factories where the making of Canada goes on daily, whose foundations and corner stones lie far away over the sea in that poor little free school by the Findhorn where this boy learnt his halfpenny Shorter Catechism with the multiplication table on the back of its paper cover.

But the family purse was running low, and at sixteen Donald had to leave school. College was out of the question; John's education was fully taxing their meagre income. But the mother, eager that her youngest son, too, should enter one of the learned professions, secured him a position in the office of Mr. Robert Watson, the town clerk of Forres. The dry-as-dust pages of Blackstone and Erskine had little attractions for this Highland lad. His mind was elsewhere. The Grants had ventured into the world of large opportunities; his uncles Robert and John and other relatives had achieved a measure of distinction in America; and on all sides of him were families whose sons had risen to high places in India and America. While he pored over the pages of the legal volumes, conscientiously doing the tasks set him, his young mind was taking eagle flights far from the parent nest. About this time his uncle John Stuart came to Europe on a four years' furlough. His visit to Scotland in the autumn of 1835 made a lasting impression on his nephew. Stuart was somewhat weary of wilderness life and was loath to advise Donald to venture in his steps. He thought, too, that his nephew "had the makings of a lawyer in him." Donald thought otherwise; a dingy office with its worm-eaten tomes had no attraction for a Smith with the blood of the Stuarts and the Grants in his veins. So determined was he on a business career that his friends set to work to find him the employment for which he yearned. He was offered a writership in the East India Company, and Uncle John, who was making a grand tour of Europe, wrote offering him a junior clerkship in the services of the Hudson's Bay Company, or, if this were not to his liking, to procure him other employment in Canada, where many of his Scottish friends had prospered, and opportunities for fame and fortune abounded. But the mother, no doubt loath to have her boy leave her for the wilderness dangers of Canada or the fever haunted plains of India, had her husband write to his kinsmen, the Grants of Manchester, to see if there was not an opening for her son intone one of their establishments. These kindly merchants, whose hearts were still in the home country, promptly sent a favourable answer. There was such an opening; it was a minor position, but the son of Alexander Smith and Barbara Stuart was welcome to it. But the glamour of the Canadian wilderness possessed Donald's mind. He had resolved on following in the steps of the uncles whose adventures had been to him what the stories of heroes of old were to other boys. And so he decided to take his chance with the Hudson's Bay Company, despite his uncle's warning that it meant a rough life, with miserably slow promotion and uncertain of proper reward.

His box was packed by loving hands and sent ahead of him by carrier to Aberdeen, and on April 14th, 1838, this sturdy young Scot, typical of the lads of the country, set out from the paternal home bent on carving out a career in Canada. It is easy to imagine the mother, at this crisis in their lives, with tear-stained eyes bidding her fine upstanding blue-eyed, fairhaired "halflin" God speed, and between her tears murmuring words she often used later in life: "They'll all be proud of my Donald yet." When Donald reached Aberdeen he took passage on a coasting schooner for London, where he was to meet his uncle and make final arrangements for his journey to Canada.

1Gaelic "Gebha," "Gebhainn"—armourer, sword-smith, blacksmith.

[Public Domain] Copyright/Licence: The author or authors of this work died in 1964 or earlier, and this work was first published no later than 1964. Therefore, this work is in the public domain in Canada per sections 6 and 7 of the Copyright Act. See disclaimers.