Maritime History of the Great Lakes
"Canadian Boat Song (from the Gaelic)" versus "The Lone Shieling": Schooner Days DXL (540)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 30 May 1942
Full Text
"Canadian Boat Song (from the Gaelic)"
versus "The Lone Shieling"
Schooner Days DXL (540)

by C. H. J. Snider

coat holder for the appellant


B.A., Ph.D. for the respondent


"…in chorus gather
All your deep voices as ye pull your oars"


PORT UNION'S strange eventful history, halted last week to hear the fates of the Highland Chief, one of that port's customers, must pause yet longer while we consider a subject brought up by the name of that ancient vessel.

Our old acquaintance Anon, who has written some of the best poems and the worst letters in the English language, has been shorn of his crown, or of one of the brightest gems in it, by Dr. G. H. Needler, professor emeritus of German at the University of Toronto, who has just produced a small and interesting book from the University of Toronto Press under the title "The Lone Shieling." A shieling is a hut or shelter of a fisherman or shepherd; a Scotch word said to have borrowed from the Norse and probably a variant of our own word shelter.

Professor Needler is as Canadian as Ontario rock elm, having been born at Millbrook here in the year of the Fenian raid, and taken part in the quelling of the Riel rebellion in 1885 as a corporal of the University Company of the Queen's Own Rifles. In the Great War he was in charge of the overseas company of the Canadian Officers' Training Corps. There is no question therefore of this devastating raid upon Anon's territory being the undercover work of enemies of the United Nations. Anon has been wounded in the house of his friends. For once he does not write to the mayor or the newspapers about it, but it has been suggested that Schooner Days, of all persons, papers and things, should do him justice. Incapable as this writer is of doing justice to Schooner Days it does not seem appropriate that he should be chosen Queen of the May in this battle of the flowers of poesy. But we can try anything once.

Consider then Exhibit A, page of Blackwood's September 1829 issue, and consider it well, from dateline down:

THIS was the first appearance of a poem well beloved for a century, and this was the poem as it appeared—-like Melchisadek, King of Salem, without father or mother, for both "North" and his "friend now in Upper Canada" are fictions. "Christopher North" was the pen name of Prof. John Wilson, editor of Blackwoods, the Thomas Richard Henry of his time, and the friend in Upper Canada was John Galt, godfather of Galt, Goderich, Guelph, et al.

Objection by Dr. Needler: "Galt was at this time in prison in Britain for debt."

Objection noted. Schooner Days proceeds.

Galt had been twice in Upper Canada, and may have been yet in Upper Canada when the September number was "made up" by Lockhart, as Blackwood's records, quoted by Dr. Needler, show. Wilson was on holiday.

The page reproduced is part of a regular feature of Blackwoods of a hundred years ago, when a number of disguised contributors were represented monthly as presenting a symposium at Ambrose's tavern. This one takes on the form of a modernized "Complaynt of Scotland" on the Highland clearances, which comes to full head in the poem.

The authorship of the doubly anonymous verses has interested literary people for over a century. Prof. Wilson, Galt, Lockhart, Sir Walter Scott, James Hogg, Dr. "Tiger" Dunlop, the Earl of Eglinton and others have been suspected. Galt looks guilty, for his visits to Canada gave him the exact material used, and he was a voluminous contributor to Blackwoods. But the poem has remained anonymous, as it was intended to be. The "degenerate Lord" probably had a long arm, and if Galt was already in prison for debt there was reason for not adding to his difficulties.

Dr. Needler believes that not Galt, but Galt's friend, admirer and literary executor, or assignee, Dr. David Macbeth Moir, of Musselburgh, near Edinburgh, was the actual author, while conceding that it was Galt's work in Canada that "created the conditions in which the poem, in so far as it is Canadian, had its immediate origin." Thus not one, but two, take away the crown of Anon, and as Dr. Needler considers his case so convincing that he declines to discuss the possibilities of any others, poor old Anon has to go home in a barrel.

The case for Moir is strong with the field thus cleared, and is based upon his competence to write such a poem, his close association with Galt, personally and in literature, having finished two novels for him, his use of certain expressions in this poem in other work, and, above all, because he excelled in modern use of the ancient sapphic strophe. Some less learned than Dr. Needier may fail to recognize the similarity of the metre of "Canadian Boat Song — (from the Gaelic)" and the examples of sapphic strophes encountered in Horace's odes and amplified by hymn writers and nineteenth century poets. The obvious difference is that this poem is in stanzas of four long lines each, the lines being alternately of eleven and ten syllables; whereas the burning lady who loved and sung gave her name to a style of three long lines of eleven syllables and a stubby fourth line of five.

Dr. Needler mentions this "textual" difference and in a scholarly first half of his book shows that in spite of this the two have a common metrical ancestry. This is important in identifying the author, for Moir was adept if not unique in using the modernized sapphic measure.

The zeal of the discoverer of Moir's authorship carries him far. Critical of title and introduction and chorus as "clumsy," "mystification" and conscious imitation of Moore's earlier Canadian Boat Song, 1804, he throws them overboard. This leaves a disembodied spirit—-voicing the lament of Hebridean exiles in the void, anywhere away from the lone shieling and the misty island and beyond the Atlantic's roar.

It seems, to Schooner Days, to be an unfortunate attempt at improving upon the work of an artist which has done very well by itself for a century. It is true the old title has the awkwardness of confusion with Moore's quite different Boat Song-—a confusion inseparable from the professed imitation—-but the intention is quite clear. The title says in a few words: "We all know Moore's Canadian boat song, which he wrote after hearing French voyageurs on the St. Lawrence. Here is another Canadian boat song, written after hearing Gaelic exiles sing in Canada."

The improved title, "The Lone Shieling," is a catch word, a very happy and well-selected catch word, which recurs to all who read the original poem once. Had Galt, Moir, or Anon. used it originally the choice would have shared the unanimous applause which the whole poem merits. But it does not seem fair, to Schooner Days at any rate, for any commentator to apply it to the fragment of the poem consisting of the second, third, fourth and fifth stanzas. It is an admirable title for Prof. Needler's book, but on the back of the jacket of the book appears a poem of four stanzas also entitled The Lone Shieling, the stanzas borrowed from the Boat Song as described.

To do this seems like knocking off the head and feet of a beautiful statue, and putting a broken hand on the top of the mutilated trunk and saying: "This is what you should have been." That is not Dr. Needler's intention, and it may not so affect anyone but Schooner Days. But that is how it affects him.

One admired commentator declares, whether seriously or sardonically, after reading Dr. Needler's "The Lone Shieling," that the original title of the poem is "incongruous, not to say ridiculous," that he fails to find anything Canadian about the verses at all, and invites the reader to look for anything Canadian in it. "Here," says he, "is the poem"—-and he exhibits the Needlerian remains from the jacket of the book.

Naturally, the whole introductory setting and chorus having been completely removed along with the original title, there is nothing Canadian or boat song left. It is like disputing that a cart is a horse-drawn vehicle by unhitching the horse. The same commentator goes on to say that it is hard to believe that anybody familiar with the Canadian boat of the period "which was of course a canoe, should speak, as the introductory verse now generally omitted, speaks, of 'pulling your oars'."

This last is not Dr. Needler speaking, but comment excited by his apparent belief that the boat of Moore's Canadian Boat Song was a canoe and the oars paddles.

Schooner Days does not know what authority anyone has for saying Moore was paddled in a canoe when he himself says he was rowed in a boat with oars and a sail, but Schooner Days does know that the Canadian boat of the period, be it 1804 (date of Moore's boat ride) or 1829 (date of Galt's) was a boat, propelled by oars, and the oars were pulled.

WHILE the native bark canoe was used and developed by the whites, and played an important part in the exploration of this continent, the rowed boat was an established item in the economy of Canada from Cartier's arrival onward.

Amherst swept the French from Niagara to the sea with an army rowed in whaleboats in 1760.

The Hudson Bay Company used Indian canoes where appropriate, but they brought out carpenters from the Orkneys to build them whaleboats, for use from Labrador to the Lake of the Woods.

When Hadfield (his diary of "An Englishman in America" has been recently edited and published by Douglas S. Robertson) came to Canada from New York in 1785, it was in a brigade of boats, and these boats were rowboats, propelled by oars and sails. Royal Engineers had built canal locks to assist them over the rapids.

This was nineteen years before Moore wrote his Canadian Boat Song. By 1804, during the War of 1812, and up to the general use of steam in the 1830s, there was more traffic on the lakes and rivers of Upper Canada by rowboat—that is, a craft propelled by oars, be it whaleboat, Durham boat, York boat, Schenectady boat, bateau, flatboat, pointer or raft—-than there was by either canoe or sailing vessel.

The United Empire Loyalists came to Prince Edward County by rowboat. The Highland McLeods, Munros, Macdonalds and MacGregors of the Scotch Block of Nottawasaga filled up in the 1860s, spread west and south down the Huron shore, with their Black Dans and Red Johns and Roaring Hughies, in oared boats; they fished from oared boats; they carried their produce to mill and market in oared boats.

Many an elder brother may have thus chanted, in English or in Gaelic, as his father had taught him, while the family barque skirted the shores of the outland wilderness. Alexander Mackintosh of Moy, master of the fur-trader Nancy, may so have sung as he and his crew pulled on their sweeps when she was becalmed in the St. Clair. Indeed the reaches of the St. Clair between Corunna and Moortown, in the days when the river was heavily forested, as well as the Sydenham, the Maitland, the Grand and even the St. Lawrence in places, quite suggest the setting. Or John Spence and his Scots partner who laid the foundations of Southampton, Canada West, may have whiled away the weary miles thus as they rowed from Owen Sound in the boat they had built to pioneer the Saugeen. Or buirdly Alex Birnie and his wife Anna of the Fair Locks in the Lake Huron trade. Capt. James W. Baby of Hamilton, who sailed with the pair seventy years ago, says they were grand at the lilting. They were children of the Scotch Block.

This would indicate that the bard was not making his lay an "incongruous" or "ridiculous" fiction when he imaged a boatful of homesick Scots on a Canadian lake or river. It is too true to the experience of many Hebrideans on the Detroit, St. Clair, Lake Huron, Georgian Bay and even the St. Lawrence to be merely an imitation of Moore's effort.

Galt had been in contact with such Scots and such scenes. Indeed, the eight-sided town square of Goderich, which is credited to him, like the whole Huron shore still preserves the flavor of Scots descended from those who gathered in chorus their deep voices as they pulled their oars.

To sum up:

We find against Anon. His only title to his crown is, like the custodian's of the Golden Bough, his ability to defend it; which he has not displayed.

We congratulate Dr. Needler upon the deductive skill shown in maintaining his challenge on behalf of Moir of Musselburgh, that ancient outlier of Dunedin.

"Musselburgh was a borough,

When Edinburgh was nane.

And Musselburgh'll be a borough

When Edinburgh's gane."

To get the full flavor, do as do the burghers of Musselburgh, who pronounce borough and burgh alike in one syllable.

We consider that Dr. Needler has made out an excellent prima facie case for Moir as the author. We hereby confirm in perpetuum the appropriateness of the title, "The Lone Shieling," to and for the good book Dr. Needler has written. While sharing his apparent desire that The Lone Shieling had been the title of the original poem, we do not concur in awarding this title also to the improvement upon the original poem submitted, because we do not accept it as an improvement. We acquit, and absolve, the author of the book, The Lone Shieling, of responsibility for any rash or brash conclusions which enthusiasm for his learned contribution may have occasioned in others and in ourself.

Costs in the cause. COATHOLDER, J.


EXHIBIT "A" PAGE OF BLACKWOOD'S FOR SEPTEMBER, 1829, WHEN AND AS THE "CANADIAN BOAT-SONG - (FROM THE GAELIC)" FIRST APPEARED - Reproduced by Dr. Needler in his study of the poem's origin and authorship entitled "The Lone Shieling."

Page 400


By the bye, I have a letter this morning from a friend of mine now in Upper Canada. He was rowed down the St. Lawrence lately, for several days on end, by a set of strapping fellows, all born in that country, and yet hardly one of whom could speak a word of any tongue but the Gaelic. They sung heaps of our old Highland oar-songs, he says, and capitally well, in the true Hebridean fashion; and they had others of their own, Gaelic too, some of which my friend noted down, both words and music. He has sent me a translation of one of their ditties--shall I try now it will croon?


O, by all means - by all means.


Very well, ye'll easily catch the air, and be sure you tip me vigour at the chorus. [Chants.

Canadian Boat-Song (from the Gaelic)

Listen to me, as when ye heard our father

Sing long ago, the song of other shores-

Listen to me, and then in chorus gather

All your deep voices, as ye pull your oars:


Fair these broad meads – these hoary woods are grand;

But we are exiles from our fathers' land.

From the lone shieling of the misty island

Mountains divide us, and the waste of seas-

Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland,

And we in dreams behold the Hebrides:

Fair these broad meads – these hoary woods are grand;

But we are exiles from our fathers' land.

We ne'er shall tread the fancy-haunted valley,

Where 'tween the dark hills creeps the small clear stream,

In arms around the patriarch banner rally,

Nor see the moon on royal tombstones gleam:

Fair these broad meads – these hoary woods are grand;

But we are exiles from our fathers' land.

When the bold kindred, in the time long-vanish'd,

Conquer'd the soil and fortified the keep.--

No seer foretold the children would be banish'd,

That a degenerate Lord might boast his sheep:

Fair these broad meads – these hoary woods are grand;

But we are exiles from our fathers' land.

Come foreign rage – let Discord burst in slaughter!

O then for clansman true, and stern claymore-

The hearts that would have given their blood like water,

Beat heavily beyond the Atlantic roar:

Fair these broad meads – these hoary woods are grand;

But we are exiles from our fathers' land.

John Galt, from a portrait sketch by Daniel Maclise reproduced in The Lone Shieling.

David Moir, from a portrait sketch by Daniel Maclise reproduced in The Lone Shieling.

TYPE OF WHALEBOATS USED FOR LIEUTENANT-COLONEL BRADSTREET'S EXPEDITION CAPTURED FORT FRONTENAC, 1758. Drawing by Geo. A. Cuthbertson illustrating the fact that the "Canadian boat of the period," from the time of the conquest onward, was not necessarily a paddled canoe.

Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
30 May 1942
Language of Item
Richard Palmer
Copyright Statement
Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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"Canadian Boat Song (from the Gaelic)" versus "The Lone Shieling": Schooner Days DXL (540)