The Robinson Crusoe of Lanark County



Photo by Linda Seccaspina

Perth was a clean, thriving little place of nearly 2000 inhabitants. Its attractiveness was due largely to its river and its many stone buildings. Its population had nearly doubled since 1816, but it  was suddenly outstripped by its younger rival, Smith’s Falls. Originally, by the way, the progress of this latter place was, it is said, much hindered by the cupidity of its owners, who asked as much as two hundred and fifty pounds for quarter-acre lots in the business section of the village.

Of course in the early days there were many squatters in the county, who, going into the wilderness in advance of the surveyors, built their shanties and made their little clearing, trusting to the authorities to give due consideration to their claims whenever the country should be opened formally to settlement.

McTaggart tells that, in the winter of 1827, when, going with his men through the woods in a part of Lanark County which he believed to be absolutely unsettled, he came on the track of a sleigh—a sight almost as astonishing, under the circumstances, as was the footprint to Robinson Crusoe on his desolate island. Following the track, the party came to a clearing of about seven acres, in the midst of which “a neat little log-house sat smoking.” Its master, in a voice trembling with emotion at the unusual sight of strangers, asked them to “Come in.” Accepting the invitation, they entered to find “a snug little cabin,” a wife, three children, some sleek grey cats, and a good dog. “Having broached the rum jug” (not the simplest courtesy was then complete without strong drink), they all sat down to listen to their host’s story.

A plain working man, Peter Armstrong by name, from Hawick, in Scotland, he had managed, fifteen years earlier, to save enough to come to Canada; had “fought up the water St. Lawrence to a place they called Perth, and there finding nought to do—nae country wark”— (one wonders what they did in that pioneer hamlet, if not country work!)—“ he just went afar into the heart of the wild woods with his axe, dog and gun, and, after looking about, fixed on the place where we found him for his abode in this world.

“Year by year, he wrought away all by himself—read the Bible every Sabbath day—made a journey to Perth twice a year and bought wee needfuls; at last got a house, and sleigh, and cleared about five acres.”Having good health,“ spring-water plenty just aside him,” and no lack of firewood, he lived well enough for five long solitary years, on “what he caught, shot, gathered, or grew.”

All at once, on one of his visits to Perth, whom should he meet but Tibby Patterson, who was the byre-woman at the laird of Branksome’s, where he was once a herd lad. Far ‘frae hame in a wild land,” with few friends, they were drawn to each other at once. So they were married by one of the irregular weddings of those days when parsons were so far to seek—and for nine years they had lived happily, deep in the great woods. But McTaggart wondered less at their content than at the grumbling of others whom he met in his wanderings, who would neither leave the woods and “fight for an honest living and cheerful society, nor yet be at peace in them.”


Imperial Immigrants: The Scottish Settlers in the Upper Ottawa Valley, 1815–1840

By Michael E. Vance

About lindaseccaspina

Before she laid her fingers to a keyboard, Linda was a fashion designer, and then owned the eclectic store Flash Cadilac and Savannah Devilles in Ottawa on Rideau Street from 1976-1996. She also did clothing for various media and worked on “You Can’t do that on Television”. After writing for years about things that she cared about or pissed her off on American media she finally found her calling. She is a weekly columnist for the Sherbrooke Record and documents history every single day and has over 6500 blogs about Lanark County and Ottawa and an enormous weekly readership. Linda has published six books and is in her 4th year as a town councillor for Carleton Place. She believes in community and promoting business owners because she believes she can, so she does.

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