The Scottish Connection

Sep 18, 2003, vol. 28, no. 2
By Carol Thorbes

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Harry McGrath's Scottish brogue rolls off his tongue like thick molasses. But this Scot bears no other evidence of his native land.

Born in Glasgow, the recently hired coordinator of Simon Fraser University's centre for Scottish studies admits with a lilt, “I don't own a kilt or anything Scottish.”

That does not make this former Catholic high school teacher and administrator, who immigrated to Canada in 1982, any less passionate about his heritage.

In fact, his fascination with Vancouver's multifaceted Scottish community in the 1920s makes him a fitting representative for the centre for Scottish studies (CSS).

One of the centre's goals is to collect archival material on, and research and educate students about, the many types of Scottish immigrants who helped mould the Vancouver and British Columbia of today.

That dovetails nicely with McGrath's part-time pursuit of a master of arts in Scottish history through the centre.

In his studies and his work with the centre, McGrath is fleshing out the multitude of mindsets in early Vancouver's Scottish community.

“I'm particularly interested in testing the notion that immigrant Scots in B.C. had concentric loyalties,” explains McGrath, a Port Coquitlam resident. “They were simultaneously loyal to Scotland, colonial Britain, and Canada and B.C., as their homelands.”

McGrath is collecting for the centre oral histories from Scots in British Columbia, who numbered 250,000 in Vancouver in the 1920s.

His graduate thesis is examining Scottish reactions to one of Vancouver's most famous unsolved murders in 1924. A Chinese houseboy was tried and found not guilty in the death of Janet Smith, a 22-year-old Scottish nursemaid. The death at a Shaughnessy home had Vancouver's numerous Scottish societies debating race relations.

“My thesis is uncovering that Scottish reaction to this murder was more multi-dimensional and complex than is currently portrayed in writings and books about it,” says McGrath. “There was no single Scottish voice on this case.”

McGrath will present his thesis during a day of Scottish culture organized by the CSS on Sept. 20 at the Scottish culture centre.

To pre-register, call Ron Sutherland at 604.988.0479 or email

Also making presentations are Ted Cowan and Jack Lee. Cowan, a professor of Scottish history at Glasgow university, specializing in Scottish emigration, will talk about the destruction of Gaelic Scotland in the 1600s.

Lee, the pipe sergeant of the four-time world champion SFU pipe band, will talk about the changing world of piping.

McGrath also hopes his connections with Scotland's University of Stirling, where he obtained a BA in African and Japanese history, will help the CSS set up a field school there.

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