Centre for Scottish Studies
"Immigrant" and "Bagpipes, Basements and Whisky" by Donald S. Ross
Donald S. Ross, SFU alumnus and former Pipe Major of the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band, is currently writing a memoir about his experience coming to Canada from Scotland in the mid-1950s, as well as his early years growing up in Vancouver's Scottish community.
From his upcoming book, he has kindly shared two short pieces with us, "Immigrant" and "Bagpipes, Basements and Whisky."
My oldest memory is of my father carrying me from our flat to my Granny Boyd’s a few doors down the plettie of our tenement. The bitter cold on my face woke me to the sight of the distant rounded tops of the Sidlaw Hills illuminated in layers of thin, grey morning light shining in from above the frigid North Sea.
Until age five, I lived in a two-roomed flat in a building that was constructed in 1868. It had been condemned even before my newlywed parents had moved in. There was no bathroom, cold running water and just two windows, one in each room. One bedroom and the other room for cooking, washing, eating and living. The coal-men carried their bags up two flights of outside stairs and dumped it into the bin beside the sink for the fire, the only heating. We had electricity for lights and a gas stove for cooking.
The toilet for the seven families that lived on each level was in a round stone outhouse on the exterior stairwell. I didn’t have to use it as my granny’s two rooms had been “renovated” at some point in her 40 years of tenancy and a bathroom had been squeezed in. Just a toilet. No sink, no bath.
We washed ourselves from a kettle of hot water in the same sink we washed the dishes in. Bairns like me were bathed in a big galvanized tin basin, like you see in old cowboy movies. On weekends we went to the public baths, for a weekly bathe. The women took the dirty clothes to a public washing house where they did the laundry communally.
But we were fortunate. We had two rooms. Some families living beside us had only one. Angel’s Ashes weren’t only in Ireland. We were the Scottish working-class who, ten years after the Second World War ended, still lived in housing built during the Industrial Revolution.
Our neighbours in the tenement were an interesting mix of characters.
Characters like ‘Airchie the bookie’ who Granny would shout down to from her knitting perch at the window as he stood on the corner beside Annie Mitchell’s sweetie shop, taking illegal bets:
‘Airchie, run the Bobbies are cum’n doon Rrreid street!’
Dutifully warned by Granny Boyd, Archie would hoof-it down Hill Street to Hilltown, the commercial center two blocks away, where he could disappear into the crowds or, more likely, a pub.
There were also people like Jimmy Cathro, our next-door neighbor, who in ‘56 built a television set in his sitting room. The angle iron frame must have been five feet high filled with a tangle of wires and tubes. On a low shelf sat a tiny wee screen with horizontal black bars running across the greenish picture of a faint image.
These were people who had survived the Depression and WWII. People who never had the opportunity to gain more than a grade nine education. People like Ishabel, my mother, whose own mother died when she was eleven and her father when she was fifteen. Her scholarship to the Harris Academy, and the opportunity of a higher education, was stolen when war broke out. By age sixteen she was a weaver in the Bower Jute Mills, a factory that wove sand bags for the war. She raised her two younger sisters, with handouts from her father’s Masonic Lodge. An older cousin, Helen, was of legal age and told the authorities she lived with the sisters to prevent their being sent to an orphanage. My Mum’s only brother Jack, the eldest of the family, was a merchant seaman during the war and, despite being sunk twice by U-boats, sent the lion’s share of his sea pay home to subsidise his sisters.
The Depression that my parents grew up in and the war Dad served in were over, and times were to get better. However, it wasn’t the abysmal living conditions that prompted us to emigrate. It was the price of gas.
The father I grew up knowing was risk–averse with a healthy skepticism of businessmen. This was, at least in part, likely due to his first and only foray into entrepreneurship being scuttled by Gammel Abdul Nasser. Dad, who was a bus driver in those days, and his younger brother Davey had purchased a Morris 6 in 1955 to rent out as a private taxi for weddings, funerals and the like. A Morris 6 was an impressive set of wheels. It had big rounded fenders, four doors and red leather upholstery, managed a top speed of 138 km/hr (on a steep downhill, I’m sure) and did 0-60 in 22.4 seconds. Stand back!
This worked until Nasser blockaded the British-controlled Suez Canal by scuttling ships, and oil prices went ballistic (about $1.40/L), which compounded by strict fuel rationing, effectively relegated the Morris to a white elephant. When Great Britain didn’t send in the troops, Dad decided Britain would never again be the “Great” world power it had been for centuries and emigration was the answer.
In March of 1957, Dad emigrated to New Westminster, found a job and rented a house. My Mother and I followed in June. Mum was 29 and Dad was 34. We arrived with $100 each ($900 in 2018 funds) the maximum amount the British government permitted due to currency controls.
I remember my first morning in Canada, wandering through the large kitchen with its monstrously big black wood-and-coal stove to find my parents’ bedroom. Mum and Dad hadn’t seen each other in three months so I was sent off to “meet the dog” two doors up while they stayed in bed. I walked up a street with detached houses and fenced yards, with lawns and fruit trees instead of 100-year-old condemned tenements. The overwhelming sensation was everything was SO green.
The house two doors up sat at the end of our dead-end street and bordered on the bush. Sure enough, there was a hound poking his nose between the white pickets of the fenced back yard and wagging his tail as if he were expecting me. I’d never “met a dog” before. I was standing, awed by all the space and a forest when a lady came out onto the side porch.
“Are you Donald?” she asked in the first accent I’d ever heard. It was Canadian, that Prairie kind of Canadian, a far cry from the broad Dundonian that was my language. This lady was Dodie Anderson and she still visits my mother 62 years later.
Our houses backed onto the Catholic portion of the Fraserview Cemetery where I would dig graves years later. I had my own tiny bedroom that looked over a backyard where we eventually grew vegetables. The small bathroom—even with its rotten floor—must have been a luxury for my parents.
At the bottom of the hill was Sapperton, one of the oldest settlements in BC and named after the Royal Engineers Regiment (The Sappers) garrisoned there to build the roads for the gold rush of 1857. In the other direction past the cemetery was the BC Penitentiary. “The Pen” was a notorious maximum security federal institution with 40-foot-high, fort-like walls squared by armed guard towers, its twin turrets topped with a flag adding a bizarre touch of colonialism as it stood sentinel-like overlooking the Fraser River.
Past the Pen and over the ravine was Woodlands School for mentally handicapped children where my father worked as a nurse’s aide. Across McBride Boulevard was Queen’s Park and adjacent its eponymously named rich neighbourhood. That’s where the lumber barons who owned the mills down on the Fraser River lived along with the other establishment figures of the community like lawyers and doctors. Past the affluent neighbourhood was “Uptown” with Woodward’s department store where Mum worked as a clerk at the tobacco counter.
Our neighbourhood was one of immigrants. The Slickemeyers next door were Ukrainians, across the street the Christiansons were Danes and the Symes were a blend—Tommy was Scots and his wife Dot Canadian born. Pete, Dodie’s husband, had come from Scotland as a boy between the wars. These people accepted us openly and charitably provided pots and pans when Mum’s goods failed to arrive and helped us understand Canada’s quirks. Like the dark wet night Mum and I were home alone and Dad was working “nights,” when she spotted small lights out the back window. Unnerved and slightly panicked by lights jerkily roaming around the graveyard, she called Dodie on the party line.
“It’s fishermen” was the laconic response.
“Fishermen!” my mother questioned incredulously. “In the cemetery?”
“Yes,” Dodie replied, “they’re looking for dew worms. They use them for bait.” Canada, eh?
My Dad never became a fisherman. Instead he became a hunter, something that only the gentry and very wealthy were permitted in Scotland. He bought a used 12-gauge pump–action shotgun and WW II vintage, sports stock, Lee Enfield .303. Pete Anderson took him out to Pitt Meadows and showed him the marshes where he could hunt for ducks. The smell of oiled guns, gamey jackets and dead birds hanging above the pea gravel-floored basement was part of my childhood.
Dad had been a crack shot on his battalion’s shooting team during the war. He put this skill to good use and fed us. Once, he and Pete went over to Bowen Island and Dad got three deer with three shots. Bang bang bang, three dead deer. Seeing them lying in the back of the truck, all I could think was their big brown eyes looked sad. We ate wild venison for years.
The first organized sport I played was baseball. We played at Queen’s Park and I was awful. I could neither hit nor throw and consequently was relegated to the outfield, where boredom set in quickly. The irony was that we won the league, and I contributed absolutely nothing to that little league championship. My mother, in pride of her only offspring’s achievement, sewed the winner’s crest onto the “Indian” sweater she had knitted for me.
That winter, walking through the wooded lane in Queen’s Park on my way to public skating I met three guys, one from the baseball team who lived in the adjacent neighbourhood. He accosted me, accurately ridiculed my lack of baseball skills and berated me for wearing the crest I had contributed nothing to winning. They surrounded me and I was afraid of a beating; instead I was pushed to the ground and spat upon, the wet ground seeping into my pants added to my humiliation. I was mocked for wearing a homemade sweater, and their parting shot was to make fun of my parents’ accent. It wasn’t much as discrimination goes, but it stuck with me, and perhaps why I developed the chip on my shoulder.
Hockey, a truly Canadian sport, was different. Skating became an addiction, and the arena a convenient day care for my working parents. Endless hours of skating around and around with ‘50s pop music blaring over the incredibly bad speakers resulted in me becoming competent at the basic requirement for a hockey player. I took to the sport far more than the boredom of baseball. Hockey is perpetual action. You go and make things happen, chase the puck, steal it from a guy and eventually manage to shoot with some semblance of direction.
Those first years living on Alberta Street my parents and I started to become Canadian. Three years after immigrating Dad bought a blue and white two-door ‘57 Dodge Mayfair complete with tailfins. This was a lot bigger than the Morris 6. It had a 4,500 cc V8 with dashboard-mounted push button automatic transmission, and gas cost 30 cents a gallon.
Life was good.
 Plettie the communal area at the back of a block of tenements.
 an arch, a vaulted passage into the back court of a tenements
Bagpipes, Basements and Whisky
It was Sunday, May 26, 1965, and the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada were marching across the Burrard Street Bridge into downtown Vancouver. The full regiment, dressed in their dark green MacKenzie tartan kilts fronted with long horsehair sporrans swinging in unison and white spats atop shiny black boots, while the ribbons from their glengarries streamed in the wind behind row after row of stern healthy faces, made an impressive spectacle. Every soldier’s left boot hit the pavement in precise unison to the beat of the pipe band leading the parade, their battle honours from Vimy Ridge to Ortona hanging from the pipe major’s big drone. It was as we passed the apex of the bridge and began the descent down the north side that I was slammed in the back and struggled to keep my pipes shouldered. Then, a couple of paces later, it happened again. I finally realized it was the bass drum played by big Ian MacLeod, the biggest man in the whole regiment who was marching behind me, the shortest piper in the band, and he couldn’t see me over the bass drum strapped to his chest.
Marching in a pipe band at 13 years old wasn’t an unusual thing for me. I’d been wearing a kilt since I was four, before leaving Scotland, when I’d had taken highland dancing lessons and even danced in the city square on Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve). One of those cute little kids that can barely do the steps, but people love to coo over— “Isn’t he cute?”
I began learning to play the bagpipes at age nine. I didn’t have a burning desire to learn, though my father did. He had tried to learn after the war, but despite his determination and likely because he started too late in life, he failed. Actually, it was his memory that failed. He could play as long as the music was in front of him, but take the music away and he couldn’t remember a note. My mother, Ishabel, on the other hand, who had taken lessons with him, couldn’t read music and played by ear, which was probably why they made such a good couple.
Even though we now lived in Canada, I grew up in a Scottish community. While places like Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Winnipeg were the major destinations for Scottish immigrants to this country, British Columbia had more than its share. The list spans the spectrum from explorers (Simon Fraser) to lumber barons (Macmillan and Bloedel) and even to the law with the infamous “hanging judge” Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie. Sir James Douglas, a Hudson’s Bay officer, became the first governor of BC during the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush in 1858. The first elected official in the Lower Mainland was James Mackie who became Langley (Fort Langley) in 1873, while Vancouver’s first mayor was Malcolm MacLean.
My family’s emigration to Canada occurred during the final wave of Scottish immigrants to Canada, but we were typical of most who had come before us, poor Scots in search of a better life. What we found was a society rich in Scottish culture. Pipe bands abounded, sponsored by organizations like the Vancouver City Police, which had been dominated by Scots for the first half of the 20th century, even speaking Gaelic on police radio cars when they were first installed, to the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada. The regiment I piped in had been conceived and its formation proposed in 1910 by the St. Andrews and Caledonia Society of Vancouver, which dated back to 1886, the year the city was incorporated.
Because the Scots had been established in Vancouver for so long and permeated the socio-economic stratification from top to the bottom, there was no geographic concentration of Scots like the Italian immigrant enclave around Commercial Drive. The established affluent or professional Scottish families lived from Shaughnessy to West Vancouver, while the poor newcomers like us spread to the outer more affordable suburbs, which in those days included Burnaby, Coquitlam, Surrey and parts of New Westminster. Instead of a specific locale keeping the culture together, a network of associations connected the region where Scottish immigrants socialized. Everything from regional associations like the Murray Nairn and Banff Association to two distinct Gaelic-speaking groups and the upscale St. Andrews and Caledonian Society, which was composed of more established professional families. There were also those centered around football (soccer) with Loban’s, a team sponsored by a florist of all things, being the Scottish mainstay. But the single common thread was being Scottish. No matter where you were from or what your interests were, there was seemingly some institution or club that could be joined.
(I find it odd that so many English immigrated to Canada, much as the Scots did, but they seem to have lost their identity. I mean they have no culture! Of course, what would they do when they got together? Have a Willie Shakespeare dinner or sing Greensleeves and do Morris dancing? Not quite the same as Scots’ culture!)
With this many associations available there was a regular string of social events. Any society worth its haggis had a Robbie Burns Night at the end of January. There were St. Andrews nights in November, the Annual Gathering of the BC Pipers on Easter weekend, picnics and Highland games almost every summer weekend from Penticton to Campbell River. These games, which included piping and Highland dancing competitions, fostered societies like the BC Highland Dancing Association and the BC Pipers. From within these groups, there were schools of highland dancing and member pipe bands where young immigrant children or second and third generation kids were taught the performing arts. The best pipe band on the west coast of North America (if not the continent) was the Powell River Pipe Band, which was full of Scotsmen brought out to Canada by Macmillan Bloedel Limited to work in their pulp mill.
Another important association was the Sons of Scotland (SOS), a national organization that had six “camps” spread around the various neighbourhoods of Vancouver. My parents joined the Lord of the Isles camp based in New Westminster (NW), which was a mixture of second and third generation Scots and off-the-boat-ers like my parents. (My mother became the Scottish country dancing teacher for the group as she knew every dance and the words to Scottish songs that most people only knew the choruses to, which made her a hit at the ceilidhs.) In the early ‘60s the SOS NW decided to start their own highland games and as a fund raiser hosted a Tartan Ball in the newly constructed Royal Towers Hotel. This event epitomized the social differences Scots enjoyed in Canada compared to the old country. Working class immigrants like my parents, the men in formal highland evening dress and the women in long evening gowns, socialized with doctors, mill managers and deputy ministers of the provincial government, a social melange unheard of in Scotland. The bond of heredity cut across socio-economic class lines as they never could have in the UK.
Mum became the secretary for the New Westminster Highland games and my father organized the piping events. In those days piping competitions had a well-deserved reputation for being poorly organized and invariably running late, but it turned out that Dad had a talent for organizing piping events, and after a few years, due to the NW piping events being so well-run, he ended up organizing the piping events for more and more Highland games. This eventually led to Mum becoming the secretary for the BC Pipers Association and Dad being a board member.
Another aspect of the better life in Canada was the possibility of owning one’s own home. While Britain was still struggling with its post-war debt to the USA and attempting to build social housing for its booming post-war population, Canadian immigrants were taking out mortgages and buying their own homes. Three years after arriving in Canada, my parents bought a house, the only one they ever owned, at 834 Burnaby Street, New Westminster. It sat halfway up the hill above Sapperton and held a panoramic southeastern view up the Fraser River. On clear mornings the brief pink sunrise lit the snow-covered ten-thousand-foot volcanic peak of Mount Baker a hundred miles to the southeast. However, it was the worst house on a street of average houses. It had a dirt crawlspace and no foundation. The living space was about 800 square feet on the main floor, which contained two bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom, while up a steep set of stairs was an unfinished attic under a steeply pitched roof. But while it wasn’t much as houses go, it was a damn site better than two rooms in a tenement. The house cost my parents $8,500 and was constructed in 1938. With a $1,000 down payment and the owner taking back the mortgage, the bank wasn’t even involved. For the next 25 years my dad would renovate this house until only the stud-frame was original.
A narrow set of rickety stairs led down from the kitchen to a dank dirt cavern. At the foot of the stairs on the right-hand side of the “basement,” sitting on flagstones was an old, faded blue gas furnace that would rattle the whole house when it gave its kawhoosh every time the burner lit. This side of the basement was about five feet deep, and across from the furnace were two rickety, barn-like double exterior doors. They were bleached-out green wooden planks with a cross brace, and they didn’t fit very well and didn’t open very well, but they were wide, about 6 feet across. The left side of the basemen’ had never been excavated. Dad’s plan was to excavate this entire space by hand and eventually put in a “rumpus room,” bathroom and laundry, but first he needed to put in a foundation and a concrete floor. (The contrast between the father who did hard labour digging a basement out by hand and the one who dressed in formal Highland evening wear to perform the ’Address to a Haggis’ at Burns Suppers never seemed a contradiction to me.)
By the fall of our first summer in the house he had dug down into the ground and created a sort of ditch to the level the floor would eventually be—about 2 ½ feet below the foot of the existing stairs and furnace. One day in late October after a particularly wet weekend, Mum noticed a draft coming from the basement stairs. Dad hadn’t been down digging in the basement for days as he was working a night shift at Woodlands School.
“There’s fierce draft cumin’ up thase staairs. Ging doon an’ see if yere faether left the door open, son.”
I went down the creaky old stairs to investigate and discovered a small lake in the ditch and a family of frogs making their home in it. We lived with it that winter but installed drain tiles the following spring. It was one of those projects that just kept getting worse and worse.
A couple of years of hard labour later the excavation was finally complete with a perfectly flat floor, corners all squared up and walls perfectly vertical. All that was left to deal with was a huge boulder dad had unearthed in the back-rear corner. This thing was ridiculously large, probably five and a half or six feet across and shaped like a gnarled egg, almost four feet high on one side and down to two feet on the other end. He’d dug all around it and left it on an 18-inch hardpan pedestal like the two posts that supported the center beam of the main floor. One night at dinner he told me he’d need my help after school the next day; we were going to move “the rock.” I had helped him with smaller ones, and we had a fairly good system worked out using two-by-fours as levers and setting wood blocks and bricks as fulcrums and supports. The plan was to tip it off its pedestal and roll it to the green doors for eventual removal.
The next afternoon we got at it jacking this massive egg-shaped boulder up inch by inch. It was hard going getting this behemoth up to its tipping point. Finally, with both of us dripping sweat and heaving on the two-by-fours, we gave it a final thrust, it teetered and seemed to hang for a second then silently toppled. It hit the ground but halfway through its roll it suddenly pivoted, heading directly for the second center post. The instant that rock began to pivot my mind visualized the sequence: the post going out, the center beam collapsing, the main floor coming down on us. I knew I should be diving for an outside wall, but Dad and I both stood frozen. It missed but by how much I’d hate to guess. Dad looked at me in shocked relief and all he said was “Don’t tell your mother!”
One of the reasons my father was digging out that basement—besides the fact that it needed a foundation—was to provide a space for his piping pals to come and play. His buddies in those days were “The Youngs,” four brothers who had emigrated to Canada about the same time we did. Rab (Big Bob) and Alec were pipers while Geordie and Jock were drummers. These brothers had all gone into the coal mines south of Edinburgh at 14 years of age, and besides being big and strong, they were tough as nails. Our families became fast friends as not only did we have the homeland in common but we also faced the challenges of being new immigrants. Geordie and Alec, who were big men for those days—about 6 feet and 200 pounds, were my parents’ closest friends, likely because they both had a killer sense of humour. It didn’t matter what the situation was, they would find or make it humorous. Well, most of the time.
Geordie, Alec and Dad played soccer on a men’s team based out of Sapperton Park, which was about a mile away from the BC penitentiary, so one year a game was arranged between the Sapperton club and the penitentiary team. As the BC Pen was a federal institution, the inmates had received sentences of at least two years, so they were pretty much your prime hardened criminals of Western Canada. The game was played on a gravely field behind the pen, and during the game one of the cons started going after Geordie. An elbow here, a tap at the heels tripping him up, and so on.
Geordie took it for the first half, but as they began the second half, he went up to the convict and said, “Here, son, if you dinnae stop fuckin’ aboot, I dae yea.”
Now perhaps this con didn’t understand broad Scots or maybe he just didn’t care because, as the second half progressed, he again started up his antics. Geordie bided his time, and when the guy took another tap at his heels, Geordie spun and threw a sharp left hook (he was a leftie and had done a spot of boxing) to the jaw and dropped the guy cold. The game ended on the spot. That was the kind of role model I had growing up!
My dad’s love of the bagpipes meant he gravitated to pipe bands and pipers in general. Consequently, a lot my family’s socialising revolved around piping, and I grew up immersed in it. Pipers in those days had two things in common: bagpipes and whisky. In fact, they were virtually synonymous. If there was a set of pipes and more than two pipers in a room, you could bet money there would be a bottle of whisky somewhere to be found—frequently inside a pipe-box.
When I was about thirteen, Alec Young—who was my piping teacher—and I were piping at the wedding of some family friends in what was then the boondocks of Surrey, a little hall at 72nd Avenue and Scott Road. This was probably my first private performance besides being in the band, and when we had finished piping as part of the reception entertainment and were back in an ante room putting our pipes away, Alec, who’d likely had a few by then, said to me, “Well, son, if you’re old enough to pipe at a wedding, you’re old enough for a dram.” He poured a tot of whiskey into the long bottle cap and handed it to me across my open pipe box. I pulled back slightly as the smell of the pure alcohol hit my young nostrils and the odour mingled with the smell of my freshly played pipes, a unique blend of aromas that instantly became synonymous to me. As I finished downing the harsh pure whisky, the door to the small room opened and in walked my mother. Spotting the empty bottle cap in my hand and likely the grimace on my face she connected the dots immediately.
“Oh Alec, he’s only a laddie!” was her shocked rebuke.
“Ach, Ishabel! If he’s auld enough tae pipe, he’s auld enough far a wee dram!’
Mum hustled me out the door as Alec gave me a conspiratorial wink.
In 1963, for a young Scottish immigrant boy growing up in Vancouver, that was a "rite of passage."