Connecting Minto Township with the Borders region of Scotland has become a passion of mine since a vacation to Scotland helped me understand my rich family history.
In an earlier article of (The Rural Route September 2010) I hinted that my research had only just begun. Since then, the Borders region has intrigued me with its weaving of dramatic history, humorous anecdotes and mystical tales over many centuries. With every tidbit about this southern fringe of Scotland, I have compiled information and compared it to our own area of mid-western Ontario.
One curiosity, significant to me, was why my ancestors chose to establish an inn called the Blue Bonnet in Mount Forest and crafted a new home along the Saugeen in Minto Township. My hypothesis now leads me to believe that they were not only attracted to live near a river much like their beloved Tweed; they also identified with new-world versions of familiar namesakes from their homeland.
One hundred years ago, brothers Andrew and John Lang fashioned a folksy exposition about the Borders beginning at the mouth of the Tweed and travelling west across the heart of Great Britain. Stumbling recently upon their work renamed “Scottish Border Country” [Tiger Books, 1999] in a used bookstore, I casually glanced through the index. It mentioned the name Horsburgh – my family name. Wow – what a bargain at $8 for 400+ pages of history about one’s ancestral land!
Later at home, propped with a pillow and a coffee in hand, I delved into the book. Not long into it, I realized this treasure was going to yield a lot more than just a family name. Between its covers, I learned of key place names in the Borders country that mirrored names right here in our area of Ontario. Exhilarated, I just could not set it down. With each turned page, I unearthed one more ah-ha. Here are some of its insights and shared namesakes, along with those I have gathered from other sources:
Maitland: A river in our area shares the same name as a powerful family from Leader Waters, a tributary of the Tweed River. The notable William Maitland of Lethington was a modern-thinking statesman during the Protestant Reformation. His old adversary, John Knox, affirmed the frankness of Maitland who pleaded for compromise – to protect his Catholic Queen, Mary of Guise. Often known to “yield a smile or sigh when Knox delivered an obvious fallacy”, Mr. Maitland was eventually persuaded to the Protestant way by the undaunted Rev. Knox.
Teviotdale: A crossroads where Highway 9 deflects eastward has its twin on Teviot Water that feeds the Tweed. Having a terrible and turbulent past, the Scottish “Tyvydale” was burned to the ground more than once by marauding English who imposed law on freedom-loving Scots. An Englishman leading one reign of terror, Lord Hunsdon, also burned Tyvydale’s neighbour, Hawyke (the twin of our own neighbour, Howick?) All this happened in mid-1500.
Teviotdale survived and along its way, it passed on superstitions including tales of Little Folks or fairies who played havoc on its residents. Children of Teviotdale were subject to fairy abductions. Fairies were responsible for replacing a healthy child with a pig or a hedgehog when the father neglected to place his blue bonnet (a tam with a band) near the infant. Other stories blaming elves and witches for misfortune abounded. Residents were always on the look-out for people unable to repeat the Lord’s Prayer, the infallible test for the unholy. “Burning” this time in Teviotdale purged the land of its unrighteous ones but did not erase the belief in fairies! When the Lang brothers wrote, they interviewed people who substantiated these myths though no longer were believers themselves.
Minto: The original name of the most northwesterly township in Wellington County bears the names of many locations in the Borders. Minto’s Craig at the junction of the Rule and Teviot Waters was known in the Lang brothers’ day as a natural home for falcons who “hang their giddy nests”. The Craig further sheltered a property called Minto House with a reputation in part due to an odd tale that its first owner had never died. Years later during a grand ball at Minto House, guests were asked to not visit the grounds so “the Earl might have leisure in his exercise”. As the Langs noted during their investigation, the most learned of men in the area were unwilling to refute this myth. As home to poets and freebooters (buccaneers), Minto has encompassed a very colourful past indeed!
Kenilworth: A hamlet between Arthur and Mount Forest shares its name with a book entitled “Kenilworth” by Sir Walter Scott, noted poet and author from Abbotsford of the Borders. Scott wished to preserve the legends of his homeland so he collected stories and webbed these into his creations like Kenilworth. My grandmother would be pained to learn that the Langs believed Scott’s ambitions tended to stretch a tale to its limit. They recommended to not read too much into “Scott’s history”.
Ayton: A village north of our Minto is also the name of another Scottish town northwest of the Tweed’s mouth. Settled early in the late 1100s by the Normans, its ancient family changed its name to Ayton or Eye-town on Eye Water, another Tweed tributary. And like many of early families settling in the Borders – including my own – the original huge tracts of land they owned gradually were sold off to pay heavy debts and house an ever-expanding population.
By the mid-1800s, many Scottish families had outgrown their country and sought new freedoms offered in Canada. However they did not choose to leave their beloved Borders behind entirely. My ancestors certainly didn’t forget names like Maitland, Teviotdale, Minto, Kenilworth and Ayton. They chose to live in our Ontario community filled with these Scottish namesakes. I know they chose well!