McLACHLAN, ALEXANDER, farmer, poet, tailor, and emigration agent; b. 11 Oct. 1817 in Johnstone (Strathclyde), Scotland, son of Charles McLachlan and Jean Sutherland; m. c. 1841 Clamina McLachlan in Upper Canada, and they had six sons and five daughters; d. 20 March 1896 in Orangeville, Ont.
In April 1820 Charles McLachlan, a “Cotton Mill Mechanic,” sailed from Greenock for Upper Canada. With him were several other emigrants, including his brother Daniel. Mostly hand-loom weavers from the Paisley area of Renfrewshire, they were escaping from an economically troubled industry. Daniel was accompanied by his wife and children, but Charles had left his pregnant wife (their youngest child, Elizabeth, was born the following October), his daughters Jean and Ann, and his infant son with his father-in-law, Alexander Sutherland, in Johnstone. The group reached York (Toronto) in June 1820 and were granted uncleared land in Caledon Township. Charles McLachlan was given 100 acres, the western half of a lot, Daniel the 100 acres making up the eastern half. Daniel settled permanently; Charles, however, returned to Scotland at least twice before the early 1830s. He earned his passage by working during the winter as a machinist in Paterson, N.J. During one of these sojourns he died, but his family did not learn of his death for a long time.
According to Alexander McLachlan, two men played influential roles in his life. One was his grandfather, a Bible-reading “old patriarch,” “simply yet grandly sincere.” The other was his schoolmaster, John Fraser, also commemorated in several poems. Fraser, an innovative teacher who included “physiology, elocution, and music” among his lessons, instilled in Alexander a love of learning. “With us,” he stated years later, “books are an every day necessity.” More important, Fraser became McLachlan’s “beau ideal of a man. . . . He inspired me with the wish to do something for humanity, and to by and by leave the world a little better than I found it.”
When he was about 13, McLachlan went to work in a local cotton mill, probably in Paisley, but finding the employment “irksome,” he became a tailor’s apprentice in Glasgow. There he associated with other young men who shared his interest in Scottish history and traditions, and who were writing poetry in the style of Robert Burns partly because they wished to keep alive the lore of “witches, warlocks, brownies, and fairies” now being frightened off by “steam, wheels and electricity.” McLachlan, undoubtedly influenced by John Fraser, who moved to Edinburgh in 1836 and became a journalist for the Chartist cause, also became active in politics. If McLachlan’s “The Glasgow chap’s story” is at all autobiographical, his decision to emigrate to Upper Canada in 1840 may have been prompted as much by an uneasiness about his own activity on behalf of “the charter” and “freedom” in Scotland as by a need to settle his father’s estate.
That same year he was granted his father’s 100 acres as eldest son and heir. Initially Alexander planned to settle on this property. In the early 1840s he arranged for his sisters Jean and Elizabeth to come to Upper Canada and he married his cousin Clamina, daughter of his uncle Daniel. However, on 16 Jan. 1843 the young couple agreed to sell 50 acres and on 22 August Alexander leased a 100-acre lot in Downie Township from the Canada Company and moved his family, which now included a daughter, to this uncleared land near Stratford. By 1845 McLachlan had six acres under cultivation and owned two oxen and one cow, but poor prospects and the birth of a son evidently forced him to seek other opportunities. In March 1846 he received a patent for his father’s Caledon lot, and in June the sale of the 50 acres begun in 1843 was completed. The money undoubtedly helped encourage the McLachlans to abandon their homestead and return to Caledon, presumably to the 50 acres they still owned.
In 1846 McLachlan’s first volume of poems, a 36-page booklet entitled The spirit of love; and other poems, was printed in Toronto. In the title-poem “Wordsworth, Channing, Colridge, Scott” were said to “haste the time” when “charity instead of wealth, / . . . Shall build her temple, and embrace / Adam’s regenerated race.” All the poems exhibited conventional characteristics of romantic poetry.
By late 1847 Alexander and Clamina were again planning to leave Caledon. In 1848 they arranged to sell their remaining 50-acre lot to Clamina’s brother Charles. When the census for the district of Huron was taken in 1848, Alexander, a “tailor,” Clamina, and the two children were living in a rented house in North Easthope Township; the family had “no creed or denomination.” It is possible, then, that McLachlan’s period of scepticism, when poetry was “the only thing” he had to cheer him, began in the mid 1840s. The confirmation of the sale of the Caledon acres on 6 Jan. 1850 was witnessed by another of Clamina’s brothers, Malcolm, of Erin Township. The presence of Malcolm undoubtedly helped persuade the McLachlans to move to Erin. On 18 Dec. 1852 Malcolm sold McLachlan one acre, and thus in a “Gravel House” Alexander and Clamina and their by now four children began their long association with Wellington County. During this time the couple would have seven more children. In 1859 McLachlan’s sister Ann and his mother emigrated from Scotland to live on an eighth of an acre that Alexander and Clamina divided from their property and sold to Ann. After her mother’s death in 1860, however, Ann went to stay with her married sisters in Brant County; after she too married, she lived like them on a farm in the county.
During his first ten years in Erin, McLachlan worked at both his tailoring and his poetry. He contributed poems to the Anglo-American Magazine (Toronto) – his first submission, “The early blue bird,” appeared in the July 1854 issue. About 1857 his “national song,” “The halls of Holyrood,” won an international competition held by the Glasgow Workman, which noted that it had received numerous contributions “from Scotsmen in the colonies” and that McLachlan’s “patriotism and intelligence” were “a credit to the country of his birth and . . . an acquisition to the land of his adoption.” “The Scottish emigrant’s song” won second prize at a Scottish gathering in Toronto on 14 Sept. 1859. McLachlan also had published in Toronto, probably at his own expense, three volumes of poetry: Poems, 1856; Lyrics, 1858; and The emigrant, and other poems, 1861.
The 130 poems in these volumes reveal the subjects, themes, and diction typical of McLachlan’s mature work. There are occasional poems on events such as the Crimean War. Many, some in a Lowland dialect, deal with Scottish people, places, and events. These Scottish poems often evoke the melancholy of a lonely emigrant longing for past days. Others have Canadian subjects; the most important is “The emigrant,” an incomplete “sketch” of “the history of a backwoods settlement,” but shorter poems encapsulate McLachlan’s appreciation of the Canadian forest and of the spiritual values and virtues of the settlers, particularly the poor “sons of ancient Caledon” who sought “freedom in the wilderness.”
By the time McLachlan published Lyrics in 1858, he had developed a strategy for promoting his work. Advance sheets of Lyrics were distributed to newspapers and people, and their comments – published and unpublished – were printed as “Opinions of the press” at the end of the volume; Charles Sangster, for example, paid a glowing tribute to McLachlan’s “essentially lyrical” muse. With The emigrant, McLachlan included tributes from Susanna Moodie [Strickland*] and Thomas D’Arcy McGee*. On 25 Jan. 1859 McGee and McLachlan had spoken at a festival held in Toronto’s St Lawrence Hall to honour the 100th anniversary of Robert Burns’s birth. Describing Burns as a product of “the old blue-bonneted apostles of integrity” who built “a social fabric which had its foundation in rectitude and sturdy self-reliance” and its education in “the Bible and ballad,” McLachlan said that Burns stood “at the head of the literature of the working classes.” Finally he recited his own poem “To the memory of Robert Burns.” McLachlan’s poetry never did bring him wealth, but by the 1860s he was beginning to achieve recognition. From 1859 to 1861 he lectured “in most of the principal towns of Canada, and in the state of New York.” In 1862, through McGee, a member of the provincial government, he was appointed an emigration agent for the province of Canada in Scotland.
McLachlan made Johnstone his headquarters and from there visited Glasgow, Paisley, and probably other parts of the country. One of his chief activities was to speak about emigration to the Canadas; poor and unemployed hand-loom weavers in the Paisley–Glasgow area were a main target. In an 1862 lecture to the Paisley Emigration Society McLachlan remarked, as reported in the local paper, that anyone who imagined he would get on as a backwoodsman in the Canadas without a tough fight was “under a delusion.” But “by steady perseverance” men, including many Scottish weavers, gained “an independent freehold . . . and a command of all the necessaries, many of the comforts, and sometimes not a few of the luxuries of life.” “Such men were true heroes.” McLachlan particularly emphasized “the erroneous notion” entertained in Scotland about Canadian winters. “The cold is sometimes very keen, but the air is always clear and bracing; and winter . . . is welcomed by the inhabitants as the most enjoyable of all the seasons of the year for out-door recreations, and visits, and reunions, and festivities of all descriptions.”
In the mean time, McLachlan’s adopted country was honouring him. His chief aim in becoming an author and lecturer, concluded Henry James Morgan* in Sketches of celebrated Canadians (1862), was “to be an exponent of the minds of the working men of Canada . . . to be to Canada . . . what Burns was to Scotland.” When he included ten poems by McLachlan in Selections from Canadian poets (1864), Edward Hartley Dewart* also compared him to Burns. It was “no empty laudation to call him the ‘Burns of Canada.’” In “the opinion of many,” in fact, McLachlan was “the sweetest and most intensely human of all our Canadian bards.” After his return from Scotland, McLachlan contributed several poems to the weekly Scottish American (New York), and he appeared in several Canadian periodicals, including the Canadian Literary Journal (Toronto), the Canadian Monthly and National Review (Toronto), the New Dominion Monthly (Montreal), and Stewart’s Literary Quarterly Magazine (Saint John, N.B.). In 1872 the Toronto Caledonian Society resolved to purchase a homestead for “Alex. McLachlan, the Canadian poet” and appointed a committee. According to Archibald MacMurchy, however, who about this time met McLachlan in Erin and described him as “a man of average height, spare build, blue eyes, and abundant dark hair,” the money raised was used to pay for the printing of McLachlan’s poems.
In 1874 Hunter, Rose and Company of Toronto published Poems and songs, which was highly praised. It contained 96 poems, many previously published, that represented McLachlan’s most interesting work. “We live in a rickety house,” for example, is his satire of “pious folks” and parsons who criticize and pray over the poor but never ask how they “may be off for coals.” In “A backwoods’ hero,” McLachlan described his wife’s brother-in-law, Daniel McMillan of Erin, as one of those who “venture into the wilderness . . . and hew their way to independence”; the poem is typical of several in the section “Idyls of the Dominion.” There are also “Miscellaneous Scottish pieces,” including the rousing hymn that ends with the lines “To Scotland, Freedom, Love and Sang! / For they aye gang together.”
By the time Poems and songs was being distributed, McLachlan himself was in Scotland, one reason for his trip being to sell copies of the volume. He also made himself known in other ways. On 2 Nov. 1874 “The Celebrated Scoto Canadian Poet” delivered a lecture in Johnstone on Shakespeare, with John Fraser, now retired there, in the chair. On 8 December he gave a second lecture, on spiritualism; McLachlan, who had become a “Spiritualist” as early as 1871, “advanced views on the subject with great ability and courage,” according to the Johnstone paper, and stated that “it was commanding the study of the greatest thinkers of the day.” On 21 December, just before he left Scotland, a public meeting was held in Johnstone to honour him. John Fraser read an address and McLachlan was given a copy of Shakespeare and 24 volumes of Scott paid for by local subscribers. McLachlan, “with much emotion,” spoke about his belief in spiritualism and gave a graphic sketch of his “humble home” in Johnstone and of his mother.
McLachlan’s fame was also spreading in North America. On 20 Jan. 1876 he was featured in an article on “The Scottish-American poets” published in the Scottish American. In October 1877 William Proudfoot Begg’s long review article appeared in the Canadian Monthly; pointing out that only Poems and songs was readily available, Begg hoped for a “collected edition . . . which would be at once an honour to himself, and a joy and praise to the country of his adoption.”
In October 1877, however, a collected edition was not McLachlan’s priority. He and Clamina were arranging to buy half of a lot in Amaranth Township. In December 1877 they took out a mortgage for $2,500, and they probably moved to their 100 acres early in 1878. For the next few years McLachlan and his sons Malcolm and Alexander worked the farm. Some time in 1882, however, Malcolm left to join his brothers John, a doctor, and Daniel in Pembina (N.Dak.). That September John died. His father was sorely grieved, for John “was certainly the most intellectual and had altogether the largest nature of any of the family.” Only McLachlan’s firm belief in the “spirit life” helped him to endure this loss. Despite their sons’ urging, the McLachlans did not go to the American Midwest. In 1889 the poet, now over 70, and Clamina formally agreed to sell the Amaranth farm to their son Alexander; they continued to live with him, however.
Throughout the last 20 years of his life McLachlan regularly had poetry published in the Scottish American and he contributed during these years to the Canadian Monthly, Saturday Night, the Week, and Grip. On 8 May 1886 Grip announced that McLachlan, whose name had “long been a household word in Canada,” would become a regular contributor dealing “with the great question of labor, pleading the cause of justice in such a way as a genuine poet only can.” From May 1886 until December 1888 McLachlan contributed over 50 poems to Grip; most were satires on the policies of church and state that adversely affected the “mechanic” and “artisan.” Among those he attacked was Sir John A. Macdonald, whom he dubbed “an old debauchee”; those he praised included the British politician William Ewart Gladstone for his “Faith in the fatherhood of God, / And brotherhood of man.” The number and nature of his poems in Grip finally brought McLachlan financial, as well as other, compensation. On 19 March 1887 the Toronto Press Club entertained him and a poem in his honour by fellow Scot David Boyle* described him as “pawky, canty, keen.” In Guelph that year, according to the Scottish American, it was remarked that McLachlan “by his lyrics and his songs . . . had gained . . . a national reputation.”
In June 1887 a plan was announced to raise a testimonial for McLachlan so that the farm at Amaranth could be purchased and a house erected on it for him. Letters were written by people involved in the project to various periodicals, and one was circulated in Canada and the United States to solicit subscriptions so that “a Poet, whose writings teem with hearty sympathy for his fellows,” could receive material assistance. The 69 members of the organizing committee included the chief officers “of all Scottish Societies”; James Bain*, chief librarian of the Toronto Public Library, and George Monro Grant*, principal of Queen’s College, were on the executive committee. In 1888 George Maclean Rose, the Toronto publisher who was also a member of the committee, brought out a second issue of Poems and songs; in his entry on the poet for the Cyclopædia of Canadian biography, also published in 1888, Rose urged that McLachlan “be looked upon as a benefactor to his country, in that he has thrown a halo over the humblest home.” Yet despite the support for the testimonial from such groups as “the Caledonians of Minneapolis,” it took almost three years to organize. On 28 April 1890 “a grand banquet” was held at the Walker House hotel in Toronto. A purse of $2,100 was given to McLachlan and an address testifying to the esteem in which he was held “as a poet, a true man, and a faithful friend” was read.
On 31 March 1895 McLachlan’s son Alexander died suddenly and the next year his parents, administrators of his estate, sold the farm and moved to Orangeville. A year later, McLachlan’s own death was noted in newspapers in Canada, the United States, and Scotland; today a plaque in the Orangeville Public Library commemorates McLachlan as “The Robbie Burns of Canada.”
Before she died in 1899, his daughter Mary had begun “to collect and arrange his numerous poetic compositions, with a view to publishing a selection of what might seem most worthy of presentation in permanent form.” This work was completed by a group including W. P. Begg, David Boyle, and Edward Hartley Dewart. They selected the poems, punctuated them “for the sense,” and made “finishing touches,” many indicated by McLachlan before his death. Dewart wrote an introduction and a memoir was prepared. The poetical works of Alexander McLachlan was published by William Briggs* at Toronto in 1900.
From time to time critics have deplored the neglect of McLachlan and his poetry. In fact, he was highly honoured and, despite his difficulties, well rewarded financially for his poetry during his lifetime. Since his death his works have frequently appeared in anthologies of Canadian literature. The Poetical works was reissued in 1974. Entries on McLachlan have been included in every recent major Canadian biographical dictionary, although they repeat inaccurate information about his life and works. Several critical articles have concentrated on his poetry. Much of the critical attention has focused on McLachlan as “the founder” of Canadian “democratic poetry.” His radicalism, however, has little to do with historical materialism. McLachlan, with his loyalty to queen and country, his faith in the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon, and especially the Scot, his praise of the working man and his efforts to ameliorate his condition, his espousal of the work ethic, his celebration of freedom and independence, even his belief in spiritualism, seems, rather, a typical 19th-century Canadian reformer. His “genius,” in fact, was that he was able to articulate in his poetry the aspirations of many of his contemporaries in Canada and abroad. McLachlan’s importance today lies in the vision he provides of the religious beliefs and social values that helped shape Victorian Canada, and in the reaffirmation of these national standards that his work still calls forth.
In addition to the collected volumes of poetry cited in the text, Alexander McLachlan is the author of individual poems widely dispersed in the periodical press of Canada, Scotland, and the United States. Manuscript material relating to the preparation of The poetical works is preserved in the Alexander McLachlan papers at the MTRL.
W. P. Begg, “Alexander McLachlan’s poems and songs,” Canadian Monthly and National Rev. (Toronto), 12 (July–December 1877): 362. W. W. Buchanan and W. F. Kean, “Alexander McLachlan (1818–1896): the Robert Burns of Canada,” Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, Annals (Ottawa), 17 (1984): 155–61. Jean Burton, “Alexander McLachlan – the Burns of Canada,” Willisons Monthly (Toronto), 3 (1927–28): 268–69. James Duff, “Alexander McLachlan,” Queen’s Quarterly (Kingston, Ont.), 8 (1900–1): 132–44. V. G. Hopwood, “A Burns of the backwoods,” New Frontiers (Toronto), 1 (1952–53), no.3: 31–38. K. J. Hughes, “The completeness of McLachlan’s ‘The emigrant,’” English Studies in Canada (Fredericton, N.B.), 1 (1975): 172–87; “McLachlan’s style,” Journal of Canadian Poetry (Ottawa), 1 (1978), no.2: 1–4; and “Poet laureate of labour,” Canadian Dimension (Winnipeg), 11 (1975–76), no.4: 33–40. Donald McCaig, “Alexander McLachlan,” Canadian Magazine, 8 (November 1896–May 1897): 520–23.
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Cite This Article
Mary Jane Edwards, “McLACHLAN, ALEXANDER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 10, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mclachlan_alexander_12E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Mary Jane Edwards|
|Title of Article:||McLACHLAN, ALEXANDER|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1990|
|Year of revision:||1990|
|Access Date:||June 10, 2023|