Highland Warriors -- a Rich Heritage

The “Highland Warriors” exhibition currently running at the Canadian War Museum provides a fascinating overview of how the the traditions of a very small and remote corner of Europe have influenced military culture around the world for hundreds of years. Canada certainly shares in this history. At the beginning of the Second World War, my father served in the Calgary Highlanders, and I took the opportunity to visit the exhibit with a friend, Peter Webber, who had served with the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa (Duke of Edinburgh’s Own.)


We learned that, while the medieval Highland warrior had distinctive weaponry. A sword with a tilted guard was called a “cleadheamh.” The basket hilted “claymore” would come later), …


To my eye, though, the Highland warriors portrayed on Medieval tombs did not look much different from their sassenach contemporaries.


But by the 13th century, a distinctive culture was indeed evolving in the Highlands, where clan chiefs would confer lands upon warriors in exchange for their services. By the 17th century the stronger clans had overwhelmed the weaker and were able to defy efforts by the monarchs in the Lowlands (who had become monarchs of England as well) to assert control. At this time, the plaid had emerged as Highland garb.


Highland warriors had become renowned for expertise using sword, shield, and a shorter sword known as a dirk.


The wars of continental Europe and in Ireland provided ample opportunity for warriors to sell their services as mercenaries. Perhaps one of the most famous was Donald McBane. After a long and distinguished career (52 sieges, 16 battles, 15 skirmishes, countless duels), he retired to Scotland to write a book on swordsmanship. The museum has an interactive game where you can apply his lessons against a digital opponent.


By the 18th century, Highland chiefs had found a lucrative business in raising regiments and hiring them out to the British Crown.


The dynastic rivalries of Scottish and English monarchs did eventually find their way into the Highlands — in a big way. Montrose led a Highland army against Charles I. Some Highland clans supported the Jacobite cause and many were crushed along with Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army at Culloden in 1746. From the ashes of that defeat, however, the myth of the intrepid and steadfast Highland warrior emerged stronger than ever. The emerging British Empire both embraced the myth and recruited the warriors.


The reputation of the Highland warrior was further burnished with the rise of Romanticism as an artistic and philosophical movement at the end of the 18th century and in the decades to come. “The image of the heroic warrior, untainted by modernity, chimed perfectly with contemporary ideas of romanticism,” reads one of the exhibition’s panels. “Writers, artists and composers had already discovered the landscape and history of the Highlands — the Highland soldier supplied the living embodiment.”


Meanwhile, the toughness, resilience, and skill of Highland soldiers in the British army contributed enormously to the Empire’s military successes. Out of the many famous battles in which Highland regiments figured prominently, the exhibition focuses on two in particular with interactive displays that enable the view to study closely iconic paintings.


The first is the Battle of Alma (1854) in the Crimean War. Edinburgh artist Robert Gibb painted “Forward the 42nd,” the 1889, and prints of it were widely circulated until the title “The Thin Red Line.” Museum viewers are able to analyze the painting through biographical sketches of many of the individual soldiers whom Gibb included in this testament to the courage of the Black Watch.


Later in the exhibition, viewers are given a similarly evocative analysis of a work by the English artist, Joseph Gray, in which the 6th Battalion of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders prepares to renew its attack on the German lines at Loos in 1915. Once again, the exhibition enables the viewers to focus on the individuals depicted in the painting, and envision the experience of Highland soldiers in combat.


In the 61 years between Alma and Loos, an enormous transformation had taken place both within the Empire and the influence of the Highland warrior tradition. Not only had Dominions such as Canada emerged as nations with their own nascent military traditions, much of that tradition harkened back to the Highland heritage. Whether or not they claimed Scottish ancestry, would-be soldiers were eager to enlist in Highland militia regiments.


For many, the pipes, kilts and tartans of the Highland regiments came to symbolize not only Scotland, but Canada’s proud place within the Empire — and a proud tradition that continues.


The exhibition provides fascinating details and personal stories of soldiers who have served in Highland regiments to the present,


…including war medals and mementos from those who served in Afghanistan.


“Highland Warriors” provides a wide overview of a broad and complex topic. It leaves the viewer curious to know more, and in some places perhaps a little confused about where to delineate the “Highland” cultural experience from the “Canadian” contribution. There’s not much about the manner in which Highland traditions were taken up elsewhere. But that is to quibble at the end of a thought-provoking museum experience.

The exhibition continues at the Canadian War Museum until January 12, 2020.


Church Closure Raises Questions

 At the morning service of St. Margaret Mary Church (SMM) on Sunday, April 28, the weekly bulletin included a three-page statement from the Archbishop. It was a canonical decree containing a string of “Whereas” paragraphs, followed by the terms under which SMM would merge in an “extinctive union” with the parish of Blessed Sacrament, in the Glebe.


That afternoon, volunteers from the parish and the broader community gathered downstairs in the Mary Beattie Hall to celebrate another successful completion of the Sunday Suppers program. For the past 20 years, from October to April, teams of cooks, servers, dishwashers, and set-up-and-tear-down grunts had provided hot meals on cold nights to the less fortunate.

The end-of-season party has been a celebration of service to the community, but this year, it also felt like a wake – the end of the Sunday Suppers.

For those gathered, the details in the “Whereas” paragraphs raised questions.

For example, one of the “Whereas” statements maintained that the archdiocese had to “subsidize half the salary and benefits costs of the pastor for many years.”

But SMM pastors had been serving the parish only on a half-time basis. It’s a small parish. What about the other half of the pastor’s time?

Each pastor had other responsibilities for the diocese, such as serving Carleton University, administering to Ottawa hospitals, and providing vocational work for the archdiocese. 

The parish had been paying for its half of the pastor’s time. Was the decree suggesting that it pick up the tab for that outside work?

The decree cited some half-million dollars in needed repairs to the church. At the Sunday Supper gathering, you could see some of the work done in response.

The building report commissioned by the archdiocese had allocated a cost of $7,500 to repair water-damaged ceiling tiles in Mary Beattie Hall.  One evening, a couple of parishioners did the job themselves. Total cost: $50 in supplies.

Elsewhere, the building report had estimated $350,000 for masonry repairs. In response, SMM’s Finance Council (comprised of parishioners) sought a detailed proposal from a masonry firm.  Its estimated cost: $45,000.

On the basis of such contractor estimates, the Finance Council created a capital projects proposal that would cover essential masonry repairs, address some smaller projects, and establish a reserve fund for future needs. Proposed cost: a total of $100,000 – one fifth of the total repair costs cited by the decree. 

The Finance Council also recommended ways to raise money in the parish, such as enlisting the help of parishioners who had fundraising experience.

Meanwhile, the number of donors and the average donations began to rise. The Finance Council minutes note that, “Father Champoux indicated that he would convey this welcome news” at his next meeting with the Archbishop.


It’s not known how the pastor presented this news, but the Archbishop’s decree refers to a “marginal increase in collections revenues” among the reasons to close the church.

In making the argument that SMM had to close because of demographic changes, decline in attendance, and insurmountable financial problems, the decree highballed the expense side of the ledger and lowballed the revenue side.

At the Sunday Supper gathering, parishioners held that, with densification of the community, a new reserve fund for capital costs, and the right management and leadership, the church would have a future. But management had other plans.

The decree also refers to a problem last January when rats infested SMM’s basement. Exterminators were called in and the hall was unrentable for at least a month to such organizations as Weight Watchers, Tai Chi classes, and Elections Canada.  

Some managers would handle such an incident discreetly by closing the facility until the matter was under control, and encouraging renters to return. Instead, signs were posted highlighting “RATS!” in capital letters and offering refunds for those wishing to cancel their rental contracts. Was this a deliberate effort to drive away renters and close off a revenue stream?

Undeterred and knowing that the rat problem could be quickly solved, the Finance Council sought a new rental partnership. It was pleased to advise the pastor that a tentative agreement had been reached with the Ottawa South Community Association (OSCA). Children’s programming space would be available across the street from the Firehall, and the parish would be on an excellent financial footing.

This was not welcome news to the Church authorities. The Finance Council was ordered not to sign anything with OSCA, pending an important letter coming from the Archbishop.  Soon after, the pending closure of SMM was announced.

The decree notes that the Archbishop is “satisfied that the care of souls will not be harmed as Blessed Sacrament Parish is within 1.6 km” of SMM.  Some of the Sunday Supper veterans said they would check out Blessed Sacrament. Others had already made other plans.

For some, the merger decision reminded them of earlier battles.

According to the decree, the decline of the parish began “after the year two thousand.” It did not mention that this corresponds with the decision by the Ottawa Catholic School Board to close St. Margaret Mary’s School, two short blocks south of the church.

Many of the Sunday Supper volunteers were among the group that had worked hard in 2002 to prevent the school’s closure.  In the end, they lost that fight. The land was sold to developers.

For its part, the school board assumed that the children of good Catholics would make the trip across the bridge and down Bank Street to pursue faith-based education.

Instead, many transferred to Hopewell. The parish may have lost some souls to the public education system, but the school board likely made a tidy profit on the sale of the land.

For some parishioners, the Church is a faith community; for others, it’s a social justice action group. By now, few are surprised to find that, for some others, the Church is a real estate development organization with certain tax advantages.

But as some at the Sunday gathering pointed out: the church is not a building. The church is the people who gather to worship and to serve God through their works. For Sunday Supper volunteers, the works have also included everything from keeping the community centre at the Firehall, to maintaining Windsor rink as the best outdoor ice in the city.

Having been defeated in the battle to save SMM church, the community activists who have been involved in the Sunday Suppers for 20 years will need to summon the strength and will to serve the community in different ways.

( 30 )

Originally published in the Old Ottawa South Community Association Review (OSCAR), June 2019. Don Cummer lives in Old Ottawa South and in Dublin, Ireland.  His son, Jacob, was baptized and took first communion at SMM.

Sir John A. and a Life-saving Policy

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