Scotland to Canada by Sailing Ship, A Family Odyssey



The following article was composed by James McCannell (Sr.) of Port McNicoll in the 1920’s. Mr. McCannell was Captain of the CPR steamship Assiniboia from 1914 until his retirement in 1936, and gave this account of the voyage in 1852 of his parents from Scotland to southern Ontario. 

 His parents, Archibald MacCannel[i] and Rachel (nee MacArthur) immigrated to Canada from Jura, an island in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland.[ii] The MacCannels had raised sheep there for many generations but, like their countrymen, were under pressure from absentee English estate owners to give up their lands.

                                                     Figure 1: Island of Jura

 In 1852 they decided to move themselves and their 2 children to land they had acquired in southern Ontario.                                                                                                              

The article begins:

“Few people travelling today on luxuriously appointed steamers (liners) would have any idea what conditions were like on the immigrant ships crossing the Atlantic in the early 19th bring the pioneers who settled in this country. Some of those ancient hulks were not at all fit to carry human brings: sanitary arrangements, ventilation, conveniences were often far from what they should have been.

                                                          Figure 2: Life Below Decks

Often sailing ships, after discharging bulk cargoes at British ports, were chartered to carry passengers back to North America. Carpenters were sent on board and temporary berths were built along the ship’s sides between decks for the accommodation of passengers; after landing them on this side of the Atlantic the berths were again removed to make room for the return cargo. Although many steamers crossing the Atlantic in the middle of the 19th century were engaged in the freight and passenger service, most passengers came by sailing ship.

Compare the liner of today (c.1920) with one of those sailing ships. There were no deluxe rooms, no observation rooms, and no smoking rooms. A deluxe room could well mean just a curtained – off berth. In many cases these ships were overcrowded with passengers and in some cases went out under-manned as the owner or sea captain knew full well that the passengers would include men accustomed to sea-faring.  In order to break the monotony on board ship they would be willing to help make or take in sail or any other seaman’s work.

One of the greatest hardships for passengers at that time was the supply of fresh water, which in many cases went bad or the passengers were put on short allowance. But even with many inconveniences there were times when the voyage was most pleasant and those on board had a good time.

Conditions in the old land, Scotland, were such that owing to unemployment many were forced to emigrate, some to Australia, where at first my father thought of going, being in his younger days a shepherd boy in the hills of the island of Jura and which was then part of one of the greatest wool-growing countries in the world.

The fare to far away Australia was more than he could afford. In 1851 he was thinking of going to Carolina where many Jura people had already gone, but learning from relatives there that that part of the country was not so “green”[iii] as reported, he was advised to come to Canada.  The only credentials my parents were armed with was their church membership certificates dated Jura, May 27, 1852 saying that they were leaving the parish without spot or stain on their character, etc.


A passage was accordingly booked in 1852 on the bark[iv] Ann Harley of Glasgow which, according to Lloyd’s register was built in Miramichi N.B. in 1844. Gross tons: 456, length: 112 ft. 9 in., depth: 18 ft., two deck, bark rigged.

                                                                                                                                                                                Figure 3: Bark

Compared with the contemporary White Star liner Olympia which was 882 ft. long by 92 ½ ft. beam it was decidedly small. The Ann Harley was usually in the West India trade, but this trip, the owners sent the Harley to Quebec.

The bark Ann Harley from Glasgow, Capt. McDonald, arrived at Quebec August 15th 1852 with 214 passengers and a cargo of coal and iron consigned to Russel and Sons cleared from Glasgow June 21st, time 8 weeks.  Two hundred and fourteen passengers! Where did they stow them?  On the SS Assiniboia, a steamer 350 ft. over all, the inspection certificate allowed 271 passengers and no more (See Figure 16).

Collision Forced Return

In booking passage then, passengers paid their fare which was about three pounds, children half fare, and provided their own food and bedding for the voyage. They were supplied daily with an allowance of fresh water, which was cut down before landing, and they could purchase from the ship’s stores but at a high rate.  My parents were first to go on board at Glasgow and mother selected a berth midway between the hatches, but father wanted one under the main hatch, thinking it more suitable on account of ventilation but to discover later to his sorrow that sunlight and ventilation were not everything on board a bark.

                          Figure 4: Immigrants Boarding Ship

On the 21st of June the Harley cleared from the Clyde[v] and during a dense fog off the coast of Ireland, the second night out, was in a collision with another ship and compelled to return to the Clyde for repairs as the bow was caved in and the headgear carried away.  The ship anchored for two weeks off the tail of the bank, as it was called, during which time the passengers remained aboard.  When all was ready, anchor weighed, and once more headed for the new world.  Capt. MacDonald (whose mother was a native of Jura) was also making his first voyage to Canada as he had always been engaged in the East and West India trade.  His wife, an educated Scottish lady, was accompanying him on this voyage.  He was reckoned one of the most gentlemanly captains from the Clyde.

I heard mother say how, in the evening as she sat on deck and watched the shores of Ireland fade away on the horizon, her last look forever on the British Isles. What thoughts, what sadness overclouded her mind as she thought of friends left behind, friends she was not likely to see again. 

What were her thoughts of the new land of which she knew nothing?  She was going to Canada, land of hope, to start life anew amid the solitude of the forest primeval .


Figure 5: Leaving Home

Death at Sea

The first few days out were uneventful and the passengers began to mingle and get acquainted. They were mostly from the highlands, a few being from Ireland.  Their voyage across the Atlantic, while trying at times, was sunshine in comparison with others, particularly those immigrant ships on which the dread cholera broke out.  Of this, the little mounds on the Black (Grosse) Isle[vi] in the St. Lawrence are mute evidence that many who set sail from the shores of the Emerald Isle to seek homes in the new land found there a last resting place while hundreds, yes thousands died on board these cholera – infested ships while crossing and were buried at sea.  One of the saddest tales to be told during the last century was the hardships endured by these people owing to the failure of the potato and the outbreak of this fever.  Whole families were carried off and in many cases infants eft and adopted by strangers who spoke a different language.  In many cases today in the province of Quebec are found French families with Irish names, in all probability some of these fatherless and motherless children who were adopted by the French.

While crossing the sea, there was only one death reported among the passengers of the Ann Harley. The funeral service was read by Capt. MacDonald and the body lowered over the ship’s side and sank beneath the Atlantic billows.  The papers of that period tell tales of vessels lost with all on board and such and such a ship having arrived and that such a number died at sea during the passage.

Pride in Pioneers

If the present generation could only realize what the pioneers of old Ontario went through while travelling and trying to establish homes in the unbroken forest of this fair land, there is not one with a spark of pride within, but would feel proud to be descendants of such father and mothers, men and women who had the courage and determination to set out on a voyage of weeks followed by the hardships of clearing land, often far removed from the centres where they might obtain the necessities of life. For what did they do this?  To raise their families and educate them as far as their means would allow; to make them useful citizens to carry out the work to help make Canada what she is today: one of the finest countries on the globe.  To their credit, the sons and daughters of these people have, in a very great degree, contributed their bit in various ways in building up and developing this great country.

Never Such a Storm.

                    Figure 6: Storm at Sea

After several days sailing, the Harley encountered a succession of gales and the little ship laboured heavily in the seas. One Sunday afternoon seemed to be the worst, as I frequently heard my parents relating incidents about this particular storm.  The fore topgallant sail was torn and the main royal carried away[vii]; bulwarks were stove in. When the helmsman let her fall away some, much water came aboard.

At that point father discovered that under the hatch was not the most desirable place to sleep. The hatch was partly open with a tarpaulin stretched around to break the wind and to afford ventilation. Down through the hatch, the sea water poured where mother was lying with the children!

The vessel gave a few heavy rolls and some of the passengers suddenly found themselves in berths on the other side where they had no right to be. Sea chests and other articles were running to and fro, some passengers were screaming with every lurch of the vessel, others praying and above all the big Lowland Scotch mate shouting orders to men aloft on the yards.  At last the hatch was battened down and it must be left to the imaginations as to what it was like between decks with very little ventilation, so many sick and everything soaked.

             Figure 7: Deck Plan for (Larger) Bark – Lundy, The Way of a Ship, 2002

In the berth next to mother and father there was an aged Irish Catholic lady who was travelling alone. She and mother became great friends and she was always ready to look after the children when mother wanted to go on deck for a walk for fresh air. Many of passengers during this storm thought their end had come.  There were others frightened but Capt. MacDonald came down and was trying to allay their fears, saying there was no danger as he had passed through a much worse storm in the preceding winter on his way back from the West Indies.  The ship lost the topmasts, yards and bulwarks, but he had every confidence in the vessel.

The old lady stopped in the middle of her prayers and said it was a “damned lie, there had never been such a storm on the Atlantic – no niver” and immediately again started her prayers where she had left off. Under the circumstances the good lady should not be judged too severely for deviating a little from her supplications.  The calm after the storm may have been the result of her entreaties, at least she thought so.  After two days the weather moderated, the hatch was opened and the passengers were enabled to get on deck.


                   Figure 8: On deck

Everywhere clothes were hanging to dry and things were beginning to be put in order. Some were telling their experiences, some admitting they were sea sick, while others said they were not exactly sick, but felt queer.  You hear the same today after a storm.  Mother and her friend were the only two who did not participate in this part of the programme as they were not sick while crossing.                   

The big mate seemed to have a choice vocabulary at times and while he was a staunch follower of John Knox, at times his flow of language would turn that noted Scottish divine pale with fright had he been there. I rather think she quite agreed with the minister when he said: “Thank God the mate is swearing; there can’t be any danger”.  While the mate was using choice selections when he was roaring at the men up on the yards, he may have inspired confidence in the terrified passengers.  From all accounts the mate and carpenter were real characters.

Now It Was Calm

They next encountered a dead sea. The vessel lay rolling, her sails flapping, there being little more than enough wind to swell them out, when out of the northwest came another gale.  This time precautions were taken earlier and again hatches were battened down and the passengers escaped further disagreeable experiences.  Being by this time less than two weeks at sea and far from Canada some of the passengers began to suspect that some form of hoodoo was pursuing them.  There was first the collision, then the storms.  Among those on board was a gentleman who did not mingle with the others; consequently no one knew anything about him.  Finally someone singled him out as the guilty one. The news soon spread with the result all were watching his every move.  Even the Irish lady was heard to say;”Indade, he looks like a thafe or a murtherer, he can’t look ye in the eye”.  Poor recompense for any person for minding his own business.  This poor individual was coming to Canada with the same object in view as the rest on board and, had he been on some other ship, simply because he was spotted by someone as the Jonah and the rest believed it, he might have suddenly disappeared and no one would have known what happened.  On arriving in Quebec friends were there to meet and bid him welcome to the promised land.

Days Grow into Weeks

As week followed week and seeing but one sailing ship, and that far to the south, no doubt the time seemed long. Owing to storms, contrary winds and cloudy weather, Capt. MacDonald was not very sure of his position, but one morning, early, those aboard heard the welcome news: “Land ahead”!  This brought many passengers on deck whence in the distant horizon they could make out the outline.  During the afternoon some small boats approached them.  They proved to be French sealers and could speak no English. They beckoned to the commander of the Ann Harley to keep way to the south as they knew the barque was very much off course. Capt. MacDonald’s wife, who could speak French, came on deck and from them got the approximate position and squared away for the St. Lawrence, taking about a week to enter the river.  Any land would look good after such a long voyage and every preparation was made by the passengers for landing.

In The New Land


At last the vessel came to Quebec. All passed through the medical inspection, not being detained on account of illness, transferred to the passenger steamers which were to take them to Toronto.


                                                                                Figure 9: Medical Inspection

Down between decks were many passengers, many of them river drivers who had taken rafts to Quebec.  These fellows were attired in gaudy colours that put the tartans in the shade. Some were from Glengarry and others French.  Having been paid in Quebec for the trip. they were having a hilarious time singing, drinking, dancing and fighting, making night hideous for those in the cabin trying to sleep.  Every once in a while, mother could hear someone shout: “balance all” and then what stamping of feet!  They varied the programme between dances with a free-for-all. On arrival at Montreal, the river drivers left, their departure making the rest of the voyage much more pleasant.

Coming to Lake Ontario ports the passengers began taking leave of each other The Irish lady left at Port Hope and in bidding good-bye, invoked the blessing of all the saints on my mother for being so kind to her Several passengers left at Cobourg, among them the mother of Capt. Peter Shaw, a well- known captain on the Great Lakes. His father Capt. Shaw built a schooner, called the Jura, after his native isle, and for many years sailed her on Lake Ontario.

Goodbye to the Ann Harley[viii], 

           Figure 10: Toronto 1850

Finally Toronto was reached and seemed to be the last separating place as many families left there for Hamilton and Canada West as western Ontario was then called. The others took stages from Toronto for Holland Landing, where they boarded the little steamer Beaver for Barrie[ix], where it might be said that the last shilling they owned, and the last they saw for some time after was spent.  They were met at Barrie by friends who brought the families to their homes.

At Barrie, my family were met by the late Donald McGillivray, who took them to his home on the 10th line near their land grant. Most of the journey from Barrie was made on foot, with 2 young children in tow. One night they stopped at the home of a lady in Sunnidale. She was very kind to them but mother said that the howling of wolves around the cabin from dark to daylight made sleep impossible.”

     Figure 11: Lake Simcoe Steamer  at Barrie c.1890

The reminder of the story is based on the remembrances of James McCannell (junior), born in 1916 and grandson of Archibald MacCannel.

After a trek over the 9 Mile Portage they reached Willow Landing, where they could board a batteau to cross the Minesing Swamp and make their way down the Nottawasaga River to Georgian Bay. (Many new settlers bound for the northern US states also took this route).

Their long journey ended at their 100 acre holdings below Blue Mountain near Collingwood, in an area populated by their fellow Scots and sheep farmers. Here they raised sheep and their family of  7 Gaelic speakers, three of whom became ship captains on the Great Lakes.

Great Lakes Sailors


One of these sons, James McCannell, was renowned on both sides of the border as a skilled sailor and ship master. James began his career in 1888 on his brother’s ship out of Collingwood bound for Chicago.

Figure 12: S.S. Oneida of N.E.T. Line Collingwood and Chicago c.1890

In 1900 he earned his first command, on an American ship. In 1908 he moved his family to Owen Sound, the home port of the Canadian Pacific Great Lakes Service and joined the CPR as First Officer on the S.S Alberta. In 1911 he transferred to the S.S. Athabasca. When the 5 ship CPR fleet was transferred from Owen Sound to Port McNicoll in 1912, James and family followed and he built his home there in 1913 – 1914. He captained the S.S. Assiniboia, flagship of the fleet, from 1914 to his retirement in 1936. Captain James McCannell died in 1939.



Figure 13 (left): Laura Taylor (Mrs. James) McCannell  and House, Port McNicoll, 1913         

Figure 14: (right)  James McCannell Family 1921. Front, from left: Darcos, James Jr. James Sr.  2nd row: Dorothy, Marjory, Reynolds.  Rear: Laura Taylor McCannell, Malcom , Donalda. Another son, Laurie, was born in 1922.



Figure 15: Capt. James McCannell         Figure 16: S.S. Assiniboia at Port McNicoll, 1920

James McCannell Jr. was born in 1916 in the family home in Port McNicoll. He himself has lived a storied life and in 2017 still resides in the house of his birth.








Figure 17: McCannell House Today                                     Figure 18: Tay Heritage Plaque


Figure 19: James McCannell

For more articles on the McCannell family, see and search  ”McCannell”


[i] The Scot surname was spelled as “MacCannel”. The spelling was changed to “McCannell” for the children born in Canada and their descendants.  (James McCannell (jr.)

[ii] Jura comes from the Norse words meaning Deer Island. Today over 6500 deer live on six estates on the island. In contrast, the human population is less than 200. Jura is mountainous, bare and infertile, covered largely by vast areas of bog, hence its small population. The island is 29 miles long and 7 miles wide in places. The west is wild and virtually uninhabited. From the mid-18th century, there were a number of waves of emigration from Jura, the result of factors such as hunger and spiraling rents. In 1767, fifty people left Jura for Canada, and from that point the population gradually shrank from over a thousand to its 20th century level of just a few hundred.,_Scotland

[iii] A major concern for emigrants was the drift toward civil war in the United States, which broke out 9 years later in 1861. (James McCannell Jr.)

[iv] A barque, barc, or bark is a type of sailing vessel with three or more masts having the fore- and mainmasts rigged square and only the mizzen (the aft most mast) rigged fore-and-aft.

[v] The River Clyde flows into the Firth of Clyde in Scotland. It is the eighth-longest river in the United Kingdom, and the second-longest in Scotland. Traveling through the major city of Glasgow, it was an important river for shipbuilding and trade in the British Empire.

[vi] In 1847, after suffering through two years of famine, some 100,000 Irish immigrants took ship for North America. Many began the dangerous journey already starving and sick. Grosse Isle was the site of an immigration depot which predominantly housed Irish immigrants coming to Canada. On arrival at Grosse Isle, emigrant ships were not permitted to sail onwards unless they had assured the authorities that they were free of disease.

Thousands were quarantined on Grosse Isle from 1832 to 1848. Unfortunately many contracted typhus, cholera, smallpox or other diseases and died during their voyages or on the island. Over 3,000 died on the island and over 5,000 are currently buried in the cemetery there.

The exact numbers of those who died at sea is unknown, although estimated to exceed 5,000. During the crossing itself, bodies were thrown into the sea, but once the ships had reached Grosse Isle they were kept in the hold until a burial on land became possible. Medical inspectors counted many dead in the ships’ steerage areas. At the height of the epidemics, mass graves were dug, and in some places, the coffins were stacked three deep. Quebec families welcomed some 500 Irish orphans and let them keep their family names.

It is estimated that in total, from when it was set up in 1832 to the closing in 1932, almost 500,000 Irish immigrants passed through Grosse Isle on their way to Canada. Grosse Isle is now the Irish Memorial National Historic Site, managed by Parks Canada.,_Quebec                                                          Library and Archives Canada

[vii] “The fore topgallant sail was torn and the main royal carried away”.

Identifying Sailing Ships

[viii] The Anne Harley was wrecked off the coast of Florida in 1858, while on route to Hull, England with a load of lumber.

Shipwrecks of Florida: A Ccomprehensive Listing, Steven D Singer 1998

[ix] Toronto to Georgian Bay Link.

During the War of 1812 a transportation route was established to link Toronto to Georgian Bay and beyond. The line of transport was, from York, later Toronto, by stage coach up Yonge Street to the Holland River then by water north via Lake Simcoe to the head of Kempenfelt Bay.

The Nine Mile Portage was a trail leading from Kempenfelt Bay to Willow Creek, a tributary of the Nottawasaga River, which flows into Georgian Bay at Wasaga Beach. Willow Depot, located on high ground about a mile from Willow Creek, was built by the British army during the War of 1812 as a storage and transshipment post for goods coming over the portage. From there people and goods were transported in bateaux, or flat-bottomed boats, down the river, to Georgian Bay.

Apart from its military purposes, the Nine Mile Portage was for many years the only highway over which native peoples, traders, and settlers passed, although it was later widened and improved for ox-drawn wagon traffic. It fell into disuse when the first roads and railways were established beginning in the 1850’s.







This entry was posted in CPR, heritage, history, Port McNicoll, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Scotland to Canada by Sailing Ship, A Family Odyssey

  1. admin says:

    What a fantastic story . I have just written a song about this I hope you don’t mind here it is here
    Think I’ll call it from Glasgow to Ontario
    My great grandfather died on a ship on the way to Canada from Glasgow the early 1900’s.
    best wishes
    Scott Macdonald

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