Originally written in Gaelic and published in 1841, Robert MacDougall's thoroughly entertaining The Emigrant's Guide to North America (edited by Elizabeth Thompson, Natural Heritage Books, 160 pages, $18.95 paper) is many things: a practical manual for Highland Scots coming to Canada; an historical and sociological portrait of Ontario in the nineteenth century; and a unique kind of travelogue describing the sights and sounds that can be encountered on the journey across the Atlantic.
MacDougall came to Upper Canada's Huron Tract during the 1830s and then returned to Scotland after a few years. He thereby grants himself the authority of personal experience to provide his fellow Highlanders with the "truth"-that is, an accurate picture of, and background to, Canada: "For I was there, and I saw it". The guide is chock full of all the information MacDougall considers essential: preparation for the trip; fares; his opinions on America; advice on choosing land, crops, and livestock; and warnings about wild animals, like the black bear and those dastardly flies-all neatly and logically divided into lively, instructive chapters. With this guide, MacDougall takes on the role of a cultural translator: he expresses his Canadian experiences in a language the Scots are able to understand, often comparing things here to what is available over there in order to bridge the chasm between the unknown and known worlds.
What is so utterly charming about this guide is the way in which MacDougall's eccentric, opinionated, boisterous character makes itself heard even through the translation, which lovingly and faithfully preserves the original's Gaelic speech patterns, images, and rhymes. The following excerpt from the author's preface is a good example of the verve and sheer force of personality of this man that are manifest throughout the book: "the `Guide' is a full set of sails, that will steer the emigrant to the desired harbour; and a letter of commission is stretched out before him, written in a language which has no need of a translator. Let the emigrant come under his protection, let him depend on him, he is loyal to his own; for there is not a drop in his veins except the best Gaelic blood. But before setting off, the `guide' would like to present one complaint-that is, how grieved he is that he had to leave many a sunken rock and remote skerry off his map, because of the great haste he made to write it, and especially because of how small it is. Nevertheless, those rocks, on which he almost was, and on which many other men were shipwrecked, are clearly marked out." The energy and colour of the prose in themselves make this book well worth a read.
The Emigrant's Guide to North America is a curiosity and gem of an historical document that will be of especial interest to those wishing to know more about the migration of the Scottish people to Canada, and about what life was like for the early settlers of this untamed land of ours.