Manitoulin has deep connections to Scotland’s immortal bard

ELIZABETH BAY—Many Islanders can trace their ancestry back to the rocky hills or verdant vales of Scotland, creating a special link to the celebration of the birthday of the immortal bard of Scotland, Robbie Burns. This January 27 there will be an opportunity to join millions of Scottish expats and descendants in celebrating Robbie Burns Day with a dinner at the Aundeck Omni Kaning Four Directions Multiuse Centre.

One family with a bit of a unique connection to the poet is that of Martin and Molly Ainslie of Elizabeth Bay, whose antecedents number among the earliest émigrés to settle upon Manitoulin’s blessed shores. “I can’t really tell you much,” admitted Mr. Ainslie of the Burns connection to his family. His whose ancestor was the first settler at Elizabeth Bay, where the family still resides.

“I guess Bob Ainslie lived in Jedburg/Roxborough around the same area as Robbie Burns,” said Mr. Martin. The friendship between that Ainslie led to a close friendship between the poet and the farmer, both of whom worked in agriculture.

The Island Ainslie’s ancestor had been a kind of sharecropper, much like Robbie Burns, when around 1860 he made the decision to pack up his five children and travel far across the sea to settle in southern Ontario. “He first settled around Leith, outside Owen Sound, and stayed there for several years,” said Mr. Ainslie. “I don’t know how he learned about this place, but he came up with his family and all the kids to settle.”

Hiring a sailboat out of Gore Bay, the Ainslie progenitor landed on the beach at Elizabeth Bay with his large family and all their worldly possessions. “There was no road here at that time,” said Mr. Ainslie. “He chopped a farm out of the bush. They lived in a tent the first summer, apparently, and then built a log cabin and later a stone house.”

Mr. Ainslie shook his head in wonder. “They were a different breed back then,” he said. “By the time he died he had 10 kids and they didn’t lose any of them.” A wonder in itself in those early years without medical assistance.

“They walked a lot,” said Mr. Ainslie of those early settlers. “My grandfather would tell of how they would walk to Gore Bay for supplies and walk back.” At a small Native settlement located at nearby Indian Point the family could hire people to paddle them across at the cost of a few cents. “Could you imagine people walking like that these days.”

When Robert Ainslie arrived in Elizabeth Bay he was greeted by an old hermit called Ned Saunders, who was already “established” there, living in the remote bush by himself when Manitoulin was at the very edge of the frontier.

George Purvis, himself an Ainslie descendant, noted in the Manitoulin West Recorder last year that his mother, Margaret Ainslie Purvis, visited two farms in 1973 to see the original house on the Curling Farm, where her own grandparents had lived.

“Robert Burns and Robert Ainslie (1766-1838) lived side by side on these two farms and as young boys became fast friends,” relayed Mr. Purvis in a missive to the Recorder last year. “In May of 1787, Ainslie made an excursion with Burns to Berwichshire. Robert Ainslie’s sister was the subject of Burn’s poem, ‘Fairest Maid on Devin Banks,’ as well as an edigram to ‘Miss Ainslie in Church’.”

Mr. Ainslie has a special reason he is attending this year’s Robbie Burns Dinner with his wife Molly—he hopes to be able to sample the traditional Scottish dish, haggis. “I’ve never tried it,” he admitted. “I’m looking forward to it.”

Robbie Burns immortalized that “Chieftain of the puddin’ race” in his famous poem ‘Address to a Haggis’ usually recited during a ceremony in which the haggis is piped into the room.

This year’s Robbie Burns Dinner is being organized as a fundraiser for the Manitoulin Sea Cadet Corps by the Manitoulin Navy League. The event will include the aforementioned piping of the haggis, complete with recitation of the poem, a fine catered roast beef dinner complete with tatties and neeps (potatoes and turnip), a taste of the haggis itself, a fine dessert, table wine and “great comraderie and an opportunity to support the Manitoulin Sea Cadet Corps while at the same time learning about the long traditions of Burns Night Dinners taking place all around the world using the same traditions.”

Tickets for the Robbie Burns Dinner at the Four Directions Complex in Aundeck Omni Kaning, 1300 Highway 540, are $40 and can be purchased at the Manitoulin Expositor office in Little Current, Breakaway Sports and in Gore Bay at the Manitoulin West Recorder office. You can call to reserve a ticket by calling 705-368-3718 and leaving a message.