John A. Macdonald: Son of Glasgow, Father of Canada

We’ve had to leave Glasgow two weeks sooner than planned, which has put something of a damper on my ability to explore certain areas of historical interest. I had managed, though, to make pilgrimage to the birthplace of Sir John Alexander Macdonald, the architect and first Prime Minister of my homeland of Canada.

Brunswick Place, Glasgow, 19th c.
Brunswick Place, Glasgow, as it looked in the 1800’s.

‘Sir John A.’ was born, as far as historians can tell, in a second-floor flat above a shop owned by his father on Brunswick Lane, in what is now Glasgow’s Merchant City. Merchant City is an historic district that served as the city’s trade and business centre once upon a time. It’s an area that appears to be undergoing renaissance, with a few gleaming, modern glass-and-steel buildings where glorious old Georgian and Victorian architecture had once stood. Mostly, the old buildings are preserved, experiencing new life as home to a mix of highbrow retail, office spaces, and eating, drinking, and revelry establishments. It’s a visually stunning area that looks as if its fortunes are rising, after probably a few difficult decades.

The Mitre pub, Glasgow
The Mitre, in its better days

Some speculate that Macdonald was born on the south bank of the River Clyde, but most sources suggest that the still-standing ex-pub at Brunswick Lane was Macdonald’s birthplace. The Macdonald family seems to believe so; Macdonald’s great grandson, Hugh Gainsford, appeared as the guide and narrator of a 1967 CBC-TV special, where he asserted:

“We checked the records and found he had been born in a three-storey, brick building in a narrow alley in central Glasgow here in Brunswick Street,” Gainsford says in the documentary. “The building was there all right, but there’s no plaque or anything to indicate that a great Canadian had been born here.”

“Here” is either 12 or 14 Brunswick Lane, where Macdonald was thought to have been born on Jan. 11, 200 years ago. His father, Hugh Macdonald, was a failed textile merchant who held a shopfront at street level and housed his family above. Inspired by his repeated failure in business, the elder Macdonald sought opportunity in the ‘new world,’ and emigrated with his family when the younger Macdonald was all of five. They landed in what is now Kingston, Ontario. The younger Macdonald was educated, opened his own law office at the age of 19, and entered politics seven years later. Ultimately, his vision and drive compelled a new nation to confederate.

Map of Canada
Modern Canada

Canada was created in 1867 with the unification of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, while the balance of provinces and territories that comprise the nation as we now know it were added over time. In that year of Confederation, Queen Victoria knighted Macdonald, now popularly known as “The Father of Canada.” He served for nearly 18 years as Prime Minister, albeit not consecutively, and to date has served the second longest term in that office. Sir John died in 1891 at the age of 76.

As to the property itself, the seemingly beloved Mitre Bar was housed for many decades at number 14, finally shuttering in the early oughts, while the tenements were reportedly demolished in 1950s. (Aside: why demolish only the upper floors of a building? Hmm). The former Mitre is slated for demolition, as it has been for some time; it seems to have escaped a few dates with the wrecking ball.

Certainly, to look at the property in its current state suggests it doesn’t have much of a future. Until recently, it was owned by Selfridges, itself owned by the Canadian grocery mogul Galen Weston. Plans to open the first Glaswegian store of that name were scuttled, and the property sold at a loss to a developer. Glasgow city council and the Scottish government are reportedly in discussion with the building’s owners as to what kind of tribute to install in Brunswick Lane.

The Mitre Bar 2015
The Mitre Bar today: on its last legs (my image)

It was bizarre to stand in this alley-sized lane, with people of varying heritage and appearance wandering through, none of them considering the possibility that Canada, in a manner of speaking, started in this lane; that this decrepit, shuttered building was the first home to a considerable historical individual.

There is a commemorative plaque several blocks away at Ramshorn Kirk where Macdonald was baptised, placed decades ago by the Archaeological and Historic Sites Board of Ontario. In Brunswick Lane there is no statue, no monument, no plaque, although Macdonald, who was fond of a drink, would likely have smiled upon a bar being made of his childhood home.

As to his real legacy, Canada is alive and functioning well today. It’s imperfect and has its quirks, as does any nation, but it’s a place founded on a spirit of harmony and inclusiveness. It’s given safe harbour to many, including my forebears.

John McNamee, a Glasgow city Councillor who has lived and worked in Canada, suggests that Macdonald would have an opinion on the recent Scottish vote on independence from the UK: “He’d be hugely against it. John A. was a federalist,” says McNamee. “The reality is, I support the union for the same reasons that Macdonald would, pragmatic reasons, economic reasons.” Indeed, Macdonald founded Canada on with a vision of unity and inclusiveness, of working together for the greater good, and I think that’s created a nation that works very well. That’s a greater legacy than any bronze plaque can belie.

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