Great Canadian kilt skate honours Scottish father of the nation

Thousands of Canadians donned their skates and kilts to celebrate Canada’s connections to Scotland and honour the 200th anniversary of a Glasgow boy who became the father of a nation.

  • Full feature in Issue No. 11

The Great Canadian Kilt Skate took place in Ottawa, Montreal, Saskatoon, Calgary and Winnipeg as part of Canada’s celebrations to mark the bicentennial of the birth of Sir John A Macdonald, a Scot who became Canada’s first Prime Minister.

Canadians in Ottawa take to the ice to celebrate the birth of Sir John A Macdonald.

Photograph by: Dyanne Wilson

Supported by the Scottish and Canadian governments the Great Kilt Skate was inspired by an annual tradition upheld the Scottish society of Ottawa who skate in their kilts on January 11th each year to mark Macdonald’s birthday.

Having heard about the society’s plans for this year other cities decided to join in and observe the tradition leading to the birth of the first national Great Canadian Kilt Skate, attracting skaters in kilts to frozen waterways and ice rinks across the country.

John Macdonald’s words of wisdom


“Politics is a game requiring great coolness and an utter abnegation of prejudice and personal feeling”

“When fortune empties her chamber pot on your head, smile and say, ‘We are going to have a summer shower.’

“Elections are a lot like horse races, in that you know a lot more about them the next day.”

Many more donned some tartan in honour of the “Old Chieftain”, as he was sometimes nicknamed in recognition of his origins, and turned out to watch.Events were organised by the Scottish Society of Ottawa, the Scottish Heritage Council of Manitoba, St. Andrews Society of Montreal, the Saskatoon WinterShines festival and The Optimist Club of Calgary.

“Sir John A Macdonald’s legacy is an important part of the special connection between Canada and Scotland. He and the other Scots who travelled to Canada to start a new life have left a lasting bond of friendship between our two nations. The Great Canadian Kilt Skate is a fantastic idea bringing communities together to celebrate our shared heritage,” said Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Europe and External Affairs.

Macdonald, who is considered one of the founding fathers of modern Canada and is the country’s second longest serving Prime Minister, was born the third of five children in Brunswick Lane, Glasgow in 1815.

Although his birthday is officially recognised as January 11 official records in Edinburgh have it down as the 10th.

His father Hugh had a business in the Merchant City but after it ran into trouble and the family was left in debt they emigrated to Canada when Macdonald was just five years old and settled in Kingston, Ontario.

It wasn’t an easy childhood. His younger brother james died soon after the family arrived in Canada as the result of a blow to the head by a servant who was supposed to look after the boys.

Despite his best endeavours Hugh Macdonald suffered a series of other business failures and the young John was forced to leave school at 15 and take a job as an apprentice lawyer to help keep the family.

Canadians in Ottawa take to the ice to celebrate the birth of Sir John A Macdonald with the Great Canadian Kilt Skate 3 (Dyanne Wilson, Ottawa)

Photograph by: Dyanne Wilson

After qualifying he set himself up as a criminal lawyer and took on a number of high-profile dramatic cases which got him noticed and earned him a reputation as a good orator as he went on to a career in politics. He entered the Canadian parliament in 1843 aged just 28.

As a colourful politician he was renowned for being fond of a drink or three and was frequently castigated for being the worse for wear during debates.

However, he remained popular with the public and was often able to win support with his quick wit at the expense of his opponents.

Despite a troubled private life which included the death of a wife and son and the birth of brain damaged daughter, he became a driving force behind the unification of Canada and held the position of Canadian Prime Minister for 18 years.

When he died on June 6th, 1891 he was universally mourned as the Father of a nation that is now modern Canada and memorials to him can be found across the country.