People who know me know that I am a collector. I certainly won’t deny it. I’ve been one for about as long as I can remember. From rocks to trading cards to pencils (yes, pencils), it has led to mountains of many things far too numerous to list here. There are times when I think I may be standing atop the summit of the slippery slope to hoarding. I do. But as I like to rationalize, there are far worse addictions in this world. And if it does lead to hoarding, well, at least I’ll get a TV show out of it.
Anyway, the nature of my tastes has evolved over the years, and for quite some time now, I’ve been obsessively rooted in history. I’ll collect objects of historical significance in general, but as a lover of Island heritage, and an historian of it, I find myself ever in the pursuit of pieces of the province’s past. This has mostly manifested itself in the form of books; however, when it comes down to it I will collect just about anything relevant.
Among the many items of Island memorabilia I’ve amassed is this photograph. I can’t quite remember where I found it, or even when, but I’ve had it for a while now. It isn’t in the greatest condition, but here it is in all its black and white glory:
It rests within an ornate metal frame, which you can see in this shot:
It’s seen better days to be sure, and over the years has clearly suffered from lack of appropriate protection (there’s no glass over it). It is a real gem, though, and was no doubt a cherished item in its day, if the frame is any indication. I often wonder who owned it. I’ll likely never know.
I’ve also wondered about the story behind the photograph. The caption tells us the basics of the scene in eight words: “Centennial Celebration Ship ‘Polly’, Belfast, P.E.I., August, 1903”. For those of you familiar with Island history, that alone likely tells you something. But what about the story beyond the caption? A photograph is worth about a thousand words so they say, not eight. So for this week, I decided to dig a bit deeper. And if you’re wondering why I’ve never done this before now, good question. I don’t have an answer to that.
A century before this image was produced – and essentially the reason it was – 800 immigrants from the Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland, under the aegis of Thomas Douglas, Earl of Selkirk, were transported across the Atlantic in a bid to settle his landholdings on the Island in Belfast and surrounding areas. They arrived in August 1803 aboard three ships. The first to arrive was the Polly (August 3), followed by the Dykes on the seventh, and finally the Oughton on the 29th. It marked the most ambitious colonization venture yet attempted.
Although promised a better life on the Island, the “Selkirk” settlers found themselves facing a mountain of adversity in what was still very much a primeval environment and had to fight for those greener pastures; however, they dug in their heels, already accustomed to a tough lifestyle, and succeeded in putting down roots, little by little clawing their way across the southeastern region of the province and beyond. They would go on to spawn many of the communities that exist today, and many of the people who still proudly call them home. The largest and most successful group of Scotsmen and Scotswomen to put in at these shores, theirs is a lasting legacy, genetic and cultural.
But back to the photograph. As the centennial of this most momentous occasion approached, a committee of interested individuals was struck for the purpose of commemorating the event, and to fundraise for the erection of a monument in honour of these pioneers. According to a notice written by committee frontman Rev. Alexander MacLean Sinclair, then minister of St. John’s Church in Belfast, at least $800 was required to furnish a stone memorial, in addition to the publication of any relevant historical documents that could be collected (I’m not sure if the latter ever came to pass). It was his hope that a large gathering, variously described as a “demonstration”, and a “picnic”, would serve as remembrance of “the unhappy condition of their forefathers in Scotland; their grand physical, intellectual, and moral qualities; their hardships, sorrows, hopes and joys in the woods of America; and the deep debt of gratitude” owed them, while at the same time proving a convincing means by which to elicit monetary contributions. Long story short? It was.
The festivities were slated for 10 August, but as bad luck would have it the day dawned inclement. The setback proved but a minor inconvenience, however, and the following morning the sun burst through the clouds. Young and old alike, in the company of dignitaries local and from Charlottetown and elsewhere, made their way to a field provided by Frank Halliday for the occasion (for those coming from afar, the steamer City of London even provided ferry service from the capital straight to an adjacent wharf). What unfurled would later be described as Belfast’s “most orderly and most memorable gathering”. The coverage of the event, found in the Guardian of 12 August, was quite extensive, and so I won’t quote it here; however, you can follow the two links below and read it at your leisure.
Belfast Honors ‘The Polly Men’ (page 1)
Belfast Honors ‘The Polly Men’ (page 4)
As you would expect, there were a number of stirring speeches from those dignitaries present, such as Lt. Governor Dr. Peter Adolphus McIntyre, Premier Arthur Peters, and the Hon. Donald Alexander McKinnon, as well as Angus Alexander McLean and Alexander Martin. Songs were also sung, dances danced, and bags piped. A good time and good eats were had by all, and on August 15, the Guardian ran a summary of the festivities written by Sinclair. Focusing primarily on finances, he was happy to report that the ‘Polly Demonstration’ had netted a respectable $510, just $300 shy of the fundraising goal. He thanked those who’d kindly donated, and directed those still interested in doing so to forward donations to committee members within the next three months. He then went on to write:
“I feel thankful to all the men who worked loyally in making necessary preparations for the Polly celebration, to all the ladies, married and single, who interested themselves in the commissariat department of the work, to the singers, pipers and other sons of music, to the speakers for their interesting and excellent addresses, to the newspaper men for their full and admirable reports, and above all to the thousands who were present and showed that they knew not only how to respect their ancestors, whether from Scotland, Ireland, England or Wales, but that they also knew how to respect themselves and act as gentlemen and christians.”
And to close:
“I think I may now bid good-bye to the famous old Polly. The time for talking is over; the time for action has come; fork out the money.”
A blunt, no-nonsense request, but it worked and in the end, the money would be forked out – no mean feat in a predominantly Scottish community. Today, those hard-earned dollars and cents take the form of a beautiful granite monument to the Selkirk settlers, which you can find just past St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Belfast on Rte. 207. Keep an eye out for it the next time you’re in the area.
Well, that about does it for now. See you on Friday!
PEI History Guy
P.S. – Appropriately enough, this post clocks in at over a thousand words. Brilliant.
What say you?