Diefenbaker’s North

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As the country looked forward to the Commonwealth Games in July, what better time to reflect on John Diefenbaker, the former Prime Minister of Canada, whose Scottish forebears left their Sutherland home in Kildonan during the Highland Clearances and set sail for a new life across the Atlantic. Drawing on his Northern Vision and trips to his ancestral home, Diefenbaker’s North considers how developments in travel, communication and trade have impacted our lives since his visits more than half a century ago. 

In 1813 the Bannerman family was part of a displaced group from Kildonan who made the treacherous Atlantic voyage to Churchill in Canada, going on to embark on the year-long journey overland to the Red River Valley settlement. In this year of Homecoming it is fitting that we remember these courageous emigrants. In an interview Diefenbaker talks about the hardships his family encountered:

“My great-grandfather and grandmother became attached to the Selkirk settlement. They had a very bad time. They were to be disembarked at York Factory but dumped off at Churchill. My great-grandfather played the bagpipes during the march to York Factory to keep spirits up.”

Diefenbaker’s North tells a story of what came after the Clearances; what happened to those who left Kildonan and the lives of their descendants around the globe. John Diefenbaker, Canada’s 13th Prime Minister, clearly inherited his family’s pioneering spirit. Not only did he reach high office, he was instrumental in developing the New Commonwealth of the post war years.

His Northern Vision, outlines in a speech he gave in Winnipeg in February 1958, provides some of the inspiration for this project:

“I see a new Canada – a Canada of the North […] We will open [Canada’s] northland for development by improving transportation and communication and by the development of power, by the building of access roads.”

Diefenbaker in Scotland

Diefenbaker took the opportunity to vist his ancestral Scottish home for the first time in 1958, after attending a meeting of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers in London. During an interview in 1973, he recalled that he’d…

Diefenbaker meeting locals after attending church ceremony
Diefenbaker meeting locals after attending church ceremony

“… never gone to the Highlands until 1958. My brother Elmer was along. We attended church. Some twelve miles from Kildonan. All that remains there today is the occasional ruin. The ruin of my great Grandfather’s cottage is still to be seen. Not more than two or three feet high.”

When Diefenbaker visited Scotland in November 1958 as part of his global Commonwealth tour, the excitement generated on both sides of the Atlantic was not dissimilar to the enthusiasm that surrounds the arrival of sportsmen and women to Glasgow in July 2014.

Diefenbaker’s ancestral pilgrimage to Sutherland was a much anticipated side trip to this official UK visit taken in his first year as Prime Minister. after the formal ceremonies were concluded in London, Diefenbaker and his party headed north to Edinburgh then to Inverness where he was welcomed by a distant cousin John Bannerman.

The motorcade continued north to Sutherland for the weekend and when the official party arrived in Helmsdale, Diefenbaker met up with many local people in his search for his ancestors’ Kildonan home. Such was the enthusiasm that the official convoy of eight cars swelled to 23 as locals followed Diefenbaker up the Strath of Kildonan.

Diefenbaker made a return visit to Kildonan in the summer of 1968. This was in a personal capacity, to unveil a plaque dedicated to his ancestors at Kildonan Kirk, and also to unveil a memorial cairn to the parents of the first Canadian Prime Minister, John A MacDonald. Like Diefenbaker, he was descended from a Kildonan famiy. Indeed, the two families had lived only miles apart, and in a later interview, Diefenbaker said: “… if it hadn’t been for th Highland Clearances, the first and thirteenth Prime Ministers of Canada might not have been.”

Diefenbaker Photograph Collection

A rare collection of photographs from Diefenbaker’s visits to Scotland has been found in the University of Saskatchewan Archives and Special Collections in Canada by project coordinator, Jeff Rule. There are over 100 images of the places Diefenbaker visited and the people he met on his Scottish tour, especially when he was in Helmsdale and Kildonan.



Diefenbaker’s North was funded by the National Lottery through the Celebrate programme, supporting communities to discover the diversity of the Commonwealth and create a legacy of community and Commonwealth connections in the year that Glasgow hosted the Commonwealth Games and funding was also provided through Festival of Museums 2014.

Celebrate lottery funding logoD52488 FOM SD (CS3)

One thought on “Diefenbaker’s North

  1. Dear Jackie
    Just looking at the Diefenbaker pictures. The 3 children meeting the Diefenbakers and collecting autographs outside I think the Marine Hotel are (L to R)  Derek Mackay who’s father was the local plumber in Brora. Margaret Gray whose father worked in the Radio Station and my sister Margaret K Sutherland (now FYDA). Margaret Gray now lives in or near Aberdeen and my sister lives in Dundee.
    Iain Sutherland 

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