Read, Transcribe and Enjoy Old Scottish-Canadian Diaries Online

By Catharine Anne Wilson

Have you ever wanted to read someone's diary? Now you can. Nothing brings you closer to daily life in the past than reading an old diary.

The Rural Diary Archive showcases over 130 diarists from across Ontario and is available online beginning September 24, 2015. It broadcasts the availability of diaries in archives across the province and makes these hand-written and fading sources accessible to all. The full text of the diaries of nineteen men and women are available to read, search and transcribe and more are continuously being added as new collections are located.

The Scots were particularly keen on writing diaries and many are featured on the Rural Diary Archive. Over 32 of the diarists are of Scottish heritage and some of them wrote diaries for several consecutive years. Their diaries cover the period from 1800 to the 1960s and depict migration, pioneering, farming, family and community life. Anyone interested in the Scots and their settlements in Glengarry, Lanark, Wellington, Huron and other counties will enjoy them.

Example of handwriting from George Bremner's diary circa 1881

Visitors can engage the website in three basic ways:

1. MEET THE DIARISTS showcases over 130 diarists. It gives the name of the diarist, township, occupation, religion, birth date etc. and location of the collection. People can search this table to find diaries that exist in archives across the province written by those of Scottish heritage and/or living in areas of Scottish settlement.

2. The SEARCH section contains the full text of several transcribed/typed diaries which visitors can peruse. These diaries are searchable and Accessible to those who use Assistive Technology readers.

George Easton, for example, grew up in Lesmahagow, near Lanark in Scotland and emigrated in 1820 aboard the "Prompt" as part of an immigration scheme to settle weavers in what would become Lanark County in Ontario. He and other neighbouring Scottish settlers formed a St Andrew's Society. George's diary (1830-39) suggests he was a crusty Scot struggling with his conscience. He is lonesome for his homeland, unhappy with teaching the local children and busy clearing more stony land for farming. You can glimpse inside his kitchen as he writes: "Jess is a woman fuddle. Mind that. Jenny making my coatee." You can join him as he passionately reflects on Scottish history: "... the Dirk of Glencoe ... shall reeking glance glory in blood of the foe. Reform.. reform.. reform.." What does he mean in another entry when he cries, "Disappointment! Disappointment!! Disappointment!!" or warns of "Chambering and Wantonness"?

Other full-text, typed diaries in this section are those of Douglas McTavish and Mary Green of Huron County. Douglas usually makes very brief entries such as "plowing all day," but on 9 May 1877 his routine is interrupted by the tragic death of his wife. Left with six young children, Douglas must cope. You can also follow the trials and eventual release of Mary Green. Mary, age 29, keeps house for two uncles in 1899. She rarely goes anywhere and is lonely. She bakes, scrubs, churns, gardens, and feeds the hired men while her siblings begin interesting careers. Then Mary leaves to better herself. She enrols in the Dairy College at Guelph.

3. The TRANSCRIBE section contains the full text of several handwritten diaries which visitors can help transcribe. This means turning the handwritten words into typed script. Visitors can see the original handwritten pages and transcribe them online adding to what others have done and in the process make these diaries readable, searchable and Accessible too.

William Sunters's detailed, hand-written, daily entries in 1857 tell of events on his farm in Wellington County and trips to Guelph. He debates with the school teacher about virtue and vice. And he shares his love of horses and recipes for cough medicine with us. John Ferguson's diaries for 1869 and 1870 bristle with the strivings of a young third-generation Scottish-Canadian trying to be his best. His high school education is cut short when his father falls ill and he has to take charge of the farm in Peel County. For the next fifteen years he writes of agricultural improvements, taking his prize-winning horses to the fair and his activities as a school trustee, devout Methodist and temperance advocate. John shares more details, observations and opinions than most diarists.

We hope that you enjoy visiting the website. We encourage you to try transcribing and join others as together we make valuable historical sources available for the future. Historical societies might consider organizing a transcribe-a-thon for one of their own local diaries. Or perhaps a genealogist might organize a family project whereby several relatives participated in transcribing Aunt Margaret's diary. My distant cousins in Australia and Seattle and I, who have never met in person, are currently transcribing our great, great grandmother's diaries online. The possibilities are endless and exciting.

If you know of old diaries needing a good home or would like further information, don't hesitate to contact us at

The Rural Diary Archive has been created by Dr Catharine Wilson and students in the Department of History. It is generously funded by the Francis and Ruth Redelmeier Professorship in Rural History and supported by the Archival and Special Collections, McLaughlin Library, University of Guelph.