James Thompson: Québec’s Great Scot

James Thompson: Québec’s Great Scot

LiQ_Mag_July_2015_CoverThis article first appeared in the July 2015 issue of Life in Québec Magazine.

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By Peter Black

Québec City’s Celtic Festival celebrates its 10th anniversary in September.

One might say the recognition of the Scottish presence in the city was long overdue — and yes, we know Celts come in many tartans.

In fact, long before immigrants from Europe began flocking to the shores of the New World in the 1800s and beyond, Scots had begun, quite literally, laying the foundation in Québec City of the nation that would become Canada.

We’re not referring to Abraham Martin, who for mysterious reasons was called “l’Écossais,” even though Martin served under Samuel de Champlain and his descendants contributed mightily to the populating of New France.

No, coincidentally it’s actually on the Plains of Abraham that the first major incursion of Scots into Québec occurred, in the form of the fearsome Highlanders, notably the 78th regiment, who were among General James Wolfe’s most valued warriors in the fateful Québec campaign of 1759-60.

It’s believed some 159 members of the 78th chose to stay in Québec after the French signed over their few acres of snow to the British in 1763. One of the most notable, but least known of these Scots is James Thompson, known as ‘the old sergeant.’LiQ_Mag_Sub_Banner

He was also known as the last surviving veteran of the Seven Years’ War in North America, a distinction he earned by managing to live to the astonishing age of 95.

Though he was not in the thick of battle in the famous skirmish on the Plains, Thompson was in charge of the detail that brought Wolfe’s body down to the river to be returned to England. Thompson had a personal connection and fierce loyalty to Wolfe.

Even though the general was a veteran of the bloody battle of Culloden and is forever remembered for having asserted that soldiers sent to battle “are no great mischief if they fall,” he had enormous respect for the Highlanders.

Thompson recounts in his memoirs how he and Wolfe had bonded after the battle of Louisbourg in the Highland-like conditions of Cape Breton Island: “Oh, he was a noble fellow! And he was so kind and attentive to our men, that they would have gone through fire and water to have serv’d him.”

The facts of his youth in Tain in the Scottish Highlands are murky, but it seems Thompson was trained as an engineer. After the war, he eventually found work with the British authorities, who now faced the task of repairing, fortifying and defending their new North American acquisitions.

Given that the British had spent four months levelling Québec City with constant bombardment, there was much work to be done. Thompson oversaw the construction of dozens of fortifications, including the Citadel.

When the American War of Independence penetrated Canada, Thompson was assigned to prepare fortifications to fend off a two-pronged campaign led by General Richard Montgomery from Montréal and General Benedict Arnold northward from New England.

In the famous attack on Québec in a snowstorm on New Year’s Eve in 1775, Montgomery was killed by a spray of grapeshot. Thompson was quickly on the scene and had Montgomery’s body buried in a graveyard “near his first wife.” Thompson also had a connection with Montgomery: the two had fought together at Louisbourg. Forty-two years later, when Montgomery’s widow asked for the return of her husband’s remains, Thompson located the exact spot where he had been buried. (What happened to Montgomery’s sword, which Thompson kept as a souvenir, is a whole other story.)

Among the other things Thompson built was a family house that stands today on rue Ste-Ursule in the old city. Thompson and his descendants lived in the house from 1793 until 1957, but it changed owners later in the 20th century and began to fall into ruin.

In 1995, a retired firefighter from Toronto, visiting the city, spotted a ‘For Sale’ sign on the property and suddenly this tangible monument to a great Scot of Québec found new life.

Greg Alexander, himself of Scottish ancestry, and his partner Guitta, an artist, painstakingly restored and decorated the Maison Thompson and for the past 20 years have operated a bed and breakfast that earns rave reviews on tourist websites.

The ‘old sergeant’ surely would be impressed at the longevity of the house he built in his new home far from the Highlands.

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About Author

Peter Black

For years Peter Black was the producer of Breakaway, on CBC Radio One in Quebec City. Before arriving in Quebec City in the 1990s, he lived and worked in Ottawa and Montreal. Peter is married and has two sons.

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