Who’s Bruce?

By Jack Morgan.

When I was a kid I listened to a radio program about a masked cowboy hero of the old west called The Lone Ranger. Each week’s episode ended with the dramatic sound of Rossini’s William Tell Overture. The music softened just at the end to allow the beneficiary of that week’s Lone Ranger heroics to pose wistfully the question, “Who was that masked man?”

Today, with a similar question I seek the solution to another mystery, a mystery lodged right in the heart of southern Ontario. The county is called Bruce. So is the Peninsula and the National Park. And the Trail – Bruce also. So, “Who was that masked man?” Who’s Bruce?

Bruce Peninsula National Park, looking toward Bear's Rump Island. Photo by Tango 7174.
Bruce Peninsula National Park, looking toward Bear’s Rump Island. Photo by Tango 7174.

Robert Bruce (1274-1329) was an early champion of Scotland’s independence from England, subsequently the first king of Scotland and ever after their national hero. His defeats of the English in battles at Loudon Hill and later at Bannockburn are legendary. He is Robert The Bruce. However, he is not the Bruce we are seeking. Robert did provide the name, but the person and the occasion came later.

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They came over 500 years later when Robert’s ancestor, another Bruce, this one named James, was appointed governor of the preconfederation province of Canada. It was during this period that the European settlement of present day Bruce County began in earnest. In 1849 the developing county was named Bruce after James’ family name, the choice undoubtedly a reflection of the preponderance of Scots among the county’s early settlers.

James Bruce (1811-1863) was the eighth Earl of Elgin and the twelfth Earl of Kincardine. He inherited some of his famous ancestor’s political and military abilities. Before coming to Canada he had been governor of Jamaica. Later, following his time in Canada, he figured centrally in the capture of Peking in 1860. In 1862 he became viceroy of India. An enduring monument to his stay in this country is that it was during his governorship that responsible government was introduced into Canada.

James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin, Governor General of India, Lord Lieutenant of Fife. By Francis Grant, 1864–1865. Image courtesy bbc.co.uk
James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin, Governor General of India, Lord Lieutenant of Fife. By Francis Grant, 1864–1865. Image courtesy bbc.co.uk

An interesting sidelight on our James is that his father, Thomas, the seventh Earl of Elgin, was the man who, depending on your point of view, either stole or rescued the famous Elgin Marbles from Greece. In 1816 he donated them to the British Museum where they reside to this day.

But back to the Bruce place names. A year after the county became Bruce, one of its townships was also named Bruce. But the Peninsula, which was known to early European settlers as the Indian and later the Saugeen Peninsula, didn’t assume the name of the county until early in the 20th century. It is now, simply and boldly – The Bruce.

The Bruce Trail came along much later. It was named after the peninsula, the trail’s most dominant geographic feature, when the Bruce Trail Association (today the Bruce Trail Conservancy) was established in 1963.

So, the Bruce name spreads. Attached as it is to 1000 kilometres of trail from Queenston on the Niagara River along the length of the Niagara Escarpment up to the tip of the Bruce Peninsula at Tobermory, the name now reverberates through the heart of Ontario.

So, who’s Bruce? He’s quite a guy and he’s all over the place.

Skinner's Bluff, south Bruce Peninsula. Photo by P199.
Skinner’s Bluff, south Bruce Peninsula. Photo by P199.

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