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Museum project's tribute to former Canadian PM

HIS forebears left the Highlands to embark on an arduous journey of thousands of miles by sea and land, which ended up with the formation of a settlement that was to become the modern city of Winnipeg in the centre of Canada.

John Diefenbaker visited ancestral home in Sutherland and returned to the town in 1968, while sheep showed no respect for his power or influence as they held up the Canadian leader. Mr Diefenbaker also unveiled the memorial cairn in Rogart to the parents of the first Canadian Prime Minister.
John Diefenbaker visited ancestral home in Sutherland and returned to the town in 1968, while sheep showed no respect for his power or influence as they held up the Canadian leader. Mr Diefenbaker also unveiled the memorial cairn in Rogart to the parents of the first Canadian Prime Minister.

More than 140 years later, in 1957, John Diefenbaker became Prime Minister of Canada and the following year he returned to his ancestral home in Kildonan, Sutherland.

Tomorrow the Timespan Museum in Helmsdale, at the mouth of the Strath of Kildonan, launches its Diefenbaker's North project ,which for the rest of the year will focus on the story of this renowned politician and his Bannerman mother's ancestors.

Some behind the project are even referring to Canada's 13th Prime Minister as Kildonan's Kennedy, a reference to President's Kennedy's attachment to his Irish roots.

Mr Diefenbaker's forebears were among the 94 who departed the Strath of Kildonan in 1813. They left in the face of plans hatched by the arch clearer Patrick Sellar to move their people to the inhospitable north coast to allow the "improvements" ordered by the House of Sutherland, as people were replaced by sheep.

They endured an Atlantic crossing only to have to build their own cabins near the Hudson Bay, as winter was closing in.

The following spring they began their 1000-mile journey, walking in single file and often in rudimentary snowshoes. Their destination was the Red River to the south where other Hebridean and Irish exiles had arrived two years earlier. In 1815 more arrived from Sutherland and between them they founded the modern day city of Winnipeg, provincial capital of Manitoba.

John Diefenbaker (1895-1979) served as the Progressive Conservative Prime Minister of Canada from June 1957 to April 1963 and visited Sutherland twice. The first came in 1958 as part of his global Commonwealth tour as Prime Minister.

The second was in the summer of 1968, this time in a personal capacity, to unveil a plaque dedicated to his ancestors at Kildonan Kirk and a memorial cairn to the parents of the first Canadian Prime Minister, John A MacDonald, who like Mr Diefenbaker was descended from a Kildonan family.

He later recalled his trip: "The ruin of my great grandfather's cottage is still to be seen and is not more than two or three feet high."

Timespan's project manger Jacquie Aitken said the community was proud of the connection.

"Mary Findlay of Marrel gasped with delight when she saw her grandmother pictured with Diefenbaker outside Bunillidh Church when he visited in November 1958. We've struck gold with a wonderful collection of photos of local people in the Saskatoon University Archive," she said, adding that the images would be revealed at the launch event.

Timespan has planned several events from lectures, writing and oral history sessions, to a motorcade to Kildonan Church.

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