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Montréal’s Golden Square Mile: The halcyon days and the city’s Scottish heritage

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J. K. L. Ross house, Peel Street, Montreal, QC, 1926-27

J. K. L. Ross house, Peel Street, Montreal, QC, 1926-27 © McCord Museum

When you think of Montréal, what comes to mind? Maybe voyageur sashes, tourtière and maple syrup? But did you know that kilts, whiskey and haggis have just as much to do with the city’s history? Well, if you don’t, Monica Orr hopes to change this. See, historically, Montréal has been very influenced by the Scottish – aye, more than a wee bit!

Monica Orr wants to make the Golden Square Mile shine once again

There are three important things you need to know about Monica Orr and her love of Montréal: First, she is the Director of Sales and Marketing at the Hotel Omni Mont-Royal; second, she’s a huge history buff on an area of Montréal known as the Golden Square Mile (or GSM, from now on, to save space); and third, the Hotel Omni Mont-Royal is located within the GSM, which is delineated by Pine Street (or the foot of Mount Royal), Guy Street, Sainte-Catherine Street and University Street. Back in the day, (or the heyday, from about 1850 to 1930), the GSM was seat of Montréal’s impressive wealth, and it wielded most of the country’s economic clout. Some say 70% of Canada’s wealth was concentrated in this “Golden” Square Mile.

The power and prestige of Victorian Montréal

James Ross house, Peel Street, Montreal, about 1910

James Ross house, Peel Street, Montreal, QC, about 1910 © McCord Museum

Most of the GSM’s power and money resided in the hands of businessmen of Scottish descent. They came to Canada and made their fortunes in shipping, rail, mining, timber, fur and banking. They built opulent mansions and impressive public institutions – banks, churches, universities – in what is now considered downtown Montréal. Just a quick rundown of the names of Montréal’s streets are testament to the heritage of these industrious Scots, but not everyone is aware of this. As Orr points out, “Even many local Montrealers see the names of these streets – McGill, McTavish, Mackay – and don’t know these families’ stories. They represented the power and prestige of Victorian Montréal. Their stories are absolutely fascinating.”

Street signs aside, you only need to look at the magnificent buildings, once lavish single-family homes, now converted into museums, embassies, hotels and university pavilions, to realize the imprint these wealthy Scottish families had on the urban landscape. The GSM’s prestige is evident in the size, splendour and architecture – Medieval and Renaissance, Greek and Roman, Gothic and Germanic – of beautiful buildings styled after villas of Florence or the Scottish Highlands. And to think that single families once lived in them!

Reacquainting Montréalers and visitors with the GSM

Orr wants to keep this chapter of Montréal history alive through the establishment of a ‘Golden Square Mile association’, which would bring stakeholders in the area (the Omni, Ritz-Carlton Montréal, Sofitel, Loews Hotel Vogue, Hotel St. Martin, BEST WESTERN Ville-Marie Montréal, Centre Mont-Royal and McGill University) together to position the area as a distinct tourist neighbourhood, joining the ranks of the metropolis’s other much-talked-about districts like Le Plateau, Old Montréal and the Mile End. Ideally, the Association would be run independently of the partners, acting as an archive for the GSM’s history, managing a bank of photos, putting on exhibitions, marketing and creating overall interest in and awareness for this history-rich district.

Alice Bar, Hotel Omni Montreal

Whisky Folies Wednesdays are hosted at the Alice Bar, Hotel Omni Montreal

The way Orr sees it, to sell a property, you need to tell its story, and sitting smack dab in the middle of the GSM, the Omni can do some of the talking. Already, Orr has got going on some initiatives. “At the Omni, we want to incorporate the history of the Golden Square Mile through storytelling. So we’re setting up an area in the lower lobby with photos and information to give guests a chance to delve deeper into this district’s amazing history. As well, in honour of the Golden Square Mile’s Scottish roots, we’ve launched Whisky Folie Wednesdays, where people can enjoy single malt scotch and whiskey tastings, fish and chips and bagpipes – the whole kit! It’s a storytelling experience, a celebration of Montréal’s rich Scottish heritage and a chance to learn about the absolutely fascinating stories of the Golden Square Mile.”

Monica, we’re all ears. Regale us with riveting tales!

Fast facts about the GSM

  • The Golden Square Mile grew out of a natural geographic feature – Mount Royal. Nestled at the magnificent mountain’s base, the resplendent homes benefited from beautiful vistas of the island, and were considered a countryside antidote to the bustling and crowded Old Montréal.
  • The heyday of the GSM was between about 1850 and 1930 – at its peak, it is said to have held 70% of Canada’s wealth.
  • The term the “Golden Square Mile” was coined by Canadian writer Hugh Maclennan, in his novel, “Two Solitudes”, which portrays the English-French dichotomy in Canada.
  • Some of the GSM’s key founders were James McGill, John Redpath, Sir Hugh Allan, William McGillivray, Sir George Stephen, William Watson Ogilvie and Simon McTavish
Montreal in 1832

Montreal in 1832, showing the farmland on which the Square Mile was built © McCord Museum

Lady Allan's house, "Ravenscrag

Living room, Lady Allan’s house, “Ravenscrag”, Montreal, 1911 © McCord Museum

Garden party at Mr. Meighen's residence, Montreal, QC, 1908

Garden party at Mr. Meighen’s residence, Montreal, QC, 1908 © McCord Museum

Sherbrooke Street in winter, Montreal, QC, 1896

Sherbrooke Street in winter, Montreal, QC, 1896 © McCord Museum

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