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Tobermory
Canada and Scotland


Tobermory, Ontario is the crown jewel vacation spot at the northern tip of the Bruce Peninsula. Fishermen began dropping nets into Tobermory’s deep natural harbours, Big and Little Tub in the late 1800s. Naval surveyor Henry Bayfield originally named this port Collins Harbour. It was renamed in 1882 by Scottish fishermen for the port of Tobermory on the Island of Mull in Scotland.

One Week in Tobermory 2020 Ontario Cottage Country Georgian Bay Vacation Family Vlog

The hive of activity that Tobermory Ontario has become and the presence of many successful commercial enterprises might surprise some of the earliest visitors and settlers in that area. However, it must be remembered that in the 1800s tourism and other related ventures were not the reasons why pioneers came to the Bruce Peninsula. It was the quest for land suitable for agriculture that attracted settlement.

In "The Early Settlement of Tobermory and St. Edmonds Township” author Patrick Folkes provides excerpts from the reports of three early government representatives whose responsibility it was to prepare the area for an influx of settlers. Their comments were less than enthusiastic about the future prospects of that area.

In 1857 A. G. Robinson, the chief engineer for Lake Huron lighthouse operations described the area as being “totally unfit for agricultural purposes”.

In 1869, Public Land Surveyor, Charles Rankin, arrived in the area to resurvey the proposed road that would run through the centre of St. Edmonds Township from the Lindsay town line to Tobermory Ontario harbour. After six weeks of struggle to complete the task, Rankin and his crew returned to their base camp. He summarized in his report that the work had been “one of the most troublesome explorations and pieces of line running ... which I have ever met with”.

Tobermory & Flowerpot Island - Everything you need to know to plan a day trip!

William Bull, a representative of the Indian Department, was sent in 1873 to explore the region to ascertain the amount of good agricultural lands and also the quality and quantity of timber resources. He reported that the town plot and some of the surrounding area was “nearly all burnt off, leaving the white rocky ridges quite bare”. However, Bull also reported that the area, nearly four thousand acres, adjacent to the community was perhaps the best in the region.

Despite such warnings, during the 1870s and 1880s the government sold tracts of land to prospective settlers under the guise of promoting them as agricultural lands. The results were chaotic. Some pioneers arrived and struggled to create farmland. Others came, and after battling the environment and the elements left. Some of these plots were taken over by others, while tracts remained undeveloped.

The hardier pioneers remained. While many continued to cultivate the soil, they turned to other ventures to sustain their families. Many worked for the lumbering companies that held the timber rights in the area. Fishing had long been carried out in the area. Editions of the Owen Sound Comet from the early 1850s report of fishermen arriving from “Tupper Murray” with large catches of fish to trade for supplies. Many of the early settlers to the region augmented their diets and income by fishing.

The area around Tobermory Ontario remained relatively isolated for many decades. Land transportation was difficult at best. Consequently, the community was dependent upon the vessels that sailed around the tip of Bruce Peninsula from Georgian Bay to Lake Huron.

However, the arrival and emergence of the automobile as a means of transportation had a great impact upon the Tobermory area. The automobile age was closely followed by the growth and expansion of the tourism industry. To facilitate both of these twentieth century phenomena a good system of roads had to be built. The completion of an automobile route to Tobermory marked the end of isolation and the beginning of tourism in the area. Today tourism is a major economic factor in the life of the area.

History of Tobermory, Scotland

Tobermory derives its name from the gaelic ‘Tobar Mhoire’ meaning the well of Mary. Mary’s Well and Mary’s Chapel dated back to the Medieval period, the water from the well was said to possess medicinal properties. Both the well and chapel are gone but a monument was erected on the approximate site of the well in commemoration of Edward VII’s coronation. The only sign of the old chapel, can be seen at one corner of the graveyard.

Tobermory - Isle of Mull, Scotland

The town of Tobermory was established in 1788, created by the British Fisheries Society. The society had decided that Tobermory should be one of three new habitations to be developed. The other two being Ullapool and Lochbay in Skye. In 1788 the building work began.

Man has inhabited the general area for over 3000 years, but because the previous inhabitants were farmers, the majority of the population lived at Baliscate at the top of the Eas Brae (Eas meaning ‘Waterfall’). The only real evidence that can be seen of early settlements are the Standing stones at Baliscate and an Iron age fort near to the farm at Sgriob Ruadh. The fort is called Dun Urgadul and is thought to have been in use between 600 B.C. and 400 A.D.

Where the Main Street now sits had been nothing more than a rocky cliff face with a small piece of flat ground at Ledaig (where the distillery is now situated) that supported a small settlement. To start building the new Tobermory, the site had to be created by cutting away at the steep slope and reclaiming land from the sea. A small pier and customs house were the first structures to be built so that the salt could be landed and taxes could be levied. Most fish was transported in salt to preserve it, and salt was taxable. The current post office was the customs house and store. Other buildings were then constructed in this area, including an inn (where the co-op is now). this was to be the core of the village. Land was precious, and so, to allow the village to expand, accommodation land was released at the top of the hill. Argyll Terrace was developed and named after the 5th Duke of Argyll.

The new village was expected to attract people currently working on the land and to develop their skills into being fishermen and tradesmen. This never really worked, as few local people had either the knowledge or finance to build boats and head way out to sea and catch Herring. In the end other factors helped develop this part of Scotland. Kelp was being harvested for processing into soap and glass. This meant that the pier had to be extended and this increased trade.

The boom in Kelp however, was only temporary and the trade collapsed in the 1820’s and lean years were ahead for the village. As in recent years, tourism came to the rescue and after visits by notables like Mendelssohn the village became a stopping off place for people visiting the Hebrides and Fingal’s Cave. In 1847 Queen Victoria visited Tobermory in the Royal Yacht (Victoria and Albert) and described Tobermory as “prettily situated” The town then had a reputation for being on the ‘Royal Route’ and Steamships Companies used this description in its advertising material to attract people onto its cruises. The promotion worked, and the village didn’t look back.

A visit to Tobermory and the Isle of Mull, Oct 2016

By now the village had around a thousand inhabitants and the buildings were developing outwards to the north. The area where the Mishnish pub is now standing was constructed and more seawall was extended to carry the road. In 1864 a new deep water pier was completed to service larger vessels that had become necessary to service all the growing small communities up the West Coast of Scotland. The importance of Tobermory’s safe harbour was now as important as ever to passing vessels. More vessels meant more trade and the Tobermory shops developed and with them the necessary trades.


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