Rodney Brown’s William McGillivray project

Veteran Thunder Bay songwriter Rodney Brown has a passion for the fur trade era of Canadian history. His brilliant album The Big Lonely explored the stories of the North West Company under the leadership of William McGillivray.

Like many songwriters, Rodney takes his subjects seriously. He’s become a McGillivray fan, and he is currently working on an intriguing effort to recognize the role McGillivray played in the creation of Canada.

We asked Rodney Brown to tell us about the William McGillivray Memorial Plaque Project.

In 2007, after reading William McGillivray’s biography, I was inspired to trace his steps back to the UK. I’ve devoted much research and song writing into the life of my hometown’s namesake (Fort William, now Thunder Bay) and felt compelled to know more about his largely unrecognized life.

McGillivray had a long list of accomplishments as Chief Director of the North West Company, but it was his personal life that drew me to his beginnings in Dunmaglass Scotland. I met with the president of the McGillivray Clan Association in Inverness and had a wonderful tour along the Great Glen to the western shore and the ancient homeland of the Clan McGillivray.

I then proceeded to his burial place in London. According to biographer Marjorie Wilkins Campbell he lies underneath the nave of the old Wren Church at St. James Piccadilly.

After hours of searching I became distraught after finding no mention of him anywhere at the church and proceeded to the rectory office where they explained that many plaques were destroyed during the bombings of the Second World War.

After confirming that McGillivray did not have a plaque at the church they directed me to the archives at Westminster where the old burial records are kept.

There, on the fifth floor of Westminster Archives, I retrieved a document from 1825 proving his burial place at St. James.

I promised myself that day that I would do whatever it takes to have a memorial plaque at St. James made up for a great man I’ve come to know and respect. My dream was to return some day to sing my song about McGillivray, The Big Lonely, next to his newly installed plaque.

After years of emails, consultations and phone calls, in December of 2010 I finally received the email I’d been waiting for. It was the site manager of the church saying that the Diocese had reacted positively to my request. This was a major hurdle, as the diocese has the last say in these matters. Just a few more loopholes but things are looking good!

The Diocese has an engraver in mind and have chosen the stone and a potential spot in the church. The site manger at St. James Church is quite excited and would like to proceed with the project but she first wanted to warn me that the costs could run as high as £3000.00 UK.

I’ve given her confirmation that the costs would be covered and have continued to present a formal case to the Diocese for William McGillivray’s memorial plaque.

I’ve been in touch with North West Company expert Jean Morrison who has been helping out with the wording for the plaque. Jean reminded me that McGillivray received a Grant of Arms two years before his death in 1823. The church needed verification, so I contacted the Hudson Bay Archives in Winnipeg who have provided me with an official copy of McGillivray’s Coat of Arms from the Royal College in London.

Presently we are trying to finalize the exact wording of the plaque and it looks like the final design will incorporate an engraving of the canoe that is prominently displayed on William’s Coat of Arms and the official crest of the City of Thunder Bay.

My contact at the church has recently met with the engraver and an official estimate of the cost should be arriving any day.

I’ve been in contact with the City of Thunder Bay and Fort William Historical Park and they have assured me that they can help out with the costs. I’ve set up The McGillivray Memorial Plaque Fund at my Credit Union so individuals can also make contributions.

It’s been a bumpy ride but it looks like the plaque will become a reality and I’ll keep you posted as plans move along.

Grant of Arms and canoe insignia images courtesy, HBC archives.
Clan McGillivray and McGillivray images courtesy, Rodney Brown.

Interested donors can send cheques or queries to:

Rodney Brown
347 Pearl St.
Thunder Bay, On.. Can
P7B 1E9

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