Dr. Thomas McCulloch (1776-1843)
Coat of Arms of Clansfolk of Clan McCulloch
Minister, Educator, Writer
Thomas McCulloch was born at Ferenze in the parish of
Neilston, Renfrewshire, Scotland in 1776. He was the
second son of Michael and Elizabeth McCulloch, a
descendant of the McCullochs of Galloway who claimed
kinship with the Convenanters. Tradition has it that his
ancestor fought at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge. His
father, Michael, was a block printer whose business was
in the Mearns.
Thomas was educated in the school of his native
parish.. Later he entered Glasgow University and studied
both Arts and Medicine, though he did not stay long enough
for a degree. He did, however, excel in Oriental
Languages, and augmented his income by providing tuition
in Hebrew. From Glasgow University he entered the
Secession Divinity Hall at Whitburn. He was ordained on
13 June 1799, and at the age of 23 he was called to the
Secession Church in Stewarton. On 27 July 1799, he
married Isabella, daughter of the Reverend David Walker of
the Auld Light Burgher Congregation of Pollokshaws, a
descendant on her mother's side from a Huguenot named
Nicolas Deschamps. The latter gentleman had fled with his
youngest daughter Heloise to Scotland at the Revocation of
the Edict of Nantes and had settled at Cathcard where he
established a paper mill, said to be the first in
During this time, colonists in Canada were clamouring
for spiritual sustenance to the Secession Church
authorities in Scotland. After four years at Stewarton,
Thomas McCulloch offered his services, whereupon the
Synod, sympathetic but poor, appointed him missionary
without stipend to prince edward Island.
When Thomas McCulloch and his family arrived in
Pictou, Nova Scotia in November 1803 bound for PEI their
arrival stirred much excitement. The supply of books in
McCulloch's possession impressed the pictonians with the
fact he was a learned man. They convinced him that he and
his family should winter in Pictou, since it was already
late in the season and a voyage to PEI would be difficult.
Their aim was to secure him permanently as a minister for
a Pictou congregation.
A man of Thomas McCulloch's sort was much needed in
Pictou, founded by settlers of the Betsy (1767) and
Hector (1773), a community of some twenty
buildings, including barns, a blacksmith shop and a jail.
In an age of illiteracy and superstition, here was a man
of learning; in a settlement tied strongly to
Presbyterianism, here was a qualified minister; in this
rugged era of pioneer lumbering and shipbuilding, when a
man's daily wages might be supplemented with cheap rum,
here was a leader, a man of vision, and yet a tolerant man
who understood the physical trials and demands of the
pioneers, and who wanted to offer them intellectual goals;
in a time when immigrants were flowing in, many of them
sick and diseased, here was a man with medical training.
In those early years, he walked many a mile making medical
calls with no expectation of payment. In 1804, McCulloch
was inducted as minister of the "Harbour Congregation,"
thus committing himself to remaining for a while in
By 1805, McCulloch, depressed by ignorance and
illiteracy among his people, had formulated a dream of
establishing a college which would be open to students of
all creeds and denominations. This desire for a non-
sectarian Pictou College thrust him into a religious and
political controversy which was to strain the relations
between Pictou and the provincial government for years to
come. The Council of the Provincial Legislature was
opposed to the notion of a Pictou College, the favoured
institution being King's College at Halifax (founded in
1790) which conferred degrees only upon scholars
subscribing to the 39 Articles of the Church of England.
McCulloch's supporters built for him a lovely brick
house (McCulloch House) and he began to teach
students in a log cabin built nearby on his property.
This school was burned one night by a person or persons
obviously unsympathetic to McCulloch's liberal ideas.
Finally, however, his dream for building an institution of
higher learning became a reality. Pictou Academy was
incorporated in 1816 but the word ■College■ had to be
dropped because permission to grant degrees was not given.
McCulloch became Principal of the Academy and the first
students attended in 1817, a regular academic curriculum
being combined with training for selected divinity
Dr Thomas McCulloch is remembered principally as the
father of the liberal education system in Nova Scotia.
But the man had much broader interests than pedagogical
ones alone. He was an accomplished ornithologist in his
own right which lead him to classify all birds in his
area. In 1883, the famous naturalist J.J. Audabon visited
McCulloch at McCulloch House to study his work, and
pronounced his collection of mounted birds the finest
private collection of its kind in North America.
McCulloch's contributions to the educational and
spiritual development of the area inspire admiration and
respect: his book The Stepsure Letters
written about early life in the Pictou area a man of wit,
warmth and his tolerance.
In 1838, McCulloch became the first President of
Dalhousie College, a position which he held until his
death in 1843.
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