Dr. Thomas McCulloch (1776-1843)

Coat of Arms of Clansfolk of Clan McCulloch
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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 Scotland.

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 Pictou.

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 students.

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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