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Robert Gourlay (1778-1863), Scottish born Canadian reformer

Statue of Robert Gourlay, TorontoWhile visiting Toronto in summer 2005, I came across the statue of Robert Gourlay, an early reformer. His name sounded Scottish - was he? When I returned home I was determined to find out more about him. The following is the results of some preliminary research. Not all facts have been verified so far.


Robert Fleming Gourlay was born in 1778, the youngest son of Oliver Gourlay of Craigrothie and Janet Fleming. He was educated at the University of St. Andrews, gaining a Master of Arts degree. Following that he studied agriculture at the University of Edinburgh1, where his courses included Natural History.

He moved to Upper Canada in 1817, where he became a severe critic of the Family Compact and was banished for sedition in 1819. This lasted until 1839. His 'Statistical Account of Upper Canada' (1822) continued his criticism of Canadian government. He was however also critical of the rebellious tactics of William Lyon Mackenzie, favouring more constitutional solutions.

After he moved to England in 1824, he was detained in Cold Bath Fields (a prison in Clerkenwell, London) as someone of unsound mind, where he remained until 1828. He unsuccessfully tied to attain the Chair of Agriculture at the University of Edinburgh in 1831 and a seat in Parliament the following year. He travelled to the United States, but was back living in Scotland between 1846 and 1856, where again he was unsuccessful in getting elected to Parliament. He returned to Canada, to land which he had inherited from his late wife. While there he was again unsuccessful in becoming an elected politician. He married his former housekeeper, Mary Reenan, and returned to Scotland in 1858, dying at Edinburgh in 1863.

Family tree

Robert GOURLAY married, 23 Nov 1727 Scoonie, FIF, SCT, Barbara BEATH
  1. Agnes GOURLAY
  2. John GOURLAY
    John possibly became a Church Minister
  3. Oliver GOURLAY, Birth: 18 Aug 1740, Ceres, FIF, SCT, Death: 10 Oct 1819
    married, about 20 Aug 1773, Forgan, FIF SCT (08 Aug 1773 Edinburgh Parish, Edinburgh, MLN, SCT) Janet FLEMING (Birth: about 1754, Death: 8 August 1827)
    Oliver was proprietor of the estate of Craigrothie. He may have also been a Solicitor in Edinburgh
    1. Katherine GOURLAY Gender: Female Birth: 10 JUN 1775, Christening: 12 JUN 1775 Forgan, FIF, SCT
    2. Barbara GOURLAY Gender: Female Birth: 14 JUN 1776, Christening: 24 JUN 1776 Forgan, FIF, SCT
    3. Helen GOURLAY Gender: Female Birth: 14 SEP 1786, Christening: 18 SEP 1786 Ceres, FIF, SCT
    4. Margaret GOURLAY Gender: Female Birth: 18 JUL 1789, Christening: 24 JUL 1789 Ceres, FIF, SCT
    5. Thomas GOURLAY Gender: Male Birth: 03 FEB 1794, Christening: 10 FEB 1794 Ceres, FIF, SCT, Death: 31 October 1880
    6. Robert GOURLAY Gender: Male Birth: 24 MAR 1778, Christening: 03 APR 1778 Ceres, FIF, SCT, Death: 1 Aug 1863, 20 Howe Street, Edinburgh, MLN, SCT
      married (1) Mrs. Jean STEWART (ne HENDERSON), 10 Aug 1807, Kinghorn, FIF, SCT
      1. Jane GOURLAY Birth: 16 JUN 1808 Largo, FIF, SCT, Death: 2 Feb 1880, Unitata, Caffraria, South Africa
      2. Jessie GOURLAY
      3. Oliver GOURLAY
      4. Helen GOURLAY Death: 12 Jan 1906
      5. Catherine GOURLAY
      married (2), 1858, Mary REENAN Death: alive in 1863
  4. David GOURLAY

1. Gourlay's name appears in the Matriculation records of the University of Edinburgh for the years 1796 and 1797.


  1. The Canadian Encyclopedia
  2. Dictionary of Canadian Biography
  3. International Genealogical Index
  4. SCT-FIFE genealogy listerv archive
  5. Eddy, MD, 'The University of Edinburgh natural history class lists 17821800',

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