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RATTRAY, WILLIAM JORDAN, journalist and author; b. in 1835 in London, England, the son of Alexander Rattray; d. 26 Sept. 1883 in Toronto, Ont.

William Jordan Rattray came to Canada West with his parents in about 1848, his father establishing himself in Toronto as a baker. William obtained his post-secondary education at the University of Toronto where he distinguished himself as a public speaker and debater. A well-rounded scholar, he received training in classical literature and biblical studies before graduating in 1858 with double firsts in natural sciences and mental and moral philosophy. Rather than enter the business world he devoted himself to journalism.

His first essays in the literary field were printed in the Toronto Grumbler; this witty and satirical paper, in which all articles appeared anonymously, began publication in the late 1850s and ceased in the early 1860s. Rattray’s principal literary contributions were then made through the Toronto Mail, as an important member of its editorial staff. He wrote a column in the Mail every Saturday on ethical and religious topics, and contributed other items in which he attacked agnosticism and unbelief. A number of his articles also appeared in Belford’s Monthly Magazine and Rose-Belford’s Canadian Monthly and National Review during the late 1870s and early 1880s.

Rattray’s wide-ranging interests, referred to in a number of his obituaries, are evident in his articles. They contain copious classical and biblical quotations, and suggest a wide reading in the science of the day. At the same time he was well acquainted with contemporary philosophical and religious thought, evident in his discussions of the then contentious matter of biological evolution. He also devoted considerable attention to Canadian politics and history.

Although Rattray published his articles in the company of such eminent figures as George Monro Grant* and John George Bourinot*, his most important work is the four-volume The Scot in British North America, published between 1880 and 1884. In preparing it Rattray was reflecting his father’s origin, though he himself had never seen Scotland. The first volume, prefaced by a defence of Scots against the sneers and criticisms commonly levelled at them, provides a brief philosophical exposition of patriotism and nationalism, then a short history of Scotland, concluding with an account of the first Scottish arrivals in British North America. The Scot in public life is the subject of the second and third volumes; special attention is paid to the Maritimes in the third volume, which ends with an investigation of the Scot in professional life (education, law, and the church). In the fourth volume he deals with the Scottish involvement in the northwest; a final chapter discusses the Scot in journalism. Before the final volume was completed, Rattray died after a long, debilitating, and painful illness, so that “another hand” had to finish the work. Unfortunately neither the identity nor the contribution of this individual is known. The volumes may have been part of a series on ethnic groups projected by Toronto publisher Thomas Maclear*; The Irishman in Canada by Nicholas Flood Davin* had appeared in 1877 but no further volumes seem to have been produced after those by Rattray. Although not written in language that suits late-20th-century taste, Rattray’s magnum opus deserves recognition as the first work published on Scots in Canada; it set an example and has had many successors.

Rattray’s style appears heavy and ponderous to modern readers, especially because of his use of quotations, but in his day he was considered one of Canada’s foremost writers. An obituary in the Winnipeg Daily Times stated that, after Goldwin Smith*, “he was the ablest writer in Canada,” while the Toronto Mail declared: “He carries away with him a rare fund of scholarship and ability. He leaves behind him a name unstained by a dishonourable act or an untruthful word.” An extremely retiring man with few close friends, he proves elusive in any search for information concerning his life and activities.

W. Stanford Reid

William Jordan Rattray was the author of The Scot in British North America (4v., Toronto, 1880–84) and a contributor to Belford’s Monthly Magazine: a Magazine of Literature and Art (Toronto), 1 (December 1876–May 1877) – 3 (December 1877–May 1878), and to Rose-Belford’s Canadian Monthly and National Rev. (Toronto), 1 (July–December 1878) – 8 (January–June 1882).

      Toronto Daily Mail, 28 Sept. 1883. Cyclopædia of Canadian biog. (Rose, 1886). Dominion annual register, 1883. Wallace, Macmillan dict.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

W. Stanford Reid, “RATTRAY, WILLIAM JORDAN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed November 1, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/rattray_william_jordan_11E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/rattray_william_jordan_11E.html
Author of Article: W. Stanford Reid
Title of Article: RATTRAY, WILLIAM JORDAN
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1982
Year of revision: 1982
Access Date: November 1, 2014