Up the Gatineau! Selected Articles
The following article was first published in Up the Gatineau! Volume 44.
A Decade in the Woods: Rosemary Gilliat Eaton’s Winter Cabin in Gatineau Park
by Danielle Siemens
In the fall of 2014, while I was studying art history at Carleton University, Dr. Carol Payne alerted me to the work of a little-known British-born photographer by the name of Rosemary Gilliat. Since then, I have scoured archival holdings in both Ontario and Nova Scotia, striving to know everything about this remarkable woman and her contributions to photographic history.
Born in 1919 in Hove, England, Gilliat trained in commercial photography in London before immigrating to Canada in the early 1950s and embarking on a fruitful freelance career. From 1954 to 1965, while living in Ottawa, Gilliat rented the intimate winter cabin known as Shilly Shally in Gatineau Park, transforming it into a destination for park visitors and leaving a lasting impact on the Gatineau community. In the Gilliat Eaton fonds housed at Library and Archives Canada are several hundred photographs from Gilliat’s time at Shilly Shally, in addition to a 550-page diary, several letters, and a delightful guest book filled with people’s names, comments, and even some skillful drawing. Throughout my article I draw heavily on this archival material and privilege Gilliat’s own words when I can. While my focus is on the approximately 10- year period Gilliat spent visiting Gatineau Park, I encourage readers interested in other aspects of her life, or more generally in women’s histories or the history of photography, to make use of the rich archival material that is available.
Second only to her passion for photography, Rosemary Gilliat was an avid cross-country skier. Shortly after settling in Ottawa in 1952, she began to frequent the Gatineau Hills on her free weekends to ski the vast network of trails. Regularly accompanied by her close friend and roommate Anna Brown, Gilliat would hop on a bus to Chelsea on Friday nights or early Saturday mornings and hitchhike or ski into the park, often having to break trail and carrying a rucksack chockfull of food and supplies. On one of these weekend trips, while hiking near Lac La Pêche, Gilliat and Brown met long-time Gatineau visitor Sheila Thomson, whose parents, William and Catherine Hoare, rented a cabin on Ridge Road (now Trail no. 1) known as Ski-Wiff (formerly the Blake Cabin). According to Thomson’s account, Gilliat and Brown took an immediate liking to the Hoare cabin and expressed an interest in finding such a place for themselves. To their good fortune, Thomson knew of a vacant and charming little cabin known as Shilly Shally located less than half a kilometre northwest of where Ridge Road meets the Fortune Parkway and a short jaunt from Keogan Lodge. In November 1954, for the modest sum of $25 for six months, Gilliat began renting Shilly Shally and, with Brown’s assistance, transformed it into a winter retreat. For the next 10 years she spent most weekends from November to April cross-country skiing, birdwatching, taking pictures, and maintaining her winter dwelling. Adventurous and hardworking, Gilliat was also exceedingly generous and opened Shilly Shally up to friends and strangers alike. When in residence she always had the kettle boiling, offering guests fresh coffee and trail advice and, on occasion, lending equipment to the poor soul with a broken ski or missing pole. Even when she was away from the cabin, a sign on the door notified skiers and hikers that they were welcome in for a quick break or escape from the blistering cold. The hefty guest book is material testament to Shilly Shally’s prominence in Gatineau Park; while Gilliat had only 37 visitors in her first season, by 1961–62 251 people signed the book (while many more likely stopped by without leaving their physical mark). This suggests that Gilliat’s modest cabin became an invaluable hub for park visitors—a reliable site for warmth, rest and good conversation.
Before coming under Gilliat’s care, Shilly Shally had been the humble abode of another group of Ottawa skiers, but the history of the property goes back much further. In the mid- to late 19th century, a number of families settled along Ridge Road, and the original land grant for Lot 25, Range 9 was allotted to Irish settler Michael Egan (married to Catherine Young). Ownership eventually passed down to their son, Michael Egan Jr., but with his passing in 1901 his widowed wife, Elizabeth Curran, married a man by the name of Edward Young. In the early 1920s their sons built a cabin on the property as a winter logging camp, lodging there until the winter of 1938–39.1 Shortly thereafter, the building was expropriated by the Federal District Commission (FDC) (now the National Capital Commission, or NCC). In 1943 Sheila Thomson’s family helped fix up the dilapidated logging shack, which was near their own Ski-Wiff cabin, for her father’s stenographer and a group of her Ottawa friends. Dubbing it Shilly Shally, for several years the young women rented the cabin from the FDC for weekend ski getaways.2 By the time Gilliat arrived in 1954, it was again in desperate need of care and attention.
Gilliat’s diary describes her and Brown’s first weekend in Shilly Shally:
In addition to regular maintenance such as chopping wood, shovelling snow off the roof, and whitewashing the walls, Gilliat and Brown lugged in window panes and pipe, repaired the cast iron wood stove—embossed the “Favourite Warrior,” replaced rotten logs, and dug out a cellar. At one point, Brown even demolished the outhouse and built a new one, about which Gilliat remarked, “Never having gone in for privy building before I am sure the specialist himself would approve of the workman like job she is making of it.” These two single professional women were audacious, resourceful and fiercely independent. Gilliat emphasized these qualities in her countless photographs of Brown and many other female friends at Shilly Shally.
Brown, a plant pathologist at the Central Experimental Farm, was also a keen birdwatcher. She took it upon herself to build a bird feeding table, which, as she improved on it over the years, became a lively meeting ground for birds and squirrels. What began for Gilliat and Brown as a simple gesture of offering seed and suet to the local birds grew into a greater fascination with the natural world. Eventually, from the Canadian Wildlife Service (now part of Environment and Climate Change Canada) Brown learned how to band birds and obtained a banding permit. Her birdwatching pursuits became the subject of a photo story Gilliat published in Weekend Magazine in 1958. “Birds that Like our Winter” included pictures of Brown and the attractive local birds, as well as a charming cover photograph. In her diary, Gilliat kept detailed lists of all the birds and other animals she saw, and she wrote at length about tracking and photographing the squirrels, porcupines, deer and beavers that frequented the area. In later years, she wrote about her relationship with animals in Gatineau Park in two articles published in Trail and Landscape (the quarterly newsletter of the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club). Accompanied by several of her photographs, these articles detail Gilliat’s time at Shilly Shally and, as she called it, her “tardy education in natural history.” While lighthearted in tone and full of comical anecdotes, the articles stress the value of learning about wildlife and the importance of living alongside animals in a respectful co-existence. Gilliat’s decade in Gatineau Park clearly transformed her relationship with the natural world and helped shape her future conservation efforts.
Under Gilliat’s care, Shilly Shally also became well known for its annual spring party, the “Snowshoe Scramble.” As Sheila Thomson and her husband Harry already held a cross-country ski race at Ski-Wiff, Gilliat decided to revive “the fine old sport of snow-shoeing” in her “own neck of the woods.” In March 1956, Gilliat and Brown, both still relatively new to Ottawa, gathered a mere eight guests for their inaugural race. Yet the event was such a success that Gilliat hosted another the following spring, and as the years passed the annual party become a hotly anticipated event. Each season, Gilliat and friends laid a new trail and came up with additional novelty events, such as the snowshoe egg race—or “Snowshoe Omelette” as they called it—and prizes were handed out to the first man, woman and child to cross the finish line. In one iteration of the race, each contestant could begin once only they had successfully fed a chickadee from the palm of their hand. Eventually, Ferdie Chapman, head of the Ottawa Ski Club’s Trail Riders, took over as starter. As the race outgrew its humble headquarters, it moved to the nearby Keogan Lodge (in 1964) with the permission of the National Capital Commission and the Ottawa Ski Club. By 1965, Gilliat’s final season renting Shilly Shally, a record 240 participants and spectators attended.
In the summer of 1958 Anna Brown married John Roberts and moved to Williams Lake, British Columbia.3 By herself, Gilliat found the cabin more difficult to maintain. Yet by then she was well known in the area and had several friends who often lent a helping hand. In fact, the following fall Gilliat undertook a wall rebuilding project with the assistance of a group of Gatineau friends. Although she expressed trepidation over attempting such an immense and technical job, Gilliat was extremely satisfied with the result. The following is a snippet of her detailed re-telling of the renovation:
Gilliat’s concern over the threat of the NCC’s park development was not unwarranted. In her four years of renting Shilly Shally thus far, she had already witnessed significant transformations to the park, such as the construction of the Fortune Parkway and the expansion of trails for recreational use. She also observed the destruction of several original edifices and with them the erasure of the history of settlement in the area. On the demolition of one cabin she casually referred to as the “Champlain Inn,” Gilliat wrote:
For Gilliat, the NCC posed a threat not only to her own home in the park, but to the overall heritage of the area. Such expansions also endangered the local ecosystem, further distressing Gilliat to no end.
In spring 1965, a recently married Gilliat moved to Nova Scotia, marking an end to her time at Shilly Shally. Although she never returned to the region, Gilliat remained heavily invested in the cabin’s future, as well in as the broader developments of Gatineau Park.4 Her absence from the community was also surely felt. For several years she received letters from various friends thanking her for her “marvellous hospitality” to both “birds and people” and insisting that Shilly Shally was not the same without her. In 1967, Ferdie Chapman wrote to her,
In the same year as her relocation, Gilliat’s friends Peter and Ninan Glynn took over stewardship of Shilly Shally, and the NCC immediately rebuilt the cabin. Since the Glynns’ departure in 1986, Shilly Shally has remained a public rest spot for park visitors. While today its interior is notably bare, it is easy to imagine the intimate cabin in Gilliat’s day, crammed with bunk beds and overwhelmed by the soothing aroma of homemade soup.
I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Louise Schwartz for all of her encouragement and assistance in my research. I am also indebted to Sheila Thomson and Helen Forsey, whose fond memories helped me paint a vivid picture of Gilliat and Shilly Shally.
1 Interview with Frank Young (son of Elizabeth and Edward Young) by Sheila Thomson, January 28, 1966, Recollections of Early Days in Gatineau Hills, copy in GVHS archives.
2 Among them were Evelyn Leonard, Esther Bryan and Nancy Poole.
3 Still living in Williams Lake, Anna (Brown) Roberts, now 88, was instrumental in the development of the Scout Island Nature Centre and is a founding member of the Cariboo Potters Guild.
4 With ambitions to return to the Gatineau region, Gilliat and her husband purchased a piece of land in Cantley (adjacent to what is now the Gatineau Satellite Station) shortly before departing Ottawa, yet they never did build or live on the property.