McDougall Cottage Historic Site

McDougall Cottage, a c.1858 granite and limestone labourer's home, is located in downtown Cambridge in the historic factory district on the banks of the picturesque Grand River.

This cottage was home for more than a century to two families of hardworking Scots, the McDougalls and the Bairds. Today the Cottage serves as an interpretation centre celebrating Cambridge's strong Scottish heritage.

McDougall's picturesque "wee" gardens reflect James Baird's (1901-1958) passion for spring flowers, and nostalgia for his Scottish Highland homeland. Pictured right are James and Margaret Baird enjoying their back garden c. 1900.

The Cottage itself is a wonderful tribute to the Scottish stonemason's art. However, the architectural jewels in the crown of McDougall are its hand-painted friezes and trompe l'oeil ceilings, executed some 40 years after the house was constructed. 

Painted rooms were frequently the common man's answer to expensive wallpaper, painted by local amateurs or itinerant artists in imitation of much coveted French "scenic's" of the day. These beautifully-painted scenes range from the familiar to the exotic. The landscapes were painted by James Baird's brother Jack, a photographer, painter and true-life adventurer. 

McDougall Side Garden

Painted Friezes and Ceilings

Region of Waterloo Museums staff have uncovered additional wall paintings (century old hidden murals) at McDougall Cottage dating back over 100 years.

The most intriguing architectural feature of McDougall Cottage is its trompe l’oeil (French – to deceive, or trick the eye) ceiling friezes, painted circa 1906-1907 by Jack Baird, brother of the Cottage’s second owner James Baird. This type of hand-painted room decoration was most frequently encountered in the homes of well-to-do families, but in this instance may have been a creative solution in place of wallpaper, which was more expensive than paint and canvas at the time.

Painted rooms were frequently the common man's answer to expensive wallpaper, undertaken by local amateurs or itinerant artists in imitation of much coveted French scenic wallpapers of the day. Such beautifully painted scenes could range from the familiar to the exotic. The hand-painted frieze and trompe l'oeil ceiling painting landscapes in McDougall Cottage were painted by John “Jack” Baird (1862-1922), brother of Cottage owner James Baird. Jack was a photographer, painter and true-life adventurer.

Painted mural

Jack Baird

The Gardens

By bringing in numerous loads of top soil, hummus and manure, avid gardener, James Baird, transformed the Cottage’s backyard from a rocky slope into his much-admired garden.

He ordered seeds for his beloved primroses from England and started them in flats, by the hundreds, on the rear sun porch, later transplanting them in the garden among the daffodils.  A 1950s newspaper article describes James’ garden as “one of the most gorgeous floral pictures” with “no less than 1,000 primroses of all colours imaginable”.

On the east side of the Cottage, the garden originally extended to the Grand River before flood-protection berms were constructed following the devastating flood of the river in 1974.


Black and white photograph of Jack Baird in a Garden


Located just north of McDougall Cottage is a frequently overlooked building - a "pre-fab" metal garage, acquired sometime after the First World War by James and Margaret Baird. The garage must have been a significant purchase for the Bairds because there were few garages in the neighbourhood at the time and likely fewer automobiles.

As indicated on a 1920's Insurance Plan map of the area, most houses had outhouses but the Baird's lot doesn't include an outhouse because they had indoor plumbing, and the word "auto" is marked on this adjacent building.

We don't know if James and Margaret owned a car when the garage was built. They may have rented the garage to someone who owned a car but didn't have a garage or used it for storage of gardening tools and protection for their canoe.

The garage is deceptive because it appears to be constructed of wood siding, but its walls are made of pressed metal attached to a wood framework. There are folding doors at the back and front of the garage so that there was easy access from the street and the backyard. The manufacturer of the garage is unknown but it is similar to those made by the Metal Siding and Shingle Company of Preston (Cambridge).

Grey Garage