One of my favourite Shops in Port Perry is the Wee Tartan Shop, on Queen Street. Ok, so I may be Dutch, and not Scottish, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the finer things Scotland has to offer. I will admit, the ‘go to’ reason for my regular visits to the store is the Curly Wurly’s, which I crave on an ongoing basis. I won’t tell you what they are, as I don’t want them to run out, but if you really want to know, swing by and ask any of the staff, or the owner, Stewart Bennett.
Sporting a silver, well-trimmed beard (which matches his equally silver hair), and a slight hint of a Scottish accent, is Stewart Bennett, the man behind the very successful specialty shop. So often we see someone, who appears to be successful, and assume they have always been that way. This is seldom the case, and Stewart is no different.
Born in the small fishing village of Annan near Dumfries, Scotland (the area Robbie Burns is from), Stewart was destined to work in the same factory where his father and grandfather were employed. Fortunately his parents had enough foresight to want something different for their only child and decided to move. “The options were Canada or Australia,” Steward explained. “The government was offering free transportation to anyone who wanted to emigrate, and that was enough incentive for my parents.”
His dad came to Toronto to find a place to live and work, and after ten weeks, Stewart and his mother joined him. “The trip across the ocean was amazing,” Stewart said, happily. “My mother was seasick so I had the run of the place, often sneaking into first class.” I watched him smile as he reminisced. “My favourite meal was roast lamb and mint sauce, which I was able to have every day,” he said, chuckling. “In fact, the steward who served our meals knew I liked it so much, he served it to me for breakfast, on the last day of the voyage.
Life in Canada was not easy, but a large Scottish community made the existence more tolerable. Saturday nights for the Bennett’s, became a neighbourhood tradition of watching Don Messer’s Jubilee, followed by the hockey game. I smiled when Stewart mentioned Murray Westgate and Juliette (if you don’t know who they were, be grateful that you are still young).
Sadly, Stewart’s father suffered a heart attack but his mother had an opportunity to be transferred to Winnipeg, and off they went. Stewart’s father had recovered, and worked at the Charter House hotel, where Stewart, now in his teens, was hired as a bus boy.
He was always interested in music and during his high school years became heavily involved in producing the school musicals. In fact, under his direction, they were the first ever amateur group to present ‘My Fair Lady’. Stewart went on to produce 13 dinner theatre productions at the International Hotel in Winnipeg, working six nights a week, performing two shows per night.
When it was finally time to settle down, Stewart knew that sales was something he would be good at. He started selling pharmaceuticals, in a territory that ranged from Saskatchewan to Thunder Bay. The area was large and when Stewart was offered a position with General foods, which meant a move to Toronto, he jumped at the chance.
His father had recently passed away, so Stewart packed up his family of four girls and east they came, settling in Toronto. Life was good for the ‘Wee’ Scot, but he was becoming weary of all the travel his position demanded. Out of the blue he received a call from a former boss, who was starting up a company, and wanted Stewart to join him.
The company was Ashfield, Bennett, Simpson, Simpson being the maiden name of Stewart’s wife, Jan. The company specialized in large signage, for clients like Bramalea Corp, Cadillac-Fairview, etc. In 1988, as if the sign business wasn’t enough, Stewart decided to try his hand as a restaurateur, and opened the Hobby Horse in Uxbridge.
It was successful from the day it opened, until suddenly, financial disaster struck the sign businesses. Two of the company’s major clients declared bankruptcy, and were unable to pay their massive debt. Sadly, Stewart and Jan’s company was one of those creditors, and they had little choice but to close their doors.
“I won’t hide the fact that it was very difficult then,” Stewart admitted. “We lived at a friend’s cottage for a while, and then rented a place in Sonya (just north of Port Perry),""
Things began to turn around when Stewart, always the entrepreneur, decided to open a small Scottish shop in Port Perry. The year was 1998 and the location was the store beside, what was then the Brown Couch (now the Piano Cafe).
The store, known as the Wee Tartan Shop, was immediately accepted by the community and it became quite popular. They quickly outgrew their location, and moved to the east side of Queen Street where now Carreira Menswear is located. Eight years ago, it was again time to relocate, and Stewart settled into their current location.
Stewart Bennett is more than a business owner. He is very giving, and his positive attitude has made him a welcomed member of the community. He is on the Board of Directors for the Business Improvement Association, and has been instrumental in organizing the Highlands of Durham Games, of which he is Chair.
Music lovers will know Stewart for performances at the Town Hall, and of course his direction of, what else, but Brigadoon.
A few years ago, Stewart started doing organized dancing tours of Scotland, which expanded to England and Ireland, and now does general tours to the British Isles. He is currently organizing a photographic tour to Britain, to be ready to go, once we have a vaccine and it will be safe to travel again.
The Wee Tartan Shop has a tremendous online presence, with customers from as far away as Victoria and the North West Territories. He also has a shop at the Royal Winter Fair, as well as Canada Blooms, in Toronto.
To meet him is to meet someone who loves life and enjoys every minute of it. When he is not spending time with his 13 grandchildren, he and Jan are organizing events in the community or putting all their effort into the business.
Stepping into the Wee Tartan Shop makes you immediately become a through and through Scot… even if you’re Dutch.
Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award-winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. His show, ‘The Jonathan van Bilsen Show,’ on RogersTV, the Standard Website or YouTube, features many of the people included in this column.