An Adventurous Connection

30 Sep 2005
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With its headquarters in Toronto and stores throughout the country, the Hudsons Bay Company is a well-known part of Canada's life and history.

The Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudsons Bay received its charter in 1670. But many of the adventurers involved in the success of the company were young men (and some women) from Scotland seeking fame and fortune far from their native homeland. For one small corner of Scotland the connection with Canada, and with The Bay, is especially important in the 18th and 19th centuries the islands of Orkney, a windswept archipelago just off the northern tip of mainland Scotland, provided the main source of labour for the company.

Orkney and Canada

Company managers found the Orkney men to be hard working, reliable and able to adapt to the harsh conditions of northern Canada. So when The Bay's ships called at the port of Stromness in Orkney, they took on board willing emigrants as well as provisions and water. Emigrants took a contract, usually for five years, but many men extended their contracts or settled permanently in Canada. Others returned home, no doubt inspiring younger men with their fireside tales.

It was this connection that attracted the interest of Cameron Taylor, one time CEO of the Orkney Tourist Board but now one of Scotland's leading independent authorities on ancestral tourism. "I had been aware of the connection between Orkney and Canada, of course: there is hardly an Orcadian family that doesnt have relatives in Canada. But it was only when we began to look at the feasibility of a Homecoming celebration that the extent, and the depth, of the contacts became evident", recalls Cameron.

Orcadian homecoming

With support from the Hudsons Bay Company Historical Foundation, the Homecoming took place in 1999. Some 300 people of Orcadian ancestry, most of them Canadian, returned to their ancestral homeland. Alongside a programme of tours and events, including a grand gala evening, there were opportunities for personal exploration and reflection. It was an emotional time for everyone involved. Standing beside the scatter of stones that was once his ancestors croft, one elderly gentleman broke down This is where it all started he said I'm so pleased to have been able to just stand here, where they stood.

The focus of Orkney's Canadian connection is Manitoba. Since 1994 the Hudson's Bay Company Archives have been in the care of the Archives of Manitoba too. The success of the Homecoming prompted the Orkney Islands Council and the Province of Manitoba to sign a treaty of friendship and there have been benefits to both communities. Youth groups, especially musicians, have travelled regularly between the two regions. Business links are developing. Family history links are deepening and, importantly, there have been staff exchanges between the respective archives with a sharing of knowledge and material. Because of this deepening connection, there is a much greater awareness of the part each community played in the others history.

Orcadians who worked at The Bay

Perhaps three names stand out as examples of different aspects of Orkney's transatlantic connection.

The first is William Tomison, an Orcadian born in 1740. He joined The Bay aged 20 and rose to become Chief, Inland, a post of some eminence. He is credited with founding Edmonton in 1795 when he established a fort there, named after the then Deputy Governor's birthplace in England. On retirement Tomison returned to his native South Ronaldsay where a school, Tomison's Academy, was built using money he left for that purpose in his will. A generous adventurer indeed. The school still stands, though empty now.

Tomison's tomb is close by his former home in South Ronaldsay. The current owner of the land, Willie Mowat, has a keen interest in the Hudsons Bay Company. Several years ago the recently retired Governor, David Mitchell OC, visited Orkney and was surprised to be greeted by the sight of the company flag flying over Tomison's former home!

The second name from Orkney and Canadas history is the Arctic explorer John Rae. Born at Clestrain in Orkney in 1813, Rae studied surgery at Edinburgh University before joining The Bay as a physician. Learning the survival skills of the aboriginal communities he travelled and explored extensively, mapping as he went. He is probably most famous for an expedition in 1853-54 during which he found evidence of the fate of Sir John Franklins lost expedition. He received little recognition for his achievements during his lifetime but he was undoubtedly a remarkable man. He is buried in a place of honour in St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall.

Rae's former home, The Hall of Clestrain, is currently the subject of a fundraising effort to renovate the building, celebrate Raes life and work and build a boat museum, telling the story of Orkney's long relationship with the sea that surrounds it and on which life in the islands depends.

The third remarkable person is a woman, Isobel Gunn. Knowing that the company was not interested in employing women migrants, in 1806 she set off for Canada disguised as John Fubbister. She worked out of Fort Albany and her sex remained undiscovered until she became pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy. This would have come as a surprise to her fellow workers and managers, who admired John Fubbisters hard work. Isobel was the Hudsons Bay Company's first female adventurer and her story has been the subject of a book and a film.

The Future

Of course, says Cameron Taylor, other parts of Scotland the Highlands and the Western Isles in particular have connections with Canada. Orkney cannot claim a monopoly. But what is unusual is the extent of the relationship and the way in which it is developing through what began as ancestral connections.

Interested in tracing your Scottish ancestry?

Go to visitscotland.com for more information.

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