The Hector Settlers: Creating a 'New Scotland' in Canada

08 Nov 2017
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244 years ago, on 15 September 1773, the town of Pictou in Nova Scotia welcomed nearly 200 Scottish settlers on board the ship, Hector. The landing of this famous ship is popularly regarded as one of the earliest arrivals of Scottish settlers to Canada.

The long and special friendship between Scotland and Canada stretches back hundreds of years. Throughout this time there have been signature moments which stand as the foundation blocks of this great bond. As we move into September, we're looking back at one such event that celebrates an anniversary this month. 244 years ago, on 15 September 1773, the town of Pictou in Nova Scotia welcomed nearly 200 Scottish settlers on board the ship, Hector. The landing of this famous ship is popularly regarded as one of the earliest arrivals of Scottish settlers to Canada.

The voyage of the Hector started a wave of emigration from Scotland that resulted in Pictou being affectionately named 'the birthplace of New Scotland'. Because of this, there is a deep Scottish connection to Pictou, and the rest of Nova Scotia, that has been fostered since the Hector docked upon the shores of Canada. It's also a wonderful coincidence that even the name 'Pictou' brings forth allusions of Scotland. An ancient race of Scottish warriors known as the Picts lived in Scotland during the Dark Ages. These Caledonian combatants were famed for fighting off the invasion of the Roman Empire in Scotland.

A Fresh Start

For the Scots on board the Hector, the decision to leave their native land wasn't an easy one to make. Many families were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands during the brutal Highland Clearances and given nowhere else to go. Stranded in their own country with no place to call home, many looked across the Atlantic hoping for a brighter future. When a Scotsman named John Ross showed up offering a fresh start in Canada, many jumped at this new opportunity.

Ross was a recruiting agent working on behalf of Scottish businessmen in North America. The group had purchased land rights in Pictou and charged Ross with finding willing settlers back in Scotland. He was actively encouraged to deceive vulnerable families and use any means necessary to convince people on board. He offered cheap transport and promised a year's worth of supplies and a large piece of coastal farmland to anyone willing to make the journey. In total 189 people boarded the Hector from two different points in Scotland: 10 at Greenock and 179 at Lochbroom.

Though it was mainly families and young male labourers, the passenger list also included a last minute addition. An unnamed piper came on board the ship hoping for passage. It's believed that the musician was initially ordered ashore by the captain as he had not paid a fare. However, the wailing refrain of his bagpipes so affected the passengers on board that they pleaded with the captain to let him stay. The ship's occupants even offered to share their own rations with him in exchange for his music.

The piper's tunes no doubt helped raise spirits during a long and arduous trip. The ship and its cargo of people faced several difficulties throughout the journey. Sadly 18 people, mostly children, died during the voyage and had to be buried at sea. Amongst the causes of death were smallpox and dysentery due to the poor and cramped conditions on board the Hector. As well as this, the ship also ran into a huge storm off the coast of Newfoundland, causing a 14 day delay. This wasn't the only delay and in total the voyage that was supposed to take six weeks ended up taking nearly double that amount of time. The increased time at sea also meant that their already stretched food rations were completely exhausted by the time they docked at Pictou.

In addition to these trials, the very ship that carried them was a floating hazard and was completely unfit for purpose. The Hector began life as a regular cargo ship, employed in local trade around the waters of Britain. It had already completed more than 20 years of service before being converted into a transport ship. Its long service contributed to the fact that the vessel was in incredibly poor condition before the journey even began. Amazingly, parts of the ship actually began to rot away whilst travelling to Canada. Passengers wrote of being able to dig their fingertips into the hull and pull out chunks of wood.

Broken Promises

When the battered and worn ship and passengers finally arrived at Pictou the deception of John Ross became apparent. The supplies and provisions that they had been promised back in Scotland failed to materialise. On top of this, no shelter or accommodation had been built for them. Due to the delays when travelling, winter was also fast approaching meaning it was too late to plant any crops to provide food.

To make matters worse, the settlers also quickly found out that the land they were allocated was a further three miles inland, in a wooded area that had yet to be cleared. This meant that they would be unable to use the harbour to fish for food. As a result, the settlers refused to take the land that had been allocated to them, and set about building homes closer to the shore.

Their refusal to take the land set aside for them caused a backlash from Ross and his group of investors. When the settlers promised supplies eventually showed up, the authorities refused to hand them over. Eventually the stand-off reached breaking point as the immigrants became more and more angry at their treatment since their arrival. In the end the settlers attacked the place where their supplies were being guarded, and seized them.

From these dramatic and troubled times, the Hector settlers slowly but surely began to make Nova Scotia, and Canada in general, their new home. Some chose to move on from Pictou to other settlements, but many stayed and developed the town. Though faced with what must have seemed like insurmountable odds at some times, these intrepid Scottish immigrants showed grit and determination. Canada promised them a second chance and a fresh start and they were eager to embrace this opportunity.

The significance of the Hector and her passengers has since been immortalised in the town of Pictou. During the 1980s and 90s officials in Nova Scotia came up with the idea of building a replica of the ship. This was done to commemorate the ship's contribution to Nova Scotia's Scottish history. After several years of construction, the replica Hector opened to the public in September 2000. The replica is a floating museum of the Hector settlers' trials, tribulations and eventual triumphs and a true celebration of close bonds that connect Scotland and Canada.

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