Saskatoon

Northern Scottish isles workers played important role in Hudson's Bay Company expansion in Sask.

Even though Saskatchewan is a long way from Scotland's Orkney islands, there is a strong historical tie between the two places because of the Canadian fur trade. Many men from the Orkney islands found a career in the Hudson’s Bay Company in the latter half of the 1700s.

University of Edinburgh research team looking for Orcadian descendants on the Prairies

In the 18th century, Hudson's Bay Company ships would stop at Stromness in Orkney for supplies before their trip across the Atlantic to present-day Canada and into Hudson Bay. (hoyorkney.com)

News that a University of Edinburgh research team is recruiting participants for an Orkney islands study in Saskatchewan might cause some head scratching.

The VIKING II project is looking for people of Orkney descent for a health and lifestyle study.

But even though the prairie province is a long way from Orkney, there is a strong historical tie between the two places because of the Canadian fur trade. Many men from the Orkney islands found a career in the Hudson's Bay Company in the latter half of the 1700s.

The location of the Orkney islands, in yellow, off the northern coast of Scotland. (Google Maps)

Opportunity overseas

In the 18th century, Hudson's Bay Company ships would stop at Stromness in Orkney for supplies before their trip across the Atlantic to present-day Canada and into Hudson Bay.

The arrival of the ships was a boon for the local economy.

Hudson's Bay Company ships arriving at York Factory. (Library and Archives Canada, Rindisbacher, acc.1988-250-15)

But they also offered something more: a way for young, single, men to escape poverty and a dead-end future by signing on as servants for the HBC.

The Orcadians' ability to eke out a living from the harsh, maritime environment of their homeland – something they proudly ascribed to their Norse heritage – made them valued servants. Indeed, there were striking parallels between the Orkney landscape and the Hudson Bay subarctic lowlands where company posts were first located.  

The HBC consequently came to rely on Orkney men to fill its labour ranks, especially after it moved inland from its bayside posts in the 1770s.

By the end of the century, they made up 80 per cent of a workforce that numbered over 500 men.

One scholar has even suggested that the HBC posts were "expatriate Orkney communities."

Climbing the ranks

The Orkney servants proved a versatile and adaptable lot, who quickly developed the skills demanded by their new fur trade lives, especially in the western interior.

They were more than simple labourers.

James Gaddy and Magnus Twatt, for example, became conversant in Indigenous languages. William Flett was reputed to be a master canoe-builder, while Malcolm Ross was adept at shooting rapids in a canoe.

It's been estimated that one-quarter of the Orcadians worked at least 20 years for the company, some even becoming outpost masters.

William Tomison's career with the HBC, for example, spanned 40 years. Entering the trade in 1760 as a poor 20-year-old labourer with little schooling, Tomison eventually became master at York Factory on the southwestern edge of Hudson Bay.

Later as inland chief, based at Cumberland House, Sask., he oversaw the expansion of the HBC up the Saskatchewan River and helped consolidate the inland trade against its Montreal competition.

Cumberland House was the first inland HBC post. (Prince Albert Historical Society 30125)

The Orcadians also brought their gardening experience to the western interior. It was no coincidence that the large vegetable plots at Saskatchewan forts featured cold-climate root crops typically grown in the poor soils of the Orkney islands: radishes, carrots, beets, onion, parsnip, turnips and potatoes.

Indigenous wives play important role

Several Orkney servants took Indigenous partners ("country wives") and fathered children.

William Annal, for example, lived with his Assiniboine spouse and two children at South Branch House, southwest of Prince Albert, Sask.

Others travelled with their partners as they performed their inland duties.

These relationships were much more than a matter of living together.

When Orkney men entered a "country marriage," they became part of a kin relationship that might have included connections across several bands over a wide region.

Having a female companion was also an absolute must if HBC men were going to survive a winter inland. Women performed any number of everyday domestic duties and generally kept the HBC traders fed, clothed and sheltered.

The importance of an Indigenous partner was driven home when the Orkney-born Malcolm Ross was accompanied by his wife and children during a HBC expedition to the Athabasca country in 1790-91. His wife's presence was greatly appreciated by fellow traveller Peter Fidler because of her skill in making moccasins and snowshoes and performing other chores "that the Europeans are not acquainted with."

Ironically, despite being "particularly useful," she was never identified by name.

What became of the Orcadians who stayed behind

Employment opportunities for Orkney men ended when the HBC merged with the North-West Company in 1821 to become the new Hudson's Bay Company. Thereafter, in the interests of economy, the Company closed duplicate posts and released excess personnel.

It was expected that Orkney men would return home, as had been the tradition, using the wages they had saved for a new life. Many did, leaving behind in some cases their Indigenous families, many of whom were taken in by the mother's band.

But close to 25 per cent, especially those who had lived in the region for several decades, chose to stay in the North-West with their families.

Several retired to the new Red River Colony.

Among them were Willam Flett and his Cree wife named Saskatchewan (baptized Isabella) and Oman Norquay, the grandfather of the first premier of Manitoba, John Norquay.

Interpreter Benjamin Bruce settled at Île-à-la-Crosse, Sask., with his wife Matilda and their six children.

One Saskatchewan First Nation has a special Orkney connection. Willock and Mansack Twatt, the part-Indigenous sons of Orkney man Magnus Twatt, formed  what was known as the Twatt band (later Sturgeon Lake First Nation) and enjoyed special trading privileges with the HBC because of their father.

Magnus's grandson, William, signed Treaty Six on behalf of the Twatt band in 1876.

The Saskatchewan influence in Scotland

Despite this historical connection between Saskatchewan and Orkney, none of the Canadian descendants today would be eligible to take part in the VIKING II project because of the passage of time. It's been almost two centuries since Orcadians were employed in the fur trade, and the study is restricted to people with two grandparents from Orkney.

There's another side to the story, though, that's worth noting.

A few (very few) Orcadian fathers took their families back to Scotland. Their children and their children's children became part of the community, and their descendants today carry that Indigenous marker in their genetic make-up.

The widower John Spence, for example, returned to Orkney with three mixed-descent children: Eliza, Mary, and Andrew.

The widower John Spence returned to Harray, Orkney, with three mixed-descent children. (Bill Waiser)

One of Eliza's descendants was Bella Wood (nee Johnston), the keeper of one of the family's prized possessions: a pair of moccasins from the Canadian North-West.

If two of your parents' parents were from Orkney, you can visit this website (external link) for more information and to volunteer for the study.

About the Author

Saskatoon-based historian Bill Waiser is author of the forthcoming book "In Search of Almighty Voice."

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