Canada – Scots Heritage of Vancouver Island; Part Four

The early history of Vancouver island – around 1840 – was inextricably linked with the Hudson Bay Company. Initially, the fur trade was the primary goal and so many sea otter pelts were collected that they were almost extinct.

Many of the settlers were well-to-do Scots who settled there after their HBC contracts had expired, as well as the men who came out as farmers, builders and miners. Some came with their families and endured harrowing voyages around Cape Horn where sixty foot waves often lashed the sailing boats during brutal storms. Those in steerage had a bad time of it with cramped, crowded conditions, poor rations and seasickness. Imagine caring for children in those perilous circumstances. Some poor women even gave birth during these voyages.

For those who survived, I wonder what they would have made of their new homeland. Initially, Victoria had a walled pallisade of timber posts. Despite being promised good conditions, the new settlers often had to go out into the heavily forested country to clear the land and build homesteads.

No doubt, the settlers would have felt intimidated by the clusters of canoes around their ships as Indians came to barter for goods. Though some of the inland tribes were hostile, coastal tribes were fortunately more amenable to the visitors. They also proved a valuable workforce for the HBC, receiving blankets and mere trinkets for their labour. Sadly, in the latter part of the century, thousands of the indigenous peoples were decimated by epidemics of cholera and smallpox brought in from San Francisco and the goldfields to the south. Payment in alcohol and guns did further long term damage to historic living patterns and tribal self esteem.

Settlers were recruited from the Ayrshire District in the lowlands of Scotland as miners. There the whole family, including children as young as ten, worked in the mines to survive financially. On Vancouver Island, coal was initially mined at Port Rupert but this venture failed. The Indians knew about the “black diamonds” and showed the visitors where to find seams. The town of Nanaimo grew up around the new mine. Back home, the Scots were politically active and soon made their dissatisfaction with the poor conditions known to the HBC managers who were brought in to negotiate improved working conditions.

One well-known Scot, Robert Dunsmuir, worked for the HBC until his contract expired and then went into business for himself. He became one of the richest men on the island and later built a castle for his wife, which he called Craigdarroch. The Scots were present at every level of society.

Other settlers were recruited from the Orkney Islands where men from all over northern Scotland including the Highlands, Skye and the Hebrides, gathered to join the ships as they stopped to take in fresh water and supplies before the Atlantic crossing.

The HBC recruited these resilient young men and their families for their ability to handle the inhospitable conditions – the Orkneys were roughly on the same latitude as Hudson Bay. Having been to the town of Stromness, I could  imagine the vessels moored in the deep water harbour, and the men on board – sadness and fear vying with excitement at the forthcoming adventure – whilst they watched tearful relatives and friends gathering on the wharf.

Desperation drove these men from their homeland but it was their courage and determination which helped them to survive and thrive in far-off Canada. I’d like to think that Robert the Bruce’s ethos of ‘Try, try again’ inspired these hardy settlers and helped them to persevere and achieve their dreams of a grand new life.

Canada – Vancouver Island; Part Three

Our journey took us to Vancouver Island, just a short ferry ride over from the city of Vancouver on the mainland of British Columbia.

On the southern most tip of the island, the city of Victoria straddles the picturesque harbour. Two grand buildings dominate the foreshore: the Empress Hotel built by the Canadian Pacific Railroad Company and the Legislature building which is lit up at night in spectacular fashion. 

Around the harbour,  a path winds its way to the fishermen’s wharf. As we wandered along it, a seal swam beside us, chasing a fish for its lunch. Tiny ferries criss crossed the harbour whilst sea planes took off and landed with ease.

At the wharf, houseboats of many colours and unique designs lined the wooden planking. Our lunch of halibut and chips was delicious. Several wasps thought so too and some of the vendors had wasp traps set to catch the freeloaders.

Another great place to visit was the Royal British Columbia Museum which has many cultural displays as well as tremendous panoramas of the local flora and fauna.

The world famous Butchart Gardens set  my gardening pulses tingling. To wander amidst the flower beds and trees was inspiring but I now must fess up to a serious dahlia addiction!

Sadly I’m having trouble displaying my photos  with my IPad so you’ll have to trust me that Victoria and Vancouver Island are well worth a visit. We wished we had more time to explore the island from top to bottom.

Canada’s Scottish Heritage! Part Two

Writing about Canada’s Scottish Heritage is a daunting process but  I’m ready for an adventure! Are you?

In her book, Kilts on the Coast, Jan Peterson writes about the Scots who built British Columbia. It’s a treasure trove of historical fact and anecdotes about the families who came to Vancouver Island from the late 17th century with the Hudson Bay Company.

Canada was a land rich in natural resources and The Bay, as it was called, was incorporated by its London shareholders to bring Canada’s wealth home to England. But the influence of the Scots within the company was profound.

I was fascinated to read about the reasons why the Scots were chosen to work for the company. Their resilient characters and ability to withstand poor conditions, including extreme cold and and an inadequate diet, made them ideal workers for the hostile conditions in Canada. Though proud, they were considered hard workers who would take direction. Many knew their letters and their sums, having been educated in parish schools. In Scotland, times were so bad that many lived in dire circumstances. Young men were  keen for a new life and signed up for 3 to 5 years in the new land. Even this security of tenure was welcomed for job security at home was generally poor.

HBC built forts across the country and traded in furs. When beaver fur was found to make excellent hats, the company prospered through its European trade. York Factory was the main centre sited on Hudson Bay. For 300 years, the Bay was a force to be reckoned with! They even had their own militia!

But who managed the company? The shareholders back in London never set foot on the land and were pleased enough to send capable Scots, most educated in Scotland but trained in London as factors and administrators. The possibility of returning home to pay off family debts and regain their Scottish estates was a major incentive for these young adventurers as well as the chance to purchase land cheaply and begin a new life.

Anyone who signed up could progress their prospects by working hard. Those with trade skills were well sought after. But imagine the loneliness and isolation out on those forts not to mention the acute homesickness for family, friends and their own country. It took courage and determination mixed with a hearty dose of desperation for these men to leave their homeland. They faced illness, accidents in unfamiliar territory, danger from bears and wolves not to mention hostile responses from the indigenous peoples who had managed the land so well for millennia.

Many of the Scots took the customs of home with them. They played the pipes and celebrated Hogmanay and First Footing. Alcohol brought some comfort when it was available.

One historical anecdote Peterson shares, relates to a story told by a Cree Indian who recounted hearing the bagpipes for the first time.

He saw a white man dressed in a skirt like a woman, with whiskers growing from his belt; he carried a black swan with ribbons tied to its many legs; the man put the swan’s head in his mouth and bit it, then he pinched the creature’s neck with his fingers, squeezed its body under his arm and out came a terrible noise!

Despite the novelty and adventure of exploring new lands, life with The Bay was not easy for there were many rules and regulations. However for these extraordinary men, it was some compensation that they could rise above their station and participate in the social and political life of their small communities. This would never have been possible at home. Canada was truly a land of amazing possibilities!

Canada – a Journey of a Lifetime! Part One

At last, we begin our Canadian journey on the west coast in glorious British Columbia. First impressions of Vancouver?

From Kits Beach, we watched the sun go down over the bay. In the distance, the city skyline was etched against a parade of jagged mountains. Bathed by a warm golden glow, groups of young men played beach volleyball and energetic games of jumping one-legged up onto a picnic table. It was exhausting just watching them!

People walked their dogs, pushed prams or rode bikes. Family groups gathered around portable BBQs and rich aromas tantalised passers-by.

Next day, amidst some stunning domestic architecture, we walked to the Granville Island markets – a delight for foodies and lovers of all things artisanal! A path along the harbour’s edge took us past a flotilla of moored sailing boats to the Vancouver Museum which offered fascinating insights into the city’s past. WW2 saw the internment of thousands of Canadian-born Japanese and the confiscation of their property: a travesty which occurred in Australia as well with Italian migrants in my own region.

But it was much further back in Canada’s past, that I wanted to go.

And it was on Vancouver Island in the beautiful town of Victoria, the historical capital of British Columbia, that I found what  I was seeking.

At Munro’s, an iconic independent bookstore, a helpful staff member directed me to a brilliant text, Kilts on The Coast, by local writer, Jan Peterson. Vancouver Island had a strong Scottish heritage which was alive and well today.

Canada’s past sprang to life and the Hudson Bay Company loomed large. I had struck literary gold!


September 11 is well-known around the world for a tragedy of global proportions. But in 1297, in Scotland, it was a day of great celebration for William Wallace had engineered a victory of such gravity against a much larger and better equipped force of mounted  English knights and foot soldiers. Today, we will be exploring the themes of courage and intuition.

I’ve always been impressed at the extraordinary generalship shown by the Scots like Wallace, Bruce, Douglas and Randolph in choosing the terrain to suit the military needs of a smaller force. The English, on the other hand, show themselves to be more rigid in their approach, seeking to engage the enemy on broad expanses where their armoured war horses, the great destriers, could thunder along and trample the enemy underfoot. There’s often a hint of arrogance too as they come upon the Scottish rabble, dressed in rough plaids, barelegged,  brandishing more farm implements than swords and lances, but this cockiness soon sours when they realize they’ve been led into a trap.

Wallace exercised his intuitive capacity to make use of the land and chose to confront the English force at the choke point of Stirling. If  you look at the map of Scotland you will see the strategic value of the site, where forces heading north must find a way through the boggy land alongside the River Forth to cross the wooden bridge at Stirling.

Nearby, the great castle towers over all. The clash of swords and cries of the dying must have drifted up to the occupants who watched the death and mayhem as soldiers and horses lost their footing in the sustained attack, falling from the bridge to drown in the river below. Did the river run red?  I suspect it did!File:The Battle of Stirling Bridge.jpg

Several legendary stories have arisen from this battle.

One which amuses me no end is how Wallace goads the English commanders to attack. Here Wallace intuitively uses the English arrogance to force them across the bridge. One report suggests one of the commanders had even slept late. Can you see him being shaken from his cot, tumbling out of his tent, and responding in anger at the sight of Wallace?  A huge man by the standards of the day, but the leader of an untrained rabble – someone who needs to be taught a lesson!

At the end of the battle, Wallace orders King Edward’s treasurer, Hugh de Cressingham, known by the people as “the treacherer” for bleeding Scotland dry to fill Edward’s war chests, to be skinned and has a scabbard lined with his skin. Thus did Wallace gain the reputation of being a brigand and a bogle.

Those who escaped the carnage rode back to England with their tails between the legs. Perhaps that’s when the Scots began calling the English “tailed dogs!” Something which irked them no end!

Wallace and his men showed enormous courage and bravado that day to stand before an English force and shout jeers. Fortunately, they could back up their actions: they won a mighty physical and psychological victory which cemented in the minds of the Scots, Wallace’s greatness as a man and as a leader. He used fear and jibes to get under the skin of the English commanders and gave the Scots back their sense of purpose and pride. The tide had turned …

Alba gu Brath – Scotland Forever!

(Photos courtesy of Education Scotland and the BBC)

William Wallace and the Battle of Stirling