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!