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Highlanders' winter journey one of most heroic feats in Manitoba's history

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A monument honouring the resilience of the Selkirk settlers stands at Waterfront Drive and Bannatyne Avenue.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

A monument honouring the resilience of the Selkirk settlers stands at Waterfront Drive and Bannatyne Avenue. Photo Store

Fields of wheat, tidy cottages perched above the mighty Red River, whiskey, kilts and bagpipes: These are the familiar images of the Selkirk settlers.

As far as they go, they're accurate enough.

The aristocrat Lord Selkirk talked the British Hudson's Bay Company out of a chunk of fertile farmland on the grounds it would anchor their hold on the fur trade monopoly. And the Scottish lord moved heaven and earth to get dispossessed clansmen to the Red River.

In the end, though it cost him dearly and perhaps led to an early grave, Selkirk created the first European colony in Western Canada.

He would have no way of knowing it would create a legacy that became much more than that.

When Selkirk died eight years into the effort in 1820, it was as a broken man, facing the failure of his dreams.

Now there's new interest in old logs and diaries from the dispossessed Highlanders, the ones who came here and the Hudson's Bay Company commanders who received them. That story's rarely been told, about why they came, what they endured and what became of them.

Two hundred years later, their sheer grit and the triumph of their resilience is emerging from the shadows of history into the saga of how 90 Kildonan clan folk survived a harrowing ship passage in 1813 and a nightmare winter in Churchill.

The saga has drawn interest on both sides of the Atlantic and will be part of a book due out in 2015 in the United Kingdom.

In December, soft-spoken Scottish author James Hunter and his genial wife Evelyn made a pilgrimage from the Scottish Highlands to Churchill.

Hunter's book is about the worst of the 18th and 19th century Highland Clearances and, in the saga of Churchill, he believes he's found the toughest of the tough.

Of the 90 who made it, some would die on shore and more would die over the winter. Those who survived the Arctic would make the 1,000-kilometre journey south to the Red River the next spring, among them families named Matheson, Gunn, Sutherland and McKay.

These Selkirk settlers became the bedrock of Manitoba and Ontario and a bridge between the two racial solitudes in the country.

Their descendants are among today's Metis, First Nations and Canadian Scots. One of them, George Bannerman, was the great-grandfather of Canada's prime minister in the 1950s, John Diefenbaker.

All the Kildonan street names in Winnipeg come from them.

Jim Hunter's research drew the enthusiastic support of some of Manitoba's oldest institutions: the St. Andrew's Society and the North West Company, along with newer ones, such as Calm Air and Parks Canada. They all came together to make the Hunters' journey possible. The Free Press was invited along to tell the story.

 

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It begins more than 200 years ago.

On the evening of Aug. 19, 1813, a destitute, dying group of dispossessed Highlanders found themselves dumped on the shores of the Churchill River. Most had typhus. Their elder was dying and nobody wanted to be near them for fear of catching the deadly disease. The local Hudson's Bay Company post had pitched tents and retreated before they came ashore.

The sick Scots didn't know it, but there was worse to come: a brutal winter they couldn't have imagined in their nightmares that had them huddling against -50 C temperatures in rough shanties of spruce logs.

 

These shivering Highlanders had shipped out of Stromness in Orkney with high hopes in June 1813.

They were aboard the Hudson's Bay Company ship Prince of Wales, part of a mini-convoy with a second company ship and a British naval sloop Selkirk himself arranged.

When typhus broke out on board, it spread to the crew, earning the Highlanders the animosity of the ship's captain. When pack ice trapped the ship and turned the hold into a shallow slough of icy sea water, there was no turning back for the captain.

Understandably, he wanted to be rid of the cursed Highlanders.

Sixty were sick or dying the evening they sailed into Hudson Bay, where the Prince of Wales abruptly shifted tack and headed for shore at Churchill, about 240 kilometres north of York Factory, their intended destination.

Meanwhile, boats waited at York Factory to speed the travellers south for their first winter on the Red.

These Highlanders weren't the poorest of the poor; they'd paid passage, roughly equivalent to $1,500 a head to be among Selkirk's settlers. But in their contagious sickness, they posed a deadly threat.

Instead of York Factory, the ship deliberately stopped upriver from the other Hudson Bay port, Fort Churchill.

The sick Highlanders wouldn't have been welcome at York Factory, boats or no boats, and they weren't welcome here, either. So they were left at the damp marshy Sloops Cove in tents, within sight of the salty bay.

At the fort a few kilometres away, the ship's captain and the post commander argued over what to do with them.

The post commander lost the argument. He wanted the ship to take the sick and the healthy on to York Factory.

When that didn't happen he isolated the Highlanders, sending them 27 kilometres inland to a place called Herriot Creek to live or die that winter.

Some died. Only one, their leader, a Scottish tradition bearer, was honoured with a marked grave. The first to die, within hours of landing, John Sutherland, lies outside Prince of Wales Fort to this day.

Late last year, the Hunters -- who know where the Highlanders came from and understand their story on the other side of the Atlantic -- decided to see what an Arctic winter feels like.

Hunter, a former journalist, is a professor emeritus at the University of the Highlands and the Islands. He's the author of a dozen books chronicling the Clearances and their aftermath. He'd written about Sutherland before, as part of earlier books.

Now Hunter is writing about the Sutherland Clearances as a book on its own. He's giving Churchill its own chapter because of what happened here.

"In the course of that (work on a history centre for the university) I became interested again in the Sutherland Clearances," he said.

An online search of old journals and letters turned up plenty of source material.

Of all the Sutherland dispossessed, none had it harder than those 90 in Churchill in the winter of 1813, Hunter said.

"It could be said that these people had the toughest, longest journey of any European emigrant to North America. Ever."

All the families were from Sutherland, in the northeast corner of the Highlands, a place inhabited for thousands of years and rich in history.

Two thousand years ago, it was home to the aboriginal Picts, warriors and mystics with tattooed ritual swirls and symbols so ornate today's ink artists would weep with envy.

 

The sick Highlanders had been evicted from a place called the Strath of Kildonan, named for the Celtic monk Donan, who brought Christianity to the area around 600 A.D.

The descendants of the Scotti who came with Christianity, the Highlanders were evicted because they had no rights to the land despite their ancient roots.

In the Highlands, clan families farmed the land, raised the cattle and distilled the whiskey, but during a horrific period in British history known as the Highland Clearances, the old way of life was ripped apart.

A state policy to rid the Highlands of the rebellious, war-like clans and turn the land to more productive sheep farms saw thousands burned out of their homes and turned out onto the roads in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Clans folk were scattered to the ends of the Earth in one of the world's longest drawn-out diasporas.

"I was particularly keen to tell this story about the people coming here and set that in the context of what was happening back in Scotland at the time. In Canada, there's history about what happened in Canada, and in Scotland, there's history about what happened in Scotland. But few people in Canada write about what was happening in Scotland at the time and equally, few in Scotland write about the people after they sailed over the horizon," Hunter said.

On the shore of Hudson Bay, the Highlanders had to get through the winter.

The post commander sent native builders up the creek before freeze-up to show the refugees how to throw together cabins from spruce logs and moss.

The same post commander also took the firelocks from the Sutherlanders' muskets to keep them from hunting ptarmigan, a kind of Arctic partridge. He considered the birds Hudson Bay property.

Every bird supplied that winter was counted in a bill to be presented to Lord Selkirk. By Christmas the count stood at 1,763.

Hunter said the Sutherlanders depended on the birds: "They said there was partridge falling from the sky and it was like manna from Heaven." Losing the firelocks must have hurt.

In many other ways, the commander took pleasure in making life tough on the Sutherlanders, Hunter's research shows.

By the commander's order, no Sutherlander was allowed in the fort even after the typhus scare lifted. The closest they got was the so-called Indian House, a structure that was as far as aboriginal people got into the fort.

Somehow it caught fire the night three Sutherlanders were allowed to stay over, Hunter said.

The treatment the Sutherlanders suffered came from the old world, Hunter said. The commander's disdain and even open disgust was typical of the era.

"He had the prejudice of the time for Highlanders. He refers to these people as savages from Scotland. He wouldn't allow them in his fort."

This time, the Highlanders -- the Hunters -- were treated as honoured guests, given warm beds, hearty hospitality and non-stop tours. Former mayor and owner of North Star Tours, Mark Ingebritgson, met the couple dressed in his clan tartan, despite the cold.

Churchill's connection with the Highlanders runs through family bloodlines and memories are as likely to run to Scottish stories as they are to Cree traditions.

Mayor Mike Spence, the town's first aboriginal mayor, told the Hunters the work they're doing makes a difference because people want to know more.

In his case, his mother's family name was McPherson, a Sutherland name. Spence is an Orkney name. Their Scottish ties were remembered in songs sung at family gatherings, he said.

"The family gathering would be held at our home... My father and my mother's brother and a few friends would sing a few Scottish songs like My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean. It was a reminder of their days of York Factory," Spence said.

On a night when it was -35 C, outside, the Hunters watched northern lights reel and sway like ghosts above the Big Dipper. By day, they saw plumes like grey smokestacks loom over the horizon. They learned the strange curtains of clouds were sweat from seams in the pack ice hitting the air.

They saw waves frozen solid in mid-air on shore, like teeth tugging at the lip of the bay.

And they felt the cold those settlers did, though their nylon winter coats were a better match for the Highland capital of Inverness, even though both locations share the same latitude.

"We're both at 58 degrees," Hunter told a gathering of about 30 in Churchill to mark the bicentennial of the 1813 Selkirk settlers.

But the two climates couldn't be more different. The wind and rain are fierce but average winter temperatures rarely drop below zero in the Highlands.

Still "I'm quite sure it's much better to come here in the winter,'" Hunter said. "It gives me a sense of what it's like."

Then he delivered the punchline: "Having been here for 24 hours, I will get on my knees every night and thank God for the Gulf Stream."

Far worse than cold would come for the Sutherlanders when the back of winter broke 200 years ago.

They still had to get to York Factory, 240 kilometres to the east, before the ice broke, then they had to get to Red River and plant the crops needed to survive the next winter.

In early April 1814, 51 of them walked there, stumbling on snowshoes across the muskeg, snow blind and crippled with leg cramps.

They crossed a landscape that must have felt familiar because muskeg is not much different from Highland heather moors.

But never had they walked it frozen like a sponge in snow. It took two weeks. And one of the women -- there were 20 women and 31 men -- trekked it four months pregnant.

St. Andrew's Society member Jim Oborne, who accompanied the Hunters to Churchill, said afterward this saga needs to be told. He'd never heard about it and he believed few people in Manitoba had, either.

"That walk to York Factory, that was one of the most amazing heroic feats in Manitoba history," Oborne said.

The bicentennial event celebrated in Churchill with the Hunters Dec. 3 was the second to be held last year. On the exact date the Sutherlanders were dumped ashore in August 1813, Ingebrigtson accompanied another Scot, originally from New Zealand, all the way to Herriot Creek, the harrowing wintering ground.

"At Colony Creek, if you fly over, you can see some of the bare spots and I think that's where some of the cabins were," Ingebrigtson said.

Hunter could have said, but didn't, that the same is likely true in the Highlands.

The stone foundations of some homes, like the ones the Sutherlanders left, are etched clearly against the Highland barrens.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2014 D8

History

Updated on Saturday, January 18, 2014 at 10:50 AM CST: Changes headline, fixes cutlines

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