Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The lore of the Highland lords

Settlers' history steeped in stories and artifacts

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The ink sketch is haunting: A roughly clad Scottish Highlander and his young wife on snowshoes, trekking alone in swirling snow 200 years ago near Hudson Bay.

He's wearing a highland bonnet, shouldering a musket. She holds a bundle wrapped in tartan to her heart.

The bundle is a baby, born hours earlier in a tent banked in snow for insulation; the final Herculean finish to a winter in Churchill where survival counted as a miracle.

The sketch illustrates a story drawn from accounts published in a 1923 heritage book Winnipeg women put together to honour their pioneer roots.

You won't find this account in historical source material. The Women's Canadian Club of Winnipeg published Women of the Red River as a tribute: The subtitle reads quaintly as "Being a book written from the recollections of women surviving from the Red River Era."

Nothing in the annals of early pioneers matches the sheer grit of this group of exiles, turned out by the brutal Sutherland clearances in the Highlands. They landed in Churchill in the late summer of 1813 and were forced to winter there until the spring.

The official historical record says the survivors snowshoed 240 kilometres to York Factory late that winter, including one pregnant woman. The local book, however, insists the woman wasn't just pregnant. She delivered her baby in a tent in the snow, on the trail with only her husband for support.

Worse, there wasn't enough food to allow the other members of the group to delay their journey. They left the pair behind, leaving a trail cut by snowshoes for them to follow.

A Highland piper droned out the marching pace the entire trek, or so the local, colourful story goes.

Winnipeg's early pioneer days are meticulously chronicled and descendants of the Red River Selkirk Settlers are organized through the Lord Selkirk Association of Rupert's Land, the St. Andrew's Society and countless other historians and genealogists and bodies such as the Manitoba Historical Society, the Hudson Bay Archives, the Legislative Archives and the Manitoba Archives.

As a result, relics and artifacts have been handed down from one generation to the next. Their last stop is often the Manitoba Museum, where snowshoes of the type the Highlanders used that winter are carefully preserved.

There are spinning wheels and at least one violin, all carefully carried from the Highlands, along with carding combs for sheep's wool, and even articles of a more personal nature. Here you'll find an apothecary's box that once belonged to Métis freedom fighter Cuthbert Grant, along with his distinctly stripped blanket. It's hard to imagine the fierce North West Co. fighter wrapping himself in a Hudson's Bay Company blanket but it looks like he did. Grant became a travelling doctor, trading in his guns for apothecary bottles after the fur trade rivalry died down.

One name that keeps surfacing from the 1813 group of Selkirk settlers, is that of a strong-minded single woman named Catherine McPherson.

One of her descendants, Lynda Jonasson, said her grandmother six times removed was "a tough cookie. I just can't believe how strong they were. To live through something like that must have been absolutely horrendous."

McPherson, especially, is remembered for her strength and her compassion: she nursed the sick aboard ship when typhus broke out. Somehow the tall, lean woman avoided the contagious deadly disease to survive the crossing and that first winter. It's believed she was among the survivors who made the trek on snowshoes while frailer fellow travellers took the sea route to York Factory after the ice broke up. She brought her mother's spinning wheel with her from the Highlands and lived a long life, dying at age 86.

"I love this stuff," Jonasson said, recounting her research with the Selkirk Association and novels such as Red River Story by former Winnipegger Alfred Silver, who fictionalized McPherson's life on the Red River.

"When I'm reading these books, I can well imagine her sitting, a pot of soup on the stove for supper. I'm right there with her," Jonasson said.

"From what I can gather, she was very much looked up to. She was a very strong woman, she helped the other women (in the colony) and she helped her man, right in there with him (plowing fields)."

McPherson married another Sutherlander, Alexander Sutherland, who shipped over in 1815 from a neighbouring northeastern highland village. History doesn't record if the couple knew each other before the Highlands troubles.

Today, she's still remembered in Winnipeg.

"Kate McPherson, as she seems to always have been known even after her marriage to Alexander Sutherland, is one of the early heroes of the settlers," said Gordon Cameron, with the Friends of the Historic Kildonan Church.

" In the early days," he recalled, "Their farm was near Fort Douglas and they came to be known as the Point Douglas Sutherlands. Later they moved across the river and became neighbours with the Lagimodieres and Riels. Their only son, John Sutherland, was prominent in the colony and became Manitoba's first senator. John Hugh Sutherland, Kate's grandson, was the first to be killed during the troubles of 1869-70. He is buried in the old (Kildonan) churchyard, as are the other Sutherlands."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2014 D10

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