Link to Orkney Islands — reliable source of recruits for Hudson’s Bay Company

by Bruce Cherney

In 1799, 416 of the 530 men working for the Hudson’s Bay Company came from the Orkneys, a collection of wind-swept islands forming a county of  Scotland. The numbers employed by the HBC presents an extreme case of over-representation when the Orkneys' population of around 26,000 in the 1800s is considered.

The Haven in Stromness, Orkney Islands, became the main recruiting station for the HBC. The town was the last port of call for the company before its ships headed for York Factory, where the Hayes River empties into Hudson Bay. Besides recruiting “servants,” the HBC ships restocked provisions and brought on fresh water from “Login’s Well.”

The northern route across the Atlantic to York Factory was preferred since this was an era of conflict with the Dutch and France, making the English Channel unsafe for maritime traffic.

“The histories of Manitoba, Orkney and the Hudson’s Bay Company are intertwined,” said Manitoba Culture, Heritage and Tourism Minister Eric Robinson, when announcing a memorandum of understanding between the province and the Orkney Islands Council of the United Kingdom.” 

The MOU was signed to promote friendship and co-operation as well as reinforce existing bonds and create new ones between the two regions. 

“During the 18th and 19th centuries, as many as 90 per cent of the Canadian-based employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company were of Orkney descent,” added Robinson. “This historic connection is a source of great pride amongst the people of Orkney and the people of the province of Manitoba.”

The links between Orkney and Manitoba’s early fur-trade families were recently commemorated by the Red River Settlement Descendants Reunion at Lower Fort Garry. 

Many Manitobans can trace descendants to the Orkney Islands. In fact, people from the islands were among the first that Lord Selkirk settled at Red River.

Orkney connections abound in Manitoba. For example, Lower Fort Garry was built by Orcadian masons. And, York boats, based on the design of the traditional Orkney yawl, with a crew from the islands, provided part of the distribution network for the fur trade.

But, it was the HBC which first introduced Orkney islanders to the wilds of North America.

When the “Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson Bay” was granted its charter by King Charles II, employees mainly came from England. The “servants” of the Company were recruited from among the poor of London and Ireland, a source that proved mostly unsuitable to the conditions encountered in Canada’s North.

In 1682, HBC governor Nixon asked the London Committee of the HBC “to send me some lads that are not acquainted with strong drink, that work hard ... and are not debauched by the voluptuousness of the city.”

To the relief of the HBC, a ready and willing source of new recruits was available in Scotland and, more particularly, the Orkney Islands.

The first recruits from the Orkneys were raised in 1702 when the Company had difficulty obtaining men from the poorer sections of London. Traditionally, the Orcadians were engaged in agriculture and also accepted seasonal employment in the fishing industry — including whaling — and as seamen in order to accumulate the cash needed to pay rent on family land holdings. Thus, the Orcadians already had a long tradition of going away for employment when the HBC came calling.

The poverty of the islands made them an ideal source of cheap labour uncorrupted by the sins of big cities such as London. They were also accustomed to working in a harsh climate.

For the islanders, a wage of £6 or £8 a year was higher than usual at home so they were willing to travel to Canada for terms of up to five years, especially since the necessities of life were provided by the Company, allowing them to save most of their wages for shipment home. It also helped that the Company regularly held back a third of wages in London for the return of the Orcadians.

Not everyone was enthralled with the prospect of sending the youth of the land overseas to earn a living. Rev. Francis Liddell in the Old Statistical Account for Orphir, wrote: “Instead of offering an honourable service to their King and country, or staying at home to cultivate their lands, and protect their wives, their children, and their parents, for the sum of £6 per annum hire themselves out for slaves in a savage land.”

Recruits tended to be young, mostly in their 20s. And, 40 per cent were the unmarried eldest sons of small tenant farmers, craftsmen and cottagers from the middle or lower ranks of island society. Typically, an Orcadian male didn’t marry until age 30, so they could work for the Company for up to 10 years, saving enough money for a small business or farm, and then marry.

Once in Canada, Company officials found that Orcadians weren’t always as pliable as desired, but they could be counted on to provide honest labour for low pay, so attributes such as clannishness and a perception of being shy were forgiven.

Another advantage of the Orcadians was that they were mostly literate, unlike the poor of London, having been taught to read and write in parish schools. Literacy was a necessity with the Company to compile the volumes of records required for the fur trade.

Hard work and literacy also allowed some of the ordinary “servants” of the HBC to rise through the ranks and become officers.

Despite their growing up in the harsh climate of the Orkney Islands off the northeast coast of mainland Scotland, the Orcadians weren’t necessarily prepared for the rigors of a Canadian winter. In fact, the climate of the islands, though somewhat harsh by Great Britain standards, was tempered by the warmth of the Gulf Stream current. In relation to Northern Canada’s, the Orkney islands’ climate could be described as mild.

York factory, the main HBC post during the first centuries of the Company — fulfilling this capacity until 1878 when activity shifted to Fort Garry before finally closing in 1957 — would have awakened the Orcadians to the facts of living in the Canadian North. 

While they may have been given romantic visions of Canada by recruiters in Stromness, they soon discovered the reality was harsh conditions and gruelling toil.

James Isham, a fur trader and writer, in his Observations on Hudson Bay, wrote that outdoor work at the edge of the Bay was fraught with danger. “’s past belief to think the Surprising Effect the frost has in these parts — I have known men stand at the saw for 20 minutes when their face & hands has been froze so, they have been onligh’d to retire to the Surgeon to have such Cur’d or Cut off &c.”

Yet, the men from the Orkneys did adapt and actually thrived in Canada. Many decided to stay and took wives according to the “custom of the country,” that is, they took as wives First Nations women. These children of the fur trade — English- (“country-born” or “halfbreed” in the historical records) and French-speaking (Metis) groups — would eventually play a significant role in the history of Manitoba.

Eventually, Lord Selkirk decided to establish a colony for Irish and Kildonan Scot settlers dispossessed in the Old World by the “clearances,” caused when landlords realized sheep were more profitable than farmers, and so they threw the people off the land they had been renting. Among the first to arrive at Red River were Orkney labourers.

Miles Macdonnell, the first governor of the settlement (referred in the first records as “Ossisiniboia),” during a stop at Stornoway, Scotland, via Stromness, almost put an end to the endeavour. Ever frugal, Macdonnell managed to alienate the men by reducing the wages offered by the HBC officials and putting two HBC clerks from James Bay into steerage with the labourers. 

The North West Company, the rival trading group in Canada, also stirred up the pot by relating stories of hardship in local newspapers. The Nor’Westers, as they were commonly called, opposed a colony in fur trade country believing it would be a deterrent to their operations.

The result of all this was that 20 of those hired jumped ship. How many were from the Orkneys was not noted, but a number of them were still on board when the ship docked at York Factory. 

The men had arrived so late in the season that they were unable to carry on to Red River. Accommodations in the fort were limited so the party spent the winter some five kilometres from York Factory on a peninsula formed by the Hayes and Nelson rivers in two huts, one for the HBC men and the other for the men under Macdonnell.

“He (Macdonnell) could not prevent the Irish from quarreling among themselves and with the Orkney men,” wrote Arthur S. Morton in A History of the Canadian West to 1870-71. During the melee, three Orcadians were beaten senseless.

The conditions were so deplorable that a mutiny broke out which lasted from February to May. The mutiny only ended when fresh supplies arrived and officials threatened to withhoild these supplies if the mutineers didn’t behave.

Finally on July 6, 1812, the party of 22 (four from the Orkneys) men who were to start construction on the colony in anticipation of a later group of settlers, which was to include men, women and children, was on the way to Red River and eventually arrived on August 30.

Joining this initial group were Orkneymen who had served in the HBC. They settled along the Assiniboine River and formed a colony that came to be known as “Orkneytown,” but most of their descendants would settle mostly in the northern  portion of the Red River Settlement.

The Red River Settlement survived its early years of bloody conflict with the Nor’Westers, floods and the vagaries of growing crops in a harsh climate. In fact, the colony began to thrive.

Orcadians helped supply the colony when they manned York boats, the main mode of transportation for the HBC fur trade. The York boat was designed along the lines of an Orkney whale boat. The complement of a York boat was up to nine men with one acting as the steersman. Each 13-metre boat could hold up to six tonnes of freight from York factory to Red River. Once they finished their service with the Company, many made their way to the Red River Settlement.

John Inkster, a former servant of the HBC who was born in the Orkney Islands in 1799, acquired land in 1826 where he built a home. As his business interests prospered, he built a much larger home in the parish of Kildonan, located  along the Red River, which he called Seven Oaks House. It was completed in 1853 and is one of the oldest surviving residences in Manitoba and is now a museum.

The Select Committee on the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1858 reported that  the Orkney “half-caste” population preferred to settle at the lower end of the Red River past Kildonan.

Donald Gunn, a former HBC who settled at Little Britain in 1826 along the Red, wrote in is History of Manitoba that “... Orkneymen, who had been year after year retiring form the fur trade, and coming with their half-breed families into the colony to settle, along the course of the river, as we have said ... from the northern extremity of the Scotch settlement, occupying the Parishes of Saint Paul and Saint Andrews, down to the southern limit of what was considered the Indian Reserve (St. Peter’s).”

Gunn said in October 1830, “when the building of a church was commenced (at St. Andrews), the families within the limits of what was then supposed to become the future parish were sixty in number. These families, as to nationality and creed stood thus: thirty-six were from Scotland, chiefly from the Orkney Islands, Presbyterians by education; four heads of families were from England ... the remaining twenty families were half-breeds, the sons of the above-mentioned Orkney men.”

Historian George Bryce in his book, Manitoba: Its Infancy, Growth, and Present Condition (1882), wrote that so many Orkneymen had settled in Red River with their families that “Orkney half-breeds equalled in number those of French (Metis) extraction and together they summed up at the time (1869) 10,000 souls.”

One of the sons of an Orkney father  and a Cree mother was Alexander Kennedy Isbister. Though born in Manitoba, he received his first formal education at the Orkney Islands and became a clerk with the HBC at 16. He resigned in 1841 and received a Master of Arts degree from Kings College, Aberdeen, Scotland, and Edinburgh University. After studying at London University be received a law degree. Although he spent the years after 1841 in Great Britain, Isbister never forgot about Red River. The bulk of his $80,000 estate and 5,000 volume library was donated to the fledgling University of Manitoba.

Another Orkney and native son was John Norquay, the first Manitoba-born premier of the province (1878-87). He was born in 1841 in a log house at St. Andrews. Norquay learned Greek, Latin and French as a protege of Bishop David Anderson. He also spoke Cree, Ojibway and Sioux.

When Winnipeg was incorporated as a city in 1873, its leading and wealthiest citizen was  A.G.B Bannatyne, who was born in South Ronaldshay, Orkney islands on October 31, 1829. He came from a long line of HBC officials and at age 14 set sail for canada in the Company’s employment. He married the daughter of Red River businessman Andrew McDermot (born in Ireland) after retiring from the Company in 1851. Bannatyne opened a store on Post Office (Lombard) Street. He later would serve as an MP.

Among the more world-famous Orcadians who came to Canada and Manitoba was Dr. John Rae, who was born in Orphir on September 30, 1813. After qualifying as a surgeon in Edinburgh, Rae signed on as surgeon abroad the HBC ship Prince of Wales in 1833. He served as the surgeon of Moose factory from 1835 to 1844. He also spent time in the Red River Settlement and later Winnipeg. 

But, Rae is more famous as an Arctic explorer and more especially for discovering the fate of Sir John Franklin’s expedition which had set out from England to find the fabled North-West Passage in 1847. Rae found some remains and gained knowledge from the Inuit that Franklin and his crew had perished in the Arctic.

In today’s Manitoba, thousands of Canadians can claim to be descendants of the Orkney “servants” of the Hudson’s Bay Company with surnames such as Flett, Sinclair and Inkster, among others.