Book review: Lost In The Backwoods by Jenni Calder

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Jenni Calder’s study of Scotland’s first Americans reveals the harshness of New World life, says Roger Cox

Lost In The Backwoods by Jenni Calder

Edinburgh University Press, 246pp, £20

Like a pioneer staking out a claim in the Old West, Jenni Calder uses this book to demarcate a brand new area of study: the experience of Scots emigrants to North America in the 18th and 19th centuries, and specifically their involvement with the North American wilderness. Just as many freshly staked claims probably didn’t look like much to begin with, so this book, at under 250 pages, does little more than sketch out the boundaries of a new field of academic endeavour; but still, to extend the agricultural analogy until it creaks, future generations will no doubt reap the benefits.

Calder chooses 1773 as her starting point – the year of the Boston Tea Party and also when the ill-fated ship Hector left Loch Broom for Pictou, Nova Scotia, with a number of Scots emigrants on board. Oddly, although she attaches much significance to the voyage of the Hector, she doesn’t seem very sure how many people were on board. In her introduction it’s 300; by the second chapter the figure has dropped to 200.

According to the Rev George Patterson’s 1887 A History of the County of Pictou, Nova Scotia, “the number of souls is stated in one account as 189, in another as 179, while Governor Legge, on their arrival, speaks of them in round numbers as 200.” But whatever. Calder says the Hector’s voyage has become “emblematic of Scottish transatlantic migration” and it certainly seems to have set a template for the endless round of unpleasant crossings and disappointing arrivals that were to follow.

By the time the Hector arrived at Pictou, says Calder, 18 children and “several” adults had already died. The survivors were so unimpressed with the densely forested land they had been allocated that many left to find work in nearby towns. Around 70 remained to scrape a living, but they didn’t exactly thrive.

Some 13 years later, when a visiting minister arrived in town, he was “greatly disappointed and cast down, for there was scarcely anything to be seen but woods growing down to the water’s edge”.

For the first wave of Scots settlers in North America, the wilderness was mostly experienced as a problem to be solved or, rather, to be beaten into submission. In order to clear land for cultivation, vast numbers of trees had to be felled.

As a result, the axe became a potent symbol of the act of carving out a new life, which explains its prominence in much art and literature of the time.

Scots played prominent roles in exploring this vast new landmass. Alexander Mackenzie, originally from Stornoway, led the first party to cross the continent north of Mexico, in 1793; Simon Fraser, the American son of Scottish parents, charted much of what is now British Columbia; and the Orcadian John Rae surveyed over 600 miles of unexplored coastline in Arctic Canada.

For many Scots, the wild frontier represented opportunities for advancement that were simply not available at home. In 1823, a 24-year-old stonemason’s son from Perthshire called David Douglas was sent by the Horticultural Society of London to collect botanical specimens in the eastern United States and what was then British North America. His employers were so impressed with his work that they sent him to the largely unexplored Pacific north-west the following year, primarily to look for flora that might be grown for commercial benefit in Europe. He brought back various useful species, among them the Douglas fir and Sitka spruce.

Many Scots businessmen proved ruthlessly adept at turning the natural riches of North America into cold, hard cash. George Simpson, from Avoch, near Dingwall, became a giant in the fur industry (although his attitudes towards women would have shocked a gangsta rapper); Robert Dunsmuir, the grandson of Kilmarnock coal-masters, built on his Scottish coal-mining heritage to create the largest coal mining enterprise in British Columbia; and the Canadian Pacific Railway, which connected the country from east to west, thereby ensuring its survival as a distinct political entity, was “largely devised and impelled” by a group of men, many of whom were Scots. It is Scottish emigrants’ spiritual relationship with the North American wilderness, however, which seems of most interest to Calder. She is at her best when writing about John Muir, originally from Dunbar, and his philosophy of submission to the wild; about Isabella Bird, from Yorkshire via Edinburgh, and the way she only felt truly free when on the road; and about poor, conflicted James Carnegie, 9th Earl of Southesk, who used his vast wealth to go buffalo hunting on the plains of what would become Manitoba and yet recognised, as he basted chunks out of yet another innocent beast, “there is something repugnant to the feelings in carrying death and anguish on so large a scale amongst beautiful, inoffensive animals.”

As farmers, fur traders, miners and industrialists, Scots settlers in North America doubtless played their part in despoiling vast swathes of pristine wilderness; but at least some of them stepped off the boat with a mindset that allowed them to realise the fundamental wrongness of this approach, and for that, I suppose, we should be thankful.

Jenni Calder is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 16 August.