Robert Gray had three children with a local Inuit woman after he was posted to Canada in the 1880s to work for the Hudson Bay Company (HBC), but in 1893, after living with his partner there for 11 years, he was ordered back to Scotland and never heard from again.
Emma and Lucy Grey, his great-great granddaughters – the spelling of the family name was accidentally altered over the years – never previously knew where their non-indigenous surname had come from, but trawled the HBC’s records and finally found their connections to Gray, who emigrated to Canada along with his brother William.
Robert, who had learned to speak Inuktitut while living in Fort Chimo, in northern Quebec, never returned to Canada and died in Glasgow in 1909 aged 44, never seeing his family again. His brother, however, also married into an indigenous family and managed to stay.
The Grey sisters say they now plan to visit Scotland to find the grave of their great-great grandfather – while earlier this month, the pair met around 100 of Robert and William Gray’s descendants at a Canada Day family reunion in Alberta.
Historic records from the HBC tell of his connections with local people, claiming that he could not “keep his place”.
Emma Grey said that the discovery had put to rest a family mystery. “We’ve always known that he was a white man, with three children and that our name came from him. But we didn’t have official records of the history.
“I cannot explain exactly what happened to Robert. But the HBC records indicate he was ‘too familiar’ and ‘cannot keep his place’.”
She added: “All we wanted is to locate Robert’s grave. This would have been enough for closure. Instead, Robert connected us to his brother’s family and that is amazing.
“Though he must have died with a broken heart, with his family left behind across the ocean, he may have found his peace after 100-plus years.”
Many Orcadian men ended up working for the Hudson Bay Company in remote parts of Canada after the firm’s ships picked up willing emigrants at Stromness when taking on board provisions and water.
Cameron Taylor, an ancestral tourism consultant from Orkney, said that the reason Gray was sent back could remain a mystery.
“The Hudson Bay Company was usually fairly tolerant of relationships, so it may have been that there was more to it. Whether it was because he was thought to have gone completely native or fell out with a particularly awkward manager we don’t know.”