New musical recalls Orkney’s part in Canada’s fur trade

An early Hudson's Bay Company store. Picture: Provincial Archives of Alberta
An early Hudson's Bay Company store. Picture: Provincial Archives of Alberta
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They were the islanders who travelled in their droves from Orkney to the frozen extremes of Canada in the 18th and 19th century in the hope of making a living from the fur trade.

They would go on to make up more than three quarters of the workforce for the Hudson’s Bay Company as it expanded and its empire grew ever more profitable.

Now the Orcadians who helped forge the success of what is still the oldest company in North America are to be honoured in a new musical show created by a modern-day islander.

The Orcadians of Hudson’s Bay will be unveiled by musician and composer Graham Rorie at the annual Celtic Connections music festival in Glasgow in January.

His project will be launched at the Mitchell Theatre to coincide with the 350th anniversary of the formation of the company after two French explorers – Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart Des Groseilliers – discovered a wealth of fur in areas accessible via the great inland sea of Hudson Bay.

After failing to win enough support in France or America for plans to establish a trading post, the pair met and gained the backing of Prince Rupert, cousin of King Charles II. A group of London businessmen established the Hudson’s Bay Company in May 1670 under a Royal Charter authorised by the monarch. Vast numbers of Orcadians were recruited for the Hudson’s Bay Company from its earliest days as the port of Stromness was the last stop before ships which had left England crossed the Atlantic.

The Orcadians, who were used to living and working in a harsh climate, were offered five-year contracts to relocate to Canada.

They have been credited with playing critical roles in the success of the company, either working in forts and trading posts, or hunting in the wild. The company went on to enjoy a monopoly on trade across three million square miles of Canada, where it had had the power to establish and enforce laws, erect forts and maintain ships of war.

The Celtic Connections show on 30 January is expected to recall how the Scottish islanders taught the native Cree and Inuit fiddle tunes and dances from their homeland.

Rorie, a graduate of the traditional music course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, said: “I have an immense amount of pride in coming from Orkney and find its history and connections fascinating.

“Wherever you go in the world there is someone who has been to or knows someone connected to the islands.

“Workers for the Hudson’s Bay Company started heading across from Orkney in 1670 and continued until the last ship passed through Orkney in the mid 1800s . By 1799 Orcadians made up two thirds of the work force, with 414 of 530 staff coming from Orkney. Many Orcadians who made money for themselves came back and invested it in the local community. But a lot of them settled there, often marrying local people.”

Rorie’s Celtic Connections commission has allowed him to create a group drawn from some of his favourite musicians from the Scottish trad scene, including Orcadian fiddler Kristan Harvey, along with Pàdruig Morrison, Rory Matheson, Signy Jakobsdottir and James Lindsay. The Québécois quintet Le Vent du Nord, who are headlining their own Celtic Connections show at the Royal Concert Hall, will also be special Canadian guests in The Orcadians of Hudson’s Bay.

Rorie, a fiddle and mandolin player, added: “The show is a collection of completely new compositions I’ve written for a small house band. Each tune is connected to a figure or story that has inspired me from my research.

“When I was speaking to Donald Shaw (Celtic Connections’ creative producer) about the show he suggested getting the band Le Vent du Nord involved. They will join us on some of the tracks to give a crossover sound between Scotland and Canada. It’s a huge honour to be writing for them and the selection of some of my favourite Scottish musicians.

“The Celtic Connections show will be the premiere of the project. My plan is to take it round on some more gigs over the year and eventually make an album.

“Having a show at the festival will hopefully set the ball rolling to do a lot more with it.”