The Orkney Islands
“It is the lot and duty of every man to seek a profession,” Augustus Richard Peers wrote from Peel’s River House [later Fort McPherson] in the early 1850’s. “Some there are who wield the sword in defence of their country’s cause. Others there are who choose to seek their fortune on the mighty deep, but of all the ways and by-ways open to us, I find they are but as one or two in the multitude who ever think of visiting this remote corner of the earth, in which it has been the lot of fortune to cast me.”
Augustus Peers (brother of Henry Newsham Peers) decided to join the HBC’s fur trade — his older brother, Henry, was already here and employed at the Kamloops post at this time. In fact, it is Henry’s 1848 journal that gives us the story of the 1848 brigade from Fort Langley to Kamloops. But that is neither here nor there, and it is not why I am posting a piece of Augustus’ journal.
Augustus never came to the West side of the Rocky Mountains, so he is not part of our history. But men from the Shetland, Orkney, and Hebrides did — not in enormous numbers, perhaps, but they were here. Augustus’ journal gives us a picture of that segment of fur trade employees which is interesting and amusing. He is, after all, from England, and so has a little bit of an attitude about the these rough island people.
Augustus traveled to London where he passed a week in furnishing his kit with a good store of warm clothing and other creature comforts. On the fifth of May of that year  he stepped on board one of those “crank river craft,” and arrived at Gravesend. There he boarded the ship Prince Rupert, “which with the consort Prince Albert had the day before dropped down from dock and now floated side by side with colors flying, and braces “all a’ taut O.””
The ships sailed, and “in the course of a few days the black land of Orkney hove in sight, and as was necessary to touch there for the purpose of taking on board servants required in the Company’s distant territories and also to take in stores, the Prince Rupert bore up for land while the Prince Albert continued her course to the Hebrides for a similar purpose.
“The approach to the harbour of Stromness was an intricate one through a number of rocky islands; the channel narrowing in some places to a few hundred yards, causing it necessary to keep the lead continually on the heave on either side of the ship. To me, who had so recently left one of the most picturesque shires of Old England the bleak sterility of these islands found no favor in my eyes. Not a tree, and scarcely a shrub graced the scene, thereby rendering the view disagreeably dull and monotonous, and I was at a loss to conceive how a people could be content to pass their lives in a land that seemed only a fit habitation for seals and seabirds.
“The Captain having run in as far as he deemed it prudent, caused the ship to “heave to” off a small village from whence a man came off in the garb of a ploughman, and having boarded us, put the ship in motion and notwithstanding his clownish appearance, proved an efficient pilot, guiding us as far in as he was acquainted with the soundings, when the regular pilot joined us and we ere long entered the safe and commodious harbour of Stromness under a pretty stiff breeze…
“Presently a small boat was seen approaching from the shore. It contained three gentlemen who proved to be Robert Clouston, Esq., the Company’s agent, and his son, with Doctor Hamilton, Having spent an hour on board they again put off to the shore, not however without tendering to Dr. Nevins and myself a kind invitation to call when so inclined and to make ourselves at home…
“As the day was far spent we spent the remainder of the evening in viewing the surrounding country from the ship’s deck. This like most other harbours in these islands is completely land locked except for two natural passages which admit of the ingress and egress of ships; thus forming a safe and convenient retreat to mariners in rough weather. In the bay on the mainland, backed by high hills, stands the little town of Stromness; opposite which, across the bay, lies the Isle of Hoy whose storm beaten crest stands forth in bold relief….
“The next morning we were up bright and early. The weather however was anything but favourable as a drizzling rain was falling, and the stern brow of Old Hoy was enveloped in a murky cloud. But we cared not for that; we longed to be ashore and hearing that the yawl was going to land for a supply of fresh water, and as it still wanted an hour to breakfast time, we spent it in rubbing up our guns and replenishing our flasks and belts with a goodly store of ammunition. Breakfast being ready, we swallowed an impatient mouthful or two and then tumbled down the side into the boat, amid a collection of empty casks and water butts. As the distance was short we soon grounded on the sand, jumped ashore, and were highly delighted with the idea of once more stretching our stiffened legs on terra firma! …
“The little town of Stromness, which is in size and extent about equal to a populous English village, has nothing to boast of from an architectural point of view and is but little favoured by the picturesque and all from the want of trees. The land is high, rugged and imposing, but the total want of foliage renders it gloomy and forbidding. In the town there is nothing to amuse, if I except the museum, which however is in a very embryo state, the only curiosity therein being a few Esquimaux curiosities and a foot of a polar bear, remarkable for its great size. A few miles out, however, are the “Standing Stones of Stennis,” grim monuments of the ancient inhabitants of this wild land. These stones are placed in a circular form, and when viewed from a distance they appear to be the ruins of a temple. But on closer view, as no remains of any superstructure are to be seen, save here and there and in a line with the rest, and of similar shape and rudeness to those still standing, lay ponderous masses of stone uptorn by the ruthless hand of time. They appear to have been, what their present form indicates, a circle, dedicated perhaps to some object which their founders were wont to worship…
“Having seen all these wonders we next hired a boat and crossed over to Hoy, taking our guns along with us expecting to have some rabbit shooting. In this we were disappointed for not one did we see during our rambles here or elsewhere. We had heard a great deal about the “lion” of the place — the celebrated Dwarfic stone — a resolved to visit it. So having procured a guide in the person of an antiquated Milias, we set off, and after a few hours walk through a deep valley which, from its gloominess, seemed a fitting abode for dwarfs and spectre, we arrived at the object of our curiosity.
“When viewed from the side on which we approached, it appears nothing more than a flat slablike mass of rock upwards of twenty five feet long by perhaps fourteen or sixteen wide and from four to six in thickness. However, on going round to the opposite side which faces the upper end of the valley, a square aperture is discovered, which leads the wondering visitor into a passage about three feet high and seven feet long, on either side of which is a recess which appears to have been a bona fide bed. A thin ledge of stone runs along the edge as if to prevent the quondam sleepers from rolling into the passage while at the head of one of them is a mass of stone of pillow-like shape and form, but out of the mass, and of course a fixture like the protecting ledge. The pillow bears such another impression as would be made by the head on a real pillow after a night’s use.
“Although the world bears witness of many singular freaks performed by our ancient dame Nature, nevertheless, it is hard to believe that any other than the hand of man could have fashioned this huge stone into its present shape. Agreeing with our Milias that it was a “wonderful stone for sar-tain,” we left it to its solitude and proceeded up the valley where the ascent to the Hill of Hoy was easier, intending to return along the brow of the hill, whence we fully hoped and expected to obtain a fine and commanding view of the country. We were disappointed however, for as the clouds hung low, our view was limited to the town and harbour. Rewarding our guide for his trouble, we crossed the channel with appetites well whetted by the mountain breeze, did full justice to an ample repast provided for us by the good Mrs. Clouston.
“As we came in sight of the harbour, we descried the Prince Rupert with the Blue Peter flying from the fore as a warning to all whom it might concern that she was intending to take a speedy departure. We soon arrived at the town and having paid our Jarvey for the use of ourselves and his shay and pair, we betook ourselves to our abode.” The next day, Augustus Peers sailed away from the Orkney Islands.
This is a portion of a document found in British Columbia Archives, under the number E/B/P34. I have posted another piece of writing taken from this, here: https://nancymargueriteanderson.com/london-to-york-factory/
For more on the Standing Stones of Stennis, in the Orkney Islands, see here: http://www.orkneyjar.com/history/standingstones/
For more on Peers’ Dwarfic Stone, see here: http://www.orkneyjar.com/history/tombs/dwarfiestane/
Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2015. All rights reserved.
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Orkney sounds like “a good place to be from,” as my father used to say about a place where he would rather not live.