The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

The Hudson’s Bay Company

The great demand for waterproof beaver hats led to the beaver's near extinction in Europe. In 1670 the London-based Hudson's Bay Company was granted a charter of Rupert's Land, around Hudson Bay, to trade for furs with the native peoples.

In 1702 their ships first engaged Orcadians in Stromness to work at their fur-trading posts, and would continue to do so for almost two centuries.

Young men from small farms were glad of a five or ten-year contract with the Hudson's Bay Company to save money and improve their lot at home.

They were highly esteemed as general servants: "There can be no doubt that the people from the Orkneys... by their... patience and perseverance and industrious habits and power of endurance were peculiarly suited for the hardships of such a wilderness life and for dealing with the Indian tribes in that canny way which begets confidence."

While most were employed as tradesmen and labourers, a minority were promoted as clerks and some became chief traders in charge of remote trading posts.

Among them William Tomison, from South Ronaldsay, rose to be Inland Governor, charged with expanding company activities throughout the territories now known as Canada.

In 1799, Orcadians made up 416 of the 530 on the company's overseas payroll. Many took native wives, and their descendants, Linklaters, Fletts and others with Orkney surnames, live across northern Canada. Some brought their mixed-blood families to settle in Orkney.

The last ship called at Stromness in 1891, but a smattering of Orcadians joined the Hudson's Bay Company during the 20th century.

© Bryce Wilson