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Celtic Life International looks to Highlanders


The latest edition of Celtic Life International is turning up at newsstands around the world. It features an excerpt from my forthcoming book Flight of the Highlanders: The Making of Canada, which is now available for pre-order. The excerpt begins like so:
In his bestsellers How the Scots Invented Canada and Celtic Lightning, Ken McGoogan wrote about how, in the 18th and 19th centuries, Scotland (and Ireland) sent Canada numerous talented, high-energy figures who led the way in forging a nation. In his forthcoming book, Flight of the Highlanders: The Making of Canada, Ken turns to the common people, and particularly to those who came to Canada as a result of the Highland Clearances. He tells the story of those forgotten Scots who, frequently betrayed by their own chieftains and evicted from their ancestral lands, found themselves battling hardship, hunger, and hostility in a New World they could scarcely have imagined . . . .

Chapter 3: The Old Way of Life

In the Celtic tradition, “Thin Places” are sites where the natural and spiritual worlds meet and intermingle, separated by the merest veil. The ancient Celts would visit these sacred sites, among them Stonehenge in England and the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney, to experience the presence of their gods. For avowedly secular types, the concept works better historically. I think of the reconstructed Gaelic village in the Highland Folk Museum 45 miles south of Inverness, where you can wander in and out of blackhouses and see people at work in the clothing and spirit of another time. The same goes for Auchindrain Township, six miles south of Inverary. It is the only stone-built settlement to survive essentially unaltered from among hundreds that existed before the Highland Clearances. And what of the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village at a beautiful waterside location on the Isle of Lewis?
All three of those sites provide a sense of how most Highlanders lived in the decades before and after the mid-1700s, when the Battle of Culloden marked the beginning of the end for the Old Order. Political and military historians of the Middle Ages focus on kings and aristocrats and the battles they fought, won, or lost. But most Highlanders were farmers who stayed home in small townships made up of extended families.
They lived in “blackhouses,’ so-designated because they were dark, windowless, and blackened by peat-fire smoke.  The term distinguishes them from the “white houses” which came later and introduced such amenities as windows and toilets. In Thatched Houses, author Colin Sinclair identifies three types of blackhouses according to their roof styles. The Hebridean has four walls of the same height and a ledge running around the edge of the roof. The Skye has four similar walls but no ledge: the thatch runs over the edge. And the Dailriadic has a Skye-style roof but pointed walls at two opposite ends providing for a pitched roof.
The common features among these three types tell us more about how people lived. Besides their thatched roofs and walls made of stone or peat slabs, blackhouses were usually oblong and divided into three compartments. You would enter the house through a flimsy door that opens into the byre or cow-house that forms one of the two end compartments. You would see two small black cows reclining on a bed of straw. But the place stinks of cow dung and chicken droppings so why tarry? You turn right and, through an opening or pass door, step through an internal wall into the main apartment. The third compartment is straight ahead, divided from this room by a wooden partition containing another pass door covered with a blanket.
You can’t help but notice the smoke, which gets thicker higher up, and you crouch to avoid the worst of it. The smoke curls upwards from a peat fire which sits on a stone slab in the middle of this dirt-floor apartment. It drifts eventually through a hole in the thatch located off-centre so that heavy rains do not douse the flames. A three-legged iron pot hangs over the fire from a chain attached to a beam in the roof. You sit down on a bench that occupies a side wall and notice a dresser neatly displaying rows of plates. Beneath it sits a washtub and beside it a wooden bucket.
Welcome to the house of the Gael in the Old Highlands. It allows for conversation and conviviality around the glowing peat fire, but mainly it provides shelter from the storm – though the roof of the blackhouse is not water tight. In rainy weather, heavy drops of inky black water make their way through the thatch. This happens often enough that people have a name for those falling droplets: snighe.
When weather permits, not surprisingly, the common folk spend most of their time outdoors. They tend their crops and their cattle. When James Boswell passed this way with Dr. Samuel Johnson in 1773, he wrote, “we had not rooms that we could command, for the good people here had no notion that a man could have any occasion but a mere sleeping place.”
(To read the rest of this excerpt, pick up the June issue of Celtic Life International. The book, Flight of the Highlanders: The Making of Canada, is now available for pre-order.)


Ken McGoogan
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Arctic Expedition makes John Rae history



THEY MADE IT! Today at 3:45 p.m. Mountain Time, David Reid and Richard Smith called me in Toronto from the John Rae plaque overlooking Rae Strait. They had just completed a 650-km trek from Naujaat (Repulse Bay) to Point de la Guiche. They took just 29 days to complete this prodigious feat in blizzards and with temperatures falling to 30 and 40 degrees below zero.
Today, they left early and covered about 16 km to reach the site where in 1854, accompanied by his indigenous companions William Ouligbuck Jr. and Thomas Mistegan, Rae built a cairn marking his discovery of the final link in what would prove to be the first navigable Northwest Passage.
Reid and Smith were in high spirits as they chatted with me for about twenty minutes. Two other team members, Frank Wolf and Garry Tutte, had been forced to evacuate en route by foot problems.
(Wolf took the photo above before departing.) "It was a shame to lose them," Smith said. "But their feet . . . . the journey was quite arduous on the body."
He and Reid have both lost a fair bit of weight, exact amount to be determined.
Reid, a veteran explorer, reminisced about the Arctic Return Expedition being conceived in September 2017 during an Adventure Canada voyage in the Northwest Passage. He and I and Sheena Fraser McGoogan and a few other people got talking over dinner about what he should do next. One idea led to another. . . .
Back in 1999, the late Louie Kamookak led me and one other man in erecting the plaque honoring Rae and his companions. Reid and Smith put up their tent nearby just before they called. The temperature was a balmy 20 degrees below zero, and they will camp on site for the next couple of nights. Gjoa Haven is about 80 km to the southwest. The men have arranged for an Inuk named Marvin to lead a team in picking them up via skidoo from Gjoa on Tuesday. They will give a presentation to the community on Wednesday evening and on Thursday, will fly south to Edmonton, so beginning their journey home -- Reid to Ottawa, Smith to Scotland.
From outside their tent, the two men looked across the white expanse of Rae Strait. "On the far side of Rae Strait," Reid said, "we can see King William Island. Just as John Rae did 165 years ago."
Ken McGoogan
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Arctic Return Expedition nears objective


Veteran explorer Frank Wolf took this classic shot of the two still-active members of Arctic Return dealing with rough ice. After a tough day of slogging through foggy conditions, David Reid (in red) and Richard Smith got their first glimpse of Rasmussen Basin, which lies off the west coast of Boothia Peninsula. Translation: they are within a few days of attaining Point de la Guiche, where in 1854 John Rae built a cairn (now in ruins) overlooking Rae Strait -- the final link in what would prove to be the first navigable Northwest Passage. The expedition left Naujaat almost one month ago. Frank and Garry Tutte had trouble with their feet and -- like two of the four men who initially accompanied Rae -- had to withdraw. Folks, this is no walk in the park. It's a grueling test in one of the most extreme environments on the planet. David and Richard are forging ahead. You can follow their progress on this blog. Fantastic expedition!

Ken McGoogan
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Two intrepid Scots keep Arctic Return alive


These four seasoned adventurers left Naujaat (Repulse Bay) on March 30, setting out westward in the footsteps of Orcadian explorer John Rae. Two of them have gone down and been forced to evacuate as a result of injuries. Two of them are still beating west, hauling double sleds through blizzards and temperatures falling to 48 degrees below zero.
On his 1854 expedition, Rae traveled with five men until, because of extreme conditions, two could proceed no further. He left them in a snowhut and carried on with the remaining two.  On May 6, with William Oulibuck Jr. (an Inuk) and Thomas Mistegan (an Ojibway), he reached Point de la Guiche and discovered Rae Strait -- the final link in what would be prove to be the first navigable Northwest Passage.
The Arctic Return team -- four well-experienced explorers -- set out to recreate Rae's historic expedition. Two have now been forced to withdraw with foot injuries: Vancouver adventure-writer Frank Wolf and Toronto film-maker Garry Tutte (the two men on the right).
The two Scots on the team, roughly halfway through the expedition, are forging ahead: leader David Reid, who has been involved with Arctic expeditions for more than 20 years; and Richard Smith, PhD, who served with the Royal Marine Commandos and has trekked around Alaska, Greenland and Nepal. All four men are fit and tough. Garry is back home and Frank, having been picked up by Inuit hunters (Lionel and Clayton) from Kugaaruk (Pelly Bay), is on his way. Both men are expected to be fine.
How do I know all this? Well, I am following the expedition blog:
https://arcticreturn.com/a-tough-but-necessary-move/
If you want to get a sense of the wild and crazy conditions, David posted a one-minute video to the Facebook page Arctic Return Expedition. Check it out.
Photo above by Michelle Valberg.


Ken McGoogan
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CanGeo goes gorgeous with Highlanders


Numerous books have explored the Highland Clearances (the forced mass eviction of tenants from Scotland’s Highlands and western islands, mainly to turn land to sheep pasture), which began around 1760 and lasted a century. Many more have treated the arrival of many of these Highlanders in pre-Confederation Canada, both east and west. Flight of the Highlanders: The Making of Canada, explains Ken McGoogan, an author and Fellow of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, intertwines the two stories. Half unfolds in Scotland, half in Canada. Those evicted Highlanders who emigrated after being driven from their ancestral homelands were a marginalized minority.
The sad irony is that, in some locations in Canada, these refugees displaced Indigenous peoples whose way of life depended on wilderness and wide-open spaces. The following chapter of the book, “Creating Red River Colony,” sets up the clash between past and future.

From Flight of the Highlanders


Creating Red River Colony

After putting the Prince Edward Island colony on a solid footing — listening to settlers, assigning lands, appointing leaders — Thomas Douglas, the fifth earl of Selkirk, decided to write a book advocating emigration to what is now Canada as a solution to domestic problems in Scotland. He proposed to establish a series of distinctive “national settlements” that would protect language and culture, guarding immigrants “from the contagion of American manners.” Each would be “inhabited by Colonists of a different nation, keeping up their original peculiarities and all differing in language from their neighbors in the United States.”
Backed by the Colonial Office, Selkirk chose what looked like a promising location on Lake St. Clair, near the border to the United States in the southwest corner of Upper Canada. He visited the site, which he named Baldoon. He hired a manager and, with the first Highlanders on their way from Scotland, watched construction begin. 
Back in Britain, Selkirk began writing a book championing Scottish emigration. In 1805, as he finished it, he heard that Baldoon was faring poorly. By sheer bad luck, he had visited the site during one of the driest seasons in decades. Soon after he left, heavy rains had transformed low-lying areas into swampland, which gave rise to poor crops, illness and even deaths from malaria. So he focused in his book on his successful Prince Edward Island colony, and his considered arguments began altering attitudes about Highland emigration.
Read the rest of this chapter by clicking here.
Ken McGoogan
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Magic meets history at Dundas Harbour





Dundas Harbour in the High Arctic. This magnificent painting, 36 x 48, is now on its way to the Pacific Coast, sold to an individual of taste and refinement who checked out the new website of Sheena Fraser McGoogan . We visited this magical location numerous times while sailing in the Northwest Passage with Adventure Canada. On this occasion, afternoon sunshine accompanied our landing under a clear blue sky. 
We hiked over a broad ridge to this abandoned RCMP post. It faces southwest over Bernier Bay, so-called in commemoration of a 1906 stopover by Joseph Bernier. Here we found half a dozen beluga whales cavorting within five metres of the shoreline – an attraction that alone was worth the price of admission.
At the RCMP site, several buildings remain standing: a detachment building (two-person living quarters), a separate house for Inuit hunters, two latrines, a couple of storehouses, and a dog corral. The main residence, which presents considerable graffiti, contains a few bottles and several books, the most intriguing of which is Dog Crusoe and His Master by Robert Michael Ballantyne.
The RCMP erected this post in the 1920s to signal Canadian sovereignty. On the tundra beyond the dog corral is the lay-out of yet another large square dwelling, marked out by stones (probably a tent-like communal centre for Inuit hunters). On a hill overlooking these buildings stands a white-fenced cemetery containing two old graves marked by new gravestones.
Here we stood before the graves of constables Victor Maisonneuve (1899-1926) and William Robert Stephens (1902-1927). The first committed suicide, the second died while hunting. Stories abound. The Hudson's Bay Company rented this outpost briefly in the 1930s, then gave it back. The RCMP kept it open until 1951, when they moved to the less isolated Craig Harbour. Today, the Canadian Coast Guard maintains the cemetery. In 1944, during the return (westward) voyage of the St. Roch through the Northwest Passage, Henry Larsen called in. Dundas Harbour. Here, in Sheena's work, magic meets history and the result is magnificence. 
Ken McGoogan
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Ken McGoogan
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Pierre Radisson kicks off new history series



Bush Runner, a new biography of Pierre-Esprit Radisson, helps kick off a new Canadian history series from Windsor-based publisher Biblioasis. My review in the Globe and Mail begins as follows:
Lake Superior had frozen over. Temperatures hovered around 40 degrees below zero. Families slept in huts they dug out of the snow. They counted their dead each morning. Pierre-Esprit Radisson, starving himself during this “Hunger Winter” of 1659, described people digging for roots, “which could not be done without great difficulty, the earth being frozen two or three feet, and the snow five or six above it.” In Bush Runner, a biography of Radisson (1636-1710), author Mark Bourrie continues the depiction, showing people making soup from the vines that grew on trees and, having long since eaten their dogs, boiling the bones that the crows had picked clean.
Like explorer John Franklin 150 years later, during his disastrous first overland expedition, the starving Huron “boiled leather intended for clothes and shoes” and ate it. They boiled their leather tents. They boiled and ate the beaver pelts that, for Radisson, were the reason he was here. Finally, “they boiled the skins that mothers used as diapers.” When two half-starved Sioux stumbled into camp, Radisson tried to buy their skinny dog. They refused so he waited until they slept. Then he lured the dog away, stabbed it to death, and had it “broiled like a pig, cut in pieces, guts and all, so every one of the family had his share.”
Anybody who finds this hard to read should take a miss on Bourrie’s vivid narrative because you ain’t seen nothing yet. Having arrived in New France in 1651 as a peasant teenager, Radisson was taken prisoner by Iroquois. He showed such a keen interest in Mohawk language and culture – and had such an extraordinary gift for languages – that, after enduring some mild torture, he was adopted and assimilated. More strenuous bouts of torture would come later, after Radisson betrayed and helped murder three young travelling companions.
Bourrie points out that judging ancient First Nations people “on the details of torture adapted from the historical record is akin to reading Rudolf Hoss’s autobiography of his years as Auschwitz commandant to get a grasp of how mid-20th-century Europeans lived and felt.” That said, he spares us nothing – not the burning of hands and feet, the pulling of fingernails, or “the dance of the heads.” Don’t say you haven’t been warned. . . .
To read the rest, click here.

Ken McGoogan
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Before turning mainly to books about arctic exploration and Canadian history, Ken McGoogan worked for two decades as a journalist at major dailies in Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal. He teaches creative nonfiction writing through the University of Toronto and in the MFA program at King’s College in Halifax. Ken served as chair of the Public Lending Right Commission, has written recently for Canada’s History, Canadian Geographic, and Maclean’s, and sails with Adventure Canada as a resource historian. Based in Toronto, he has given talks and presentations across Canada, from Dawson City to Dartmouth, and in places as different as Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Hobart.