Frontiersmen of the fur trade

7th November 2003 at 00:00
TRAILBLAZERS - Scots in Canada. until January 4. Royal Museum. tel 0131 247 4422.

A new exhibition at the Royal Museum in Edinburgh charts four centuries of Scots emigrating to Canada from 1600 and the effect that migration had on the land and its people.

Trailblazers is subtitled Scots in Canada, but Scotsmen would be a more accurate description as its main focus is on the men who left Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries, searching for land, trade and adventure. In particular, they had realised that a new source of wealth was fur.

There was a huge demand for beaver driven by the European fashion for men's felted beaver fur hats. Although the animal had become extinct in western Europe and almost extinct in Scandinavia and Russia, Canadian pelts kept the fashion going for another 200 years. Contemporary styles included the Regent, the Paris Beau and the Wellington. Illustrations of these are on show at the exhibition alongside a magnificent specimen of a stuffed beaver showing its flat tail.

Scotsmen dominated every level of the fur trade. The Montreal based North West Company was co-founded by Simon McTavish with local merchants in the winter of 1783-84. Its fur trading rival was the London based Hudson's Bay Company. The two merged in 1821 under the latter's name and Sir George Simpson, from Ross-shire, became governor of the immensely powerful company from 1826-60.

Other Scots who emigrated were indirectly involved in the fur trade. Colin Fraser, from Sutherland, was hired by Sir George Simpson in 1827 as his personal piper at a wage of pound;30 a year. His duties included piping his employer ashore when he toured the company's trading posts by canoe.

Robert Cruickshank, a silversmith from Aberdeen, settled in Montreal, where he established a highly successful business supplying vast quantities of silver trinkets for the fur trade. The simple, heart-shaped brooches, so popular in Scotland in those days as love tokens, became coveted items among indigenous fur trappers. In fact, Cruickshank's workshops were said to have turned out as many as 23,000 at a time. A contemporary portrait shows a First Nation woman wearing dozens of them on her dress.

Scots and other Europeans who moved to Canada to cash in on the fur trade were amazed at how little was needed to buy high-quality furs from native trappers. All it took, apparently, were beads, knives, hatchets and other trifles. The native trappers, for their part, couldn't understand the value that foreigners placed on furs.

As the fur trade developed, trading posts were established where trappers could come and exchange beaver pelts for tokens which could then be exchanged for goods. Children will enjoy the mock-up of a typical trading post shop which has been created for the exhibition.

On display are some of the items, both authentic and reproductions, which were available to trappers in the 19th century. These include blankets, playing cards, thimbles, needles, frying pans and a buffalo coat. Visitors can handle a soft beaver fur pelt, a bobcat skin and wild goat suede.

Trailblazers also looks at how Scots - men and women - adjusted to life in Canada over the centuries and what happened when the power balance began to shift from the indigenous population to the increasingly numerous European settlers.

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