The Voyageur's Return

The idea of bringing 'The Geat Trade Canoes' to Scotland to run trips in the Highlands had been born several years earlier. It was one of those ideas that once planted, demanded to be tried. It was the genie in the lamp and there seemed to be some good reasons for letting it out. First it hadn't been done before, at least not over here. Second, it seemed that everyone I discussed the idea with on either side of the Atlantic got instantly excited until I found myself being bowled along on a wave of other people's enthusiasm. And third, the canoes have a story to tell.

The Great Trade Canoes and the Voyageurs who paddled them were a huge influence on development of Canada as a modern nation. The fur trade was the motivating force, the freight canoe was the vehicle.

The Voyageurs, truckers of 18th and 19th Century North America were originally French. These early explorers and pioneers began to penetrate Canada's interior by the only practicable means available. They borrowed the technology of the native peoples and travelled by birch bark canoe on the rivers and lakes of Canada. As trade developed, the canoes became bigger to enable them to carry loads of freight amounting to several tons.

As the British Empire's requirement for fur coats and hats increased, British influence in the Canadian territories began to overtake the French. At around the same time there were some rather unwholesome things happening back in the Highlands of Scotland. The native highland peoples were being 'persuaded' out of their homes and off their lands to make way for sheep. The Highlands were to become an enormous sheep pen arranged to satisfy the empire's equally voracious appetite for wool. Highlanders were herded ahead of the incoming sheep to the coastal fringes where they were left to scratch a living from smaller and less productive crofts. Many were encouraged to leave altogether and spilled onto ships bound for Canada and North America.

Thus began the Scot's influence in North America and many of these exiled Scotsmen became Voyageurs, recruited by the two great trading companies, The Hudson's Bay and The North West. Between them these two rivals, who later merged spread their influence and domain over an area equivalent to 1/12 of the earth's land surface in order to satisfy the developed world's insatiable demand for furs.

The Scots historian James Hunter in his books about the Scot's influence in North America draws many parallels between the highland clearances and the persecution of the First Nation Peoples of North America. It is sad to reflect that in many cases the same Scots who were themselves persecuted and driven from their ancestral lands by the 'improvers', became responsible for persecution and banishment of American First Nation Peoples onto reservations, many of which exhibited the same degree of inadequacy to sustain a population as those crofts on the Scottish coastal fringes to which the highlanders had been banished.

In bringing the Great Trade Canoes to Scotland there is a sense of completing an historical loop. It seems fitting to be using replicas of the Voyageur's canoes as the vehicle for our explorations of those places which many of the Voyageurs would once have called home.

During our first season we have travelled on Loch Shiel and into Moidart, that most beautiful and secluded corner of the highlands where reminders of Charles II and old clan conflicts are ever present to enrich the natural tapestry of the area. Eagles overhead and otters on the shore bring the tapestry alive.

Further North in the Sound of Sleat a rush of tide through the narrows at Kyle Rhea accelerate us past seals fishing in the eddy lines of the swirling waters. Passing the ubiquitous fish farm, that most common feature of the modern Highland landscape, we approach our camp site. Like the canoe, with its origins lost in time, the tepee turns out to be an immensely practical way to camp with groups of guests. Fast to erect and spacious for up to eight people, they are quickly acquiring the unqualified approval of those who use them.

We cook communally on a mix of stove and open fire and the whole group are involved in the preparation of the evening meal. The meal takes a while - good food needs time to prepare and a meal together becomes the main focus of this summer's evening. There is also plenty of time for personal reflection. Looking out upon the now quiet hills its easy to imagine the glens full of their peoples tending the runrigs and the beasts. The ancient form of our upturned canoes now at rest on the shore makes it just possible to be with the voyageurs too on their journeys across a continent and some of them perhaps harbouring thoughts of home.

Scottish Voyageurs organise and run Adventures by Trade Canoe of one day to ten days on the lochs, rivers and coastal waters of Scotland. All trips are guided and fully catered. More details from:-

Scottish Voyageurs
1 Craigdam Cottages
AB41 7NR

Tel/Fax: 01651 851215