Many Orkney men joined the Hudson’s Bay Company to earn a decent wage and work in the harsh conditions of Canada, but white women were excluded in the early 19th century. Brave Isabel Gunn was driven by poverty, or some say love, to disguise herself as a man, signing on in 1806 as John Fubbister, her father’s name. The ‘lad’ John worked well and no one suspected her secret until she gave birth to a son in the house of shocked chief factor Alexander Henry. Isabel was given work as a washerwoman in Canada but she and her son James settled in Stromness in 1809 where she lived in poverty, working as a seamstress. She died in 1861, aged 81.
This Stromness woman who was shipwrecked on the Great Barrier Reef in 1863 is a famous figure in Australian popular culture. Eliza and her sea captain husband had set sail for Sydney but were shipwrecked. They and the crew made it to Great Sandy Island, renamed Fraser Island for Eliza. She claimed later they were abducted by native people and forced to work and her husband was killed. She was rescued by escaped convict John Graham. She became a celebrity in Australia following tales of her colourful adventures. Despite marrying another sea captain she kept this secret to claim destitution on her return to the UK. The story of this Orkney woman has inspired books, paintings and a film. There is a blue commemorative plaque on her former house in Stromness.
The amazing tales of Jack Renton, a young Orkney sailor who became a white head-hunter in the South Seas, made him a celebrity on his return to Britain. Renton told of how he was shanghaied in San Francisco in 1868 but escaped with others on a makeshift craft and washed up on Malaita in the Solomon Islands, inhabited by head-hunters and cannibals. He was sold to the chief who protected him but after eight years he escaped by sending a message on timber written with charcoal to a passing slave ship. He too was feted in Australia before returning home to Orkney. But he hankered for the South Seas and returned there, to be murdered by another tribe in the New Hebrides. You can see a small exhibition about Renton in the Stromness Museum which includes a necklace of teeth, given to Renton as a charm.
William Balfour Baikie
Explorer, naturalist and surgeon William Balfour Baikie was born in Kirkwall in 1825. He is remembered for opening navigation of the River Niger in Africa and establishing a market for trade. After studying medicine in Edinburgh, Baikie joined the Royal Navy as a surgeon. He took part in the Niger Expedition in 1854 and went on to found the Lokoja settlement. He was anti-slavery and known for his welfare for the people, while running the trading post. He died of malignant fever while on leave in Sierra Leone, aged just 39. You can see his stone monument in St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall.
There is also a memorial plaque in the cathedral to Margaret Graham, a nurse and missionary who devoted her life to the children and the sick of Nigeria. She was born in Orphir, Orkney in 1860 and died in Africa in 1933.
He was born in 1740 in South Ronaldsay, Orkney, and aged 20 joined the Hudson’s Bay Company as a labourer in the fur trade in Canada. Despite his lack of education, he rose to become Governer and Inland Chief, based in Manitoba. He founded the trading post which grew into the city of Edmonton. He retired home to Orkney, and died in 1829, leaving a bequest to found a school, Tomison’s Academy. This was built in 1851 and provided free education for local children. He is buried in the garden of his former home across the road from the school.