Friday, 2 December 2011

The fork in the road

Authors spend a lot of time considering What if? or what I think of as the fork in the road. Take the left fork and you might buy the winning lottery ticket, take the right and your car might be squashed flat by a tank transporter. That kind of thing. It can be a matter of choice or chance, or maybe even someone else's arbitrary decision.

I found myself asking the What if? question the other night when I watched a TV programme called The Hudson's Bay Boys. In it, the BBC had brought together five Scots who had worked for the Hudson's Bay Company in the 60s,70s and 80s. The HBC actively sought out young Scots men to run their remote Arctic Circle stores from the 1800s to the 1980s, and thousands made their way across the Atlantic. It was a fascinating story of young men - teenagers - journeying from their homes in Selkirk, St Andrews, Dumfries and the Shetlands to seek out adventure and a new life in one of the harshest localities on earth. 

I think this is a remarkably tidy and well kept store at the
 height of summer. It would be very different in the winter
While their contemporaries worked 9-5 in mills and offices, they ran the isolated company stores, traded for furs with their Inuit customers and hunted seals and caribou in temperatures that sometimes fell to minus 50. Before they reached their twenties they had become key members of the almost completely isolated communities they served. In one clip, Jim, the Shetlander, told how he'd pulled teeth, delivered babies and wept as he remembered the only person he couldn't save using his self-taught medical skills. They integrated in a remarkable way with the Inuit people; four out of the five had married local girls and now had children and grandchildren. The biggest upheaval in all their lives had been the celebrity sponsored anti-fur protests of the 70s and 80s. When Brigitte Bardot posed with a doe-eyed, fluffy white seal pup nobody worried about the native Inuit as the trade price of a sealskin crashed from 34 dollars a pelt to eight dollars and their economy collapsed, threatening the whole Inuit way of life.

The reason I asked myself What if? is that in 1972 I answered an advert in The Scotsman asking for young adventurous men to apply to join the Hudsons Bay Company, and, about the time I was turning turf in a Roman camp in the Cheviot Hills, went up to Edinburgh for an interview. I shudder to think what kind of weedy specimen I looked to the interviewers at 16 years old, but what if I'd got the job? My life would have turned out entirely differently and I'd be a different person now. Would I have written books? Maybe I would have written them a lot earlier, because there wasn't a lot to do during the eternal winter nights apart from read, write and listen to the radio. I like to think that I would have miraculously acquired the DIY skills that elude me today, not fainted during a difficult birth and yanked out a molar without a qualm. I suspect the reality would have been very different

I don't envy them, much, though four out of the five live remarkably fulfilled lives. The welcome they received from people they hadn't seen for twenty years was a testament to their achievements, but their youth was a desperately hard existence and for every success there would have been many failures. 

Still, you can't help thinking: What if?


Anonymous said...


I also applied for a job with the "Bay" in 1974 when I was 18. 37 years later and I'm still living in Canada's Northwest Territories. No regrets. During that time I've also had those "fork in the road" moments and sometimes find myself wondering "what if?".

Fred Ruthven

Doug said...

Cheers Fred, when you can look back and say you've no regrets you've had a life worth living.

all the best


Bulldog said...

Thanks Doug,
It's been nice to see that it has struck such a chord with so many people. Its been good so far with lots more adventures to come here in Pangnirtung!
All the best,
Donald Mearns

Doug said...

Thanks for getting in touch Donald, it was a fantastic programme and wonderful to get a glimpse of how you and your lovely family live. I have a huge admiration for everyone who went from Scotland and made a success of it. It amazes me that so many very young, untried Scots laddies could have upped sticks from what were relatively comfortable lives and were adaptable enough to make a new one in an entirely different and immensely challenging world. It says a lot for the selection process of the HBC, which quite rightly chucked me back on the street.
Great to see a man playing the bagpipes in a kilt above the Arctic Circle!

All the best to you and the family