Lost in the Backwoods: Scots and the North American Wilderness

Lost in the Backwoods: Scots and the North American Wilderness

Lost in the Backwoods: Scots and the North American Wilderness

Lost in the Backwoods: Scots and the North American Wilderness


How the American wilderness shaped Scottish experience, imagination and identity. How is the Scottish imagination shaped by its emigre experience with wilderness and the extreme? Drawing on journals, emigrant guides, memoirs, letters, poetry and fiction, this book examines patterns of survival, defeat, adaptation and response in North America's harshest landscapes. Most Scots who crossed the Atlantic in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries encountered the practical, moral and cultural challenges of the wilderness, with its many tensions and contradictions. Jenni Calder explores the effect of these experiences on the Scots imagination. Associated with displacement and disappearance, the 'wilderness' was also a source of adventure and redemption, of exploitation and spiritual regeneration, of freedom and restriction. An arena of greed, cruelty and cannibalism, of courage, generosity and mutual understanding, it brought out the best and the worst of humanity. Did the Scots who emigrated exchange one extreme for another, or did they discover a new idea of identity, freedom and landscape?


Even when we knew which tree he had gone behind there was the fear that
what would come out when you called would be someone else.

Margaret Atwood, Surfacing

In the spring of 1812, Alexander Ross, from Moray, was alone with his dog Weasel in a cabin at the confluence of the Columbia and Okanogan rivers in what is now Washington State. He was part of a fur-trading expedition which had set out from the Pacific Fur Company’s base at Astoria near the Pacific coast. the rest of the expedition, led by David Stuart from Perthshire, had pressed on through the mountains to the north. Ross was, he wrote:

Alone in this unhallowed wilderness, without friend or white man within
hundreds of miles of me, and surrounded by savages who had never seen a
white man before. Every day seemed a week, every night a month. I pined, I
languished, my head turned gray, and in a brief space ten years were added
to my age. Yet man is born to endure, and my only consolation was in my

Seven years earlier Ross had arrived in Lower Canada, now Quebec, where he had struggled to make his way as a schoolteacher. in 1811, he had joined John Jacob Astor’s newly set up fur-trading enterprise as a clerk, a job for which teaching school in however raw a territory scarcely prepared him. It was a disillusioning experience in what Ross described, in a letter to his sister at home in Turriff, Aberdeenshire, as ‘this dissolute, extravagant and butterfly country’.

Ross ‘languished’ in the wilderness of the northwest, yet resignation and the Bible carried him through. He had little option but to continue in the fur trade, which he did with some success. By 1818, he had joined the North West Company, which ousted Astor’s company from Astoria, and was in charge of Fort Walla Walla, near the Columbia’s junction with the Snake River. He married an Okanogan woman with whom he had several children, and later settled at Red River, now Winnipeg, where he became a highly respected citizen and sheriff of Assiniboia. He never returned to Scotland.

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