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The mystery of the Inuit who arrived in Scotland

SCOTLAND BOUND? An Inuit hunts a seal off Greenland in a 19th century image - Credit: Corbis via Getty Images

Was 18th century Scotland visited by people from the frozen north? RICHARD LUCK picks over the accounts of the men who might have made it all the way from Greenland.

History is filled with tantalising theories of human endurance and exploration. Could the Vikings have crossed the Atlantic, for instance? Could Polynesia have been populated by migrants who crossed the Pacific from South America? And centuries ago, could Inuit tribesmen have descended on the British Isles in tiny kayaks, having traversed thousands of miles of icy ocean from their homes in the Arctic Circle?

Well just as it is accepted that those other epic voyages were perhaps feasible – if not necessarily proven – so there’s also a surprising amount of material to suggest that the men from the frozen north made it as far south as Scotland. 

Certainly, there are accounts of Inuit visitors to these shores, starting in the late 17th century. Shortly before his death in 1685, the Presbyterian minister James Wallace wrote of a foreign craft that had been spotted off the Orkneys: “In the year 1682, a ‘Finnman’ [a local term derived from the fact the Orcadinans were convinced such visitors hailed from Finland] was seen sometime sailing, sometime rowing up and down in his little boat at the south end of the isle of Eda[y]… most of the people of the isle flocked to see him, and when they adventured to put out a boat with men to see if they could apprehend him, he presently sped away most swiftly.”

Wallace also recorded a second encounter: “In the year 1684, another was seen from Westra[y], and for a while after [the local fishermen] got a few or no fishes: for they have this remark here, that these Finnmen drive away the fishes from the place to which they come.”

Though the Sami people of northern Finland do use canoes, the kayaks Wallace described – one of which actually came into the possession of first the islanders and later Edinburgh’s Royal College of Physicians – were markedly different from any craft of European origin. As such, it seems safe to suggest that, wherever the ‘Finnmen’ hailed from, it couldn’t be the land of Jean Sibelius and Kimi Räikkönen.

Even more extraordinary than Wallace’s recollections was a story that emerged from Aberdeenshire in the early 18th century concerning an Inuit kayaker who was found paddling up the River Don. Retrieved from his vessel, the exhausted adventurer was cared for by the local community but died within days of his arrival.

According to Charles Hunt – the curator of Aberdeen’s Marischal College Museum, which still has possession of the kayak – the craft’s design was that of a canoe from the east coast of Greenland. If so, how had our intrepid man in his small vessel managed to make the 1,900+ kilometre journey to the east coast of Scotland, with limited food and water and only the most basic methods of navigation available to him?

While the 2017 Red Bull TV documentary Voyage Of The Finnmen proved that such a journey was technically feasible, the fact that the crossing took British adventurers Olly Hicks and George Bullard some 66 days – even when equipped with state-of-the-art technology – adds doubt to the notion of our Aberdeen Inuit paddling himself the whole way across the Arctic Ocean.

More likely is Charles Hunt’s suggestion that the tribesman travelled most of the journey in another, larger vessel, one from which he had quite possibly escaped. Among the less widely acknowledged abuses of North American native peoples by Europeans was the practice of kidnapping Inuit tribesmen and women so that they could be put ‘on display’ back home.

Among the unfortunates to suffer this fate were Pock and Keeperock who in the 1720s unwittingly became the ‘stars’ of the Copenhagen Regatta. Such was the frequency with which European whalers would aggressively ‘introduce’ the Inuit to ‘civilisation’, the Dutch parliament passed a law specifically outlawing the practice.

Is it possible that, in the wake of this law being enacted, the Aberdeen Inuit was returned to the ocean by a European sea-farer fearful of prosecution? Or having heard tale of the insults inflicted upon his tribespeople, might our kayaker have returned to sea of his own volition in the hope of finding faces friendlier than those of his ship mates?

Whatever the truth, that which goes for Aberdeenshire’s most unlikely visitor might also go for the Orkney ‘Finnmen’. Though James Wallace’s son speculated that the Orcadian Inuit might have been driven south by bad weather, the odds against surviving such a voyage make it more likely that they too were either set adrift or lucky enough to escape their captors.

And yet still, it’s interesting to speculate whether epic Inuit voyagers could actually have occurred. For example, during the most recent Mini Ice Age (from circa 1650 to circa 1710), the polar ice covered a far greater area than it does today, so drastically reducing the length of such a trip. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the tribesman who made it as far as Aberdeen had his own fishing equipment with him. Could he have refuelled himself on the go?

Of course, there remains the issue of our intrepid explorer having no ready access to fresh water. However, similar circumstances didn’t prevent three crewmen from surviving for almost three months in the Pacific after their ship, the Essex, was sunk by a sperm whale in 1820. It’s also worth considering that Captain William Bligh and 18 of his crewmen made a week’s food and water last 47 days after they were set adrift by the mutinous Fletcher Christian in 1789.

Also of interest is a 15th century account of a craft of Native American origin carrying two passengers that was found washed up on the Galway coast. Alas the mists of time have long obscured the facts surrounding this apparent Transatlantic ‘arrival’ with the various accounts failing to agree on such basic facts as whether or not the crew were dead or alive upon arrival.

You mightn’t be surprised to learn that some of the facts surrounding Scotland’s Inuit arrivals have also fallen prey to the fog of yore, with at least two dates having been put forward for the Aberdeen kayaker coming ashore. There’s even mention of the encounter having taken place at sea rather than on the banks of the River Don.

With this being an instance where there’s much that is fascinating but little that’s set in concrete, let us end on one Scots-Inuit encounter about which there exists no doubt.

For in the 1890s, Dundee whaling captain William Adams returned home with a very special guest. Chief Inuit Almick hailed from Nunavut’s Qikiqtaaluk region and had come to Scotland not as an exhibit but to experience life on the other side of the world. During his time overseas, Almick was introduced to royalty, paid a visit to Edinburgh and was the guest of honour at countless mayoral occasions.

Inevitably, the visitor must at times have felt more like a novelty than a VIP. Having quickly picked up the local language, Almick was keen to show that, whatever the Europeans might have taken from his people, their sense of humour remained intact. 

For when he was asked what his abiding memory of Dundee would be, the Chief responded that he had long been surprised by how cold it was in the city. And there, ladies and gentlemen, we have the first documented account of Inu-wit in Scotland.

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