Sunrise over the Red River: a wide river on low prarie, fringed by trees yet to get spring leaf. Industrial buildings in the background, logs and branches in the foreground. The shadow of me in the window.

Outriders: Finding Orkney in Winnipeg


I’ve spent the last two days in Winnipeg, Manitoba, visiting museums and historical sites, talking politics and culture with Katherena, and, most of all, finding small (and sometimes big) traces of Orkney everywhere I go.

I started, though, with Louis Riel. Being a revolutionary sort, I was very quickly drawn to the extraordinary story of this Métis leader who led a successful resistance against government domination, essentially founded (and gave name to) the province of Manitoba, spent time confined in an asylum, and was eventually executed after using the trial to speak his politics proudly. I followed his story at the St Boniface Museum, which has exhibits including his coffin (burnt in a cathedral fire), rifle, and the hood he was executed in, and the Manitoba Museum, which has his beautiful walking stick. Seeing the story told in two museums was fascinating, as the St Boniface Museum celebrates him as a Francophone rebel against Anglophone oppression (it doesn’t do it so crudely as I’m suggesting), whereas the Manitoba Museum alternates between the Anglophone perspective of seeing him as a traitor to the crown and the contemporary liberal perspective as a Métis leader of a multicultural resistance. I don’t know near enough to tell the story properly here, but I’m making my way through Chester Brown’s beautiful graphic biography, I’ve had Mary Siggins’ academic biography strongly recommended, and I’m also reading a historical-cultural study by Jennifer Reid in Riel’s role in the construction of nationhood.

Louis Riel's grave, with a Métis sash wrapped around the column. A low wall surrounds it, and a half-destroyed cathedral is in the background, with a green lawn between.

Louis Riel’s grave, with a Métis sash wrapped around the column. A low wall surrounds it, and a half-destroyed cathedral is in the background, with a green lawn between.

The Red River Settlement, which would become Winnipeg, was majority Métis (descendents of European settlers and local First Nations people), with both French and Scottish settlers alongside. The first Scottish settlers were Orkneymen from the Hudson’s Bay Company: In the early days of the HBC it was staffed in the majority by men from Orkney, hired when the ships made their last stop at Stromness, and many migrated south when there contracts expired (or ran away). Alongside them were also Orkney-Cree Métis, descendents of HBC Orkneymen and their common-law wives. And from 1812 on, the Selkirk Settlers — folk whose settlement was arranged by Thomas Douglas, Earl of Selkirk, largely dispossessed by the Highland Clearances — alongside, later, other British and Irish settlers migrating west.

A map of the Red River Colony, showing the positions of Kildonan Scots, Orkney Scots, French and Métis. Right, a display of 19th century agricultural tools.

A map of the Red River Colony, showing the positions of Kildonan Scots, Orkney Scots, French and Métis. Right, a display of 19th century agricultural tools.

A brief diversion here on the Selkirk settlers: when I stepped out of my hotel yesterday morning, I walked smack into a huge and fairly grossly romantic statue commemorating the Selkirk Settlers, complete with grief-stricken family and kilted Highlander with dramatically bared (and very cold) chest. Along the Red River now are a series of plaques commemorating the Clearances, and commending Selkirk for his role in providing a home for starving farmers. There’s also a twin of the monument at Helmsdale. Which is to say, this story has mythic significance for contemporary (and now majority Anglophone) Winnipeg. So, alongside the obvious but necessary comment that cleared Highlanders went on to enact genocidal settler-colonisation in Canada, I also want to question a little the philanthropy of Selkirk himself. I need to read more history to really understand the situation, but it seems to me that not only did Selkirk make money and reputation through these efforts, but also the possibility of emigration helped to suppress resistance to the Clearances, and land consolidation in general, in Scotland. It gets rid of potential trouble-makers. And so I wonder if we could say that one of the reasons that a radical, or even redistributive, land politics has been late in coming to Scotland, with its astonishingly unequal land distribution, is precisely because of our role in settler-colonisation. Deprived of tenancy under feudal law, or rights under Udal law, or cut off from enclosed Commons, settlers displaced indigenous peoples from their own freedom on land, and chose the modernising scheme of individual property rights over the common land stewardships they’d lost and were displacing.

The Selkirk Settler monument, as described in the text. Bare trees behind it; the Red River on the right; buildings and a street on the left.

The Selkirk Settler monument, as described in the text. Bare trees behind it; the Red River on the right; buildings and a street on the left.

The events of the Red River Resistance played out along a number of cultural and political divides. The clearest is between Francophone and Anglophone, which aligns (but not entirely) with divisions between Métis and white settlers, with another alignment being with divisions between Catholics and Protestants. But none of this is so clear as that: there were Protestant Orkneymen and Orkney-descended Métis in Riel’s provisional government, for example, as well as cultural and relgious divisions between the celtic Highlanders and nordic Orkneymen. And the execution of the Ulster Scots Orangeman opponent of the resistance Thomas Scott was a key flashpoint and led to Riel’s exile, but Riel also led a cavalry in opposition to Fenian Raids on Manitoba which were part of a campaign for Irish independence. Which is to say, the cultural and political battles of Britain turn up again in different and confusing shapes in the Red River Resistance.

Seeing these ghosts of Britain has been very strange, because so often they take on new meanings. The Orange Order carries a very different political resonance in Scotland now, but to be a member of an Orange Lodge then was often a necessary part of a Canadian political career. On the other hand, Orangemen do keep turning up as villains in the stories I’m reading, and in the Manitoba Museum I found the sewn banner of a “Ladies’ Orange Benevolent Association” proclaiming, as if it were trying to make itself a foil for my research interests, “One School. One Flag. One Language.” Some of this feels funny, some of it feels shameful, some of it feels extraordinary, and some of it feels very sad. I read about the Orkney Métis John Norquay, once Premier of Manitoba; I learned that there was  Birsay Village outside of Winnipeg, also called Orkneytown, which failed due to famine and was taken over by Francophone Métis who renamed it Saint François Xavier, but that there is still a Binscarth, Manitoba; I found a vegan burger restaurant on Bannatyne St, named after a South Ronaldsay-born Bannatyne who served in Riel’s Provisional Government, and I keep driving past roads, schools and whole districts named after Orcadian Inksters; I visited a graveyard in St Andrew’s (Manitoba) where I found Fletts, Ballantynes, Johnstones, Harcuses, and plenty other Orkney names besides.


Two graves: Archibald J Flett, Private, 1873-1955, and Mary Harcus Flett, Nee Miller, 1879-1956. A church in the b ackground on the right, with bare trees alongside it.

Most strikingly of all, I learned about a creole called Bungi that was spoken in Manitoba until the mid 20th century. Drawing on Cree, English, Orcadian and Gaelic, it very clearly preserved words and grammatical features that came direct from Orcadian: folk who would “slockit the light”, and who would use “to be” as an auxillary verb where English would use “to have”. When I learned that Bungi was now extinct my eyes pricked: Orkney words and forms made it all the way to Manitoba, and became part of a distinctive Métis culture, before losing ground to English, just as I’m worried Orcadian will.

I have a confusion around how to feel about all this. I’m hunting out traces of Orkney very consciously — when I visit a museum or a site, I look for the world, and I feel a little thrill when I see it. My home, now only 20,000 people, represented in this big prarie place under skies as big as those at home. There are probably more people with Orkney names in Winnipeg than in Orkney. But the traces I’m celebrating are also the traces of an enormously destructive settler-colonisation. When Scotland celebrates money-raising Homecoming events, it rarely talks in these terms; when we talk about Orkney-descended Métis, we’re talking about “marriages” under enormous gender and ethnic inequalities; when I find an Orkney placename, it’s taken the place of a name in Cree or Anishinaabemowin. I want to find a place of acknowledging these connections that recognises my place in them. I’m not trying to hunt out guilt, but I am trying to understand these names and words in a way that’s free from denial.

Signs outside Neechi Commons workers' co-op in downtown Winnipeg, with dirt lots and buildings surrounding it. Adverts right and left; central, and artwork with a picture of a human figure and the text: "niidaachag dahapii sinahae / niiya ngiigimoodiimiigo / my body was kidnapped / my spirit lives on"

Signs outside Neechi Commons workers’ co-op in downtown Winnipeg, with dirt lots and buildings surrounding it. Adverts right and left; central, and artwork with a picture of a human figure and the text: “niidaachag dahapii sinahae / niiya ngiigimoodiimiigo / my body was kidnapped / my spirit lives on”

A sunset over an ice-covered lake, black firs in the background and telegraph wires in the foreground.

Outriders: Following the Line

Outriders, Uncategorized

The Canadian, the transcontinental passenger line in Canada, running from Toronto to Vancouver, is pausing for a break in Armstrong, Ontario. There are a few wooden huts and dirt tracks, small heaps of spring snow, and all around us acres of fir and birch. I’ve been travelling on this train for nearly 24 hours now, with 12 to go: it’s the slow way to get around.

Since we left downtown Toronto at 11pm last night, with pink lights shooting up and around the CN tower like it’s in rehearsal for a role in a cyberpunk dystopia, we’ve been surrounded by these trees: acres and acres of forest, occasionally breaking into a small  railway settlement, quarry, logging site, derelict coal tower, solar farm, ghost town, or huge, ice-covered lake. The sky is big and grey, giving us just a couple of hours of blue, yellow, pink and gold for sunset.

About the sky and the trees I keep wanting to say “endless”, but of course it’s not true. There’s an illusion of infinity in a train like this, it’s own world, literally operating in its own timezone, surrounded by trees, as if it’s a journey that will go on forever through a landscape that goes on forever. It’s the inverse of the fractal infinity of my digital diary, where I can’t see the edges and each day is infinitely expandable, so I keep adding more appointments far beyond my limited capacity. And, in some ways, it’s the false infinity that drives colonisation and resource extraction: there’s enough land for everyone, so we’ll keep taking it; there’s enough coal and enough atmosphere, so we’ll keep burning it. But there are people, there are limits, and the journey ends somewhere.

A 70s-style passenger dome on The Canadian: brown leather seats, a curved plexiglass roof, trees, telegraph poles and huts whooshing past outside.

A 70s-style passenger dome on The Canadian: brown leather seats, a curved plexiglass roof, trees, telegraph poles and huts whooshing past outside.

I’ve spent most of the day sitting in the dome at the end of the dozen-carriage train. There’s curved glass on either side and above, brown leather seats and bright steel fittings. Below, there’s a small bar that served fizzy wine for a “Bon Voyage Reception” this morning. This car has been in operation since 1956. I was rocked to sleep in my roomette last night, a bit of cunning 70s sleeper design, with a neat bunk that pulls down over the leather seat and heavy-lidded toilet, and a window looking out over the passing trees.

I love faded grandeur and always have, and this train is exemplary. It’s the last passenger line left running the route, and today there are only 70 people on board, most paying a premium to get the faded luxury treatment with personable concierges, prestige seats at the front of the dome, free muffins, wine on a tray, and so on. The crowd is a mix of tourists (older and wealthy in the sleepers at the back, young and roughing it in the economy seats at the front), both Canadian and international, train enthusiasts and former train employees, plus an anabaptist family whose purple and green dresses have a patterned cloth I’m quite envious of, though not of the cut and the fabric. The majority of the traffic (and profit) on this route is made by freight, and freight takes priority: every so often we pause to let a couple of miles of shipping containers shoot past. We left before midnight so as to stay ahead of the high priority freight that leaves Toronto: it’s behind us and ensuring we keep to time the entire route, because if we ever end up behind it we’ll be travelling at slow freight speeds all the way to Vancouver.

Hornepayne, Ontario: a logging town. Various signs read "Government Lane Rd", "Senior Citizens Sunshine Club" and "Special Meeting Apr. 20th 1pm 2017Water & Sewer & Budget Review". Telegraph poles, dirt road and bare trees, corrugated sheeting huts, clouds and blue in the sky.

Hornepayne, Ontario: a logging town. Various signs read “Government Lane Rd”, “Senior Citizens Sunshine Club” and “Special Meeting Apr. 20th 1pm 2017Water & Sewer & Budget Review”. Telegraph poles, dirt road and bare trees, corrugated sheeting huts, clouds and blue in the sky.

At one point the host tells us that this passenger line is mandated by the constitution: when British Columbia joined, it required that it always be serviced by a passenger line to the east coast, and that clause has never been written out, even in the age of air travel. (Its building was also something of a political power-grab and money-making scheme for those involved.) But even if that clause is now symbolic, it’s clear that it’s not just sentimentality that keeps this passenger line running and government-subsidised: it’s called the Canadian, and even faded, even no longer needing most of the ghosted railway settlements along the track, it’s still a necessary symbol of Canada’s history as a settler-colonial state. It’s also no coincidence that each carriage (Dollard, Elgin, Dawson…) is named after British and French government and military men from an age of Canadian expansion.

The host talks about the process of building the line carriage by carriage across the hard rock and icy bog of the Canadian Shield: the carriage advances a carriage-length, digs in and lays down track, then advances a carriage-length. Later, before planes, before cars, and before extensive roads, the trains are what allow people to travel distances across the country, what link communities together, and what, for a while, bring employment to the small settlements along the track. Now, though, it’s only freight that really needs the trains here: North America has gone over, while the oil lasts, to freeways and air travel. I’m reminded of Felix Gilman’s book The Half-Made World, a semi-fantastical account of North American colonisation, where the industrial gothic force of “The Line” extends itself across desert and mountain, governed by sentient Engines who build tracks ahead of them, expanding and bringing time, bureaucracy, industry, hierarchy and order.

So this train is something very different from the long-distance trains of Europe. I’m used to train travel being an ordinary way of getting about: setting up as commuter lines has renewed the meanings of the railway within the contemporary economy. The romance of miniature railways or the steam Jacobite, given a little extra life by Harry Potter fans, is a long way from what railways now mean. But colonial romance is what the Canadian seems to have left as a passenger service, and having the passenger service helps to maintain the image of coloniality as a romance rather than as a crime. In the otherworld of the train, we’re travelling in luxury across infinite space.

The sun’s set now, and I can only just make out the trees against the blue-black sky, so I’m going to pull down my bunk and be rocked back to sleep.

The derelict Hornpayne station on the right; an abandoned coal tower on the left; centre, the Canadian train curving on its tracks into the distance. Grey sky above, grey gravel and concrete below.

The derelict Hornpayne station on the right; an abandoned coal tower on the left; centre, the Canadian train curving on its tracks into the distance. Grey sky above, grey gravel and concrete below.

An industrial landscape on the outskirts of Montreal: above, blue sky; below, blue water, in between, towers, motorways, bridges, cranes, tanks.

Outriders: Talking Languages

Outriders, Uncategorized


I’m on a train from Montréal to Toronto, watching big fields, big skies and small stations pass by. This is the journey starting properly: we’re about to take a two-day train from Toronto to Winnipeg. One without WiFi, by the way, so you won’t hear from me a bit. I’m planning to be off-grid in the “panorama car”, which sounds wonderful. We’ve been seen off on our way by a pair of big, rambling conversations across food and drink: last night with Natasha Kanapé Fontaine, an Innu poet who appeared at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2015, and this morning with Jonathan Lamy, a multi-disciplinary poet based in Montréal, and Rachel McCrum, poet and promoter formerly of Edinburgh and now living and working in Montréal too. We talked about language, politics, journeys, poetry, colonialism, and language, language, language.

English is the ground against which we’re talking, often. It’s the dominant language of globalisation, the language of the majority of the internet — as Jonathan says, “If people have English as a first language, they don’t think they have to learn another.” English has a colonising effect on indigenous languages (and on many languages worldwide) — as it asserts dominance, and it’s a language that eats languages — a linguaphage — incorporating parts of them into its body and discarding the rest. In Québec, French is dominant, but there’s a conscious resistance to English and necessary promotion of French to maintain this. Natasha and Katherena discuss how this defensiveness of French can make it harder for other minority and marginalised languages to survive.

I think about the erasure of dialect and language variety in the British Isles, both the deliberate education, cultural and socioeconomic policies that attacked the Celtic languages, and the standardisation processes which marginalise and extinguish class and regional variants. It’s a question that’s devilled the Scots language movement: although there have been various attempts at standardising Scots, at reconciling the huge gulf between Shetlandic and Glaswegian into one language, and although most of the tools are in place, we still don’t have one accepted standard, and the current dominant position is to teach Scots as a non-standardised language. Whether that’s to its benefit or not I just don’t know. It’s an experiment, to have a national language without a standard. Some of the same questions, Katherena says, are arising in different ways in indigenous language movements: Anishinaabemowin has many dialects with a common orthography, and can be taught differently in different places

When you look at the history of language standardisation in Europe, you start to see that it can’t be pulled apart from the process of settler-colonisation: whether it’s the English of London or the French of Paris, having a powerful version of the language that is “right” and “proper” is part of creating an identity that’s “best” and so has a right to dominate, to take. I wonder aloud, “Maybe the best thing for English would be the end of the UK and USA, so there’s no longer a state that needs a standard language. Then everyone could just speak bad English as the lingua franca, English as a second language, and maybe linguistic diversity would flourish again.” I rethink, “That’s not the most important reason to end the UK and USA, but–” “–it is a fun one!” says Katherena.


Katherena, Natasha and I (left to right) chatting by candlelight in a bar in Montréal: Else’s, founded by an elderly Norwegian punk.

Rachel talks about what it’s like to be learning to live in French. She says it’s humbling in a good way, to be in a social situation and not necessarily be good at the language. You have to concentrate, to work at it all the time. I’ve been fumbling my way through with my Standard Grade French for the last 24 hours, mumbling “merci” and “pardon” and attempting a broken French that has everyone switching to English is response. I think, too, about what it’s been like to relearn Orcadian: I have to dig back through layers of English and southern Scots to get to the language I was surrounded with when I was a child. All the words, structures and sounds are there, but I have to work to get back to them; they flow out fairly easily when I’m in Orkney, but when I’m away it’s hard to find them and hold on. The words slip away (I start to say “trousers” instead of “breeks”), then the sounds (“she” instead of “sheu”), then the grammar (“I have” instead of “A’m got”). But with digging it comes back.

At some point, when you learn a language, whether for the first time or relearning, your brain seems to switch over: you can talk and write and think without having to internally translate and interpret all the time. You have a new way of thinking. Sometimes this has radical differences to it: Anishinaabemowin is highly focussed on action and happening, using verbs with temporal inflections where English would often use adjectives. Gaelic only uses possessive determiners for inalieable possessions, like body parts, meaning that “my father” and “my book” have very different grammatical meanings. I’ve been watching and reading a lot of sci fi recently (for research, honest), and this idea is often taken to extremes there. In the recent film Arrival (SPOILERS), learning an alien language with circular expressions brings with it the ability to perceive time differently and, crudely, to see into the future. In Suzanne Elgin’s Native Tongue, attempting to learn non-humanoid alien languages causes infants to (gruesomely) self-destruct, while women creating their own language leads to a revolution into a new reality. These effects happen to readers to: in Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, the only personal pronoun is “per” (no “him” or “her”), which makes you see characters gendered very differently in your mind, just as gender has changed dramatically in the future. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice does something related, putting you in the mind of a lead character whose culture has no gender distinctions, rendered in English by using “her” for every character in every culture, however they are gendered.

Like many older languages, Orcadian has a number of grammatical distinctions lacking in English. We have “yin” as well as “this” and “that”, to indicate something that’s over there (like the Scots and Old English “thon”); we have a distinction between the gerund and the present participle, so that “A’m washan me washeen” rather than “washing my washing”. (Except, I’m told, in South Ronaldsay, because even somewhere as small as Orkney can have, or had, big distinctions between island dialects.) The modern standardised languages of European nation-states often smoothed over or simplified these distinctions over time. On an island you really need a pronoun for “all the way over there”; do you need it in a city? Will the internet give rise to new pronouns for “the thing on the other side of the world that I just saw”? And new ways of thinking to go with the grammar? Or will English keep simplifying into Globlish? I think, again, about sci fi: how common a trope it is for a planet, or even a whole species, just to have one language, which surely makes no sense on a planetary or galactic scale. Maybe all we’re getting is the simplified global Klingon and there’s actually all sorts of variation planetside. Or maybe the language future is staler than we might hope.

As I walk around Montréal, I also notice how different cities and cultures have their own languages of design, and thus different bodily ways of thinking. Sometimes it’s the same: a gentrifying block of flats looks the same even if it’s called a block of condos. Sometimes there are direct cognates: the recycling bin colours are different. Sometimes there are bigger changes in thinking and doing: at home, at crossroads, the pedestrian crossings mostly turn green at once, so that you can (if you’re quick) cut diagonally across; here, as in Europe, the vertical and horizontal crosswalks alternate, and cars can turn right on a red, slowing pedestrains right down. And sometimes the idea is untranslatable, like trying to explain to your body an American town where every shop has a car park and you can’t walk anywhere, especially when you’re from an island you can (and do) walk across in an hour or two.

These design languages have historical and political meanings: how cities grew is written in their street patterns. Hiroshima’s grid pattern remembers, and so does London’s maze. In Berlin, the cultural architecture of the city is in constant commemoration of both the Third Reich and the Wall. But in Britain, we barely see, or are in denial, of the things our streetnames, buildings and statues remember: slavery, imperialism, theft. Many towns in North America have a Colonial Road (or Rue). What would it be like to rewrite the city so that we stopped persistently forgetting? Rachel and I talk about how Scotland and Northern Ireland have, in recent years, got better at remembering our own histories: when I was at school we barely knew what the Clearances were, but younger folk I speak to now definitely do. But still, our stories tend to stop there: we know the Highlands were cleared, but we don’t talk about what happened next, and the clearing that cleared folk undertook in the Americas. New and old languages both need remembering, and remembering needs both new and old languages.