Duncan Pryde


Duncan Pryde


Duncan Pryde, a tough 18-year-old orphan and ex-merchant- seaman, left Glasgow to try his hand at fur-trading in the far north of Canada. His initiation into the realities of Eskimo life – the drink, the murderous blood feuds and the casual violence – reads with all the gripping pace of a thriller.

The environment suited him, and Pryde spent ten years becoming totally absorbed in this new life, even its most intimate manifestations. He learned to hunt seals and polar bears, witnessed the power of shamans, participated in wife-exchange and even ran his own dog sled.

His record of life in the Arctic is not only an astonishing adventure but also an unrivalled record of a way of life which, along with the igloo, has vanished forever.

‘... one of the best books about Arctic life ever written.’ - Sunday Times
‘He tells stories, which he seems to have been born to do.’- Time Magazine
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Nunaga: Ten Years Among the Eskimos
ISBN: 978-0907871-63-7
Format: 304pp demi pb
Place: Canada/Arctic

Author Biography

Duncan Pryde was born in Scotland in 1937 and spent much of his childhood in a series of orphanages, before joining the merchant navy at fifteen. Dismissed three years later with eye trouble, he answered a newspaper advertisement placed by the Hudson’s Bay Company, looking for fur traders for the far north of Canada. Thus opened out a completely new chapter in Pryde’s life. As Nunaga shows, Pryde discovered a place for which he was perfectly suited. It was said of him that he "thinks and measures and becomes part of his environment just like an Eskimo." The Hudson’s Bay Company hailed him as the greatest trader of his generation, despite consistently marking him down for being too keen on the women! When Time magazine ran a long story on the Canadian Arctic in 1969, they put Pryde on the cover.

What Nunaga does not tell is that despite an education which didn’t go much beyond the elementary, he became the greatest living expert on Inuit langauges and dialects, and that his ambition was to write a comprehensive dictionary and grammar of the language as spoken in the Central Arctic. His lack of discipline for indoor tasks however, meant that he barely got past the letter A, though even that ran to over 280 pages.

Duncan Pryde died in the Isle of Wight in 1997, working on the letter B and telling the doctors he needed four more years to complete the project. He ran a shop called "Pryde of Cowes" and lived at 6 Arctic Road.


Extract from Chapter One

Twenty minutes north of the mouth of the River of Strangers, and past the bleak settlement the whiteman calls Churchill, the plane passed over the last few stunted trees, and we entered the Barren

Grounds. Below us swept a filigree of wind-scudded lakes and naked land, so intermeshed that it was difficult to know whether we were crossing a vast lake clotted with innumerable islands or a vast land clotted with innumerable lakes. On that autumn afternoon a haze lay over the land, even in the sunlight. Except for a narrow ruff of cloud around the horizon the sky was clear and blue.

The plane pitched and tossed in the wind. Inside it was cool but not too uncomfortable now that the engine heat was warming up the cockpit. I took off my moccasin rubbers and flexed my toes, grateful for the stream of warm air that flowed around my feet. The pilot raised his eyes from the map spread out on his lap and glanced at me.


‘Not too bad now,’ I answered, raising my voice against the noisy engine.

He grinned. ‘The old Anson takes a while to warm up. They’re not built for comfort . . . But if you think this is cold just wait until winter comes.’

The radio crackled and the pilot reached forward to adjust a knob, then began speaking into the microphone. The steady thunder of the engine drowned his voice and I turned my attention to the land.

Below lay the Barren Grounds – the interior of the Arctic continent north of the tree line. Even in late summer this region looked bleak and utterly desolate, a blotchy brown flatland devoid of life, a vast panorama of emptiness, so bleak and so desolate that it possessed its own unique beauty. It was a rugged country where blizzards battered the land in winter and mosquitos held undisputed sway in summer.

In 1958 it was almost trackless as far as the whiteman knew. Its native inhabitants were nomadic Eskimos, barely out of the Stone Age.

A few whitemen had penetrated the interior – explorers, traders, missionaries carrying their faith to a pagan people, members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and a scattered handful of trappers. In recent years the Canadian government had belatedly discovered the Arctic and a trickle of government personnel followed the pioneers.

Another crackle from the radio distracted my attention from the Barrens. The plane had warmed up considerably. I loosened the safety belt and unzipped my parka.

The pilot leaned forward again and switched off the set. He pushed the earphones back off his head, running his fingers through his straight fair hair.

‘That was Baker Lake,’ he commented. ‘They’re reporting unlimited visibility but the wind is gusting to thirty-five. This headwind is holding us up some but we should be there about four o’clock . . . If you are with the Bay I guess you’ll be staying with old Sandy Lunan, the manager there. He’s been in charge of the trading post at Baker for the last century or so. He’s a pretty good old head . . . May take a bit of getting used to. They say he runs everything by the clock.’

I shifted in my seat and peered ahead, wondering about this man Lunan and how we would get on with each other. Three years trading for the Hudson’s Bay Company had accustomed me to working with different managers and a variety of idiosyncrasies, for it was standard practice for the young men of the fur trade to be transferred frequently. An apprentice, in fact, rarely stayed more than six or seven months at one trading post before being moved to another. This was sound policy as it gave an apprentice the opportunity to gain broad experience in all phases of the operation. One manager might be skilled in the grading and purchase of pelts – the backbone of Company operations in the North; another acknowledged for his adept handling of the native people; yet another noted for his accurate accounts, and so on through the spectrum of the specialised needs of the fur trade. The skills and knowledge of each individual manager were expected to pass to the apprentice, so that when he was promoted to the charge of his own post he would have the background necessary for the competent operation of a business far removed from the control of a central office. Realistically, too, the Company recognised that too much time with the same person in an isolated trading post often led to a clash of personalities.

I mused on as we flew toward Baker Lake. The wind buffeted the plane, but I hardly noticed it as my mind went back over the three years I had spent in the bush. Three good, fruitful, learning years. Three years since I had first noticed the advertisement in the Sunday Post back in Scotland in 1955.

‘Fur traders wanted for the far north,’ the headline of the advertisement had read, ‘ . . . single, ambitious, self-reliant young men wanted . . . far north of Canada . . . must be prepared to live in isolation . . . willing to learn native language . . . fur trade . . . salary: $135.00 per month.’

I remembered walking down Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow to attend the interview. I had never heard of the Hudson’s Bay Company before that interview, and my only knowledge of fur traders had been a vague notion, based on motion pictures, that they lived in ramshackle log cabins close by a palisaded fort which was constantly attacked by marauding Indians. But fact or fiction, this was attraction enough for an eighteen-year-old.

Having been brought up in orphanages in various parts of Scotland, I had entered the merchant navy at the age of fifteen. Three years later, after an accident to my left eye, I had been forced to resign. I had been working in a Singer sewing machine factory, thoroughly fed up, when I saw the Hudson’s Bay advertisement. My first three years with the Company had been spent fur trading with the Cree and Ojibway Indians in northern Manitoba and Ontario – a life I found too soft and civilised for my liking. I actually resigned from the Company. After a summer of commercial fishing at Lake St Joe, near Pickle Lake, I had rejoined the Company on condition that I be transferred to the Arctic.

The pilot’s voice again broke into my thoughts. ‘That’s Sugarloaf Hill,’ he said, pointing out a distinctive flat-topped hill ahead of us. ‘You can see the settlement from there. We should be down in about five minutes.’

The flatlands farther back had given way to low, rolling country. Gentle hills and broad valleys punctuated by ponds and small lakes now passed beneath the plane. Apart from the lack of trees, we could almost have been flying over the Lowlands of Scotland. This variation in topography surprised me. The pictures I had seen of the Arctic had usually shown fur-clad figures with dogteams in the midst of a flat expanse of ice and snow, the horizon a perfectly straight line in the background. It was clear already that my preconceived notions about the Arctic were no more reliable than had been my preconceived ideas about the Indians in the bush country.

A light rain began to fall as we passed Sugarloaf, and within moments water on the cockpit window obscured the view. The sky was suddenly grey; the plane rolled and shuddered in gusts of wind. We passed over the angry waters of Baker Lake.

The lake was in a turmoil. Everywhere to the east, as far as I could see out of the side window, ponderous rollers heaved across the surface of the lake and smashed along the windward shoreline. Close inshore the water was a muddy brown, but out in the open the seas were a sullen grey-black broken only by whitecaps and long streamers of spume. Several islands and reefs, almost smothered in foam, winked through the rain, then vanished behind us. The utter gloom and starkness of the scene took my breath away.

The plane came upon the settlement so suddenly that I was caught by surprise. We shot across it at a height of three hundred feet, and I just had time for one confused glimpse of a long low-slung building before the plane banked to the left. Craning past the pilot, I could see the settlement in its entirety – a score of houses sprawled along the edge of the lake, and a muddy road glistening in the rain. Above the houses, on the slope of a hill, a string of tents flapped in the wind and rain. Outside them, little clusters of people waved as we swept overhead. Eskimos!

Farther on we passed a neat compound of buildings painted in the familiar white and red colours of the Hudson’s Bay Company. We began our descent.

Two and a half hours later it was still stormy, but I didn’t care. Supper was over. The sound of dishes being washed came from the kitchen to mingle with the patter of rain and the creaking of the house. The very violence of the storm outside seemed to make the living room all the more warm and comfortable.

Relaxed after a heavy meal of caribou stew, I stretched luxuriously, arching my body against the back of the chesterfield, but careful not to make too much noise. To my right Sandy Lunan dozed quietly in an armchair, his feet up on a cushion. He was probably pushing sixty, but he carried his years well. Even in his sleep he appeared well conditioned. I had expected a more rugged-looking individual, one whose face would reflect years of opposing the elements, but no lines were etched in the face of this man. He had an unwrinkled face, almost babyish in its smoothness. He even lacked the telltale crowsfeet around the eyes that were so common a feature of the old-timers in the bush, and his wispy moustache served only to accentuate the essential youthfulness of his appearance. When we met beside the plane he had been wearing a parka and a leather helmet, but now he was dressed in a Harris tweed jacket and grey slacks and looked more like a well-to-do country squire than a veteran Arctic fur trader. The country squire effect was heightened by the tawny dog which lay at his feet, snuffling in a dream.

As I watched him the clock chimed seven. Sandy stirred and opened his eyes. He sat up and rubbed his hands over his face.

‘Hello there . . . Does a man good to have a wee sleep after supper, you know.’ He cocked his head, listening to the wind for a moment. ‘Let’s hope it’s not like this at ship-time next week.’

‘When the supply ship brings all the freight for the post?’ ‘That’s right,’ he answered. ‘It’s due at Chesterfield Inlet the day after tomorrow, so it should be here some time next week. That’s why all the Eskimos are in the settlement. They always come in for ship-time, but they don’t hang around long after the ship leaves. They’ll make their fall trade and take off for the land and their traps, and we won’t see most of them again until Christmas.’

He got up, stretched and walked over to the heater. ‘Some of them will be back in after freeze-up to trade their deerskins – especially if they have a good fall hunt. We should get quite a few skins this year if the caribou stay put. We’re right in the middle of caribou country here. That’s why the Eskimos in this area are called the Caribou Eskimos. Caribou! That’s all the Eskimos ever think about. It’s their only food – straight meat. No vegetables at all except maybe a can or two of dried onions from the store . . . Every lake is packed with trout and whitefish, but the Eskimos won’t eat them unless they’re on the verge of starvation, and don’t think we haven’t had plenty of that around here!’

I was incredulous. ‘But why, if there’s lots of caribou and fish? Can’t they set nets?’

‘Sure,’ Sandy replied. ‘But by the time they’re all out of other grub, the ice is eight feet thick on the lakes and it’s almost impossible to set a net without a jigger. We had a jigger in here once and showed the Eskimos how to use it to string a net under the ice, but no one ever bothered to make one. Why bother fishing when there are caribou – that’s their philosophy. Some years the caribou migration swings out around Baker Lake and the Eskimos have a tough winter. The caribou aren’t gone – they’re just not within hunting range. If a herd passes within twenty miles of a camp and the Eskimo isn’t out hunting, then the caribou might as well have passed a million miles away for all the good they’re going to do him. The only people who do any real fishing are those who live in the settlement. Naigo, our post servant, works a net all summer and fall and gets enough fish to keep him in dog food most of the year. That way he can save the caribou meat for his family instead of using it all up on his dogs. A good-sized team of dogs will go through a caribou every two days, and then the Eskimos wonder why they run out of meat!’

Sandy Lunan had a basic honesty and straightforwardness that I found appealing; even more important to a newcomer like myself, he went out of his way to make me feel at home. Some traders work well with their subordinates and a true partnership evolves so that their day to day dealings with each other become pleasant and companionable. Others, especially the older ones who have become set in their ways, are more difficult to get along with, and sometimes the relationship between the two men degenerates to the point where life becomes a misery for both of them. Over a period of months the slightest fault or smallest quirk can become magnified out of all proportion.

Sandy Lunan was clearly a man of fixed habits, but he had the warm personality and openness that promotes a convivial atmosphere. I rather doubted that we would have any major clashes during the time we would spend together on the Baker Lake trading post.

When the Eskimos came in next morning, Sandy was checking through the official mail in an alcove of the living room that he used as an office, and I was reading on the chesterfield. We heard the murmur of voices in the porch first; then the front door opened and a babble of noise came down the hallway.

Sandy pushed back his chair and stood up. He took off his reading glasses and rubbed his eyes, then looked across the room at me. He smiled and said, ‘Well, I suppose we should go out and show you off to the people. There’s no trading today, so I guess they just came in to meet you. They’ll do that every time I get a new clerk.’

We went down the hallway and into the native room. It was almost overflowing with people. Women and children sat flat-legged on the floor, crowded against the people around them. One woman was nursing a baby at her breast. The men were packed on the bench alongside the table; others perched on the table itself, while the rest stood against the wall. Everyone was talking and laughing. A smell of unwashed bodies hung in the air.

Sandy looked at them for a moment, smiling, then shouted something in a gruff but good-natured voice. The hubbub stopped, and beaming faces turned towards us. Sandy said something else, speaking in guttural syllables that I could not understand, then pointed his thumb at me. The people all stared in my direction and laughed, then one old woman rose laboriously to her feet and answered Sandy in the same guttural tongue. I stood there with an idiotic grin of incomprehension on my face. She stopped speaking, and more laughter went around the room.

Sandy smiled broadly. He put his arm across my shoulders and explained, ‘I told them we come from the same country, and the only difference between you and me is that you are a lot younger and maybe a bit better tempered.’ He added: ‘Then the old woman said that you didn’t look too bad tempered but you did look too skinny and maybe she should adopt you so that you could be fattened up a bit!’

Still laughing and giggling, the Eskimos surged forward to shake my hand, and Sandy and I were almost engulfed in the crush of people.

The Eskimo handshake is quite different from the whiteman’s, and there was considerable fumbling before I caught on to the difference. My hand was lightly clasped by each Eskimo, then raised almost to eye level before being released. No firm grip to denote masculine strength. No pumping of each other’s hand. And the ceremony was not confined to adults. After a mother or father had shaken hands with me, each child in the family shook hands with me too.

Sandy told me the name of each person as we shook hands, but the unfamiliar sounds and syllables were too difficult for me to remember, and my stumbling attempts to pronounce them gave the Eskimos some- thing more to laugh about. I felt then that my decision to transfer to the Arctic division of the Company had been a good one.

The noise and laughter continued while we had a mug-up. Akomalik, the woman who had served us dinner the night before, brought in the kettles of tea and boxes of hardtack at Sandy’s request. Afterwards Sandy and I went outside and sat on an upturned canoe on the beach in front of the house. A few mosquitos foraged around our heads, and we put up our parka hoods to ward off the more persistent of them. The sun was warm on our faces and the breeze mild. A few hundred yards offshore the Company canoe bobbed in the swell as two Eskimos filled the water barrel.

Sandy pointed toward them: ‘They’re very helpful that way. In all the years I’ve been here, I’ve never known them to refuse help to anyone. If one family runs out of grub while another has some, then the well-off family always chips in to help them out. Survival by mutual aid, definitely. They will share just about everything except what they get from trapping. That’s the only exception I know. They rarely eat alone unless they are out on the land, far away from other people, and they have about a dozen mug-ups a day – everyone is invited. Actually, that leads to problems when we issue relief. A family receives a ration of grub when they are hard up, then they invite the whole neighbourhood in for a mug-up, and before you can turn around they’re flat out of grub again. They would rather offer it to others than have themselves thought stingy.’

The interior of the store was cool and the light poor. As Sandy switched on an additional light, I threw back my parka hood to get a better look at the place where I would spend most of my working time at the Baker Lake post.

It was a typical fur-trade store of the Hudson’s Bay Company – very similar to those I had served at in the bush country, and not much different from any small general store in the South. The room was only about twenty feet square but it held a wide variety of trade goods on shelves around three of the walls and in an alcove on the far side. A long wooden counter extended along two walls, separated from the shelves by a space of two or three feet. Pots and pans hanging from hooks in the ceiling gave a cluttered effect to the otherwise neat layout of the store.

The lack of a heater of any kind caught my attention and I commented on the fact to Sandy, wondering what it would be like to trade with the Eskimos at sixty below zero.

‘Don’t let it worry you,’ Sandy replied with a broad smile. ‘You’ll soon get used to it. We’ll toughen you up and make an Arctic man of you. Look!’ He gestured around the shelves. ‘Flour, sugar, tea, ammunition, traps, all basic stuff. Eskimo stuff, trade goods. We’re not set up to handle whites here. This is a trading post, not a supermarket. And what’s the point of heating the store when the Eskimos only come in to trade two or three times a year? Think how much it would cost to keep this place heated day in day out throughout the year!’