The emigrant ship ‘Hector’ arrived in Pictou, Nova Scotia, on the 15th of September, 1773.
When you come across a town with the name of Pictou, you’d think for sure that the place was in Scotland; home of the Caledonian warrior race known to the invading Romans as the Pictii – the Painted People. But you’d be wrong – at least in part. The name Pictou might have come from the old French province of Poictou. On the other hand, it may have come from the indigenous Mikmaqs, who called the area Pictook, which apparently means ‘exploding gas’ – from the Foord seam in the Pictou Coalfield. Whatever the origins of its name, there is a real Scottish connection as the place is known as ‘the birthplace of New Scotland’. Pictou got that label, because it was a key destination for many emigrant Scots. The Canadian-Scottish Diaspora before, during and after the Highland Clearances, has been termed ‘the Great Scottish Immigration’.
The first Scottish immigrants to Canada are said to have arrived in Pictou in 1773, on board the ‘Hector’, but there had been Scots in Nova Scotia long before then, as well as English and French and Irish. In 1621, James VI & I granted a large area of the north-eastern coast of North America to the Earl of Stirling, Sir William Alexander of Menstrie. The King’s Royal Charter, written in Latin, of course, is where the name of Nova Scotia comes from. In 1629, the Earl’s son, also Sir William, set off for Port Royal “with a fleet of four vessels containing seventy men and two women.” They established their settlement at what is now called Annapolis Royal, but during its first winter, thirty of them perished due to “scurvy and other diseases.” The remainder were ‘sold down the river’ by the combination of the Treaty of Susa and French promises to pay up on Queen Henrietta’s dowry. In 1631, Charles I told the Earl of Stirling to hand Acadia back to the French and so the Earl had to remove his people and order them “to leave the bounds thereof altogether waste and unpeopled as it was when his son first landed there.”
In 1660, the French trader, Nicolas Denys, christened the harbour ‘La reviere de Pictou’ after he had been given sole exploratory rights to the Gulf of St. Lawrence territory from Canso to the Gaspe, including Cape Breton Island and the islands. A century or so later, in 1767, the year after the Philadelphia Company of Pennsylvania was awarded 200,000 acres via the ‘Philadelphia Grant’, six families of English settlers arrived to establish the first British settlement in what is now Pictou County. In 1770, the adjacent ‘McNutt’ or ‘Irish Grant’ was abandoned, but by January of that year, there were 120 ‘souls’ living in Pictou and ready to greet the arrival of the ‘first’ Scots. Amongst those is said to have been surveyor, John Patterson, who is credited with being the founder of Pictou, but funnily enough, there was a John Patterson amongst the folks who sailed from Scotland.
The ‘Hector Scots’ were enticed to Pictou by the Rev. John Witherspoon, born in East Lothian and famous as one of the Scottish signatories of the United States Declaration of Independence, after having emigrated in 1768. Witherspoon, with John Pagan, a merchant from Greenock, and some others from Pennsylvania, bought land rights in Pictou and hired a guy called John Ross, from Loch Broom, to act as their agent. Ross offered free passage, a year’s worth of free provisions and a farm to attract settlers. Ten people boarded at Greenock, and 179 at Loch Broom; the total comprising 23 families and 25 single men. One of the latter was an unnamed piper, who went aboard the ‘Hector’ at the last minute. According to Donald MacKay, in his ‘Scotland Farewell: The People of the Hector’, the settlers were poor and “illiterate crofters and artisans from Northern [Scotland], who only spoke Gaelic.” However, one passenger was the school teacher, William McKenzie, who spoke both Gaelic and English. There are other reports that the would-be settlers included “farmers, artisans, gentlemen’s sons, and herders.”
The ‘Hector’ was a full-rigged (three-masted), 85 foot, 200 ton Dutch Fluyt, which had already seen 20 years’ service as a cargo vessel. Owned by Pagan and captained by John Spears, it had also already been used to carry a batch of Scots emigrants to Boston in 1770. However, its departure from Loch Broom, on or about the 8th of July, 1773, signalled its maiden voyage to Canada. An ex-cargo ship wasn’t the best means of crossing the Atlantic, even for folks from the West of Scotland who were used to boats and the sea. Instead of the anticipated six weeks, the voyage took eleven weeks, during which the ancient, rotting boat was battered by storms, with one gale, off Newfoundland, causing a 14-day delay. The passengers, too, were beaten down by the conditions. Over a third of those huddled in the wet and stinking hold aboard the Hector were below the age of eight. Tragically, smallpox and dysentery claimed the lives of 18 infants and children, although there is a story that those who survived included a baby born on the voyage.
The Hector landed at Brown’s Point, west of present-day Pictou, on the 15th of September, 1773, with the poor, surviving emigrants from Scotland struggling ashore to the skirl of the bagpipes. They may have been greeted by John Patterson, but that was all they got; a hearty welcome. They didn’t get the promised year’s supply of provisions and there weren’t any homes or even shelters built. Nor was there land cleared and waiting and, on the cusp of autumn, it was well past the time for planting crops. In fact, the lands allocated to the immigrants were three miles off in what was still forest. Keen on fishing, just as they’d been able to do back in Loch Broom, the settlers refused those lands and, when supplies did arrive, Witherspoon’s men refused in turn to hand them over. Deceived and cruelly dealt with, the Scots might well have said, “We’ll nae stand fer that!” and seized the meager stores.
As a descendent of the ‘Hector Scots’, Alexander MacKenzie, wrote years later, in 1883, “Most of them sat down in the forest and wept bitterly; hardly any provisions were possessed by the few who were before them, and what there was among them was soon devoured.” Of the 180 people that arrived in Pictou onboard the ‘Hector’, only 78 were to be counted at Pictou the following year. In a history of Nova Scotia by Peter Landry, a Professor Bailyn is referenced having estimated that, in 1774, there were a total of sixteen families at Pictou. By November of 1775, there were 53 families. Some of the Loch Broom arrivals had moved on to more settled parts of the province, but an intrepid bunch toughed it out and, from the uncultivated wilderness, carved out their new existence, clearing the forest and planting crops.
In the hundred years following the arrival of the ‘Hector’ more than 120 ships brought nearly 20,000 settlers from Scotland to Pictou. By 1879, more than ninety-three percent of the region’s rural property owners were of Scottish extraction. Today, it is estimated that there are more than 140,000 descendants of the ‘Hector Scots’ living in Canada and the United States. An exact replica of the ‘Hector’ is now moored in Pictou Harbour. It was rebuilt to the exact specification of the original vessel and launched on Saturday, the 16th of September, 2000.