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Inuit in Aberdeen? February 13, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

kyak from aberdeen

We previously enjoyed a brief visit to eighteenth-century Orkney (Scotland) and the mysterious Finnmen there, usually identified as Inuit. Here is a record from further south that seems to describe something similar. The Rev Francis Gastrell included in his diary this detail of his visit to Aberdeen in 1760:

A canoe [pictured above] about seven yards long by two feet wide, which about thirty-two years since was driven into the Don with a man in it who was all over hairy, and spoke a language which no person there could interpret. He lived but three days, although all possible care was taken to recover him.

The arrival of an Inuit in Aberdeen harbour in 1728 would have been quite remarkable. The same story was being told about 1782.

A canoe, taken at sea with an Indian man in it, about the beginning of this century. He was brought alive to Aberdeen, but died soon after his arrival, and could give no account of himself. He is supposed to have come from the Labrador Coast, and to have lost his way at sea. The canoe is covered with fish skins, curiously stretched upon slight timbers, very securely joined together. The upper part of it is about twenty inches broad at the centre, and runs off gradually to a point at both ends. Where broadest, there is a circular hole, just large enough for the man to fit in, round which there is a kind of girth, about a foot high, to which he fixed himself, probably, when he did not use his oar, or paddle; which when he chose it, he stuck into some lists of skin, tied around the canoe, but slack enough, to let in the padle, and some other awkward utensils which were found stuck there. The canoe is about eighteen feet long, and slopes on both sides, but the bottom is flat for three or four inches in the middle and gradually sharpens as it  approaches the extremities till it ends in a point.

Note that the story changes slightly here. The Inuit was found at sea: where though?

Finally, exhibit three is the nineteenth century catalogue of the university records, the kayak is still in Aberdeen Museum: ‘Esquimaux Canoe, in which a native of that country was driven ashore near Belhelvie [to the north of Aberdeen] about the beginning of the eighteenth century and died soon after landing.’

These three accounts all provide problems. The first gives us an exact date but no detail about where the Inuit came ashore. The second and the third have become hopelessly vague about the date and then disagree about how the Inuit came to Aberdeen (in his boat or someone else’s). We have noted in a previous post the difficulty in believing that an Inuit could have some so far in a kayak, that are not usually well-greased enough for long distance ocean travel: this kayak incidentally probably came from West Greenland (say the experts). Also if this man really arrived in scholarly Aberdeen in 1728, surely this would have become a regional if not a national story. There has to be the suspicion that an Inuit was picked up by an Aberdeen boat in 1728 and then landed in Belhelvie shortly after dying. Or are kayaks capable of longer periods of ocean travel? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com Note there are also some oral legends that muddy the water still further.