A remarkable story connecting Orcadian and Cree First Nations people. It all starts in the small valley of Rackwick, now home to a handful but in late 19th century, when our story begins, there were many more and some were looking west to start a new life.
William Sinclair Ritch was born in 1852 at Midhoose in Rackwick (above), the youngest of nine children born to Thomas Ritch. William’s mother was Thomas’ second wife, Ann Sinclair. By the age of 16 Willie goes to the herring fishing, and at 18 sails to the Baltic with a cargo of herring. He joins his brother Captain John Ritch for life at sea. A year later he was a deckhand on the Hudson’s Bay Company ship the Ladyhead, and he sailed for Moose Factory, Hudson Bay, Canada.
Like many Orkney men, William Sinclair Ritch (1852-1932) left the islands for Canada’s Nor’ Wast to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company. He worked in fur trading posts around the James Bay area, 3,000 miles from Hoy.
Left: Alberta fur trader 1890 Photograph by C.W. Mathers and Ernest Brown Wikimedia commons
William wrote a short autobiography, we have used his words in italics.
‘I came to Moose factory to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company (1872) and I was three years there. I was then transferred to Fort Albany on the Albany River and I worked as store keeper for ten years there and I got married to one Sophie Winne, the children’s mother and all my children was born there. Only John, he was born at Martens Falls. In l885 I went to Martens Falls where John was born, and was ten years there for the Hudson’s Bay Company. It was there where my wife was drowned along with another woman, while crossing the river above the head of a rapid in l888.‘
In Canada, with his Cree wife Sophia Wynn, he had five children: Thomas Sinclair, Williamena, Isaac, Margaret Ann and John before Sophia tragically drowned in a canoe accident.
Photograph of William and family from the University of Aberdeen Material Histories website which explores the Scots and First Nation connections in the Canadian Fur Trade. Visit the website here.
‘In 1895 I was sent on to Fort Hope where I was eight years. I then went down the Albany River to Albany and John with me. All the rest of my family got married at Fort Hope, only Isaac who was working along the line. Sinclair married at Fort Hope and Margaret Ann married John Goodwin and Willimina married at Moose factory to a man William Miller to name.
John and I travelled on to Charlton Island and thence to Moose factory and back to Albany where we both stayed until the Spring when we went to Moose factory by dog team, in March, 1904, and we both stayed there until navigation opened when we travelled by boat to Abitibi for the Hudson’s Bay Company, where I stayed six years for the great company.’
Left: a photograph from William’s album
‘John got married for two years or so and had one baby, but there was an epidemic of measles going around and John’s wife and baby died from it. Shortly after John went to Fort Hope in the Hudson’s Bay Company’s employ at that post. I stayed on at Abitibi until February of 1910 when I travelled out to North Bay by dog team part of the way and by horse team another part, and finally by rail, and remained there until the first of June when I went back to Abitibi.‘
‘I did not keep my health and decided to retire from the Hudson’s Bay Company service after serving them for thirty-eight years. In the meantime, John at Fort Hope had married. Well I decided to retire to Orkney and spend the remainder of my days there in my native country, so I left Abitibi and went out once more to North Bay, but this time I say good-bye to the great company’.
William stayed while his children grew up and settled then retired from the HBC and returned to Orkney. When William returned to Rackwick four decades after leaving, he did not recognise his brother: ‘there was a good lot of changes since I went away from Orkney.’ His brother and sister James and Barbara were living at Midhoose. William moved in with his brother Isaac at Quholm – a house that had been built by his brother Captain John Ritch.
Many decades later Quholm was renamed as Bunnertoon and became the home of the composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Max made Rackwick his home for several decades. Find out more here.
Photograph taken by Gunnie Moberg
In his sixties, William married Mima Nicholson, who had a grown son, James. Mima and William worked the family croft at Midhoose for several years.
‘When my brother James and Barbra died, I took over the house and married a wife by the name of Mima Nicolson, now Mrs. W. S. Ritch. I lived there from 1915 until 1923 and worked the farm while we were there as I wished to have my father ‘s house for a time.’
In 1920 the Hudson’s Bay Company, to commemorate 250 years trading, awarded medals to long serving employees. A silver medal for 15 years service and a gold medal for 30 years service with bars for every further 5 years’ service. While at Midhoose William received his medal.
‘…a gold medal and bar with an expression of gratitude for and appreciation of loyal service. The letter accompanying the gold medal says in part – “On behalf of the Governor and Committee in London, I am to convey to you the Company’s best wishes and its appreciation of the valued and faithful service you have rendered the Company.”‘
Far right: medal similar to William’s from the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Manitoba Archives.
In 1923 after they left Midhoose in Rackwick, William and Mima moved to Orgil Cottage just along the road from Hoy Heritage Centre at Hoy Kirk. There they ran a guest house offering ‘Refreshments and Apartments’ and must have been one of the earliest tourist offerings in Hoy.
William’s photograph album records some of their visitors. Many were hill walkers and botanists.
Mima’s son James went to work for Trumland House in Rousay and married a local girl, Cilla Corsie. They had 8 children. One of them, Vera, would come to be the keeper of William’s photograph albums. She remembers her ‘Grands’. Over in Canada his 5 children had given him many grandchildren. With his Orcadian step family and his Canadian family he had 35 grandchildren.
William died in 1932 at the age of 79 having travelled from Hoy to Hudsons Bay and back.
He spent his youth in Rackwick, left his family croft as a young man and voyaged to make a new life in the Nor’Wast. There he worked for the HBC and met his Cree wife. They created an Orcadian First Nations family and had 13 years together before she tragically died. After his children had settled he left his family in Canada to return to the valley and work the family croft he left nearly four decades earlier. In his sixties he remarried becoming a step father and grandfather. He died a few miles from where he was born, an old man who had travelled 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean with families on both sides.
The last words of his autobiography read:
‘and now I pray that God will bless all my dear children.’
The Orcadian printed a tribute to William saying, ‘the spirit of adventure ran high in his blood… He was one of the stalwarts of the stalwart pioneers, facing hardship, danger, even death itself, without flinching. His passing leaves a blank in the community of Hoy that will never be filled. The sympathy of the islanders will go out to the widow at home and the family beyond the seas, who mourn a loving husband and a kind and generous father.’ The Orcadian newspaper 24 March 1932
Vera Sclater, William’s granddaughter by marriage, kept her Grands (as she called her grandfather) photograph albums, camera and letters. The photographs are from these albums.
Vera is shown here, at her home in Stromness, with Neil Leask (whose grandmother’s aunt was Mima, William’s second wife) looking through William’s photograph albums and his writing box.
Vera remembers visiting her grandfather and grandmother at Orgil Cottage with Ward Hill rising up behind it: ‘I just used to think that hill would fall right on top of me’.
Following the death William’s second wife Mima, William’s eldest daughter Williamena wrote from Moosonee, Ontario, to Vera’s mother requesting to have her father’s medal sent to her in Canada. Williamena had not wanted to ask while her father’s second wife was alive.
My Dear Mrs Nicholson,
Just a few lines to ask if you will kindly send me my Dad’s HBC Badge for long service and anything like a Mason pin or anything belong to him. When my Step Mother lived I didn’t think it would be right to get it while she lived. Then the war, that’s the reason I did not ask for it sooner. Let me know how much it will cost so I can send it to you. I would very much like to have it.
I hope you and your good man are well and your children. I will be hoping to hear from you soon.
I do not know you all the same I would like to get a letter from you.
So I must close for this time I will close.
I am yours truly, Williamena Miller
Further letters show that the request was fulfilled and William’s Hudson’s Bay Company Long Service gold medal was sent back to his eldest daughter in Canada.
During the University of Aberdeen material Histories project, Dr Alison Brown was able to contact some of William’s descendants. Visit the website here to meet Sammy Goodwin and Delphine Vincent, William Sinclair Ritch’s great, great grandchildren. Sammy is descended from William’s daughter Margaret Anne (Annie) and Delphine is descended from William’s son Issac.
Shelley O’Kees, the great, great granddaughter of William got in touch with us at Hoy Heritage Centre. We were thrilled when Shelley sent us this photograph of her grandfather and grandmother Walter & Charlotte. Walter was the son of John Ritch and Emma. Shelley says:’We have both Ojibwe and Cree blood from the Ritch side, and of course the Scots. We also have Sioux that comes from my father’s side.’
We hope this exhibition can lead to further contact with Williams descendants in Canada and with other First Nation families with connections to Hoy. Please contact us here.
You can find out more about the connections between Orcadians and the Hudson’s Bay Company and the families of Orcadians and First Nations people in this presentation from the curator at Stromness Museum, Janette Park.
Here are two films from the National Film Board of Canada
This short documentary traces the history of the fiddle’s arrival in Canada 300 years ago via Scottish traders from Orkney Island. The Cree population of what is now Northern Québec adopted the instrument, and many contemporary Cree residents are master fiddlers. In this film, two Cree fiddlers travel to the Orkney Islands, the birthplace of the music they learned from their fathers and grandfathers. The film captures the warmth and good will of this reunion.
The Hudson’s Bay Company’s 300th-anniversary celebration in 1970 was no occasion for joy among the people whose lives were tied to the trading stores. Narrated by George Manuel, then president of the National Indian Brotherhood, this landmark film presents Indigenous perspectives on the company whose fur-trading empire drove colonization across vast tracts of land in central, western and northern Canada. There is a sharp contrast between the official celebrations, with Queen Elizabeth II among the guests, and what Indigenous people have to say about their lot in the Company’s operations. Released in 1972, the film was co-directed by Martin Defalco and Willie Dunn—a member of the historic Indian Film Crew, an all-Indigenous production unit established at the NFB in 1968.
A timeline of William’s life
1852 – William Sinclair Ritch is born at Midhouse, Rackwick youngest of nine children born to Thomas Ritch of Midhouse (b.1800). Willie’s mother is Thomas’ second wife Ann Sinclair of Old Shore (b. Graemsay1810).
1868 – aged 16 Willie Ritch goes to the herring fishing.
1870 / 1871 – He sails to the Baltic with a cargo of herring for Germany and returns with a cargo of grain to Leith. Sails with his brother Captain John Ritch.
1871 – Willie works as a deckhand on the Hudson’s Bay Company ship the Ladyhead, he sails for Moose Factory, Hudson Bay, Canada and back to London.
1872 – Willie returns to Moose Factory and works for the Hudson’s bay Company there for 3 years.
1875 – He is transferred to Fort Albany where he works as a storekeeper for 10 years.
1875-1885 – Willie marries Sophia Wynn, a Cree woman, they have five children: Thomas Sinclair (b.1879); Wilhelmina (known as Minnie b.1881); Margaret Anne (known as Annie); Isaac (b. 1884) and John Wombells (b.1885)
1885 – The family move to Marten Falls. John is born.
1888 – Sophie tragically drowns in a canoe accident. In one account it is said she was pregnant.
1895 – Willie transfers to Fort Hope, works there for 8 years.
1902 – He transfers to Albany with son John. By now all his other children have settled and married Cree and Ojibwe partners. Issac marries Emma Atlookan, Thomas Sinclair marries Frances, Margaret Anne marries Alfred Goodwin and Wilhemina marries William Miller.
1902 – 1904 – Willie and John travel to Charlton Island, Moose factory and back to Albany and then Abitibi.
1904 – 1910 – Willie works in Abitibi for 6 years. John marries and has a child only to lose them both to measles. John then moves to Fort Hope where he remarries and he and Emma have a family of 12.
1910 – Willie travels to North Bay and back to Abitibi before retiring aged 58 from the HBC after working for them for 38 years. He has failing health and decides to return to Orkney encouraged by Nathanial McKenzie, the HBC Inspecting Chief Factor. He travels to North Bay then takes the train to Montreal before taking the steamer Ionia to Glasgow, the train to Thurso then the ferry to Stromness. He returns to Rackwick.
1910 – 1914 – Willie lives with his brother Issac at Quolm (now Bunnertoon), Rackwick. (Quolm or Quholme was built by his brother Captain John Ritch when he retired from the sea).
1915 – 1923 – Willie marries, for a second time, to Mima (Jemima) Nicholson of Burmouth who has a son James. They work the family croft at Midhouse, Rackwick.
1920 – Willie receives a gold medal and bar for long service to the Hudson’s Bay Company.
1923 – Willie and Mima move to Orgil Cottage, Hoy where they run a guesthouse.
1932 – William Sinclair Ritch dies aged 80.
Thank you to Vera Sclater who made this exhibition possible.
This exhibition is made using family history research material from Dennis Ritch, Rootsweb, Robert Whitton and Orkney connections including Kim Foden. Thank you.
Thank you to Dr Alice Watterson, 3DVisLab, University of Dundee, who produced the map. We are grateful to have access to research by Dr Alison Brown, University of Aberdeen, Neil Leask, Janette Park, curator at Stromness Museum and Manitoba Archives.
Thank you to Canadian Geographic for allowing us to link to their publication.
Please get in touch if anything in incorrect or if you can offer more information.
This project has been in partnership with Stromness Museum and is supported by the Orkney Islands Council Culture Fund.
images: Hoy Heritage / Orkney Library & Archive / Manitoba Archives / Stromness Museum / 3DVisLab / Wikimedia Commons