Perhaps one of the most extraordinary tales involving a native of Orkney is also one we know very little about.
However, from the fragments of information we do have it is possible to piece together the incredible story of Isabel, or Isabel, Gunn, a courageous young Orcadian woman who, in the early years of the 19th century, disguised herself as a man to take up a post with the Hudson's Bay Company in Canada.
According to an article in The Orcadian dated May 18, 2006, Isabel was born in Tankerness on August 1, 1781, the daughter of John Fubbister and Girzal Allan. Because practically nothing is known of her time in Orkney, I have not been able to verify this date.
What is known, however, is that in June 1806, driven by poverty, and possibly by love of a man, she left Orkney bound for the Canadian wilds.
In Rupert’s Land, Canada, long before white women were allowed to travel to the Nor' Wast, she defied the rules of the all-male Hudson's Bay Company and disguised herself as a man to enlist.
Isabel assumed the role of John Fubbister, a man she claimed was from the Orkney parish of St Andrews. She worked diligently in the harsh conditions of the Canadian Nor' Wast for a year and earned herself a pay rise for performing her duties "willingly and well".
Incredibly, throughout her time with the Hudson's Bay Company, Isabel managed to maintain her male disguise and it was not until she became pregnant that her ruse was finally discovered. Isabel worked throughout her pregnancy, even taking part in an 1,800 mile canoe trek from Fort Albany to North Dakota when she was four months pregnant.
In the summer of 1807, Isabel was sent to the Pembina post of the Hudson Bay Company where she was to serve as cook to the master, Donald McKay.
By this time, her swelling stomach was obviously making the disguise harder to keep up. But she managed and it was not until she actually started giving birth that her deception was uncovered.
On the morning of December 29, 1807, Isabel had begged the chief factor of the company, Mr Alexander Henry, to let her remain in his house.
According to Henry’s journal:
“An extraordinary affair occurred this morning. One of the Orkney lads, apparently indisposed, had requested me to allow him to remain in my house for a short time.
Puzzled at the "man's" behaviour, Mr Henry agreed, and left John Fubbister sitting by the fire. His diary takes up the story:
“I was surprised at the fellow’s demand; however, I told him to sit down and warm himself. I returned to my own room where I had not been long before he sent one of my people requesting the favour of speaking with me.
The pregnant Orkney girl
"I returned to my room, where I had not been long before he sent one of my own people, requesting the favour of speaking with me. Accordingly, I stepped down to him, and was much surprised to find him extended on the hearth, uttering dreadful lamentations; he stretched out his hands towards me, and in piteous tones begged me to be kind to a poor, helpless, abandoned wretch, who was not of the sex I had supposed, but an unfortunate Orkney girl, pregnant and actually in childbirth."
According to Henry, Isabel said that the man who had debauched her two years earlier was wintering in what is now known as Grand Forks, North Dakota.
His journal continued:
“In about an hour she was safely delivered of a fine boy and that same day she was conveyed home in my cariole, where she soon recovered.”
Isabel's child was christened James. The identity of his father is not clear but Isabel does refer to a fellow Orcadian, John Scarth, whom, she claimed, had raped her.
According to HBC records, Scarth had been stationed with Isabel for much of the time she had spent in Rupert’s Land. Even so, Scarth’s discovery that Isabel was a woman appears to have been purely by chance.
An article in the Free Press Evening Bulletin of Winnipeg, by C. N. Bell, in 1922, quoted a veteran settler called Donald Murray, whom the author had interviewed back in 1887.
Donald Murray’s testimony was:
“I remember perfectly the case of the Orkney girl. Of course I was not in this country in 1807 when the affair occurred, but I knew well the man who was connected with it and the story was common talk for many a year.
“The girl came from Orkney to James Bay in the service of the Hudson Bay Company and was dressed in man’s clothes. For years, her sex was not discovered by any of the people who associated with her when she was at the company post at James Bay.
“She was for two years at the Partridge House with a man named Scarth, who used to find her on his return from hunting, sitting by the fire crying; and she did very little work, appearing to be much troubled in mind.
“After that, she and Scarth were sent inland (more than 1,000 miles) to the Brandon House post on the Assiniboine River, where they occupied the same cabin in the fort.
“Scarth was the right-hand man of Mr Goodwin, the master at Brandon House for the Hudson Bay Company, and the latter frequently asked Scarth to his house of an evening to take a dram of grog and consult with him.
“One night, Scarth had been at the master’s house until late at night, and on his return to the cabin discovered the true sex of his partner. He at once told the frightened woman that he would go to Mr Goodwin with the news but she fell on her knees and begged him not to reveal her identity.
“After much persuasion, he consented to keep the secret, and they continued to live together under the same conditions as before, and it was not for a long time afterwards that she lost her honour.”
Whether or not John Scarth was the father of the child, he was certainly registered as such. But it was after the birth of the boy that Isabel began calling herself Gunn. Is it possible that was the name of the father?
Her ruse discovered, Isabel was not permitted to continue working alongside the men, so took up the role of a washerwoman in Fort Albany. But she didn’t stay long.
On September 20, 1809, Isabel Gunn and James sailed for Orkney.
Back home, Isabel apparently found work in Stromness as a seamstress. She remained there, living in poverty with James, until her death in 1861, aged 81.