The Caledonia

1845. Feb 21st John Kinnaird, a widower, sailor & feuar, & Mary Williams, a spinster, both of this parish, were regularly contracted & after proclamation married.

Old Parish Records, Dysart, Fife, Scotland

A pinched Friday, the town locked into winter, still. Crocuses have burst forth from a patch of grass in the front garden of the manse and prevail in fragile morning light. Mary turned forty-nine near the end of the old year. John is eight years older, two years a widower with grown children, all married and off his hands. The wedding is taking place before he leaves for the annual whaling season. He will be at sea from March to October. 

Mary turns down the bed in the upstairs back room. Determines to sleep there until John returns. A smaller room takes less coal to heat. Only one candle by the bedside to allow her to read the newspaper in the evening and, when a nip is in the air or she is lazy, to reckon the household accounts during the early mornings. She will miss her husband, but she will not be lonely.

            Nine months away. A feeling takes root in a vague space under her ribcage. It is certainly not expectation, nor hope, perhaps it is simply a wish or a dream. If she had married sooner, been gifted more time, she might have a child to present to him on his return. 

            She crouches down and slides a chest from underneath the bedframe. Lifts an extra blanket out and smooths the dark green wool beneath her fingers as she lays it on the bedspread. The sight of it conjures memories of her father and mother whose bed it warmed until they died within a year of each other. Some stitches have frayed. Mary fixes to find a match for the thick thread and repair the blanket once the Caledonia sails.


THE WHALE SHIPS. – The season is again at hand for our whalers to sail for the northern regions. Preparations for their doing so have been going on for some time past and are now nearly completed. Our Davis’ Straits fleet consists of the Caledonia, the Chieftain, and the Regalia.

The Northern Warder, 19th March 1846

On the eve of the ships’ departure, the town is abuzz. Captain Kinnaird hosts a supper for a few intimate friends and family. As Mary and his daughter, Agnes, ready the house for visitors, John sits in an armchair, making a list of the tasks to be attended to in his absence.

            They have not yet begun, but John is tired, the organisation of the voyage has been fraught with difficulties. Whale stock has depleted year on year since he took up the captaincy of the Caledonia and there is not the same money to be made. The working men of the town no longer rush to enlist for the season, finding better employment at the new floor-cloth manufactories or flax mills. There they can earn the same wages without the hardships of a life at sea. He will need to take on a larger proportion of hands as they pass Orkney and Shetland and enlist some Esquimaux from his former haunts on East Baffin Island. These men are invariably excellent and experienced sailors but the whole enterprise takes time he would rather save. 

            John watches Mary as she carefully polishes each piece of cutlery before setting it down, nestled into the worn nap of a velvet tablecloth. Agnes brings in a tray of wine, rum and brandy, poured into a trio of glass decanters and places it in the centre of the table. Agnes skirts around Mary on her exit, both women scrupulously polite, in an awkward dance of forced allegiance. John would like them to be more than solicitous strangers – these two women he loves – but suspects it is not to be. A pity, they could be a help to each other.

            John has amended his will in light of his marriage. After costs and settlement of debts, the bulk of his money goes to Mary, with the surplus divided between his four children. Jane will get the table on which they dine this evening, along with some fine chairs and plate. Agnes, the four-poster and sundry contents of the main bedroom. To Catherine, is promised the kitchen furniture and an old painting of the Caledonia which she especially likes. George, his son and fellow sailor, will receive the eight-day clock, John’s pocket watch and portable writing desk. John is lucky enough to have ridden the crest of the whaling wave. From greenhorn to master in the space of a lifetime. He doubts George will have the same success. He wonders about the advisability of encouraging his son to be a sailor. Proud as he is of George’s achievements, hard work and endeavour are not always enough in themselves.

            John dozes off and when he wakes, Mary is standing in front of him, her face flushed and her pinny stained from cooking. 

            ‘Time to get into your good clothes, John,’ she says, smiling, ‘You don’t want our guests to think you’re past it.’ 

            She laughs and offers him her hand. 

            ‘Can I help an old man from his chair?’

            He stands and feigns a stumble, catching her around the waist. He buries his head in her shoulder. She smells of peeled carrots and chopped onions. He knows they will go upstairs, and Mary will change into an evening gown, dress her hair and put on a necklace and earrings. He will wear his braided uniform, starched, buttons gleaming. 

            ‘I wish they weren’t coming,’ he says, ‘I’m getting too old for this. We could go to bed.’

            She rubs his arm and they lean into each other for a few moments.

            ‘People are relying on you, John. It’s just another trip. I’ll be here when you get back.’


68°14’24.2″N 66°00’05.2″W, Davis Straits: Anchored a mile east of Kekertaluk Island. A fine day. Crew, including the young visitor, attending to the flensing of the first catch of our voyage. 

Log of the whale ship Caledonia (fragment) Wednesday 6th May 1846

They sit on deck in the evening. Akkatook in his customary sealskin and Captain Kinnaird swathed in the bearskin granted him by the boy’s father, Chief Makkarook. The surgeon, steward and first mate are playing a game of cards and smoking their pipes. The day’s labours over and sufficient brandy brought from below, the ship’s cook resumes carving a piece of scrimshaw by lantern light. 

            Akkatook takes up a chalk and draws the rough shape of a constellation on the surface of the table. The Plough, John guesses. Ursa Major, four points make a base and three points form a handle. They both look skywards and follow an imagined tipping point from this saucepan shape until they find the North Star. Akkatook lies flat out on the wooden deck and squints at the stars. Then, he rises and draws a plan of what he has seen for the captain. Together, they rub out mistakes, redraft the position of individual stars and swap words for the groupings they recognise. This is their habit. They slip into it easily, for the last four years the Esquimaux has joined the Caledonia in its chase across Baffin Bay. Akkatook is now fourteen years old and his father wishes him to visit Scotland. Who better than Captain Kinnaird to entrust his eldest son to?

            The boy tires of his drawing. He goes over to the card table and shakes the steward’s shoulder, beckoning him forward. Mr McLeod shakes his head and smiles, follows the boy over to the middle of the deck. 

            ‘What shall we play for you, Captain?’ asks McLeod.

            John makes an exaggerated show of deliberation. Another game they know well.

            ‘Right, Akkatook. Buy a drink in an alehouse for your pals,’ declares Kinnaird.

            McLeod rubs his hands together; upturns two deal chairs and collects the bottle from the Captain’s table to set by his side. Akkatook chivvies the other two men to accompany him. The first mate, George Thompson, begins to stagger and weave so that Akkatook and the surgeon bookend him and hold him up by his oxters. 

            Thompson slavers and grabs at Akkatook’s cheek, doing his best impression of a Saturday night drunk in St Clair Street. 

            ‘Have I ever told you that I love you, pal? Best friend I ever had, ken?’

            Meanwhile, Dr Templeman, the surgeon, ducks out from under Thompson’s arm and takes up a position behind the makeshift bar.

            ‘What’s your poison, lads?’ Templeman’s normally cultured Edinburgh lilt mangles into a weird approximation of a Fife landlady. He pouts and pushes a non-existent bosom towards his customers. Akkatook affects a mortified air, while Thompson raises himself up like a debauched rake on a promise and John roars and laughs at their antics.

            ‘Madam, would you be good enough to furnish my friend and I with two rums?’ Akkatook enunciates clearly and deliberately.

            The surgeon turns around and sashays suggestively in the direction of a row of imaginary glasses, fills them up and hands them over. 

            Thompson lunges at him/her, trying to grab some semblance of womanly flesh, but he has gone too far, and the surgeon rears up and catches him with a useful right hook, sending the first mate flying across the slippery deck. 


70° 28′ 26″ N, 68° 35′ 10″ W, Clyde River, Nunavut, East Baffin Island: Crew ashore. Fog. A number of our party undertook a journey inland reaching a lake approx. 3 miles from the main settlement. 

Log of the whale ship Caledonia (fragment) Sunday 28th July 1846

The latest fish has been flensed, the bone divided and cleaned and the sailors busy clearing the decks once more. Ice floes begin to fracture and melt, signalling the beginning of the end of the season. The comparative ease of the chase will dwindle and there will be less opportunity to catch the bigger, more valuable, fish. Fewer deposits of ice layering mean the whales cannot be corralled and killed speedily. 

            Captain Kinnaird rests his men, brings them landward to barter and mingle with the population. They need time to refuel and tend to any illness and injury the whaling has brought them. Many are frost-bitten, some have sustained cuts, bruises and fractures during the last chase. Dr Templeman does his best, but he is now sorely in need of new supplies.

            A hike to a stretch of water surrounded by a group of peaks is suggested. According to the natives, the spot is green and full of songbirds and flowers. This is what John craves. He rubs his thinning fair hair and sets off with a party of twelve. Their guide leads them inland from the cape and, after a period of just over two hours, they reach a path through a valley and eventually arrive at a lake, deep blue and surrounded by white arctic cotton. Purple saxifrage carpets the lower parts of the mountains and, from time to time, ptarmigan can be glimpsed scuttling through the leaves. After lunching on preserved beef and bread, washed down by lime-juice, the party explore the lower slopes. Tern and great skua swoop down on them and, intermittently, John notices an outline of a white hare or an arctic fox bolt from its hiding place in the rocky surface. Some crewmen try to shoot them but Akkatook and the Esquimaux guide have more luck with their bows and arrows.


KIRKCALDY. –The Caledonia Whaler, belonging to this port, arrived from Davis’ Straits on Saturday last – having three fish and forty tuns of oil. The Caledonia also brought home a young Esquimaux dressed in his native habiliments of skin, with his two canoes, fishing and hunting implements and a dog. Many visitors were attracted to the harbour to get a sight of these denizens of the polar regions. 

The Fife Herald, Thursday, 29th October, 1846

Mary closes the front door and wraps her shawl tight against the North wind. She cuts down Shore Road, on her way to the harbour, her face a mask of composure. 

            The narrow streets are crowded with people who have come from the furthest reaches of the town to view the spectacle of the homecoming whaler. They have been promised a parade of exotic specimens and, more prosaically for the sailors and their wives, bonus pay. At the foot of Pan Ha’, she catches sight of a small group of her friends and heads towards them, eager to be swallowed up by familiarity. 

            Annie Brown puts her arm around Mary’s shoulders and gestures towards the quay on the opposite side of the basin. Annie winks at her.

            ‘Not standing with the offspring, Mary?’

            Mary follows Annie’s gaze and sees the three daughters and the son, dressed up to the nines, in cahoots with the various burghers and merchants. The man from the paper is there, perched, his notebook and pencil in hand.

            ‘I’m fine where I am, Annie.’

            Annie smiles and begins to sing the refrain of an old sea-faring song. Mary minds it from the days when her father sang in their old cottage at the shore.

            Mary’s hand creeps to the notepad in the pocket of her skirt. Money spent, and money earned. Lodgers and boarders. Cooking and cleaning. She will not be found wanting when John has time to look at the figures.


[He was] of low stature, with a broad round chest, short neck, and long, lank, glossy hair, black as the raven’s wing; skin soft as velvet…; the eye dark and lively; and his general expression highly agreeable.” When he arrived, his clothing consisted of “trousers, coat, hood and boots, all of seal-skin, neatly sewed, and tastefully figured with threads and braid of sinew.

Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal, 1847

There is bunting along the harbour at Dysart and a band is playing. Fragments of music weave their way through the haar, coalescing into a melody as the ship docks. 

            Akkatook’s first impression of the place is damp. Sea water smears the dark grey stone of the harbour walls and the crowded houses beyond. Rain, misted and greasy on his face and hands. 

            He is dressed in his clothes from home with Nellie, his dog, by his side. Thompson had given the dog this name, in memory of his first love. Akkatook watches the welcoming party on the shore, as they edge closer, but he cannot distinguish faces. They look like a swarm of outlandish beings, clumps of them separating from the mass to form another grouping. It reminds Akkatook of watching shoals of fish in the melted inlets around his home, only one opportunity to catch as many as he can, having to choose which to follow. Captain Kinnaird lays his hand on Akkatook’s arm. 

            ‘Do you remember, when you were a boy, and we landed at your village?’

            Akkatook nods. John continues.

            ‘That’s how they are. Like children in want of experience. Don’t be afraid of them. We’ll be solicitous and then we’ll go home to rest in clean sheets. You’ll see some amazing things here, son.’ 

            When they disembark, Akkatook follows John as he threads his way through the crowd pressed against the harbour wall. Nodding, glad-handing, waving at friends and acquaintances, as they inch their way nearer to the town. The people stare at the stranger, in much the same way that his tribe stared at the sailors who landed at their settlement. Small children reach out to touch him, but their parents wrench them back. Like a magnet, attraction and repulsion exist in the same impulse.

            A large man, with grey stringy hair, has a heavy chain around his neck. Another, small and round, sports a pink-lipped smile above a starched white collar. The captain manages to genially greet them and politely swat them away in the same movement. He introduces Akkatook to his children who surround and embrace their father. A smaller woman stands behind them and John breaks away to kiss her cheek. All the while, John keeps up a running commentary: my daughters Jane, Agnes and Katherine; my son, George; and this is Mary, my wife; here is the minister; here is the provost.

            Akkatook tries to concentrate, remember who is who. The faces begin to form a whole, a patchwork of white, scrubbed faces, mottled noses, pale lips and fair hair. Dread forms within him, he will be tested and fail.

            Mary has light brown hair and freckles on her nose and cheekbones. She slips her hand into his and guides him towards a pathway of cobbled stones. There are tall houses with stepped gables where gulls perch and crows caw. They stop outside a house, Mary surveys the party and shakes her head.

            ‘These men need their rest, she says, firmly, ‘Let them have a sleep in a proper bed. They’ll be here when you call tomorrow. Don’t make it too early, mind.’

            She takes him upstairs. Laid out on the bed is a nightshirt and slippers. The last woman he spoke to was his mother Apukia, one of the chief’s two wives.

            ‘Thank you, Mrs Kinnaird.’

            Mary nods. 

            ‘You’re welcome, Akkatook. Sleep well.’

He is fêted and indulged. The neighbourhood boys step around him curiously at first, suspicious of his clothes, his bow and arrow, the whalebone charms and tribal keepsakes he carries. 

            But he laughs easily and can hunt for days along hedgerows and through woods, bringing down rabbits and birds with remarkable skill. 

            Soon, a gang forms around him and woe betide anyone who shows him any lack of respect. They nickname him Ekie, teach him to play their games, swap clothes and race through the streets while the shopkeepers and fishwives curse their nonsense. 

            Sparse flurries of snow send the local children into a frenzy of excitement. They make sledges out of old tin foraged from the docks and fly down the Brae Head, their makeshift ropes too flimsy to steer, sending them rolling and tumbling the last few yards. Akkatook takes part, more interested in how quickly this snow crumbles and melts to nothing and then is gone. He longs for his homeland’s permanence. 

            Between the high jinks, he does his best to apply himself to learning, imitates the sounds his tutor makes and smiles broadly at the pictures of animals in the books Mr Galloway brings. One day he spots a ptarmigan, shown variously in the colours it wears each season. Akkatook takes a piece of paper and cuts circles and crescents to show Mr Galloway how his people read the moon and are guided by its changes.


On a fine day in early spring, a famous regatta was got up, in which our polar hero played a principal part. Among a number of boats, all gaily decked out, might be seen his frail bark canoe.

Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal, 1847

It is the forenoon of the third of March. Just over a year since they married. Mary lays out Akkatook’s sealskin suit on the dresser and chair in his bedroom. 

           The preparations for another whaling season are already underway and John and Akkatook are often down at the harbour. Recruiting men, organising stores, repairing old equipment and buying new. John sits up late almost every night now, writing letters and figuring accounts. 

            The start of this year has been milder than the last and Mary notices buds already bursting on the hawthorn whose leggy branches tap at the bedroom window. She looks forward to summer days pinning clean sheets and blankets up at the drying green near the shore. Shaking off the slough of winter, laughing with her pals, sitting out late bathed by warm winds. 

            She thinks of John who will miss another summer. He is fifty-eight now and has been at the whaling since the boom years. Perhaps it is time for him to cleave to the land a bit more.

            Mary moves through the rooms of the house. All the gifts Akkatook has received have been listed, swathed in fabric and placed in two large chests. Tomorrow, they will be collected and loaded on board the Caledonia. Several suits of clothes; embroidered cloth; thick blankets of the best wool; new, gleaming pots and pans; fire-arms and ammunition. Last night, she gave him a silver pocket watch with a cameo of her likeness that he slipped inside the sealskin pouch he always carries. Mr Nairne, the town’s artist, has drawn two portraits of Akkatook. One, showing him in his sailor’s dress and placed on a handsome gilt frame, was presented to Mary only last week. An accompanying card reads, ‘Presented by Mr Nairne to Mrs Kinnaird, as a memento of her interesting protégé.’ The other painting, of Akkatook in his native costume, holding his bow and arrows, with his arm around his dog, has been packed up for the voyage. Mary will hang hers in the front room, above the sideboard where she keeps her good china.

They walk down to the harbour together, the three of them. John in his captain’s uniform, Akkatook in the sealskin, and Mary in a dark red dress she has made during the long winter evenings. Her good winter bonnet is trimmed with dried rosehip. The townsfolk are there, en masse, and they mingle their way through, gradually reaching the front.

            The small boats of the Caledonia have been winched down and are already manned and in the water, each one bedecked with flags and ribbons. Akkatook is hailed by some of the fellows who have his kayak ready for him. He wades out, impervious to the cold, takes a paddle from the kayak and effortlessly raises himself up and swings his legs inside its cocoon. 

            The flotilla begins to navigate its way out of the harbour and hovers, waiting for Kinnaird’s signal. John raises a flag and drops it swiftly and all at once there is a rush towards open sea. 

            Hordes of curious townspeople line the shore and small packs of youngsters begin to race to the cliffs. The entertainment leaves Dysart Harbour and gathers speed as it rounds the crags on its two-mile journey to the port at Kirkcaldy. The kayak is easily spotted in the throng of small craft. Some have two, four or six of a crew, each with an oar with which to propel themselves. Akkatook slices through the blue water with a single, double-ended oar, striking each side of the water alternately. By means of this unusual movement, he impels his craft along at an amazing speed, to the amusement of the crowd.

            The convoy reaches Kirkcaldy before the supporters. Akkatook steers his craft in to the dock to loud cheers from those gathered there. He raises his arm and waves, managing to turn the kayak with one hand and right himself, while he waits for his fellow sailors to arrive. He looks up at the sun in a cloudless sky and yawns theatrically, to wild hoops and cheers. Before the other boatmen can synchronise, Akkatook stabs his oar into the water once more and makes off. The lads on the cliff path take his lead and hot foot it back to base just in time to welcome the returning hero.

            That night, he lies in bed, exhausted. He listens to the regular ticking of the clock on the landing and the brush of leaves against his four-paned window. He feels the pull of two competing strings.


THE ESQUIMAUX, – The young denizen of the frozen regions of the north, who has been residing here for five months past, has embarked for his native country. The young man’s amiability of manners made him the favourite of the gentry and especially of Captain Kinnaird who brought him here. Both he and Mrs Kinnaird, who acted towards him as a mother, parted with him with much regret. He bears with him the good wishes of all who know him.

Fife Herald, 25th March, 1847