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Canadian writer Marie Gage traces grandparents' epic journey of adventure from the Highlands

By Margaret Chrystall

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A RING in the shape of a belt connects sweethearts across the Atlantic and the journal of a dangerous Canadian canoe river trip documents a survival against the odds – and the tide.

These are just two heirlooms from Ontario writer Marie Gage’s grandfather and his journey from Scotland to a new future in Canada and married life with a Highland girl.

Marie’s grandfather Will Parker with his Highland bride, in Canada.
Marie’s grandfather Will Parker with his Highland bride, in Canada.

Marie’s lifelong fascination with the legends and truths of her grandfather William Parker’s story has led her on her own journey through the twisting lives and forgotten adventures of her ancestors to write their story, A Ring of Promises, out in Canada earlier this year.

From the beginning, Marie’s extensive research – which has brought her to the Highlands twice – was also supplemented with writing courses to prepare her to do justice to her grandparents’ story.

Marie, who worked as an occupational therapist and ran a self-catering resort with her husband before retiring to write, was surprised by what she found out about her unassuming grandparents who lived next door when she was a child.

“I had no idea my grandfather was adventurous – I would never have guessed that from knowing him.

“I was only seven when he died but I don’t remember an adventurous man.

“I remember a man who was joyful and liked to play tricks and that kind of thing, but I never would have thought that he had done this canoe trip and survived.

“The trigger for my book was that all my life I had been hearing things about him that have been intriguing. We were told that he was a footman at Buckingham Palace which proved not to be quite true.

“In fact, he worked for an English earl.”

Another family legend was that Will had been due to emigrate to Canada on board the doomed Titanic – heading for a promised job to earn money and set up a home for his Highland sweetheart Janet, who would follow. Luckily, having bought his ticket, he possibly decided to go on an earlier boat.

Canadian writer Marie Gage. Picture: Stan Fisher
Canadian writer Marie Gage. Picture: Stan Fisher

For Marie, the beginnings of the book began in earnest about 10 years ago.

“I had mistakenly thought his journal was talking about travelling from Fort Nelson in British Columbia – and I couldn’t figure out how he could ever have got by river to Winnipeg.

“But one day about 10 years ago, I sat down at my computer, got the journal out again and I thought ‘I wonder if Google Maps could now help me figure this out?’.

“I started to plot the points he mentioned and discovered there was a ghost town called Port Nelson on Hudson Bay and when I started following the points on my grandfather’s canoe route, sure enough he had done what was a former fur trade route in a canoe against the flow of the water system that empties into Hudson Bay – and had made it back to Winnipeg with a friend who had been working out there with him.

“The intriguing part of the journal was it said they were ‘tired of the company they were working for’ and they ‘had to get out, with this the only way’.

“I then started doing some research in the archives in Ottawa in Ontario, Canada to find out what was going on then in Port Nelson.

“I found out that it had been the intended terminus for the Hudson Bay Railway and was going to be the place where the wheat was taken from the prairie provinces and gotten to Europe via sea. But there was a controversy and Port Nelson is now a ghost town.

“So having realised that they were building the Hudson Bay Railway and that there was all sorts of intrigue – people feeling the men were mistreated by the government, I thought, Will comes over only to find there’s no job really. Then he finds another, working for the railway company, only to end up being mistreated in Hudson Bay.

“And I thought ‘This is a story that needs to be told’.

“Then the whole romance and how my grandmother actually came to marry him and be here, that just added to it.”

Marie's grandmother.
Marie's grandmother.

Marie’s grandmother’s family are from Conon Bridge and about half of the story takes place in Scotland, some in Conon Bridge and some at the Redcastle Estate on the opposite shore of the Moray Firth to Inverness.

In Marie’s book, Will’s love Janet works in service at the Redcastle estate.

“Janet was working in service somewhere in Scotland but I had to make up the exact location because we don’t know for sure where it was.

“Her grandparents had lived in the Redcastle Quarry Cottages. So she knew that estate and may well have been employed there.

“I investigated and there was a wonderful man there, Graham Clark – who had written a history of the estate. He toured my husband and I through it when we were there in 2011.

“It was really nice to have that first-hand experience. When we came over again in 2017, we were in a cottage in that area. Graham was living in one of the cottages that my great great grandparents had lived in – my great great grandfather worked in the quarry.

“It was really an intense emotion to know I was sitting in a cottage that my great great grandfather had probably sat in at some point, though it wasn’t the one he lived in.”

As well as researching the past of her mother’s family, the Calders – including locating their graves at Killearnan Church – Marie also reconnected with 21st century Calders, through a letter in the Ross-shire Journal.

Marie's grandfather.
Marie's grandfather.

Marie’s book is inspired by her grandparents’ immigration saga, butthere wasn’t enough information to write it as a pure memoir, the writer explains.

So she filled in the blank spaces that fact could never supply now with her imagination, after completing her historical and genealogical research, her visits to the Highlands, time at the family history centre, exploring graveyards there and touring Redcastle Estate.

“At the end of the book I declare the parts that are fact and the parts that are fiction. So the reader knows that in the end,” revealed Marie.

Marie says that her books – including the children’s books she started out writing for her grandchildren – are always inspired by real people.

And real people from her own family have given her ideas for the next two she hopes to write.

“I’ve just started another novel that is based on my mother-in-law as a war bride coming to Canada after the Second World War. I’ve just written the first chapter, but still have a lot of research to do.

“And another is my mother’s story – we didn’t know she was adopted till after she died. Her mother tried to keep her in 1925 and took the father to court to sue for support so that she could keep her illegitimate child, but lost.”

A Ring of Promises, out in Canada earlier this year and now available on Amazon.
A Ring of Promises, out in Canada earlier this year and now available on Amazon.

Marie pays tribute to the help she got with her research at the archive centre in Inverness.

“They put documents into my hands, like the registering of my grandmother on her first day of school.

“I think the urge to look into our family past tends to comes later in life. I say to people ‘While you are young enough and people are still alive, find out the details!’.

“For a lot of people who speak to me about my book, it seems to take them on a journey to their own ancestry, maybe inspiring them to dig into their own family.

“If I can inspire other people to do that, then the book has done something good for the world.”

n You can buy the book here: http://mybook.to/A-Ring-of-Promises

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