Gunn was born on the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland, perhaps near the town of Kirkwall. Little is known of her early life until the summer of 1806, when, under the pseudonym John Fubbister, she entered into a contract with the HBC as a labourer for three years at £8 per annum. Although her motivations for doing so are uncertain, tradition holds that she may have been following a lover who had cast her aside. Her brother George was also employed by the HBC, and it is also possible that she was enticed to join by his stories of adventure. Modern commentators point out that the modest HBC salary was nevertheless more than Gunn could have hoped for as a woman in Orkney at that time. Official HBC policy forbade employment of European women, although First Nation women were employed as cooks and domestic servants in company outposts.
In the Autumn of 1807 Gunn was assigned to a brigade tasked with provisioning more distant outposts, and travelled with them to Martin Falls and then on to the HBC outpost on the Red River at Pembina in modern North Dakota, a distance of more than 2,900 kilometres. Once again, Gunn worked unsuspected alongside the men. The pretence was maintained until the morning of 29 December 1807, when to general astonishment, Gunn gave birth to a baby boy at the home of Alexander Henry the younger, then chief of the North West Company's Pembina post. According to Henry's journal:
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 out upon the hearth, uttering most dreadful lamentations; he stretched out his hand towards me and in a piteful tone of voice begg’d my assistance, and requested I would take pity upon a poor helpless abandoned wretch, who was not of the sex I had every reason to suppose. But was an unfortunate Orkney girl pregnant and actually in childbirth, in saying this she opened her jacket and display’d to my view a pair of beautiful round white breasts.The father of the baby was reportedly John Scarth, an HBC employee who had been in frequent contact with Gunn. After being found out, Gunn became known as Mary Fubbister, and in early 1808 was ordered to return to Albany, and upon her arrival was no longer allowed to work with the men, but rather offered work only as a washerwoman. Against her wishes, Gunn and her child were returned to Scotland on the Prince of Wales on 20 September 1809.
Isobel Gunn's life has subsequently become the basis for a work of historical fiction by author Audrey Thomas, a documentary poem entitled The Ballad of Isabel Gunn by Stephen Scobie, and the subject of a documentary film entitled The Orkney Lad: The Story of Isabel Gunn, directed by filmmaker Anne Wheeler. Canadian folk singer Eileen McGann also paid tribute with her moving ballad 'Isabella Gunn'.
Isobel Gunn by Audrey Thomas
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Penguin Books Canada, Limited; First Printing edition (2000)
Amazon: Isobel Gunn
In 1806, a young Orkney woman, disguised as a man, signs on with The Company of Adventurers to work in Rupert's Land. She works "willingly and well" until she is discovered about to give birth. Based loosely on historical references, this novel is an evocative tale about an unusual woman.
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