Thursday, October 1, 2020

Harry Goodsir's Kayak

 When Harry Goodsir, serving as Assistant Surgeon and Naturalist aboard  HMS "Erebus" under Sir John Franklin, arrived in Greenland to see a small fleet of hunters in kayaks headed their way, he was not surprised. Indeed, the form and style of these particular kayaks was a familiar one to him, even though he'd never been to sea before. Here is his description:

We have at length got to our anchorage in the Whale Fish Islands It was rather a heavy sea when we were beating off & on about 2 o clock in the morning but notwithstanding we very soon saw several specks just like Ducks upon the surface of the water which we very shortly found to be the Esquimaux in their canoes coming off to the Ships. It was the strangest sight possible to see them rising up and down upon the tops of the waves in shells exactly the same size as that in the Gallery of the College of Surgeons and going through the water at a tremendous rate most of them without any covering for the head & dripping wet all over. 

It may be remembered that Harry had, up until the moment the expedition sailed, been the Conservator of the Surgeons' Hall Museum in Edinburgh, and thus the curator of the kayak that apparently once resided there. But where was it now? A search of the collections at Surgeon's Hall produced a model kayak -- but no, this was only a few inches long. Further digging disclosed an old record, apparently copied off a paper catalog card, of a kayak with the unusual accession number 1800.0.0.

Since most items are catalogued by date, this number seemed at first to suggest an 1800 acquisition -- but it more likely was just a placeholder for an item acquired at an indefinite date prior to 1800. I then noticed a small note stating that the kayak had been de-accessioned and sent to the National Museum of Scotland! So of course I went there, and searched, and found a kayak -- in fact, I found quite a few of them, none of which was described as ex-Surgeon's Hall. But again, a small note stood out: most of the kayaks in their collection had been examined and catalogued by a man named Harvey Golden. Who was he, I wondered -- a bespectacled Scotsman in a tweed jacket? The name didn't sound Danish. Perhaps if I could track him down, he would know which kayak was the one I sought.

With the estimable aid of my faithful servant Google, I found that he was based in Portland, Oregon, where he operated a kayak museum and website. More significantly, he was the author of the book Kayaks of Greenland, an authoritative (but presently out-of-print) reference on the subject. I e-mailed him and waited, impatiently.

The next day brought a reply -- yes, indeed, he knew exactly which kayak it was -- its previous residence at Surgeon's Hall wasn't on the written records, but the museum staff had told Harvey of the connection when he came to assess -- and sketch! -- their kayaks. The one in question had been transferred in 1995. and bore the accession number 1995.886. And, as it turns out, it is a kayak from West Greenland -- the very place where Harry saw the scene he'd described -- and probably dated to the 18th century. 

And so, with deepest thanks to Harvey, I present to you Harry Goodsir's kayak!


  1. Well Russell, rarely do our blogs cross, much as I admire your blog, we are centuries apart. I may have information about that kayak in Scotland. In the Seventeenth Century there were reports of Inuit in Scotland. I also know Aberdeen held a kayak from the 1730s. In Wallace's report, "Physicians hall" is Surgeons Hall in Edinburgh. The footnotes on Wallace's account are fascinating. I wonder what you will make of this. Olly Hicks and George Bullard who recently tried this Atlantic crossing in modern kayaks thought it improbable, but the historical evidence seems to indicate that it took place during the Great Frost of the 1680s. This is the key post on that

    Best wishes, Mark

    1. Dear Russell, I have been doing a bit of digging in the footnotes to a later edition of Wallace's work (d.1688). According to it, they had two kayaks. One was sent to what became the National Museum of Scotland.
      Another kayak was held by the parish church of Burray.
      One has to ask how those kayaks came into museums? How did locals on Orkney "secure" those boats when those using them needed them?

  2. Hi Mark, thanks for both your comments!If indeed the kayak in your second note went to the ancestor institution of NMS, then it's not the one that was at the College of Surgeons -- that one only arrived at NMS in 1995. NMS has quite a number of kayaks, though. As to how the locals ended up with the kayaks, I can only imagine that perhaps either the Inuit hunters who came over in them had died, or else that they were able to return with a whale ship (which, given that Scottish whalers didn't move into the Arctic until a good deal later, seems unlikely).

  3. Hi

    (Another topic)
    In 1853 and inut draw a map of eastern lands to Captain Richard Collinson. In the map, there as a boat on it. Does anyone knows if this map drawing exists?