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William Watt (1830-1916) was one of five brothers from Stromness in the Orkney Islands who joined the Hudson’s Bay Company in the mid-nineteenth century. James, William and Alexander built successful careers within the Company. Thomas and Charles’s careers with the Company are less well-documented and were seemingly rather shorter.
Described by his HBC contemporary, Isaac Cowie, as a “fighting man” and “an ardent sportsman [who] had lost an arm in pursuit of game”, William Watt began his career with the HBC aged 16. His first posting was as an apprentice clerk at Sault Ste Marie, and over the next thirty years he rose through the Company’s ranks, eventually becoming a Factor and a shareholder. Watt certainly earned his wealth. He was frequently based at small posts, such as Fort Pitt in the Saskatchewan District, which were located at great distances from Red River and other Euro-Canadian settlements. He witnessed and participated in the processes of colonialism that constrained the lives of Aboriginal people in the emerging nation of Canada. His letters to his parents and sisters, which have been preserved by his family, indicate that despite challenging working and living conditions, Watt embraced his lifestyle and the opportunities for adventure.
HBC Post, Sault Ste Marie, 1863.
© Toronto Public Library. Artist William Armstrong (Acc. JRR 2426).
William Watt retired from the HBC in 1876 and returned to Stromness.There he built the stone house of Holmlavoe, which is still owned by his family. In contrast to the heady days of buffalo hunting and trading with Cree and Blackfoot peoples, which had been central to his life in Canada, his activities were now shaped by the respectable conventions of late Victorian society. He became involved in civic affairs and was especially known for his contributions to the Stromness School Board. Considered by those who knew him in Orkney to be a charitable and generous man, he remained a bachelor all his life. In time, the beadwork and other souvenirs he had brought home with him were passed onto family members, and can be seen today in the Stromness Museum.