Life was so different 200 years ago! The personal computer, the internet, and advances in music, television, and film technology have completely changed the way we live our life. We are spoiled with smart phones that remember personal data for us. We are impatient, used to anytime, anywhere access to information and entertainment. We no longer know what it feels like to be disconnected, offline, unplugged. In fact, we often view it as a negative thing.
As I consider the lives of Canada’s Scottish pioneers, I think first how little I can relate to their world. It took months to travel by boat from Scotland to Canada’s shores. Travel across Canada’s rugged wilderness, over land and water, was challenging and time-consuming. Fur traders, voyageurs, and explorers became adept at travel because it was part of their job, a matter of necessity, and often, the difference between life and death. These men and women were without many of the modern conveniences that seem to dull our senses, take up our time, and help foster a self-centered world that lacks discipline and spiritual rigor. As such, they enjoyed a level of focus, long-suffering, and delayed gratification that is foreign to many of us today.
Take Alexander Mackenzie, for example. What he would have done for a GPS-enabled device as he hunted for an overland route from the Canadian interior to the mighty Pacific! Or would have refused such a tool, preferring the old-fashioned astronomy and navigation skills he learned in London in 1792? And it is hard to say whether the backlit screens, misleading size, and srange, new sounds of today’s devices would have helped or hindered Mackenzie’s relations with the natives. Granted, they were quite taken with the European goodies for which they traded fur pelts, such as scissors, shoes, and guns, but they might be convinced their guests were possessed by an evil spirit should they crowd around an iPhone 5 and gasp as the apple logo suddenly appeared before their eyes!
How would Mackenzie react if given a test drive in the latest all-wheel, off-road Jeep model? The newest ultra-light canoe? Freeze-dryed strawberries? A high-powered flashlight? A crank-power emergency radio? A waterproof case for his maps, charts, compass, and other valuables? How about an iPad loaded with the latest maps, charts, reference books, local info, and a weather app? Oh to see what a satellite could see from miles above the earth!
But that’s just it. With none of those modern tools on which to rely, Mackenzie had to succeed using what he had available to him. He was savvy in his affairs with the natives, knowing they might be the difference between success and failure. He trusted his instincts, pushed his physical capabilities. His tenacious attitude and his skill in maneuvering the wilderness finally paid off. The prize? Being the first white man to cross the North American continent north of Mexico. Mackenzie had secured a navigable trade route for his company through Canada’s interior and solidified British claims to the Canadian north west. He also published a best-selling volume detailing his travels, and earned a knighthood soon afterward. All without sending a single tweet or posting a single photo to his Pinterest profile. Amazing! No matter what era we live, though, we will be faced with challenges. History will remember us for how much we are able to rise above obstacles and achieve our goals. And no matter how smart our smart phones get, there will never be an app for that. It must come from us!
Learn more about Alexander Mackenzie and other Scottish pioneers in early Canada in The Scots in Canada, pt. 1.
Andrew McDiarmid hosts Simply Scottish, a half-hour show of music and features, available on iTunes, Celtic Radio Network, and at www.simplyscottish.com. Contact him on Facebook and Twitter or via www.simplyscottish.com.