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Duncan Pryde – published in Independent – December 1997

DUNCAN PRYDE

Duncan Pryde, who probably knew the Arctic ‘better than any white man of his generation’, was in the middle of the massive task of compiling a dictionary of the 26 dialects of the Inuit (or Eskimo) language when he died from cancer.

Pryde, who had four brothers and one sister, had been brought up in various orphanages in Scotland and aged 15 had joined the merchant navy where he learned to be extremely tough and in which he covered himself with lurid tattoos.  He had been forced to resign due to an eye injury and was feeling bored working in a Singer sewing machine factory, when aged 18 in 1955, he spotted an advertisement in the Glasgow Sunday Postlooking for fur traders to go to the far north of Canada for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Realising the importance of education, he wrote to his youngest brother, Jack, from Canada, urging him to stay at school as long as possible and not to be too keen to start earning money. He spent three years working for the Company in northern Manitoba and Ontario, where he learned to speak Cree, but  found the life too cushy and asked for a transfer to the Arctic. When he arrived, he was determined to learn to speak Eskimo, and was told by his boss ‘to learn the Eskimo way, so you will know how they feel about things.’ The only dictionary he had access to was a little red book compiled by a Catholic missionary; it was so full of errors that he determined to write his own. He built up word lists and after a few weeks could communicate on a basic level, but reckoned it took him three or four years to become fluent in the language; for example there are over twenty-five different words for snow, because in a snow environment it is vital to be able to distinguish between the differing types of snow. From Baker Lake he was transferred to the  remote Spence Bay, before going to the even more isolated Perry River where he had to deal with drunkeness, laziness and murderers. He was much respected and soon adopted the Eskimo way of life, feeling part of one big family; a northern admirer wrote ‘Duncan thinks and measures and becomes part of his environment just like an Eskimo.’ He became involved in wife-exchange and had several children, writing that he could ‘always find a girl to sleep with. The problem is which one.’ His obsessive womanizing was the one black mark held against him: ‘he liked girls too much.’

He learned to trap, put together a dog-team and to travel with dogs and was taught to harpoon seal and hunt caribou in the ancient Eskimo way. He also saw shamanism and witchcraft first-hand.  On various hunting expeditions he was attacked by a polar bear  and even more frighteningly  he was once charged by a grizzly, said to be ten times more dangerous than a polar bear. He never felt lonely in the Arctic, but equally  never lost his love of the bright lights.

After eleven years with the Company, Pryde left to work for the Council of the Northwest Territories, a job which involved travelling to all the settlements in the western Arctic by either sled or canoe. Realising that he could not live on such a reduced salary, he decided to live off the land with the Eskimos, as a trapper, a pattern of life he adapted to quickly. He was upset by the way the welfare system was run, feeling that it took away any work incentive.

In 1969 he married Georgina Blondin, the Centennial Indian Princess of the Northwest Territories, they had one daughter, Fiona, and lived  in Yellowknife where they started a development business. Cliff Michelmore presented a television programme about him in 1970 and Nunaga
 ( ‘my land, my country’) his book about his life in the Arctic was published in 1972 and was reprinted by Eland in 1985; whether or not he knew about this reprint will remain a mystery, as the publisher was never able to trace him.  Ed Ogle, who wrote a long article about him for 
Time magazine and helped him to write the book, said that many of Pryde’s sexual exploits had to be cut from the book as the original publisher was afraid that the book was ‘too sexy.’ In 1975 he resigned from the Council and went to the Inupiat University of the Arctic where he was commissioned to write his dictionary.  He had to leave Alaska while his residency status was resolved and lived for a while with his brother Jack in London; he had so adjusted to life in the Arctic that he ate only when he was hungry, seeming to have lost all perspective of time.  While he was away he met his second wife, Dawn, and never returned to the Arctic, ending up by quietly running a newsagents shop near the marina in the Isle of Wight,  working on his dictionary between  customers. He completely lost touch with  his British family who tried to trace him, believing that he was living in Germany and never for a moment suspecting that he was living openly with a shop bearing his name,  Pryde of Cowes, in the Isle of Wight. He is survived by his wife Dawn and his daughter by his first marriage.

 

Duncan Pryde, trapper, explorer, writer born June 8th 1937. Died November 15th 1997

 




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