If you judge a person’s contribution to a nation by the amount of places or institutions and the number of monuments that are named for him or her, then you can conclude that one of Scotland’s greatest explorers, Sir Alexander Mackenzie certainly made his mark on Canada.

He has a sizeable part of Canada, geographically speaking, named after him and the Mackenzie River system is one of the greatest finds by any explorer anywhere and any time.

Yet, as we shall see, it was something of a mistake that he discovered the river and its delta and he was quite disappointed at the outcome for the Mackenzie River flows into the Arctic Ocean rather than the Pacific as he had hoped and presumed.

Mackenzie is commemorated by name in other ways – the Mackenzie Mountains, Mackenzie Pass, Mount Mackenzie and the former Mackenzie District of the North-West Territories were named after him, as is a town in British Columbia and numerous roads and schools and at least one park.

Yet even so he does not get the true recognition that he deserves, for while the great explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark are lauded for their undoubtedly remarkable feat of crossing the western territories of North America from St Louis to the Pacific Coast, Mackenzie actually blazed the trail across the American Continent more than a decade before them.

It is important to note that Mackenzie was born in Stornoway: for the Outer Hebrides provided men and women for years to the North West Company in Canada, while Orcadians went to the Hudson’s Bay Company. The two companies were great rivals in the lucrative Canadian fur industry until their internecine squabbling caused the British Government to force them to merge in 1821.

The National:

An aerial view of the Mackenzie River delta, Yukon, Canada

Mackenzie was born to Kenneth ‘Corc’ Mackenzie and his wife Isabella, nee Maciver, in Luskentyre House in Stornoway sometime in 1764 – disgracefully we do not know the exact date. There is a blue plaque commemorating his birth nearby, and as far as I know that is the only monument to him in his native land. If that is indeed the case then that is also a disgrace.

Mackenzie’s father and his uncle John Maciver were both former soldiers who became merchants trading to the American Colonies. Alexander went to join them in 1774 after the death of his mother but when hostilities broke out his father and uncle joined the loyalist forces to fight against the colonials. For safety, in 1778 Alexander Mackenzie was sent north with two aunts to Montreal. His father Corc would die from scurvy two years later during his service on Carleton Island in the St Lawrence River.

By then Mackenzie was apprenticed to the fur trading specialists Gregory MacLeod & Company, and he quickly made his mark. As an orphan there was nothing to hold him back when the company offered him the chance to go off to the dangerous West to Detroit in what is now Michigan state.

Alexander sent for his cousin and best friend Roderick and together they reached Detroit in 1784. Here they had considerable good luck because rather than having to deal with a town that was lawless in the extreme, their company joined the North West Company and the focus switched to the uncharted land of what is now Canada’s Northwest Territories.

In his memoirs, Mackenzie explained what drew him to the life of a fur trader and explorer: “I was led, at an early period of life, by commercial views, to the country North-West of Lake Superior, in North America, and being endowed by Nature with an inquisitive mind and enterprising spirit; possessing also a constitution and frame of body equal to the most arduous undertakings, and being familiar with toilsome exertions in the prosecution of mercantile pursuits, I not only contemplated the practicability of penetrating across the continent of America, but was confident in the qualifications, as I was animated by the desire, to undertake the perilous enterprise.”

The North West Company was convinced that there was an overland route to the Pacific which would make them incalculably wealthy and they chose their best man to lead the expedition in 1789. He had already co-founded their northern outpost Fort Chippewayan and proven his leadership qualities in dealing with traders and natives alike.

Mackenzie knew the expedition would be dangerous but it was what the company wanted, and more importantly it was what he wanted. He knew that if he succeeded in crossing the land to the Pacific then his name would be made forever.

As he wrote in Voyages from Montreal Through the Continent of North America to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans in 1789 and 1793: “The general utility of such a discovery, has been universally acknowledged; while the wishes of my particular friends and commercial associates, that I should proceed in the pursuit of it, contributed to quicken the execution of this favourite project of my own ambition: and as the completion of it extends the boundaries of geographic science, and adds new countries to the realms of British commerce.”

Now no one would acclaim him as a literary stylist and indeed the book is largely written in the form of a diary listing just about every bird or animal his party of European and native explorers killed. But it shows how Mackenzie undertook the expedition which was to make his name even if it happened in a way that he did not intend.

Moving north to the Great Slave Lake, he learned from a fur trader that the local tribes maintained that a river flowed out of the far side of the vast expanse of the lake. As it flowed in a west to north-west direction, Mackenzie hoped that it would lead him to the Pacific. He had every right to presume that as he learned more from the native tribes who spoke of a river running all the way to a great ocean.

Remember, at that point no European had crossed all the way to the west, and the tribes themselves rarely ventured outside their own territories. As he travelled along the river that would one day bear his name, Mackenzie grew disappointed as it became clear each succeeding day that the river was heading north.

The historian Robert Waite summed it up: “The bravery and hardihood which carried him thousands of miles over the prairie and muskegs of the illimitable plains, down the rapids of great unknown rivers, over the ranges of almost impassable mountains, will always command the admiration of all who care for noble deeds.

“With a small party of Canadian voyageurs and Indians, in birch-bark canoes, Mr. Mackenzie started to explore the unknown regions of the North. Skirting the Great Slave Lake, he finally entered the Mackenzie River, and then began that long, deep plunge into the wilderness, which lasted many months, until he finally emerged on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, in Latitude North. Here he set up a post with his name and date of visit. The return voyage was fraught with many dangers and vicissitudes, but he finally arrived safely at Fort Chippewayan in September, 1789.”

Mackenzie had called the river ‘Disappointment’ but it now bears his name. He learned from his mistakes and, realising that he needed better measurements to make more accurate maps, he returned to London to study longitude, returning to Canada with some of the innovative instruments which were making the British the world leaders in navigation at that time. They were to prove of great assistance as Mackenzie set out on the journey which would make him a hero to the people of Great Britain and Canada and earn him a knighthood.

The official Canadian Government description of the monument to Mackenzie in British Columbia tersely describes what became known as the Peace River expedition:

“On May 9, 1793, Alexander Mackenzie of the North West Company set out from Fort Fork on the Peace River, near Fort Chipewyan, in search of the Pacific Ocean. He and his party canoed up the Parsnip River to its headwaters before moving overland to the upper Fraser River. Convinced that the Fraser was unnavigable, they backtracked to the West Road River and proceeded up its valley on foot.

“On July 19th they reached an Aboriginal settlement at Bella Coola and two days later they reached their destination, a rocky promontory where Mackenzie and his party spent the night of July 22, 1793.

“Mackenzie recorded his position and painted the following message on the southeast face of a large rock with grease and vermilion ‘Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three.’

“By August 24th the party was back at Fort Chippewyan having been the first men to cross the continent north of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean.”

The expedition was of course much more involved than that. Mackenzie saw and recorded all the wildlife of the area and wrote of his encounters with the tribes he met along the way. They were mostly friendly until they sampled what Mackenzie called ‘spiritual liquors’ when they became rather more menacing. He survived more than one occasion when it looked as though he and his companions might be murdered.

He also wrote in his memoirs of the realisation that he might have to turn back and fail: “My people could not, at this time, refrain from expressions of real concern, that they were obliged to return without reaching the sea: indeed, the hope of attaining this object encouraged them to bear, without repining, the hardships of our unremitting voyage. For some time past their spirits were animated by the expectation that another day would bring them to the Mer d’ouest: and even in our present situation they declared their readiness to follow me wherever I should be pleased to lead them.”

They did not turn back, and reached the Pacific – though the hostility of the native Heiltsuk people stopped any further progress. He went back to Fort Chippewyan and when news of the incredible feat reached the North West Company headquarters it was quickly transmitted to the Government in London. Anxious for a ‘victory’ in the interminable mess - to them - that was North America, Mackenzie was praised to the high heavens. When his book about his expeditions was published in 1801 it was an immediate best-seller and he was knighted the following year.

In his preface he wrote: “I am not a candidate for literary fame; at the same time, I cannot but indulge the hope that this volume, with all its imperfections, will not be thought unworthy the attention of the scientific geographer; and that, by unfolding countries hitherto unexplored, and which, I presume, may now be considered as a part of the British dominions, it will be received as a faithful tribute to the prosperity of my country.”

Mackenzie served a period as the equivalent of an MP in Canada before returning to Scotland. He married a 14-year-old heiress, Geddes Mackenzie of Avoch. He made his home there and in London, and they had three children before he took ill on a trip to Edinburgh and died near Dunkeld on March 12, 1820. His resting place in the cemetery at Avoch Parish Church is often visited by Canadians who recognise his greatness perhaps more than his fellow Scots.