THIS is the start of a new series on stories behind Celtic Connections events.

AS a huge admirer of Celtic Connections over many years, I am delighted to be “dropping in” on this year’s festival, telling the stories behind three of their events because of their intriguing aspects drawn from Scottish history.

I will be telling two more stories in The National on Tuesday, January 14, and Tuesday, January 21, so don’t miss them. First up, however, is the extraordinary tale behind The Voyage of the Hector.

This wonderful piece of music composed by John Somerville is part of Coastal Connections, a spectacular one-off “festival within a festival” taking place on January 18 in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall from 12 noon to 6pm.

Celtic Connections say: “In keeping with the festival’s strong commitment to roots music from and inspired by the edge of the Atlantic, Glasgow’s iconic venue will host some of Scotland’s greatest ‘coastal’ bands and emerging artists along with a few international surprises.

“Throughout the day there will be a packed programme of talks, film, storytelling and workshops in a unique opportunity to celebrate the rich heritage and diverse culture of the coasts and waters of Scotland.”

There will be musicians from more than 20 islands, coasts and peninsulas and the event features some of Scotland’s best known traditional musicians such as Capercaillie who were founded in Oban; Tiree-based Skerryvore; Hebridean super-group Daimh, North Uist’s Julie Fowlis; Gnoss and Fara, both from Orkney; fiddler Gillian Frame from Arran; and Ceol Nan Eilean from Benbecula.

There are plenty more artists to hear at Coastal Connections, and it looks a spectacular event.

My interest is in the Voyage of the Hector, commissioned in 2014 by Feis Rois, the wonderful Dingwall-based charity which does such extraordinary work across the country in encouraging and teaching traditional arts and Gaelic language. With support from Creative Scotland they were able to commission Somerville – one of Scotland’s best-known accordion players – to produce this outstanding suite.

It commemorates events which took place in 1773-74 which were at once utterly tragic but also ultimately inspirational as well as being a turning point in the history of both Scotland and Canada. I will explain its importance later, but first let’s tell the story of those events.

When a ship called the Hector made a treacherous voyage from Scotland to Canada in the summer of 1773, none of the passengers and probably only one or two of the crew knew what lay ahead of them.

The story of the people who emigrated in that fateful ship is best told by Donald MacKay in his book Scotland Farewell: The People of the Hector, and I commend it to you.

The Hector project began with the best of intentions. By the Crown and the United Kingdom Parliament, large swathes of Canada were declared “British” territories ripe for colonisation. Meanwhile many Scots were among the colonists in America and in 1772, they were mostly thriving and wanted to sell the attraction of emigration to the folk back home.

One of the most important immigrants to the then fledgling States was Dr John Witherspoon, a Church of Scotland minister famous for being the head of Princeton College in New Jersey. Witherspoon and others based around Philadelphia formed a company and joined with a merchant, John Pagan of Greenock, to buy land around Pictou, a known landing point in Nova Scotia in the middle of what were called Plantation lands. Witherspoon would famously help to draft the original Constitution and was the only clergyman to sign the 1776 Declaration of Independence.

READ MORE: Back in the Day: For science, not glory – the story of William Bruce

The pair advertised for Scots to come and settle on their land in Nova Scotia. Witherspoon had been a well-known clergyman back in Scotland and his word on the advertising bills must have been very persuasive. Also very persuasive was their agent, one John Ross, who offered a low-cost passage – £3 and five shillings for an adult – plus a year’s worth of free supplies and cheap land for farming.

While managing to attract 10 passengers in the Greenock area, Ross did most of his recruitment in his home territory, the Coigach area north of Ullapool, an area which had suffered badly following the Jacobite Rising of 1745-46 and the Government’s brutal suppression of Highland life after Culloden.

The National:

It should be noted that the people of the Hector were not driven out at the point of a musket or the blaze of a landlord’s torch. Sheer abject poverty exacerbated by the soaring rents demanded by the Government landlords caused many Highlanders to consider emigration. Coincidentally, in 1772, a petition went from the people of Coigach to the Forfeited Estates Commission which, as the name suggests, had taken over the lands that had formerly belonged to Jacobite lairds. The petitioners said they would leave if the rents were not lowered – the Commission said no, and John Ross was thus knocking at an open door when he went north.

IN all, 168 people from the northwest around Loch Broom and in parts of Sutherland signed up for the voyage to Canada. We know with some certainty who the vast majority of them were and a list of names can be seen online following many years of research by their descendants and academics.

Their names are a litany of the Highlands’ finest – Fraser, Grant, McDonald, McKay, McLeod, Ross and Sutherland. There were 23 families and 25 single men. All but a few were illiterate and spoke only Gaelic, though a young teacher, William McKenzie, was aboard and as a well-educated son of a landowner, he spoke both English and Gaelic.

At the very last second, one man decided to join the adventure. He was a bagpiper, Willie McKay, and the legend is that the ship’s master, Captain John Spiers, wanted him put ashore because he couldn’t pay his fare only for the other passengers to be so affected by his music that they clubbed together to pay McKay’s costs. It was McKay who later collated the first passenger list of the Hector.

READ MORE: Back in the Day: When the right of patronage split the Kirk in half

The emigrants began to gather at a camp on the shores of Loch Broom and on July 8 or 10, 1773, they were rowed out to the Hector which set sail from the Loch with 189 passengers aboard. The voyage was anticipated to be six weeks at the most, and it appears that the crew and passengers settled together into a routine aboard the cramped vessel. We know how cramped Hector was, as a full-size replica lies in Pictou Harbour.

The timing was crucial – arrive in mid-August and crucial preparatory work could be done for the winter ahead. Arrive late and there would be trouble ahead.

The Hector was a Dutch-built brig of 200 tons, and to say the least, she had seen better days. Mostly engaged in trade around Britain, she had made one previous trip across the Atlantic, taking immigrants to Boston, but an old ship is a slow ship, and the Hector struggled to make headway.

Conditions on board deteriorated badly. Supplies began to dwindle and sickness broke out. A combination of smallpox and dysentery started to claim young lives in particular. Some 18 children and infants out of a total of 70 youngsters died from disease on the voyage. All were buried at sea.

Horrific stories of starvation were handed down in the oral tradition of the Gaels including the claim that those on board were reduced to eating worms from the rotting planks of the Hector. The ship was nearing the coast of Canada when it encountered harsh gale-force conditions which caused a delay of 14 days in the westward travel.

Eventually, Captain Spiers brought the ship into Brown’s Point west of Pictou on September 15, 1773.

The people of the Hector arrived to devastating news – the land they had been promised lay three miles from the town and was still virgin forest with no possibility of planting crops. There were no homes for them and no shelters, and the promised supplies were being kept well away from them.

The villain of the piece was John Ross – he had a contract with Witherspoon to bring more than 220 “full freight passengers” that he would supply with provisions for a year. He also threatened the settlers that they would get nothing if they did clear and improve Philadelphia company land.

More than a century later Alexander MacKenzie, a descendant of one of the Hector’s passengers, researched what happened to them and wrote: “Most of them sat down in the forest and wept bitterly; hardly any provisions were possessed by the few who were before them, and what there was among them was soon devoured.”

Some of the new settlers took matters into their own hands and seized supplies from the stores – they apparently left a receipt and paid back the cost in later years.

We do not know how many died in the months after their arrival, but it is certain that while many of the Scots made off to other parts of Nova Scotia and on into the rest of Canada, a hardy community from the Hector stayed behind and sustained each other through that winter until they could develop Pictou. The importance of the people of the Hector is that while they were not the first Scots into Nova Scotia, theirs was the first example of a whole community embarking for a new life in Canada. Had they failed to settle in Nova Scotia, or failed to survive at all, the news would have gone back to Scotland and emigration might well have been seen as a worse option than staying poor and oppressed.

Instead, the people of the Hector stayed and eventually thrived, becoming leaders in the land they made their own. It is estimated that there are 140,000 descendants of Hector people in Canada and the US.

In an otherwise fine BBC documentary on the Hector, Neil Oliver rather over-eggs the pudding with his statement: “Today these settlers are celebrated as the founding fathers of Nova Scotia and their ship is memorialised as Canada’s Mayflower.”

Whoever originated that claim just got it wrong. Mayflower’s voyage was 153 years earlier and the 400th anniversary will be celebrated massively in the US later this year. Its passengers were the original White Anglo-Saxon Protestants – they were all Anglicans or Puritans – whose foundation of a colony at Plymouth in Massachusetts was key to the development of the US through immigration. Pictou, by contrast, was an established entry point in Nova Scotia in 1773, and while the Hector’s people can claim to have had a massive influence on parts of Nova Scotia and, by extension, Canada as a whole, by no means were they the founding fathers as the province had been in existence for decades.

There was one appalling similarity, however. Between the journey, the delayed arrival in America and the deadly winter of 1620-21, almost half of the passengers and crew of the Mayflower perished. It can be argued that the Hector’s people got off lightly, though as we have seen, 18 of them died on the voyage alone.

I hope this brief history of the Hector and her passengers has been of help to those who will attend the Coastal Connections festival-within-a-festival on January 18. I am afraid I will be out of the country that day or I would not miss it, and I can only encourage readers to go along and hear some of the best music on the planet.