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  • Captain Grant’s...gift?

    By Danda Humphreys

    Beautiful—and aggressively invasive—Scotch broom, introduced to Victoria 160 years ago by Captain Walter Grant.



    A hillside covered in Captain Grant's gift.


    A few weeks ago, bright yellow daffodils heralded (thank goodness!) the arrival of spring. And now, a solitary tulip pokes its bright yellow head over my balcony rail, saluting its cousins in the gardens below. And soon, all over Vancouver Island, we will see bright yellow flowers of a different sort.

    What sort? Here’s a clue: It rhymes with bloom, but it strangles tree roots, plants and flowers, so we take great delight in bashing it. It’s been with us since an early Scottish settler planted seeds in his garden in Sooke 160 years ago. And it’s the reason why (I know you’ve been wondering) there isn’t any clover on Clover Point.

    There were lots of Scotsmen around in the early days. From the early 1700s the London, England-based Hudson’s Bay Company had hired Scots because they could handle harsh climates and humble living conditions, and wouldn’t likely complain if there weren’t enough blankets or the wind was too cold. Those hardy adventurers sailed on HBC ships from the Orkney Isles, bound for Hudson’s Bay in Canada.

    Down near the bay’s south-west corner they built Fort Garry (now Winnipeg), and over the next one hundred years paddled and portaged their way west. Our very own James Douglas—he of the downtown street and community—was one of those early arrivals. Joining the HBC in Scotland as a young lad of 16, he worked his way up through the ranks and across this continent of ours. In 1842, looking for a site for the company’s new northern headquarters, he stepped ashore at Clover Point and trudged through knee-high red clover until he reached the Inner Harbour. By 1849 he was Chief Factor at Fort Victoria.

    Captain Walter Grant was a settler of a different sort. He was the first of many to be lured to Vancouver Island by the promise of 100-acre parcels of land at a fair price—one pound sterling per acre. Not bad for a would-be gentleman farmer, way back in 1849.

    Grant had few ties to the country of his birth. An only child of Scottish parents, he’d been orphaned at an early age and raised by relatives in genteel splendour. By the age of 24, he was a captain in the Royal Scots Greys. His future seemed bright until a bank failure cost him a substantial portion of his inheritance. Extravagant by nature and faced with escalating debts, he decided to sell his army commission and make a fresh start with the small amount of capital that remained.

    HBC contracted Grant as colonial surveyor, and he readied himself for the journey. In September 1849, a canoe glided into Victoria’s harbour, and Captain Grant—first independent settler on the colony of Vancouver’s Island—stepped ashore.

    All the choice agricultural land he’d been told about had been snapped up by HBC old-timers long before. Grant had no option but to look farther afield. He wanted to build a sawmill, which required timber stands and fast-running water, and he – sensing that he and Douglas might not see eye to eye—wanted to find a spot farther from the fort. That spot turned out to be T’Souke, or Sooke as we call it now—a place that in 1849 was totally isolated and populated only by First Nations.

    Today, the Sooke-bound traveller can stop at any one of a bevy of B&Bs and restaurants along the way. One hundred and sixtyish years ago, however, there wasn’t a pit-stop in sight. There was no road; just a simple, winding horse-trail that ended at Metchosin.

    Canoes transported Grant and his labourers 20 miles along the coast. They built dwellings and barns, cleared and cultivated land, raised stock and poultry, and set up a sawmill on a fast-running stream. Grant built a house on the ridge (now Grant Road) overlooking Sooke’s harbour.

    Success seemed assured. But fate—and his own ineptness—got in the way.

    Douglas, quickly realizing that surveying was not Grant’s forté, had hired Joseph Pemberton in his place. That was fine with Grant, who planned to market his lumber abroad. San Francisco and Hawaii proved far more pleasing to the tall, sophisticated captain than the untamed wildness of his new home, and the trips away from Sooke became more frequent.

    By 1854, disillusioned by troubles with his men and high export taxes imposed on his lumber, he sold everything, returned to England and rejoined the army. He later served in the Crimean War and died of dysentery in India in 1861, at the age of 39.

    Today, all that remains of the dashing Captain Grant is acre upon acre of the brush-like plants descended from seeds he brought back from his travels. Yes, it was Scotch broom that killed all the clover on Clover Point! A brilliant reminder of a long-forgotten man, just one of the many colourful characters who came—and went—in days gone by.

    Danda Humphreys is not a fan of Scotch broom, finding that its pungent aroma gets right up her nose. The full story of Captain W.C. Grant is in one of her books about the early history of Victoria. www.dandahumphreys.com.

    This story was published in the May 2007 edition of Focus Magazine.


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