Obituary: Duncan Pryde

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The Independent Online
Duncan Pryde, trapper, explorer, writer: born 8 June 1937; twice married (one daughter); died 15 November 1997.

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.

He was one of five brothers and one sister, who were brought up in various orphanages in Scotland. At the age of 15 he joined the merchant navy, where he learned to be extremely tough and covered himself with lurid tattoos. Forced to resign due to an eye injury, he went to work in a Singer sewing machine factory, and was feeling bored when, aged 18 in 1955, he spotted an advertisement in the Glasgow Sunday Post looking for fur traders to go to the far north of Canada for the Hudson's Bay Company.

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 25 different words for snow, because in a snow environment it is vital to be able to distinguish between the different types.

From Baker Lake he was transferred to the remote Spence Bay, before going to the even more isolated Perry River. Here he had to deal with drunkenness, 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 womanising was the one black mark held against him: "He liked girls too much."

He learned to trap, put together a dog-team and travel with dogs, and was taught to harpoon seal and hunt caribou in the ancient Eskimo way. He also saw shamanism and witchcraft at first hand. On various hunting expeditions he was attacked by a polar bear and even more frighteningly was once charged by a grizzly, said to be 10 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 11 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. It also meant a much-reduced salary; realising he could not live on it, Pryde 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 Pryde in 1970 and Nunaga ("my land, my country"), a book about his life in the Arctic was published in 1972 and reprinted by Eland in 1985; whether or not he knew about the reprint will remain a mystery, as the publisher was unable to trace him. Ed Ogle, who wrote a long article about Pryde for Time magazine and helped with the book, said that many of his sexual exploits had to be cut 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 hungry, seeming to have lost all perspective of time.

While away he met his second wife, Dawn, and never returned to the Arctic. Instead, Duncan Pryde ended up quietly running a newsagent's shop 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 he was 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.