Obituary: Duncan Pryde

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system