Menace, Manor, Myth

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A guest post by Jill Martiin Bouteillier. Photographs by Sarah Beatrice (“Trixie”) Bouteillier.

For as long as I can remember, Sable Island was part of my family’s collection of narratives: whenever we visited my grandfather and great aunt in British Columbia their stories, expressions and memories brought that spit of sand floating off the coast of Nova Scotia in the North Atlantic into the room, where it leaped to life in vivid technicolour. Both Clarence, my grandfather, and his sister, Trixie, spent the better part of their childhood and young adulthood on the island where their father was the Superintendent. Robert Jarvis Bouteillier held that post from 1884 to 1913.

When I began my research for my two books on Sable Island, I realized that Sable Island exhibited multiple personalities: a deathtrap for the unwary or cocky, a warm hearth of gentle aspect, and a mysterious labyrinth inhabited by beasts and ghosts. Veritably, the stuff of myth.

Birthed by the confluence of two mighty currents, the Gulf Stream and the Labrador, Sable Island clings tenaciously to the edge of the Grand Banks. Its waters, teeming with fish, dared the Portuguese, Basque, French, English, American, and Italian fishermen to risk life and limb to fill their holds with the lucrative cod.

Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s flagship, the Delight, part of Queen Elizabeth I’s 1583 expedition to the new world, foundered in the deadly surf of the South East sandbar of Fagunda Island, as it was called by the Portuguese.

Richard Hakluyt, a young geographer, had been removed from the expedition at the last moment. He lived to meet the seven survivors of the Delight and to write their story. As more ships foundered in the Isle de Sable’s clutches, this temperate island in the middle of the Atlantic, was soon recognized by mariners as a place to avoid and earned the moniker, Graveyard of the Atlantic.

Once a permanent lifesaving outpost was established by the Colonial Government of Nova Scotia in 1801, men of strength and hardworking character added their names to the list of Superintendents. For six hundred pounds a year, these brave leaders dispensed justice, medical care, lifesaving expertise as well as managing supplies for the residents at the two lighthouses and four rescue stations ready to sacrifice their lives to save others. Although they were isolated in ways a modern dweller could never imagine, they raised their large families, grew massive gardens, and treasured the finer things like music in dwellings which rivalled the finest homes in Halifax.
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So when did Sable Island grow to mythic proportions?  I think it started with strange sightings of other worldly beings: ghosts of shipwrecked sailors, fishermen and lost travellers. With an estimated 2000 souls caught in the ribs of the shoals which stretch out from each side of the island, there is much fodder for spirits to linger. When the fog was just right, the sea conjured up fantastical forms. Those who saw them struggled to keep the vision secret, for fear of bad luck. But the stories were whispered around the fire—the lost coxswain, the bloody finger of Mrs. Copeland, the monk chanting his prayers along the north beach.

In addition to the spirit world, wild horses were left to range in the late 1700’s. With their arrival the island was touched by magic pixie dust. Imagine a place where hundreds of chestnut, sable and soft amber horses run free unhindered by man. Indeed some were trained to become work horses for the residents and some were sold in Halifax auctions, but many ran free in well-established gangs.  To such a place, scientists, photographers, politicians and poets came to watch in awe.

In 1858 a young Joseph Howe visited the Island. On his return to civilization, he wrote a poem about his transcendent experience on the island. What follows are the opening  and closing stanzas of his poem:

 

Sable Island

Dark Isle of Mourning–aptly art thou named,
For thou hast been the cause of many a tear;
For deeds of treacherous strife too justly famed,
The Atlantic’s charnel–desolate and drear;
A thing none love–though wand’ring thousands fear–
If for a moment rests the Muse’s wing
Where through the waves thy sandy wastes appear,
‘Tis that she may one strain of horror sing,
Wild as the dashing waves that tempests o’er thee fling.

Farewell! dark Isle—the Muse must spread her wing,
To seek for brighter themes in scenes more air,
Too happy if the strain she strove to sing
Shell warn the sailor of thy deadly snare;
Oh! would the dogs but hear her fervent prayer,
The fate of famed Atlantis should be thine—
No longer crouching in thy dangerous lair,
But sunk far down beneath the ‘whelming bring,
Known but to History’s page—or in the poet’s line.

Within days, he increased the funding to support the good efforts of the lifesaving station.

In 1905, the Skidby foundered on Sable Island. The Captain and crew were marooned on the island for a month. It was a long month during which no one including the ship’s owners knew the fate of their crew or cargo. Captain Pearson penned these lines:

 

Oh Isle of Sable, stormy Isle.
The tempests blasts around thee whirl
The angry seas around thee swirl,
Uncertain currents doth beguile
Good ships to doom; thou Sable Isle.

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Sable Island is all of that and more. I was honoured to be able to share a bit of the history and lore of this wild, beautiful place – still rugged and very isolated, but made accessible by companies such as Adventure Canada. For me, the most magical moment was on our second Zodiac ride to the island. Off the starboard side, the hull of the Skidby was visible below the turquoise sea. Myth became reality.


When Lunenburg Academy closed its doors in 2012, Jill turned the key on a thirty-year career in education, but the historian in her would not be silenced. Consulting for both the National Film Board of Canada (2003) and White Gate Films (2013 and ongoing) inspired her to develop her distinctly Maritime non-fiction voice. In 2015, Jill crafted the successful novel, Return to Sable. Her most recent work, Sable Island in Black and White (Nimbus) is a pictorial anthology of the island, narrated by compelling stories and illustrated with tintypes, glass plates, and old Brownie photographs. Jill sits on the Board of Directors for Friends of Sable Island Society. Join her in 2017 aboard our Sable Island expedition.