The Ballad of Isabel Gunn


58 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations
ISBN 0-919627-52-8
DDC C811





Reviewed by Michael O. Nowlan

Michael O. Nowlan was a teacher and writer in Oromocto, New Brunswick.


The poet’s work is limited only by the extent of his imagination. Stephen Scobie illustrates this in the clever adaptation of a little-known story from the annals of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Scobie’s imagination exacts full measure as he develops “the meagre documentary record with fictional speculations.” The story of the heroics of Isabel Gunn creates a national myth which Scobie aptly displays through a traditional ballad. Since ballads are part of the oral tradition, the formula works well. Since the Hudson’s Bay Company is now truly part of the mythical dimension of early Canadian history, this selection rightly makes the point of “this blankness, this despair, this final / Canada” of 1808.

The Ballad of Isabel Gunn is only one picture of the heroics and the hardships borne by people who came from the Orkney Islands to harvest the rich crop of furs that were “small fortunes in London.” Scobie’s narrative is one of love. It is told with feeling and colour.

Stephen Scobie, who is widely recognized as one of Canada’s leading poets, merits applause for the manner in which he handles history. His research of a rare story is a gem. His use of appropriate illustrations from the Hudson’s Bay Archives enhances the book and gives the story reality. Much of the early history of this country should be given new life in the same manner that Scobie uses in The Ballad of Isabel Gunn.



Scobie, Stephen, “The Ballad of Isabel Gunn,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 24, 2024,