Wednesday, 2 October 2013

An Owl Oddity

              One of the more compelling curiosities at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic is a stuffed Snowy Owl in a glass case. This somewhat creepy object looks like it would be more at home in a Victorian nature diorama than a maritime museum, but the case contains a handwritten card with its story told in the first person - and from the owl's point of view:

“I was blown from my home on the "North Pole" in the winter of 1886 on the 17th February.
 I took rest on the topsail yard arm of ship "Ulunda" in Lat 48° 21" North. Long 44° 35" West.
I was captured and taken to London. Captain Hill showed me every kindness during the voyage but in London I was chloroformed and embalmed. Here I am, a warning to all owls.”

1) Snowy - in his case in the Visible Storage Display at the Museum
            Nova Scotia Museum History Collection/Maritime Museum of the Atlantic 68.114.1

Snowy, as I call him, must have been blown offshore in 1886. Somehow the exhausted owl found the tiny speck of the SS Ulunda as it steamed past the edge of the Grand Banks, over 600 kilometres from the nearest land.

Snowy owes his fate to Captain S. Roland Hill (1852-1910), the master of SS Ulunda, who seems to have possessed a sense of humour akin to the 20th century "Far Side"  cartoonist Gary Larson. Hill was one of the many accomplished deep sea mariners to sail out of Great Village, Nova Scotia. He went to sea as a boy in sailing ships and rose up through the ranks. Unlike most sea captains of his generation, he made the transition to steam ships. His command in 1886 was the almost brand new Ulunda. This vessel was an ambitious attempt by some Halifax merchants to get into the ocean liner business as they could see that the days of sail were numbered. They formed the Halifax Steam Navigation Company and had Ulunda built in 1885 by Stephen & Sons in Glasgow, Scotland. As an early ocean liner, Ulunda had steam engines but was also rigged with auxiliary sails. That rigging provided the yard arm for the owl to gain temporary refuge in the middle of the North Atlantic. Their small fleet was quickly bought out by a big British steamship company, the Furness Line. Ulunda was scrapped in 1911. Captain Hill prospered in the new world of steamships. He later commanded ships for the Plant Line and finished his career the steamboat inspector for the port of Halifax.

As for the poor owl, Capt. Hill had it put to sleep in London and mounted in a classic winter taxidermy scene surrounded by a glass dome. The glass broke during the return voyage to Nova Scotia so, according to the Hill family, the Captain "gave it free passage" back to London for a new glass dome. Hill kept the owl with him for the rest of his career and it was later inherited by a niece who donated it to the Nova Scotia Museum in 1968.

My thanks to Martin Hubley at the Nova Scotia Museum and Nan Harvey at the Colchester Historical Society Archives for extra details on Capt. Hill.

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