The Jill Martin Bouteillier Interview

Jill Martin Bouteillier is the author of Return to Sable and was a consultant-historian for the National Film Board and White Gate Films. She worked on educational committees in BC and NS both developing and marking provincial exams. For many years she was an educator on Nova Scotia’s South Shore, serving as the last principal of Lunenburg Academy. She lives in Lunenburg with husband, Carl, and resident cock pheasant in a home overlooking the mighty Atlantic. From Thistles to Cowpies, now available from Crossfield Publishing, is her latest book.

What inspired you to write From Thistles to Cowpies?

Inspiration came from a variety of places, not the least was turning 70.  When I had retired from teaching in 2012, I decided it was time to finally explore the artefacts I had received on my mother`s death about the family’s connections to Sable Island. My great grandfather, Robert Jarvis Bouteillier, was the longest serving Governor on the island from 1884 to 1913. Clarence Bouteillier, his third born was my grandfather. He and a younger brother, Dick, and sister, Trixie left Nova Scotia for Saskatchewan in 1910.

In 2015, I self-published Return to Sable about the Bouteillier’s growing up on Sable Island. In 2016, Nimbus published my non-fiction, Sable Island in Black and White. It won the 2017 Atlantic Book Award for historical writing.

I had spent four years of retirement writing about my maternal ancestors. It was time to delve into my paternal ancestors, the Thomsons from the highlands of Scotland.

I started that journey the winter of 2017 digitizing my old black and white photos which led me to Ancestry. The discoveries about my Thomson roots started a fire. There is a book here and you need to write it.

My children had also asked if I was going to stop writing once the Bouteilliers had settled in Saskatchewan where I and my mother were born.

Fat chance, that.

I found my father’s Primary Scribbler in which he had drawn his letters and pictures when he was four in the Methlick Primary School. Brown and heavy paper with onionskin sheets between each page. A treasure. I discovered letters my dad had written in 1948 to the Peoples Journal, after his own father had died, in search of Scottish relatives. I read those letters and they stirred my narrative voice.

In 1986, five years before my father died, I and my daughter took him to Scotland. Dad met William Thomson, the illegitimate child of his father’s brother. How could I not tell the story? I had grown up hearing dad’s stories about the troop ship, the Zeppelins, dancing the fling onboard.

I wanted to keep alive an era that few have knowledge about and at the same time leave a legacy for my own children and grandchildren.

From Thistle to Cowpies tells the story of my mother, a Bouteillier and my father, a Thomson. How they came to be in Saskatchewan, how they met and how they lived during the dangerous years 1929-1945. How they grew up around blacksmiths, farms tilled by horses, and fox ranches. Such experiences are very foreign to readers today. The narrative structure leaped to the page as if it was writing itself. Open with the U Boat crossing in 1915 and then flash back to the planning of the leaving. Tell the Thomson story, then the Bouteillier story ending at the same point when my mother and father meet for the first time in 1929. Then delve head first into the stock market crash, marriage and WWII.

What was the process like as it relates to conducting Interviews for the book? It must have taken a considerable amount of time.

I lived the stories my parents told of growing up, meeting and all that went with that. My sister who is 13 years my senior and who is still alive, has a memory that continues to amaze me. She filled in a lot of gaps about the years before I was born, especially the war years. 

I was also fortunate to meet my cousin, Robert, the son of my father’s young brother who had photos of our Thomson ancestors while they lived in Scotland. One that he sent me a few months ago, taken in 1899 shows Wee Grannie Thomson and her eight children – before one died young and three left the Old Country for Saskatchewan.

For you personally, what was the biggest challenge or the most difficult part to finish?

Creating the love story and writing love scenes between my parents. They were in their forties when I was born. Learning things I didn’t want to know – embezzlement, disloyalty, secrets.

What stood out as a big learning experience from this book?

I learned a great respect for my ancestors who left the known to cross the Atlantic to a new land and an unknowable future were uncommonly brave. To do that in the mid-1700s or during WWI must have been equally terrifying.

I learned there is much more to know about my Scottish ancestors. Growing up, we had always visited my maternal ancestors. I knew more about them because of their growing up on Sable Island and their emigration to Halifax/Lunenburg in 1752 under General Lord Cornwallis protestant resettlement program in Nova Scotia. I wrote two books on Sable Island.  I live in Lunenburg. History is all around me.

In the 1700s, they sailed in two-masted ships, The Betty, Sally and Speedwell, none of which was more than 190-220 tons (about the size of the HMCS Bounty). These small, crowded dirty ships carried 60 to 100 families. On average, the crossing was 2-21/2 months. Many died at sea.

My Bouteillier ancestors from the province of Montbeliard received the Charter to emigrate. The parents died at sea. The four sons survived quarantine and disease of that first winter in Halifax before the government took them to Lunenburg in June 1753.

During WWI, my Thomson ancestors faced a different threat. The crossing was shorter, but the dangers from U Boats hunting convoys must have kept everyone on edge. Every day fear gnawing at them. Soldiers on board, amplified the terror of war. Many sailors on board were returning to Newfoundland following their 1 year commitment. My father and his sisters remembered the trip as only children can in danger. It was exciting. 

This is also the story of your parents too, correct?

My father emigrated in 1915 from a small croft Northwest of Aberdeen in the Scottish Highlands. He was 6, his two sisters, 9 and 7. Their mother and the children were on their way by train to Liverpool and ship to Saint John, NB and then train to Saskatchewan where they arrived December 24 1915. They sailed on the Pretorian, Allan Line.

My mother’s parents left Halifax in 1910 by train for Saskatchewan. My grandfather was a carpenter. The first thing he did was build a house at the corner of Avenue B and 32nd Street. My mother was born in that house April 1912. That same year, my grandfather built his homestead at 6 miles east of Viscount on the CNR line.

My mother’s father was a 6th generation of the Foreign Protestants who settled  in Lunenburg in 1753. I am an eighth generation Foreign Protestant.

Do you think there is a greater interest in one’s ancestry these days?

Yes, absolutely, people are more interested in Ancestry now. The appeal of non-fiction stories of ordinary and famous people continues to grow. Burrowing into the past, one might discover secrets or stories or crimes or long lost family members, the discovery of illegitimate children or marriages no one spoke about. I found cousins I didn’t know I had, descendants of five of my grandfather’s siblings. They are scattered across Canada, US and around the world. They are excited to read my book.

For more information on this book, please visit Crossfield Publishing’s website.

(Contributed)

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