In 2012 Stuart McAdam and Neil Scott built a canoe. Then they embarked on a grueling journey across Scotland, departing from the heart of Glasgow, arriving in Pittenweem on the Fife coast 10 days later, a trek that saw them navigating canals, rivers and the open sea. They filmed the building of their boat (posted on vimeo) and also their cross-country travels (entitled 'Union 2012'); the latter will be shown in an exclusive free screening at 2pm today and tomorrow, at DOK Artist Space in Leith docks.
The canoe was named after Helga Estby. In terms of epic quests, her story is surely one of history's most epic fails. A 19th century Norwegian immigrant to the USA, she married a fellow Norwegian, Ole Estby, settling in Minnesota before heading further west and buying a farm in Washington state. But cruel misfortune stalked the young family. Ole was badly crushed by a horse and unable to work for long periods. Their five year-old daughter Ida went blind. The farmhouse was badly damaged in a fire, the building uninsured. When severe economic depression struck America in 1893 the family faced financial ruin. Helga, now 33, came across an advert from a mysterious benefactor offering $10,000 to anyone who could cross America within seven months. A firm believer in women's suffrage, Helga was determined to win this prize. All she had to do was go for a long walk. All the way from Washington on the Pacific Coast to New York on the Atlantic: a journey of 3,500 miles.
In terms of epic quests, Helga Estby's story is surely one of history's most epic fails
Accompanied by her eldest daughter, 17 year-old Clara, with only a revolver for protection, the intrepid pair took odd jobs en route, their dogged progress documented in newspapers. Arriving at their destination on 23 December 1896, after facing wild animals, highwaymen and inhospitable terrain and wearing out 32 pairs of shoes, they trudged wearily into a metropolis bedecked in Christmas decorations, curious spectators trailing in their wake. But because they had set out on 5 May they were now 19 days beyond the deadline. The reward was refused and they had no option but to find lodgings until they could scrimp enough money for the train fare to Washington. Letters reaching them rarely lifted their spirits; especially when news came of Helga's 15 year-old daughter Bertha dying of diphtheria and her brother Johnny four days later.
Helga was shunned by the Norwegian-American community for having deserted the rest of her family on what was now widely seen as the wildest of goose chases. She decided to write a memoir about her trans-continental quest after Ole's death in 1913 as a way of generating badly-needed income. But her family had always regarded Helga's journey with shame, and after her death, two of her daughters, Ida and Lillian, destroyed the manuscript.
Helga's remarkable story remained to be passed on through oral tradition, as well as a scrapbook of newspaper clippings saved by her daughter-in-law, Margaret. She died in 1942 at the age of 81, embarking on the ultimate journey just as her adopted country was becoming embroiled in World War Two.