The phrase “stand fast” has been on repeat in my head today, a fitting motto for these anxiety-laden pandemic isolation times.
On this date two weeks ago, after leading my last Rocky Mountains tour, I was due to fly from my family’s home in the Okanagan back to my home base in Vancouver, but cancelled my flight the day before because of the quickly compounding Coronavirus-related events. I decided, along with my family, it would be wiser to wait a few more days before heading back to the coast to see how things played out… two weeks later, I’m still here.
“Stand fast,” the story of Craigallechie, is one of my favourites to tell on tour, for its message of optimism in a time of grave peril, and it is indeed a fitting motto – no, battle cry – for these dangerous times. So take a break from the perilous reality for a moment and let me take you on a little adventure…
To Craigallechie! In Canada Craigallechie refers to a famous spot in British Columbia also known as “The Last Spike,” where the Canadian railway was finally completed and the last spike driven in. Nestled in between the lakeside town of Salmon Arm (yes, fish with arms, we like to keep things interesting in Canada), and Eagle’s Pass, stands the notoriously difficult-to-pronounce historical site of Craigallechie.
The word Craigallechie comes from the early days of Scotland, from the name of a hilltop lookout on the lands of Clan Grant, “The Rock of Alarm.” A lookout would light a beacon fire on this hilltop (like the real-world Beacon of Gondor) to warn the clan of imminent danger, raising the clan to stand fast and prepare to face whatever peril approached. “Stand Fast Craigallechie” became the slogan of Clan Grant.
Sir George Stephen, of Craigallechie ancestry, and the other managers of the Canadian railway had many impending dangers to face as they attempted to complete the world’s largest infrastructure project to date.
First of all, there was an urgency to build the rail and connect Canada’s two coasts as the Americans pushed their borders farther north, threatening to encroach on the vast, unpatrolled Canadian wilderness in between British Columbia and the Canadian provinces to the east.
Second, not unlike modern infrastructure construction projects, the ambitious and costly project was quickly losing public support due to scandals, accidents, irritating tourists, inconsiderate train robbers, and other undesirable things the railway brought or threatened to bring.
Finally and perhaps most urgently, they were running out of money. Bankruptcy was barrelling full speed towards them and they had to make a last stand, to light the beacon on the Rock of Alarm.
So it was with a wartime urgency that Sir George Stephen returned to Britain to try to save the railway in its final hour. He pleaded with investors in Britain to support the railway, or see the fledgeling country of Canada – the British Commonwealth’s foothold in the new world – fall into obscurity, possibly even facing American annexation (a phrase all Canadians from 1867 to today never want to hear, and a phrase that was equally infuriating to the ears of proud Britons at the time still reeling from the slap in the face of the American colonial revolt, aka “The American Revolution”).
Upon securing the funding at last, and over a century before the time of texting and Tik Tok, Sir George Stephen sent a message to his associates in Canada by telegraph declaring triumphantly, “STAND FAST CRAIGALLECHIE!” As telegrams cost their senders per letter he needed to be short and sweet, and knew they would interpret this to mean, “Stand fast and don’t give up, we got this bros, we’ve got the money, we can finish the railroad!”
And they did, naming the site where the last spike was ceremoniously driven in (twice – the first time Sir Donald Smith bent the official last spike like you bend a nail when you hammer it wrong) after the word they had clung to when all seemed lost: Craigallechie.
So, my friend, stand fast and don’t give up, whether you are watching the danger approach as numbers rise and madmen rave on the news, or whether you are already gasping for breath in the midst of the battlefield: stand fast. These are perilous times, but I hold on to the hope that one day I will be taking a fresh group of travellers to explore this historic site with fresh significance; perhaps you will come along and join me as we shout together, “STAND FAST CRAIGALLECHIE!”