The libretto is based on historical records and on the book The Ballad of Isabel Gunn by Stephen Scobie.
1806. The Orkney Islands, at the north of Scotland: a bare and elemental landscape. Recruiters from the Hudson’s Bay Company are signing up men to work in Canada, among them John Scarth, who is returning for a second term. Scarth meets a young woman (“Isabel”), and they fall in love. Aghast at the prospect of their separation, she proposes that she disguise herself as a man and accompany him. He tries hard to dissuade her, to no avail. She signs the contract, under the name “John Fubbister.” Also signing is a man called James Brown.
During the crossing, Scarth seems to retreat from her and become more distant. He tells her that they will be posted on opposite shores of the Hudson Bay, and will be separated for the whole winter. Isabel settles to the job and works well, as strongly as any man. The coldest of the winter sets in. Isabel sends a letter to Scarth, carried by James Brown, who is caught in a blizzard and loses three toes to frostbite. In her letter, Isabel recalls their days of love on Orkney, and laments their separation; Scarth’s reply is equivocal. Returning, James Brown reveals to Isabel that Scarth has a Chipewyan woman, a “country wife,” by whom he has had two children, both dead. Devastated, Isabel realizes that she has been abandoned in Canada, “nameless and alone.” (Once, in the ﬁelds of Orkney)
In the spring, a fresh company arrives, including a dashing young man from Fife, David Spence Junior. One of the men of the chorus walks on stage playing a ﬁddle. Isabel and the men begin to dance to the music of the “Jig”. The men twirl around, changing partners frequently. When Davie Spence dances with Isabel, he is incredulous, as he immediately recognizes that “John Fubbister” is a woman, and they fall in love. She whispers to him her true name. Scarth also arrives in Albany, but Isabel spurns him. She and Davie make exuberant love, but then Davie and his men have to leave Albany. Isabel, Scarth, and James Brown head south towards Pembina. (And as we move south)
Suffering morning sickness, Isabel realizes that she is pregnant. (When I knew) Davie writes a letter pledging his return. Isabel goes to Pembina to meet him, only to ﬁnd that he has been drowned in a boating accident. Once again she is left alone. (Grassﬁres are Burning on the Prairie) Isabel gives birth to a son on December 29th, 1807. Scarth accepts the blame as “seducer” and as father of the child, giving her money before he leaves. Isabel in secret knows that the boy’s true father is Davie. Isabel becomes the object of scorn and salacious gossip, and is set to traditional “women’s work.” At the end of her three-year contract, she and her son are shipped back to Orkney, where they become beggars on the roads. But she does survive, and claims her name. (Lullaby)