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Article published January 1, 1999
From The Outer Hebrides to Cape Breton - Part I
By: Bill Lawson Biography & Archived Articles
In our survey of emigration from the Western Isles of Scotland, we come now to Cape Breton, the destination of more Hebridean Scots than any other part of the then British Empire. There were to be emigrants from England and Ireland in Gabarus and Margaree, and Acadian settlers in Cheticamp and Isle Madame, but otherwise, Cape Breton was to become another Hebrides, on the other side of the Atlantic.
The first group of island settlers to arrive was from Barra. The story is well-known of Donald Og MacNeil, who returned from the Siege of Louisburg in 1756 full of the praises of the Bras d'Or. Donald Og was killed at the Siege of Quebec in 1759, but he had left instructions at home on Barra as to the best area for settlement. It was forty years before his advice was followed, and two sets of MacNeils, fathers and sons, came from Pictou to prospect for a site for settlement, and eventually recognised in Iona the site which Donald Og had so strongly recommended. Family after family followed them from Barra, not through pressure from any landlord, but through the wish to be pioneers in a new land. One group of settlers came from the Island of Sandray, south of Barra, and it was they who gave the name to the village of Sandray, later known as Iona. Settlements were made on both sides of the Barra Straits. At this time, the kelp, or seaweed, industry was at its peak in the Scottish Islands, and the landlords were, if anything, trying to force their tenants to remain at home to provide a work-force for the kelp. When the kelp failed in the 1820s, then the landlords' policies changed to putting people off the land to make way for sheep. By this time, most of the shorelands from Ottawa Brook round Red Point, Jamesville and Iona to Gillies Point and Washabuck had been settled, and the later emigrants had to make do with the higher ground and the inland valleys.
On the other side of the Barra Straits, at Christmas Island, was another Barra settlement, based around Christmas Island and Benacadie, and stretching up the shore of the Bras d'Or to Boisdale. Family tracing in these two areas is made easy by two most valuable books - All Call Iona Home by S.R. MacNeil, and A History of Christmas Island Parish by A. A. MacNeil. The Grand Narrows Bridge now links the two communities which were officially separated by the political boundary between Victoria and Cape Breton Counties. There was another Barra settlement at a later date around Big Pond and Ben Eoin, but this is much less well served by written records than the others.
In the Barra settlements in Cape Breton, as at home in Barra itself, the most common surname by far is MacNeil, and there is little chance of being able to trace a family there unless with the aid of patronymics, nicknames and family by-names. S.R. MacNeil in particular uses the patronymic system, translated into English, and if his "John (Rory "Mor", Donald, Ruari) married Sarah (Rory, Donald "Og")" looks odd in print, it is a straight translation of Iain Ruairidh Mhoir mhic Dhomhnaill mhic Ruairidh, and Sarah Ruairidh Dhomhnaill Oig, and is the only feasible means of identifying their families among the MacNeils of the area. Although theirs is the most common surname in the area, there are also Campbells, Gillies and MacKinnons - many of the latter descendants of a Finlay MacKinnon who came to Barra from Elgol in Skye as a maor, or assistant factor. There were also MacLeans, noteworthy among them Lachlan MacLean of Washabuck, who had taken part in the Battle of Culloden! Another name found among the Barra families was MacCnais, anglicised as MacNash, but most of the family in Cape Breton dropped the Mac to become Nash, and apparently Irish!
I can still recall my first visit to Iona, and my shock when I realised that the Gaelic-speakers there still had as strong a blas of a Barra accent as their forefathers had brought with them in the early 1800s! On later visits to the Highland Village and to Christmas Island, my wife and I were fascinated to hear people willing to drop into Gaelic song at the drop of a hat, and prepared to keep going through an apparently inexhaustible repertoire. I also remember my delight on hearing one little boy ruefully admitting that although he could speak Gaelic, English and French, he had not really mastered Micmac yet! Heroic efforts were still being made then to keep a Gaelic children's group running, in the face of the official position which still pertained in the Scottish Highlands until recently, that somehow to be able to speak two or more languages made one inferior to those who could speak only one!
Further up the coast of the St. Andrew's Channel we have Boisdale, named after the village in South Uist, though many of the settlers here were from Barra. Leitches Creek and the backlands at Frenchvale and both the shores of East Bay were predominantly a South Uist settlement, as was the south-east shore of Boularderie Island opposite Boisdale. Across the hills to the south of East Bay, behind the mountain still called Sgurra Bhreac - the dappled sharp hill - is the settlement of Grand Mira, on the upper reaches of the Mira River, and here again was a South Uist settlement.
Emigration from South Uist followed the usual pattern from the Hebrides, except perhaps that it was earlier in starting. As we saw in previous articles, South Uist people started to arrive in Prince Edward Island in the 1770s, and, when that island was fairly full, began to spill on to the west coast of Cape Breton around Judique. As early as 1793, Rev. George Munro, in his contribution to the Statistical Account of Scotland points out - "The population of the parish has of late years considerably diminished. The great cause of the decrease of population in the parish is owing principally to the vast numbers that have emigrated of late years to the Island of St. John's, Nova Scotia and Canada." Again, these were no poor refugees, driven from their homes, but pioneers, who reckoned that a better life was available on the other side of the Atlantic than in their own crowded homeland.
It was in the 1820s that the villages in the Middle District of South Uist began to be cleared to make sheep farms. Kilvanan was cleared in about 1820, and Peninerine and Ormiclett in the later 1820s. The latter was the site of Clanranald's castle, which was accidentally burned down in 1716 while the Chief of Clanranald was at the Battle of Sheriffmuir, where he was killed. The last of the Clanranalds to live at Ormiclett was Miss Peigi, but after her death in 1826, the area was made in to a farm. Miss Peigi, but the way, is still remembered in South Uist for the amount of whisky made available for consumption at her funeral! (That story, by the way, is taken from our latest book - The Churches at Howmore - telling stories through the years of people and events connected with the Churches in South Uist!) The Kildonan area followed in the 1830s, and Bornish in the 1840s. A cadet branch of the MacDonalds had bought the small farm of Upper Bornish, and he had given land on his farm for many of those evicted from other villages, but in the 1840s, his farm was bought out by the owners of the rest of the island, and Upper Bornish too was cleared. Many of those dispossessed in the earlier clearances found spaces in other townships, but many more crossed the Atlantic.
The settlers in the area from East Bay to Boularderie also are well chronicled in A.J. MacMillan's invaluable To the Hill of Boisdale. MacDonald is of course the most common surname among the South Uist settlers, along with MacLeans, MacKinnons and others, along with the diagnostic names which we mentioned in the article on Prince Edward Island - Steele and O'Henley. Two names from South Uist derive from the days of the Clanranalds and their retinue, but both have changed their form over the years. The MacMhuirichs were the bards, but their descendants hide under the names of Currie and MacPherson, while the Beatons, the physicians, make themselves Bethunes, and claim a wholly spurious Norman-French origin! MacLellans, MacIntyres, MacIsaacs, MacMillans (MacMullins in Cape Breton) and Morrisons are also plentiful in this group of settlers.
As the original settlement areas became over-crowded, the younger generations moved out, some to the coal mines around Sydney and Glace Bay, but there was also a small movement to Baddeck and even to the fishing villages at the furthest north tip of Cape Breton, around Bay St. Lawrence.
Another group of South Uist settlers settled on the south shores of Lake Ainslie, and it was with pleasure that we wandered through the cemetery there, and especially to see a home made gravestone with the inscription - Walker, Laughlin Alasdair Iain 1852-1936, and Mary MacDonald, Niall Fhionnlaidh, 1865-1924 - Fois siorruidh gun robh aig an anam. (Walker, Lachlan son of Alexander son of John and Mary MacDonald, daughter of Neil son of Finlay. Eternal Peace be to their souls.
We felt very close to the Hebrides then!
Click Here for Part Two
By Bill Lawson Biography, books in print, professional researxh services & archived articles