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Article published September 10, 1999

From The Outer Hebrides to Cape Breton - Part II
By: Bill Lawson   Biography & Archived Articles

Bill Lawson at Home in the Hebrides In our previous article we wrote of the large scale emigration from the islands of Barra and South Uist, and the Roman Catholic settlements they established in central Cape Breton.

It is one of the quirks of the history of the Western Isles that the islands of the Uists were divided between two branches of the MacDonalds, with North Uist belonging to the MacDonald of Sleat in Skye, and South Uist and Benbecula belonging to the MacDonalds of Clanranald. Clanranald were always Roman Catholic, and South Uist remained so also, while North Uist followed the family of Sleat into the Presbyterian branch of the church. Benbecula was originally Roman Catholic also, but estate policy there favoured the replacement of local tenants by Protestant families from North Uist, resulting in a mixture of denominations.

North Uist also had its massive emigration to Cape Breton, beginning rather later than the South Uist moves, and a Presbyterian community was built up in the south west of the island, especially around, Gabarus, Catalone and the Mira, with an off-shoot around Loch Lomond, in the highlands above the Bras d'Or.

The Western Isles of Scotland The earliest major emigration from North Uist was not until the 1820s, as there does not seem t have been the same religious and economic pressure to emigrate as there was in South Uist. In 1826 the villages of Kyles Berneray, Baile Mhic Phail and Baile mhic Conon at the north-east corner of North Uist were cleared of their people - the first real clearance in North Uist - and although many of the families dispossessed moved to the boggy lands of Loch Portain further to the east, a certain number decided to join a move to Cape Breton. A rental of North Uist in 1827 shows against the names of over fifty families the note "Gone to America" - which in this context means Cape Breton.

The emigrants were leaving for all sorts of reasons, but mainly economic. The kelp trade, which had provided the main income of the island since the days of the French Revolutionary Wars, had failed, and although the landlords still accepted work on gathering and drying seaweed as a form of payment of rent, its value had dropped so greatly that some years it was not worth the cost of selling the kelp. With their main source of income gone, the crofters could not pay the higher rents that had been charged in the hey-day of the kelp-trade, and in North Uist the landlords, realising this, began to reduce the rents. In 1827 the croft rents were reduced by an average of 20%, but this was not enough to prevent large scale emigration.

Most of the families who emigrated came from the north shores of North Uist - no doubt they were seeing what had happened in the Baile Mhic Phail area, and were moving out before they in turn were forced out, but many families went from other areas too, where there was never any threat of eviction. This is typical of emigration patterns at the time - it is a gross over-simplification to assume, as is frequently done today, that all emigrants leaving the Highlands and Islands of Scotland did so under duress from their landlords. Many were forced out, but on the same ship that took them to Canada there were also emigrants moving out for economic reasons, and younger sons who realised that there was no future for them in a land which at its best could only offer them a small share of a croft which at its best could maintain a family at subsistence level. The newspapers of the day are full of advertisements for fare-paying passengers to Nova Scotia and Quebec, and hundreds of families who still could raise the cash to pay the fare took the chance to leave their homeland and become pioneers in the New World.

Among those leaving at this time was a family of MacAulays. They had lived for generations on Baleshare - a tidal island off the west coast of North Uist. By 1827 the family consisted of Neil MacAulay and his five sons - Donald, Ranald, Neil, Archie and Angus. The Baleshare crofts comprised on average 10 to 15 acres - large enough by island standards - but incapable of maintaining five families. The normal pattern was for one son to remain on the croft and the others to move elsewhere, but in this case the whole family group had decided to move to Cape Breton. They left in 1827 and settled at the head of Catalone Lake, south of the entrance to the Mira.

As economic conditions in the Uists worsened, and no doubt heartened by the good reports coming back from Cape Breton, the numbers of families leaving increased to a torrent, and they spread along both shores of the Mira up to Marion Bridge. Among this group of settlers were the brothers Donald and John Lamont, who settled one on either side of the Mira - and it is from this family that Mairi-Sine, the Gaelic singer, is descended. Another family, well-known in North Uist, were the MacCodrums, or MacOdrum as the name is usually spelled in Cape Breton. John MacCodrum - Iain macFhearchair - was one of the classical Gaelic bards in Uist, and his cousin Donald was among the North Uist men to settled at Mineral Rock, on the north shore of the Mira.

Others settled along the sea-coast from Louisburg south to Gabarus and as far as Belfry Lake, among them another family of MacAulays, this time from Malaclete in the Sollas area, who settled on the shore at Kennington Cove. They are known in Uist from having the family name Sgaire - usually rendered into English as Zachary or Zachariah. This is an old name, usually found in Lewis, and there also among MacAulays. It is generally recognised that the Lewis MacAulays are of Norse origin, while those of the Uists are from the Lennox area around Loch Lomond, so the presence of the name Sgaire in this North Uist does create a puzzle.

As the best land was taken up, the later settlers had to take back-lands south of the Mira to Trout Brook and New Boston, but many of these back-lands were of marginal agricultural value, and most of them have reverted once more to forest.

A few years later than the main Mira settlement, in the 1830s, a group of families from North Uist settled to the south-west of the Mira, in the area of Loch Lomond, in the hills above the Bras d'Or. This settlement straddled to boundaries of Cape Breton and Richmond Counties, with, on the Cape Breton side, Enon, where some of the family of Angus MacDonald, an Saor Mor, the big Carpenter, from Carinish settled. On the Richmond side, on the shores of Loch Lomond itself, settled a group of MacCuish families. MacCuish was an old name in North Uist, though it was never very common, and it is said to have been derived from Mac-Dubh-Sith - the son of the Black Fairy! However that may be, the Christian name Dubhsith was at one time common among the MacCuishes, and, although it was soon lost in Uist, in Cape Breton it remained, in the forms of Dushie, Duffus and even David!

There were also other, smaller, North Uist settlements - at Marble Mountain on the south-west shores of the Bras d'Or, and on the Morrison Road between Glace Bay and the Mira, but for some reason none of the North Uist settlements seems to me to have retained its identity to quite the same extent as some of the South Uist and Barra settlements. Perhaps I am wrong in this, and indeed I would be very pleased if that was the case, and would be very happy to respond to any invitation to attend a North Uist ceilidh in the area on our next visit to Cape Breton!

By Bill Lawson   Biography, books in print, professional researxh services & archived articles




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