Through our contacts overseas, and our own research, mainly in Canada, we have a good knowledge of the main areas to which Islanders emigrated at different times. A few must have left the islands, deported after the Jacobite rebellions, but they would have been few, and the chances of tracing them remote. The social upheavals after 1746 led to a mass migration of tacksmen and their subtenants, but this affected mainly Skye, though a few from the Outer Isles also left at the time, mainly for Carolina. An eruption of Hecla in Iceland in 1755 led to bad harvests for several years thereafter, and there was a major emigration from Lewis to the USA – to New York and Pennsylvania States – indeed the largest number of emigrants known to have left Lewis in one year was in 1772-73, when 831 emigrants are noted, though unfortunately not by name. The threat of religious persecution led to an emigration arranged by the Roman Catholic Church to Prince Edward Island, mainly from South Uist and Barra, beginnings with the Alexander in 1772. In the early 1800s, there was another move from Lewis to the Gulf Shore in Nova Scotia.
Legislation was brought in, ostensibly to alleviate the overcrowding which was a problem with many of the early emigrant ships, but by increasing the amount of space and supplies required on board, it also increased the fares beyond what most would-be emigrants could raise. Nonetheless, many islanders were still able to utilise their meagre earnings from the kelp to fund emigration. The War of 1812 with the USA effectively closed that country to all but a few emigrants, and the focus of emigration changed to Cape Breton, along with continued settlement in PEI and a small number to New Brunswick.
In Cape Breton, settlers from Barra concentrated around the Barra Strait in the Bras d’Or, while South Uist went mainly to Grand Mira and the Boisdale and East Bay areas. North Uist went to Catalone, Gabarus and Mira, while Harris went to Grand River, Framboise, and St Anns. There were few settlers from Lewis at this point, and these were concentrated at Little Narrows and at St Anns. Because the early emigrants to Cape Breton tended to settle in groups, we have often been able to identify their origins from their neighbours.
With the slackening of the restriction on emigration in the 1820s came the collapse of the kelp industry, and much of the population of the Hebrides became redundant, from the point of view of their landlords. Emigration was now encouraged, and in some cases enforced, and the flow of families, to Cape Breton in particular, became a flood. Even there, there was not enough good land for all, and there were settlements in the back glens which by their very nature were short-lived, and many families had to move on to the new industrial mining centres of Glace Bay etc.
The problems in the Islands were exacerbated by potato blight in the mid-1840s, and the consequent famine. Cape Breton was suffering from the same problem, so emigration there virtually ceased. Landlords at home were faced by another problem – the new Poor Laws would make them responsible for poor relief in their own areas, so it was to their advantage that as many people left as possible. No longer was it those who could afford the fares who left – those who had lost all in the famine were forced to leave – sometimes forced by economics, and sometimes by the landlords.
The Highland and Islands Emigration Society was set up, with Government assistance, to provide assisted passages to Australia. In the Outer Hebrides, the landlords of Harris and North Uist took advantage of the Society’s help, and almost 10% of the population left for Australia between 1850 and 1860. The Society kept records of all their passengers – they hoped for repayment of the moneys they had advanced – so there are detailed passengers lists for each ship, showing where the passengers embarked and where they disembarked, though unfortunately there are no records of where they settled eventually.
The landlords of Lewis and South Uist and Barra preferred not to work with the Society, but organised their own emigrations to Canada. There had been a Lewis settlement in the Eastern Townships of Quebec since the late 1830s, and emigrants’ fares were paid either to join them, or to go further west to Bruce County, Ontario. South and North Uist families concentrated on Middlesex County and the surrounding areas of Ontario.
Because these emigrations generally took place after the first census of Scotland in 1841, it is generally possible to trace the emigrants and their families – though in Bruce County, for example, there were so many MacDonalds from the West-side of Lewis that they are still difficult to disentangle! From the 1880s, settlement in Canada moved on to the Prairies, and by this time we can be almost certain to identify families.
At the moment, the database deals with families up to 1920, though it is hoped to include the major emigrations of the 1920s in the next version of the database.
So, enjoy the database! If you are not sure how to use it, look under the heading of www.hebridespeople.com/shop/hp-products/. Basically, you buy a number of credits to let you into the system, and from there on, you can access the system by entering details of names, dates and places, if known. Do remember that the data-base is Mark 1, and an extension will follow later, so if you do not find the family you are looking for, we may still have information, so e-mail us, and we will see if we can help.
(With thanks to Bill Lawson)
Check out my Scotland's Greatest Story research service www.ScotlandsGreatestStory.co.uk
New book: It's Perthshire 1866 - there's been a murder... www.thehistorypress.co.uk/products/The-Mount-Stewart-Murder.aspx (from June 12th 2012)