Along the Pentland Road, 25 May 2017

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Exodus from the Outer Hebrides to Canada

Lucille H. Campey spoke at Stornoway Town Hall last night on the above subject. She took a novel angle on what is a central theme in the history of the Highlands and Islands, namely with a focus on Canada rather than Scotland. It is not easy to summarise a 60 minute discourse within the confines of a blog, but will go so far as to describe Ms Campey’s stance as controversial.

The exodus to Canada from the Outer Hebrides as well as other parts of Scotland is well documented. Nova Scotia, Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island in the far east of Canada are littered with pointers to the settlement of people from western Scotland, in placenames, culture and traditions. The mechanism of this migration is the underlying issue, and focuses on the landlords and his tenants.

I’ll focus on the town of Helmsdale in Sutherland to make my point. Two years ago, a statue was erected there to celebrate the achievements of the Highlanders in Canada. I’ll be the last to deny that the Scottish diaspora has achieved great things in their new homelands, whether they be Canada, the USA, Australia or New Zealand - or wherever. Why weren’t the people of the Highlands and Islands not put into a position where great things could be done at home?

Reference was made to the 1886 crofting reforms, prompted by overcrowding and poor soil (according to last night’s speaker). Having read some of Lord Napier’s reports, there was good soil to be had in the Highlands and Islands, access to which was denied to the tenants of the local lairds. Ms Campey denied that coercion played a major part in the drive to emigration, something that I do not believe will go down well with those that are intimately familiar with the history of this region - I do not claim to be. There are some who will say that government, rather than assist in the emigration, should have assisted people to remain. That was not the spirit of the time. If people were unable to afford their rent, set arbitrarily by lairds or his agents, they could be evicted. Conditions at the time, particularly after the potato famine of 1846, were undeniably dire for both tenants and landlords. But a landlord, committed to his tenants, would have worked with them - as was asserted as early as the 1880s, see the Napier report.

The focus in last night’s discourse was on the opportunities afforded in Canada to those who emigrated there. A more egalitarian society, as opposed to the class society to be had in Great Britain. Start a new life in a wilderness, away from materialism and an unjust society. Many people did very well indeed, achieving a wealth that would not have been possible in Scotland. Others did not do very well at all. Some could not afford the crossing, and ended up owing the fare to the ship’s captain. And when he came to claim his debt, the emigrants would once again be left with nothing.

I’ll be the first to acknowledge and celebrate the achievements of Scots overseas. But I’ll also be the first to assert that a lot of emigration, even bearing in mind society in the 19th century, would not have been necessary.

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