With the Crofters to Canada

Archaeologist Keith Branigan uncovers clues revealing the patterns of emigration from the Isle of Barra to British North America, from 1770 to 1850.

The Highland Clearances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are one of the most notorious and well-documented episodes in Scottish history. Thousands of crofters and their families in the Highlands and Islands were forcibly removed from their tiny tenancies. Some were sent off to the burgeoning industrial towns of the Scottish lowlands, others were shipped to Canada or even to Australia and New Zealand. One of the last ‘clearances’ was conducted on the Isle of Barra, at the southern end of the Western Isles in 1850 and 1851, by its new landlord, Colonel Gordon of Cluny (1774-1858).
The 8km-long Barra, was first settled around 4000BC by farmers who cleared the light tree cover to build homes, graze sheep and cattle, and grow barley. New settlers from Ireland arrived in the early Middle Ages and established the clan Macneil. The population grew rapidly in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, due to the introduction of the potato, development of a fishing industry, the opportunities for military service and the rise of the kelp industry. By 1820, however, kelp, fishing and soldiering were all in decline and the estate went into debt. The last of the direct ancestral line of Macneils had to sell the island in 1840, and ten years later came Colonel Gordon’s clearance.

Of the 132 families who were evicted in 1850, some ended up in Glasgow and others in Australia. The 450 victims of the 1851 clearance were all shipped off on a single vessel, the Admiral, to Canada, the more fiercely reluctant of them ‘bound hand and feet’ according to a priest who watched their departure. An eye-witness to their arrival in Quebec described them as ‘destitute of clothing and bedding; many children of nine or ten years old had not a rag to cover them’; he saw one man who had no clothes but a woman’s petticoat. They eventually disappeared into the smaller townships and open spaces of Ontario.

Among these tragic figures were the people of Balnabodach, a small settlement on the east side of Barra. The ruins of their abandoned homes were found while an archaeological team from the University of Sheffield were undertaking a survey of Barra in 1990, and between 1996 and 2000 we excavated three of them. These were ‘blackhouses’ thick-walled, round-cornered structures with low walls, one or two small windows immediately beneath the roof, and a single door set back into the thickness of the wall. Inside they were indeed black, not only from a lack of daylight but because the open hearth in the centre of the floor had no chimney, and the sooty smoke filtered out through a small hole in the roof, leaving a thick deposit of soot on the underside of the thatch. In such conditions, and with nothing but a beaten earth floor, it was easy for them to lose anything they dropped, but to judge from the few items we found when we excavated the houses, they had very little to lose. A thimble here, a bone button there, the broken hinge of a box in which had perhaps been kept a simple copper ring and necklace of blue glass beads, and a few fragments of clay pipes – these were left behind when they were bundled from their homes and on to the Admiral in August 1851.

This traumatic episode was not the last time that the small island  sent its sons and daughters to Canada; people continued to emigrate from Barra throughout the nineteenth century and beyond, but the difference was that thereafter they did it from choice to seek a better life. In that sense the clearances are  a short, unhappy aberration in a much longer and happier story that begins around 1770.

The first Barramen to cross the Atlantic in any numbers were those who joined the army and fought for king and country, and – more importantly to them – for a wage, against initially the French, and then the rebelling American colonists. Many of these men returned home when their service was done, but others took up grants of land in the expanding provinces of British North America. Some veterans of the 82nd Regiment settled on land at Malignant Cove and Cape St George on the north coast of Nova Scotia in 1785. As a sergeant, John Macneil was granted 300 acres, while privates like Murdoch and Donald Macneil received 100 acres. In Barra, as crofters, they would have held just three or  four acres, and those as rent-paying tenants on annually renewable leases which could, and often were, terminated at short notice. The land grants offered to veterans provided these ex-islanders with a once-in-a-lifetime economic opportunity, which they seized with alacrity.

At about the same time, another group of Barra people had arrived on the Island of St John (renamed Prince Edward Island in 1800) just fifty miles away, across the waters of the Gulf of St Lawrence. These settlers were not soldiers, but eight Catholic families who had joined an enterprise headed by John Macdonald of Glenaladale in Argyllshire. His motivation for organising an emigration to Canada was to avoid economic ruin and religious persecution, for himself and his fellow clansmen. Landlords were raising rents, and a new spirit of persecution had taken hold in the highlands and islands. Macdonald was encouraged, and financially supported, by the Scottish Catholic Church who saw the threat of mass migration as a way of bringing pressure to bear on the landlords who did not want to lose their rent-paying tenants.

Macdonald purchased lot 36 on St John on which to settle over 200 emigrants, intending to recruit them from the Catholic families from the Clanranald estates on the mainland and South Uist. When he failed to find sufficient there, he turned to Barra and recruited eight families to join the group. Their spokesman was Allan Mackinnon, a carpenter, but neither he nor any of his fellow islanders were able to sign the agreement they made with Macdonald when they arrived in Charlottetown harbour on June 22nd, 1772 – they were all illiterate, and simply put a cross alongside their names.

The fireplace inside the living room of the 'Macdonald' house, built in Cape Breton in 1829. Courtesy of the author.
This document, which today lies in the public archives of Prince Edward Island, shows what a remarkable deal was being offered to these families. They were to be tenants of 150 acres each of good farming land, at an annual rent initially of 12/6d (1d per acre), rising over a period of twenty-seven years to 1/6d per acre. The rent was then to remain at that level throughout the period of the lease – which was to be a mere 3,000 years! On Barra their three- or four-acre plots of poor-quality land were costing them £3 or £4 per annum. Yet the families’ dislike of landlords and tenancies was so great that within six months of their arrival on Prince Edward Island, five of the eight had paid a penalty to free themselves from Macdonald’s lease and gone off to acquire land for themselves elsewhere.  

From this time onwards there was a steady flow of people from Barra to Canada. Sometimes the flow was little more than a trickle of individual families, at other times it was a surging tide carrying hundreds across the Atlantic in a single year. One such surge came in 1790-91 (at which time the 1791 census records 1604 people in the parish of Barra) and, significantly, was the first time the activities of emigration agents are noted, and also of Barra families opting to settle in Nova Scotia rather than Prince Edward Island. An emigration agent called Fraser was said to have promised the Barra people ‘undisturbed profession of their religion and free property’, offering to provide them with a ship on condition they could muster 300 emigrants. Around 120 were found in Barra itself, and the numbers made up with others from the Uists and the Scottish mainland. They sailed for Prince Edward Island in the 200-ton brig Queen , arriving in September 1790. Some of the families stayed on the island, but others crossed to Nova Scotia and settled in Antigonish. The Queen made a second run the following year with 300 passengers from the Western Isles, and  these, too, dispersed in both Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia.

Although by 1794 the Reverend MacQueen was able to say of Barra  that ‘the spirit for emigration is now happily and totally suppressed’, it had broken out again in less than a decade, with both Nova Scotia and the agents playing a far more central role than previously.

The emigrations between 1770 and 1790 had been fuelled by a desire for economic freedom and to escape anti-Catholic discrimination, but the emigrants had been dependent on the provision of free or subsidised passages, or had been among the few who could afford the £3 to £4 needed for their fares. Once the Napoleonic Wars were under way the situation changed. Not only were families able to supplement their meagre incomes from the wages earned by those who joined the army, but the loss of Spanish barilla imports (used in glass and soap manufacture) saw the price of kelp, produced by burning seaweed, an abundant product of the Western Isles, increased by 300, 500 and eventually 1000 per cent. Although it was the landlords who made the big profits from kelp manufacture, the crofters were able to accrue savings on a hitherto unknown scale. Suddenly, the cost of a transatlantic crossing became the product of a single year’s hard work, rather than six years of ceaseless labour and desperate saving.
At the same time, the emigration agents became highly active in the highlands and islands. In 1801-02, Hugh Dunoon, a native of Rosshire who had served with the army in North America and settled in Nova Scotia, arranged for two ships, the Sarah and the Dove , to carry several hundred emigrants to Nova Scotia. Landlords, anxious not to lose the labourers who cut and processed their kelp, tried desperately to find ways of preventing the exodus, but for the moment were unsuccessful. The ships sailed from Fort William in June 1801, with 258 and 180 registered passengers respectively. The passenger lists survive, and not one of the emigrants is said to be from Barra; yet other records show that a large but unknown number of Barramen and their families arrived in Nova Scotia on these vessels. Clearly, after the ships left Fort William they called at Barra and picked up further passengers – even though they were already well loaded. The following year, one of the Barra passengers on the Sarah , James Macneil of Brevig, returned to Barra and encouraged the rest of his family to emigrate to Nova Scotia. He must have painted a glowing picture of the opportunities the New World presented, for later that summer 370 Barra people left for Canada on a ship, the Hector , owned by one of James’ brothers, Hector Ban Macneil. James, however, was unable to make the return journey; he had been drowned in the Minches whilst sailing to Skye.

The emigrations of 1801-03, not just from Barra but from other parts of the highlands and islands too, caused near panic among the landlords, who saw their rent-payers-cum-kelpers disappearing in large numbers. In 1801-02 an estimated 6,000– 10,000 departed, while in 1803 the figure was 10,000–20,000. The estimates, provided by the landlords, were certainly inflated but they had their effect. In 1803 the government introduced a Passenger Act, ostensibly to make the transatlantic passage safer and more comfortable for passengers. Its most significant effect, however, was to raise the cost of a ticket to Canada from £3–£4 to £10– £12. This had the desired effect of dampening the emigration fever.

It did not, however, prevent further small-scale emigrations taking place and there are records of people leaving Barra for Nova Scotia in 1804 and 1805. The emigrants of 1801-02 had landed at Pictou on the north coast of Nova Scotia but the vast majority made their way northwards, across the narrow Strait of Canso to Cape Breton. Earlier Barra pioneers had found their way here, and now it became a magnet that drew both new and existing emigrants from Barra to the shores of the Bras D’Or lake at the heart of the island. The settlers quickly established communities in which they  recreated the social relationships of their home island. And as they settled into the Cape Breton landscape so they began to familiarise it and appropriate it with names recalling places and faces from the Isle of Barra. The focus of movement through and across the Bras D’Or at Grand Narrows was christened Barra Strait, and close by were Barra Glen and Castle Bay. Among the Barra emigrants on the Hector in 1801 were Macneils, Mackinnons and Macdougalls, and soon around Barra Strait there was Macneil’s Vale, Mackinnons Harbour, and Macdougall’s Point, to name but three examples.

This familiarisation of the landscape was particularly important because the physical landscape was in some ways totally strange to them. While Cape Breton, like Barra, is an island on the edge of the Atlantic it is on a grand scale, 110 miles by 80 miles. Barra, in comparison, is only about eight miles in diameter. More importantly, Cape Breton was covered with dense forest, while Barra had lost almost all of its trees by around 2000 bc. Within the forest there were strange people, the indigenous Micmac, as well as large and potentially dangerous animals like bear and moose. The scale of this new landscape must have been daunting, its tree-cover, claustrophobic. To these challenges were added those of winters of such ferocity they must at first have seemed unbearable. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, Barra has a mild, if wet and windy, climate. Imagine the physical and psychological effects that those first winters of deep snows, frozen lakes, and freezing winds that are commonplace around the mouth of the St Lawrence must have had on the newcomers. It is no surprise that the people of Barra clung tenaciously to their Catholic religion and brought priests with them on their emigration ships. And intertwined with their religion was their Gaelic language, used in church, for festivities and gatherings, and for singing traditional songs and telling traditional stories of the homeland. Both the church and the language still have many adherents in Cape Breton today.

By the time the settlers at Cape Breton’s Barra Strait built their first, timber, church the Napoleonic Wars were coming to an end, and with them the relative prosperity that the crofters back in the Hebrides had enjoyed for twenty years. The price of kelp began to drop sharply, ex-soldiers began to return home, and as incomes began to fall the population on Catholic Barra continued to grow. In such circumstances, one might expect the landlord – who was still the ancestral chief of the Clan Macneil (at this time Colonel Roderick Macneil, 1755-1822), to welcome a new wave of emigration. But his letters to the parish priest are ambivalent. He first detects a ‘spirit of emigration’ in 1816 and says that ‘a considerable number have signed’ with an emigration agent. He is concerned that the agent is charging the passengers more than is necessary, and says that he is willing to seek out better arrangements for them. But he also expresses his distress that ‘People to whom I am so much attached, should leave me’, and in May 1817, as his clansmen sailed away in the William Tell he wrote again to the priest, ‘the loss of so many very decent people, is much to be regretted’. The William Tell , though, was followed two months later by the Hope. Between them the two ships carried 370 passengers, the majority of whom came from Barra. Another 350 left the island on the Harmony in 1821.

While Colonel Macneil’s regret at the loss of islanders seems to have been fostered by his genuine concern for the clansmen for whom he felt responsible, his son who succeeded him in 1822 adopted a very different attitude. A veteran of Corunna, Quatre Bras and Waterloo (though still only thirty-two when he became chief) Roderick Macneil, 41st chief of the Macneils (1790-1863), was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. He had chosen the army for his career, had little interest in the island and its people except as a potential source of income, and had been burdened with a £30,000 debt and on-going financial commitments by his father. To make matters worse at the time he succeeded to the ownership of Barra, the Government reduced the duty on imported barilla , knocking out the prop which kept the kelping industry afloat. Nevertheless, like the military man he was, General Macneil (as he is usually known) came up with a carefully integrated strategy to turn the estate’s fortunes around. He would move his tenants off the best pastures on the west of the island and rent these out for sheep runs. At the same time he would establish a new fishing village at Castlebay, where the abandoned ancestral home of Kisimuel Castle stood. The displaced tenants from the west would be given new plots, on much poorer land, on the east side of the island or could become fishermen at Castlebay. Many of them would also be employed in his new chemical works at Northbay, where kelp would be reprocessed by a new and secret technology to produce a much higher quality product. Kelp bought at £3 or £4 per ton would be resold at around £20 per ton. By this plan, Macneil hoped to maintain his existing rental income from the crofters, receive new monies from the sheep pastures and fishing and make a fortune from the chemical works. 

The strategy required two key resources, however, capital to invest in the factory, and a secure population of rent-payers who would also work some of the year in the chemical factory. He took out new loans to build the factory, and told the parish priest plainly in a letter dated February 7th, 1825, that he would use all the powers at his disposal to oppose emigration. But there was little he could do, and in July in exasperation he wrote again to the priest asking him to read out ‘a proclamation’ following the next Sunday service, which included among other dire warnings ‘that those who have signed [for a passage] and repented that their repentance has come too late – So help me God, they shall go’. He had long warned that if his clansmen would not do his bidding, then he would bring in Protestants from elsewhere to replace them. Since the number of Protestants in Barra rose from sixty in 1815 to 380 in 1840, he appears to have been as good as his word. Physical traces of Macneil’s strategy can still be seen on Barra. Abandoned blackhouses are perched on the edge of the east coast surrounded by peat bogs, and the walls of his chemical factory now form the garden wall of the Catholic presbytery.

But in spite of Macneil, the islanders continued to find their way across the Atlantic, and the Church of Scotland minister on Barra in his ‘Statistical Account’ of 1840 wrote that ‘emigration to Cape Breton and Nova Scotia carried off the island a great many almost every year’.

Just how many Barra people emigrated between 1770 and 1840 is unknown but it is almost certainly well in excess of 2,000. Research in Canada over the last five years has recovered the names of about 900 of them. The amazing thing is that a small island with a population of around 2,000 could continue to supply so many emigrants, and that despite this steady attrition, the population remained at much the same level. What emerges from a study of migration from Barra is that the ‘spirit of emigration’ was affected by many diverse influences. Economic hardship and over-population, religious intolerance, periods of relative prosperity, the collapse of the kelp industry, cheaps fares, all at one time or another played their part in inducing the islanders to go. So, too,  did parish priests, tacksmen, emigration agents, and shipping companies, while for the most part the landowners bitterly resisted the emigrations.

In this respect it is ironic that because of their role in the Clearances, the landlords are widely regarded as the driving force behind emigration, and the crofters as victims. But this is to do the crofters an injustice. For the most part, far from being passive victims, whenever economic conditions were right, they  showed themselves to be determined and courageous people who seized an opportunity to make a better life. Just how much better can still be seen in Canada. While the crofters evicted from Balnabodach by Colonel Gordon in 1850-51 were still living in their one-room, soot-darkened blackhouses, emigrant families in Cape Breton had often graduated to six-room, well-lit, two-storied houses, with big fireplaces and central chimneys. The account books of a  merchant on Prince Edward Island from around 1815, show Scottish families spending money on a scale undreamt of by their relatives back home. One Duncan Gillis spent about £7 with the merchant between September 1813 and September 1814 – at a time when a crofter in the Hebrides might have had about 12 shillings disposable annual income after paying rent and basic food costs. And with wealth came status and influence. Among the Macneils of Brevig who had emigrated in 1802 was Roderick Og, then a young man of twenty-five. In 1825 he inherited the farm his father had bought at Vernon River, Prince Edward Island. Five years later he was elected to the Administrative Council of the island; he died a well-respected gentleman in 1848. His descendants still own the plot on Vernon River to this day. 

For Further Reading:

K.Branigan & P.Foster, Barra and the Bishop’s Isles (Tempus, 2002); J.L.Campbell (ed), The Book of Barra (Acair, 1998); D.Craig, On the Crofters’ Trail (Jonathan Cape 1992); T.Devine, The Great Highland Famine (John Donald,1988); A.MacKenzie, History of the Highland Clearances (Mercat Press, 1997); E.Richards, The Highland Clearances (Birlinn, 2000).

Keith Branigan is Professor of Prehistory and Archaeology at the University of Sheffield and the co-author of From Barra to Berneray (Sheffield Academic Press, 2000) .

With the Crofters to Canada

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