Emigrants from Lewis

Our home looks out onto the Atlantic. We have many ships passing here going to Canada, the USA and to South America, as well as to many other parts of the world, as I blogged about here.

Sometimes when I look out onto the Atlantic and think of the hundreds of islanders who left our shores for better prospects in the US and Canada, I end up in tears. Yes, I know, my tears can be ridiculously easy to set off, but I reckon this warrants a bit of emotion.

Our local historical society, Comann Eachdraidh Nis (Ness Historical Society) has collated many accounts of local men and women to headed west early in the 20th Century.

The following account comes from their website, and the man telling his story (Donald MacLeod) was my mother's first cousin's brother-in-law. 

Did you get that? Let me write it slowly: he. was. my. mother's. first. cousin's. brother-in-law.

If you have any difficulty with that, you clearly aren't from the islands. We are used to people talking about  their uncle's first cousin's nephew's third cousin twice removed. Easy.

Here's the story as it's told on the CEN website.

Emigration from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland during the 19th and 20th centuries - whether through poverty and the search for new opportunities, or the systematic eviction of families by ruthless landlords - has had a tremendous impact on the history, and indeed future, of Scotland and the countries the emigrants settled in.  Just a few of the stories and sentiments of those who left the Hebrides during those turbulent times are offered below.

SS Metagama, which sailed from Stornoway to Canada in 1920

The Story of a Ness ExileThe late Donald Macleod, Michigan, U.S.A. ("Dòmhnall Tullag", formerly from Knockaird, Ness) recounts his departure for Canada aboard the SS Metagama in the Spring of 1923,
"I grew up during World War I. I was going to school in the early part of the War, but the emphasis was not on education but on the military and looking forward to the time when we would be eighteen and join up. The War ended before we came of age and there was no further need for the military. The Militia was discontinued and the Naval Reserve would not accept recruits for a long time. It was through those channels that most Lewismen went to the mainland for the first time and, after serving their time, they were in a better position to join the labour force.   The post-war generation did not have this outlet. British industry had not yet recovered from the effect of the War, and any openings were reserved for the ex-servicemen. For us, emigration was inevitable. Canada was the first to open the door in a way we could afford. We had little choice."I was twenty-one years old when I went on board the S.S. Metagama, anchored outside Stornoway Bay on the 23rd of April 1923 - a day that always remains fresh in my memory. Were we homesick? A stronger word would be more suitable! It was the kind of homesickness you could feel. A boy told me he was so blind with his tears that he could not see. We sailed north, and around the Butt of Lewis. There was deep silence among the three hundred Lewismen on board as our beloved Island faded in the distance with those whom we loved standing on its shores. For many, it was a last glimpse.  Our destination was Toronto; there we parted. Life on the Canadian farm was quiet and simple. In many ways it was much like our own: there was no crime; Sabbath was kept; it was against the law to work on Sunday; shops were closed; many went to Church; no professional sport was allowed on Sunday (Sunday's law has since changed); no discrimination; food was plentiful. I was used to work, but it was work from morn’ till dusk and wages were low. It was work, eat and sleep. Soon we drifted away when other work became available. We were lonely and homesick. Two of us found work with a fishing company but this was seasonal as the lakes freeze in the winter. One Sunday we had nowhere to go but to sit on the bank of Lake Eyrie looking into space, the seashore at Knockaird passing in review. I thought singing a Gaelic Psalm would be in order. Psalm 137: "Aig struthaibh coimheach Bhabiloin shuidh sinn gu brònach bochd" etc. It was not long before the mournful wail of my friend rose above the highest note.
"In time, however, I began to like Canada. I learned a new skill, driving a car. At the fishery, some trucking was involved, taking fish to market. Driving a truck was a step forward from the horse and cart, and I felt very important driving a load of fish to market. My boss loaned me an old car he wasn't using. I drove this car in my spare time, including running errands for him. I was beginning to fit in with the American way of life. I remained two years with this company.  
In the meantime, large numbers of fresh immigrants from Lewis began arriving in Detroit, both men and women, and the desire to meet with them grew very strong. When I had time off, I visited Detroit and met some of my old friends. Work was plentiful, with higher wages than in Canada. I decided to enter the United States and applied for permanent residence. When that was granted, I found employment with General Motors Corporation. There I enrolled in a trade school two evenings a week. Soon I bought my first car. I was very happy, and the desire to return to my homeland grew less and less.   
RIGHT: Relatives and friends pack the quayside at Stornoway as the Metagama departs
"The Depression in the 1930s interrupted my plans. The car industry closed and we had to find work elsewhere. At this time, many returned to the homeland. There was a Niseach superintendent (John Thomson from Habost) with a construction company in New York and I was advised to go there. I met him, and he put me to work at once. There were casualties on the job and part of my work was to carry away the injured and dead. Seeing a man getting killed was something new for me and made me sick. Some advised me to take whisky, but that only made me feel worse. I don't think I would have made a good soldier.  The following year, conditions improved and I returned to Detroit. I joined the auto industry with another company. It was time now to settle down. I was married in 1935 to Annie Murray and the first of our three children was born the following year.
"The Great Depression was not over and work was scarce, but that only brought us closer together. There was a large Lewis colony there and we had taken root. We were no longer from Ness or Point etc., but we were as one village, with one common bond. Fate brought us here, and we were different. When one found work he would at once recommend a fellow Lewisman for the first opening. This worked so well both on land and sea that there was very little unemployment among us. We blended in very well with the American worker and made very close friends. But socially, we kept our Lewis identity. Nearly all of us married Lewis girls. We now had our own home, Ceilidh was the evening pastime, with Gaelic songs being sung and stories told. The dessert was always a cup of tea and scones. If we had differences among ourselves, pity the outsider who would interfere.
"Many of the Lewismen held responsible jobs both on land and sea. Ness was well represented among the captains and officers who served on the Great Lakes and on salt water, and also among those who studied for the ministry and served as pastors both in Canada and the United States.  At this time, ministers from Lewis were coming to Canada for short visits and some of them came to Detroit and held Gaelic services. Those services were well attended. The singing of the Gaelic Psalms and precenting the line was sweet music to us, and many eyes could be seen wet with tears. This was the beginning of the Presbyterian Free Church in Detroit, where we have worshipped since 1952. Our first pastor was the Rev. Murdo MacRitchie, who served the congregation for fourteen years and was then transferred to the Stornoway congregation.
"As I was growing older, the desire to see my native Island was also growing and the time came when I had to go. In August 1957 I boarded a plane in Detroit, and in nine hours I was in Prestwick. Thirty-four years had passed and what a change! It took eleven days to cross the Atlantic when I came over in 1923.  I had also changed. I was coming back an alien but to me, I was coming home. My cousin in Grangemouth met me in Glasgow, but I did not recognise her, as I did not recognise much of the landscape I remembered. I spent a few days in Glasgow, Grangemouth and Edinburgh and then proceeded to Stornoway. Ness had changed. Hardly any of the old houses remained and many of the old friends were no more. The old hearth was gone where we sat in a circle around the open fire, telling and listening to our favourite stories. But the seashore was the same, untouched by the hands of man. Its cool breezes were swirling around my favourite rocks, working in unison with the sound of the waves, dashing against the familiar cliffs with the same warm touch as if saying, "Welcome home!" My reply was "Thank you, but I was here many times in my dreams."
"The days of old to mind I called, and oft did think upon the times and ages that are part full many years agone." Psalm 77.
"I spent two happy months with my father and sisters, seeing old friends and making new ones, and I visited many parts of the Island. I was delighted to meet those I knew in America who had returned to settle in Lewis and it was like meeting old friends from home.But my holiday passed too quickly and, again, it was time to part. The tears flowed as I said goodbye to my aged father, knowing we would not meet again in this world. (He passed away the following year). I was again homesick leaving, but this time it was different than that day in April of 1923. I was eager to get back to my own family. My roots were now in America.
"When I retired I returned once again to Ness. In 1969 Annie and I went home together. My wife is from Skigersta. This time I rented a car and saw more of the island. I enjoyed driving to Stornoway. Time had again taken its toll; nearly all of the old friends were gone. We were home about two months. The weather was cold and damp, but the warm welcome we always got made up for it.
"I am now in my declining years but I am healthy and active in church affairs and gardening. Our son's home is twenty miles from our apartment in the city. It is out in the country on five acres of land, where I spend the warm days of summer in the solitude of the country, just the way I started life so many, many miles away - growing potatoes and vegetables.  I didn't acquire wealth, but we are comfortable and were never in need. God was good to us. I had wealth other than money; my Christian upbringing and Lewis heritage was a stronghold in the day of trouble and a deterrent against the evil we were exposed to."

My Mum's aunt, for whom she's named, left on the SS Marloch in 1923. She died of TB, in a hospital in British Columbia, not long after she arrived in Canada. In another post, I'll tell a wee story about her, a couple in our church and an amazing meeting in Stanley Park, Vancouver.


  1. Good Morning Anne,

    Thanks so much for sharing this with our family! I, too, get teary eyed thinking of those who ventured away from homes and the land they loved for a brighter hope....I look forward to reading more about the history of your family!

    BTW, I sent you a couple of e-notes....I hope it does not end up in your SPAM account.


  2. Wow, what a story, that was moving. I never realised the Metagama sailed from Stornoway harbour. What a sad day that must have been.

    Although were it to sail again, I have a funny feeling I know a few who would be first on board ;-)

  3. My family emigrated from Scotland to the United States sometime between 1856 and 1859. I blogged about it here http://griffithland.blogspot.com/2010/07/graham-family-geneology-in-pictures.html

    My great-great grandfather was born in Old Monkland, Lanark, Scotland. Is that near you?

    I too cannot IMAGINE the courage it took to leave EVERYTHING you had ever known and get on a ship to go somewhere where you don't know a single soul. I wonder if they were terrified? I wonder if America was all they had hoped it would be? I wonder a lot about the family they left behind? Brings tears to my eyes as well. It is my hope to one day visit Scotland and see the area where my family came from. And if I come, I will look you up. But even if that never happens, I know you and I will meet in heaven! What a reunion that will be!

    Who knows . . . maybe you and I are related :)! I am loving your blog. It is so interesting to read about your life there. I am going back through some of your older posts. I enjoyed reading about the guga??? Hmmmm. Sounds interesting, but I don't know if there is enough Scottish blood left in me to try it :0! Have a WONDERFUL DAY!

  4. Wow, I can definitely appreciate your feelings. My blog post about my Polish grandmother looking up the hill to the cemetery where my aunt was buried is layered with such emotions. That tiny little "patch" town on the hill where my mother grew up was almost completely inhabited by immigrants from Poland and Italians. There are soooo many stories of struggle and perseverence. I'm overwhelmed by them in a most nostalgic way, and I'm prone to wondering about lives lived far away, in another time, back in Europe.

  5. That is a great story. I always love histories of families. The Lord has given us each one that we can share.

  6. Emmigration from the islands is a huge emotive subject. During the Highland Clearances, many people had no choice but to emmigrate. For others, it was a way of escaping from poor life choices (unwed mothers were sometimes separated from their infants and put on a boat to Canada to start again).

    And even in the 1950s and 60s islanders flocked to North America for the new way of life. Two of my dad's sisters left Lewis for Toronto and New York (now in Florida).

    It is quite a thought even now, to leave "home" and move to America (like David and Shona have done), but it must have been an enormous thing in previous years.

    I love family histories, you always tell a good story, Anne!


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