Caitriona Aonghais Ruaraidh

Caitriona Aonghais Ruaraidh


Horgabost to Australia

They say that if you once leave home it doesn’t matter how far you go – and that surely must apply to me, for I am right on the opposite side of the world from where I was born in Cuidinish. I am Catriona Aonghais Ruairidh, and my people came originally from Horgabost on the Machair. From there my grandfather was moved to Borgh Bheag, then cleared to Borsam in the Bays – a place where there had never been people living before – and little wonder, in such a maze of rock! How could you grow anything there, except by heaping up what little soil there was into ridges, and mixing in seaweed and ash and the thatch from last year’s roof to try to get enough depth to get plenty potatoes – feannagan we called the ridges, but the lowlanders called them lazy-beds – they wouldn’t have used the word lazy if they had ever tried to work one!

After a few years, my father got a croft in Cuidinish, where the land was a little better, but then the potato blight came, and our only crop rotted in the ground-year after year, until you thought that would never get rid of the stench of it. Each year you had to try again and plant what little sound potato you had, and each year the crop failed again, and you were left with even less seed – and in the end we had to dig up the seed potatoes themselves for food, or else starve. The fishing was poor for a few years too, and we lived really on the shellfish off the shore – even limpets – and if you have ever tried to chew a limpet you will know how desperate we were!

Nobody wants to leave home, but we were desperate. My father’s uncles had gone to Cape Breton, but we were hearing that the blight was there too, so there was no point in going there, and in any case my father had used up what little cash he had in buying food, and there was nothing left to pay our fare across the Atlantic. I think we would have starved, had it not been for the relief money that the Churches on the mainland sent to us, but even that was little enough to keep the family alive, with three young children.

Then we got word that a society had been set up to help people to emigrate to Australia the Highlands and Islands Emigration Society they called it. The government in Australia were wanting settlers, and they wanted families – they were less likely to head off to the gold-rush! Our landlord, Lord Dunmore, paid part of the fares, and the Society was willing to advance the rest, to be paid back once we were settled in Australia.

We really had no idea where Australia was or how long it would take to get there, but one thing was sure – if we stayed where we were we would starve. So we agreed to go, and at the end of November we gathered at Fionnsbhagh to go on board a paddle steamer called the ‘Celt’, to take us to the Clyde to the naval ship ‘Hercules’ which was to take us to Australia.

I was never so sick in my life as on the ‘Celt’ – she was so small, and we hit such bad weather – and it was a relief to reach the ‘Hercules’ with her wide decks. But the relief did not last very long-the ‘Hercules’ left the Clyde just before the New Year, and sailed straight into a storm and had to head back again to repair damage. She left again in the middle of January, but by this time cases of smallpox and typhus had broken out on board, and she had to stand off Cork in Ireland, and a lot of families had to be put on shore there to hospital. It was not until April that we were able to leave Cork, and even then nearly half the passengers had to be left behind, to follow in other ships, when they were well enough to travel, and of course some died of the fever, though the Harris people were not so badly affected as those from Skye. We finally got to Adelaide in South Australia late in July – seven whole months after we had set out.

I had no idea what Australia would be like, but by this time nobody cared – we just wanted off the ship! The Society’s agents were there to help arrange work for us, and, since I had learned quite a lot of English on the ship, I managed to find a post in service, quite close to where my brothers got work on a farm. And there was a lad Alasdair from Rhenigidale who had been on the ‘Hercules’ too, and I didn’t want to be too far away from him! Anyway, we got married and got employment on a sheep-farm up on the Murray River and that is where we are still. The dusty plains and muddy rivers are very different from the rocky hills and clear streams we left behind in Harris, but if ever I feel homesick, I think of the journey on the ‘Hercules’, and give thanks that we are safely here.

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