Donald MacKay

Donald MacKay


Kyles Scalpay to Georgian Bay

My name is Donald MacKay – Domhnall Choinnich Buachaille (Donald son of Kenneth the Herdsman) – and I was brought up in Kyles Scalpay, where my father’s brother had a croft. It was a good enough croft – Kyles Scalpay is rocky enough, but if the sun is shining anywhere in Harris, it is shining in Kyles Scalpay, and the hill of Beinn a’ Chaolais is excellent for sheep. But even so, a share of someone else’s croft was not much to have, and there were too many people trying to take a living off too little land. It was the number of children that I noticed – my grandmother had ten children, but she only raised three – measles and the like took the rest – then my own mother had eight, but she raised all of us. There was a doctor in Tarbert by then, and that made a difference, and there were proper nurses and midwives, and it was good to see all the children, but you did have to worry sometimes how they were all going to live.

Two of my brothers had young children, and we had been discussing trying our luck somewhere else. A few people from here had gone to the cities, but I would rather have starved in Harris than in a hovel in some back street in a city – and at least here I could have gone out and caught a fish or two! Some of my father’s generation had gone to Cape Breton, but we were writing to their families, and they were saying not to come there, all the good land was taken up, and though there was plenty of work, it was in the iron and coal mines, and I couldn’t see that spending the rest of my days underground was going to be any improvement!

Word of what we were planning got to the estate factor, who ran the place for Lady Dunmore, whose son owned the island, and he had heard of land that might suit us around Georgian Bay in Ontario – and it would suit him too, for the more people who were looking for land in Harris, the more they were looking to get the land back that had been cleared for farms along the west of the island. So off we set for Canada, and made our way up the Great Lakes to Georgian Bay, and there we had our first disappointment – there was land there alright, but we had expected all to settle together, and all that there was there was a patch of land here and a patch there, among settlers who had come from other countries – and if patches hadn’t been taken up already, it was because they were not of the best!

Some were on the thin sandy lands around the south shore of the Bay, but at least there was the prospect of work in the towns like Owen Sound and Collingwood, where there were the beginnings of a ship-building industry, and others were in the rolling hills of the Blue Mountains – good enough land, when the forest was cleared, but not very handy for transporting your crops to market. Still, if we had come so far, we might as well make the best of it, and we took the land that was on offer, and most of us did reasonably well on it – a few couldn’t prosper, but then there are always a few who would never prosper anywhere! But the worst of it was that we were so scattered – the children soon lost their Gaelic, for there was no-one to speak it to out of their own home – and there was no community, and gradually many of us lost touch with each other.

My own brothers had land near Meaford, and that proved an excellent place for growing fruit – apples especially – but I had never been much of a farmer, and I fancied something different. On a very clear day, you could see the hills on the north shore of the Bay – imagine a lake so wide that it was only on the clearest day that you could see across it! and there was a lot of trapping going on there, and lumbering too. So off I went once more, to see what I could make of that! I got a nice small piece of land near the shore, with some good lumber on it to cut and sell, and handy enough to the shore that you could float it down in rafts to Owen Sound. The land itself was very rocky – almost like Kyles Scalpay itself! – but much of it a strange greenish colour, and in the end they discovered that it was full of copper ore, and they started mining it. So, after refusing to go to the mines in Cape Breton, I ended up in a mine near Thessalon – but it was a very shallow mine, and hardly counts as underground!

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