A Short History of Emigration from the Western Isles

Emigration from the Western Isles in the 1700s

The Western Isles are among the most beautiful places in Scotland, but the various effects of climate, geography, and mistreatment by those in power, amongst other reasons, have meant that life here has often been difficult, and over the centuries many thousands of people have left the islands in search of a better life.

The first major emigrations we know of from the Western Isles were in the 1700s, to what was then known as British America, to two main areas: the Carolinas to the south, and New York and Pennsylvania to the north.

The earliest group of emigrants we know of from the Highlands and Islands were those who left in the years after the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. Before then, the people who lived on the land had close ties to the clan chiefs who ruled the land, and they were protected by that clan system. A chief’s power depended on the strength of his people, and he would have an interest in looking after them.

After the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the clan system was brought to an end by the British government, and this broke the ties between the people and their land. Many of the new estate owners started seeing the people only as a source of money, rather than as a part of a community.

Many tacksmen, who leased a piece of land from the owner and rented it out to others, were the first to feel the effects, and they couldn’t afford the increased rents they were being charged. Several tacksmen and their followers in the Western Isles decided to move to Carolina around the 1770s; Donald Campbell of Scalpay in Harris was one of them, but there were many others.

At the same time an emigration was taking place further north. In this case they mainly came from Lewis and went to New York and Pennsylvania, and among them were merchants who were quite well-off. The kelp industry of the 1700s had established links from Stornoway to Greenock and Liverpool, and the tobacco trade linked these ports with America, so merchants often moved between these ports.

Among these merchants was a man from Stornoway called John MacIver, whose nickname was “Ready Money”, who emigrated to New York City and set up a business there. He had a nephew called Alexander MacKenzie who went to Canada and became a famous explorer with the North West Company.

As well as these merchants, large numbers of impoverished families came in the 1770s and 1780s. It is believed that a part of the reason they were forced to emigrate was due to forces of nature that happened far from the shores of the Western Isles, about six hundred miles to the northwest, in the Southern Region of Iceland, which is home to three famous volcanoes – Katla, Hekla and Laki. These three volcanoes erupted at different times during the 1700s, at the end of a period of cooler weather around the north Atlantic Ocean known as the Little Ice Age.

Katla erupted in 1755, and large amounts of black dust fell over Shetland. In 1766, Hekla started erupting, and didn’t stop erupting for two years! It had a severe effect on the climate of north-western Europe. In the Highlands and Islands, 1766 became known as Bliadhna an t-Sneachda Dhuibh (the Year of the Black Snow) and the following two winters were also bitterly cold. The Highlands experienced famine and a poor harvest in 1766, and further bad harvests followed in 1769 and 1771. The spring of 1771 was known as Bliadhna an Earraich Dhuibh (the Year of the Black Spring).

Laki erupted in 1782, and though it wasn’t as powerful as the previous two, it released far more gas into the atmosphere, and may have had an even stronger effect on the weather in Europe. Failed harvests and famine were widespread in Scotland that winter, and it became known as Bliadhna na Peasracha Bàine (the Year of the White Peas), named after the peas that had to be imported from Holland into Scotland because the people had no other food.

Apart from these negative effects, the same climatic changes might later have caused colder water in the seas around Scotland, which attracted great numbers of herring and led to a boom in the fishing industry of the islands. It may be one reason why there were so many movements of people within the islands around this time too, for example the people who moved from Carloway on the west coast of Lewis to the fishing village of Gravir in the east, from Ness across the moor to Tolsta, and from the west coast of Harris to the Bays in the east, where many fishing villages were set up in the late-1700s.

A Government report of 1774 called ‘Emigration from Various Highland Areas to North America 1772-73’ tells us there were almost 500 emigrants from Lewis in 1772-73, and there is a passenger list that survives for a ship called the Friendship of Philadelphia that sailed in 1774, with 106 passengers who left Lewis because of destitution. It is not known how many other ships left in the next few years, or how many passengers they carried, as there are few written records from that time, but there would have been many, many more.

Families also left South Uist and Barra around this time, particularly after one of the landowners of South Uist tried to convert the people to the Protestant religion he had converted to, and threatened to expel anyone who didn’t!

He later changed his mind when he realised he might not have enough people left to work in the kelp industry, which would have meant losing out on a lot of money, but many people left anyway. They made their way to Prince Edward Island, and a steady flow of people followed them from South Uist and Barra up until around the year 1800.

Emigration from the Western Isles in the 1800s

In the very early-1800s, there were fewer movements of people from the islands – the kelp and fishing industries were reaching their peak, and people were able to make at least a little bit of money, although the rent they had to pay to the landlords was much higher as a result. The main group of people that left were young men in search of money and adventure, and they got their opportunity through the Hudson’s Bay Company, a fur-trading company based in the north and north-east of Canada. In the late-1700s the Hudson’s Bay Company was recruiting men from Orkney, but in the early-1800s they turned their attention to the Isle of Lewis.

Among the men who made a name for themselves were Neil MacLeod of Steinish, who joined the Company in 1840 and was involved in several missions to discover what had happened to John Franklin and his lost Arctic expedition, and Donald Ross from Crobeg, who became Chief Factor at Norway House, and is remembered for keeping a weather journal for thirty years, which is now used by scientists studying climate change.

But it wasn’t just Lewismen who worked with the Hudson’s Bay Company; there were some from Harris as well. One of them, Donald MacLeod, known as Domhnall an Talmhainn Fhuair (Donald of the Cold Country), is remembered for the white furry trousers made of polar bear skin he wore when he returned home to Harris! Some of his descendants still live in Harris to this day.

Throughout the early-1800s there were sporadic movements of people from the Western Isles to North America. However, unlike in the late-1700s when people usually went to America or to Prince Edward Island, the early- to mid-1800s saw people from the Western Isles beginning to settle in Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. People were emigrating for two main reasons – firstly, they had fewer prospects of a sustainable life at home, and saw better opportunities in Cape Breton, where land was cheap and plentiful; but secondly, many people were being forced from their homes by landowners, which can be seen as part of the wider Highland Clearances, and many had little choice but to make their way across the Atlantic.

Landowners wanted to make more and more money out of the people who lived on the land, and they often raised their rents beyond what the land could support. Up until the early-1800s, people were able to afford these high rents by taking part in the kelp and fishing industries, but fishing was unpredictable, and the kelp industry collapsed after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 which meant people were no longer able to afford the high rents still being charged by the landowners. The east coast fishing and kelping villages were not suited for agriculture, and when those industries came to an end the land couldn’t support the population.

People then began to be cleared from many parts of the islands. In Harris, people started to be cleared from the villages of the machair on the west coast around the 1820s. Before this time, most of the people of Harris had lived on the west and south coasts of the island, from Luskentyre all the way down to Rodel, and on the islands to the south and west, including Pabbay and Taransay. This land was offered to farmers with money from the mainland and, one by one, the villages of the machair were cleared of their people, until by the 1840s almost the whole of the west coast of Harris was empty except for a few scattered households and farmhouses.

Some of these people had moved across to the Bays on the east coast of Harris, where fishing villages had been set up in the late-1700s, but huge numbers left for Canada and settled in Cape Breton. The most famous of these people might be Angus MacAskill from Berneray, who later became world famous as the Cape Breton Giant. We know of at least 1,000 people that arrived in Cape Breton from Harris in the early-1800s, but there were probably many more.

A similar pattern of clearing communities to make way for farms or estates also happened in parts of Lewis in the early-1800s, particularly in Uig and in the Pairc area of Lochs, though at first they mostly moved to fishing villages on the east coast of Lewis, rather than emigrating to Canada. In Uig, people from the villages of Ardroil, Mealista and others were cleared in the 1840s, and many small townships in South Lochs were also cleared to make way for farms and estates between the 1820s and 1840s, such as Lemreway, Orinsay and Eishken.

Also in the 1820s, the villages in the Middle District of South Uist began to be cleared, as well as the district of Clachan (and later Sollas) in North Uist. People were also being cleared from villages in Barra, and so clearances affected every island in some way. The majority of these people settled in Cape Breton.

The last major group from the Western Isles to settle in Cape Breton were the people of the island of Pabbay in Harris, who were all cleared from their homes in 1846 to make way for a farm. By this time, all of the better land in Cape Breton had been taken, and the Pabbay people had to settle on poorer land in the highlands of the Loch Lomond area, or in the very far north of the island at Cape North.

Another reason Cape Breton was becoming a less attractive was that it was struck by potato blight, a disease which had already destroyed potato crops in the Highlands and Islands (and Ireland) during the 1840s, and caused the Highland Potato Famine. By this time, many of the villages of the islands that hadn’t been affected by clearance had become overcrowded, and the little land that was available had to provide for a large number of people. The potato was the only crop which could feed the growing number of people, and when it failed it caused widespread hunger and starvation.

The owner of Lewis at the time, James Matheson, organised huge numbers of people to leave Lewis in the 1840s and 1850s, to ease these problems. In the 1840s, they mostly went to the Eastern Townships of Quebec, where you can still find places called Stornoway and Tolsta. In the 1850s, they began moving mostly to Ontario. Thousands of people left Lewis in this way.

The people of Harris, North Uist and Skye were also helped to leave the islands in the 1850s, by the Highlands and Islands Emigration Society, which was set up to help people affected by the problems of hunger and overcrowding, and which loaned people money for passage to Australia; over 600 people left Harris for Australia, and they settled mostly in south Australia.

These emigrations eased the pressure on the land for a while, and as the potato blight passed people began to be able to live relatively comfortable lives again, and there were no further major emigrations until the 1880s, when there was another movement of people from Lewis and Harris to Canada, this time to the Prairies of Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Canada was looking for people to come and work and settle in the Prairies, and this was attractive to many people because the population of the islands had been increasing again; in Harris, for example, a large part of the population was still forced to live in the villages of the Bays on east coast, where the land was shallow, rocky and infertile, and couldn’t support a large population.

Over the course of the 1880s, over 200 people left Harris for the Prairies of Canada, over 300 people left Lewis, and over 300 people left South Uist, though still the problem of overcrowding continued. The government held in inquiry into the conditions of crofters in the 1880s, called the Napier Commission, and this would bring changes in the early decades of the 20th century.

Emigration from the Western Isles in the 1900s

The major emigration from the islands in the 1900s came in the early 1920s, a few years after the First World War. Since the turn of the century, the population of the islands had been increasing again, and there was a desperate shortage of land for people to live on. The population of Lewis reached a peak of over 29,000 people, and there were almost 5,500 people in Harris.

The Congested Districts Board was set up to improve the overcrowded situation in the Highlands and Islands, and to develop agriculture, the fishing industry and home industries such as spinning and tweed weaving. The Board also organised buying back land from landowners to give back to the people of the islands, and to resettle the places and villages which had been cleared in the previous century.

In Harris, the village of Borve in Berneray was resettled, and forty-one new crofts were created in the village of Northton (and from the 1920s on the villages of the machair began to be resettled). In Lewis, plots of land were created for fishermen at Battery Park in Stornoway, and crofts were created in Aignish and in Mangersta. Similar schemes in other places were also planned before the First World War, in places like Gress and Galson, but they were delayed for several years because of the war, and after Leverhulme bought Lewis in 1918 they didn’t go ahead.

Thousands of islanders who fought in the First World War began to return from 1918 onwards, and they wanted land and homes for themselves and their families which they believed they had been promised by the government. Land raids began to take place at the farms of Coll, Gress and other places. Leverhulme was against land being broken into crofts in these places (though he was not against it happening in Uig where more villages were resettled), and because of the tensions this created, among other reasons, Leverhulme abandoned his plans in Lewis in 1923, which left the economy of the island in a poor state.

Lewis had also lost over 1,000 men during the First World War (the Western Isles lost over 1,700 in total) and had suffered the tragic loss of the Iolaire when 201 returning young servicemen were drowned near Stornoway harbour on New Year’s morning in 1919. The combination of large losses of the island’s men during the war and the poor economic situation after Leverhulme’s departure meant that by the early-1920s the outlook was quite bleak.

Instead of finding jobs and receiving land to live on at home, people were again being encouraged to find a place to live elsewhere in the world. And so, on the 21st of April, 1923, over 300 people, mostly young men, left Lewis for Canada on the Metagama. In that same month almost 300 more people left South Uist on the Marloch. In April 1924, the Marloch again took almost 300 people from Lewis, and in May 1924 the Canada took 250 people also from Lewis.

Many more followed them on other ships throughout the decade, and by the end of the 1920s, after war and emigration, the Western Isles had lost a large portion of its young people. Unlike in the 1800s, when people went to specific places in Canada, the 1920s emigrants spread throughout Canada and America, some settling in Ontario, others moving west to the Prairies, and many crossing the border and finding work in America, in places like Detroit where the Ford Motor Company factory was.

At the end of the 1920s however, America was hit by the Great Depression when its economy crashed, and many of the emigrants found jobs almost as hard to come by as they did back home, and some of the people that had left decided to return and settle back in the islands. Since then, there haven’t been any major emigrations, but it is still normal to see large numbers of young people needing to leave the islands every year, in search of further education and work.

Explore Further

Names of the Western Isles

It is probably only in the last two hundred years that the people of the Western Isles have used surnames. Previously, although people recognised that … Read more

Western Isles Genealogy

One of the major problems with family tracing in the Western Isles is the scarcity and poor quality of written records. The decennial census is … Read more

Genealogical Services

The Hebrides People ‘Cò Leis Thu?’ genealogy service can help you trace your Western Isles ancestors. We specialise in producing family trees that show people’s … Read more

Oral Tradition

Oral tradition includes song, story, and preservation of family relationships. Written records are generally late and of variable quality in the Western Isles compared to … Read more

Name Standardisation

In using any written sources, it is essential to bear in mind that the people of the islands were overwhelmingly Gaelic speaking. These records were … Read more

Posted in:


Explore the St Kilda archive for free

Thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund, all database results for St Kilda are free. Visit the St Kilda archive to see how the database works!