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Margaret MacKinnon

Margaret MacKinnon


Seilebost to Manitoba

My name is Margaret MacKinnon – Mairead Phannaidh – and my father’s name, Panny, is short for Bannatyne, for my great grandfather’s father was called after Lord Bannatyne, whose family had the farm at Luskentyre at one time – and they say that he got a golden guinea as a christening present because of it! My people had been in Seilebost then, but we came across to Kyles Stockinish at the time of the seaweed industry there, and we stayed there through the good time of the kelp boom and the bad times of the potato famine.

Times were better again, but there were getting to be more people around than the place could support. We were alright – Alasdair, my husband, had a share in a boat and the fishing was good, and what we didn’t sell, we ate. But we had two young children, and it was Alasdair’s older brother Ruairidh who would be getting the croft when their father died, and what would we do then? – for he had a big strong family who would be wanting their share of the little land there was.

My uncle Domhnall had been across in Canada a few times working, and he had told us of a scheme that was looking for families to go to the Prairies there to settle. Alasdair and I had no idea what a prairie might be, but Domhnall told us to think of the biggest piece of flat land that there was in Harris and multiply that by a thousand times, and even then we could not conceive how vast it was! The railroad was being driven through the prairie at this time, so there would be work for Alasdair there as well. Then my sister Anna decided that she would come with us, and I was glad that I was to have her company.

It didn’t sound as though working a feannag or two at Scrott would be much use as experience for the prairie, but Alasdair had always preferred working with the animals to being at sea, so he quite fancied trying his hand as a farmer! Then one day in the middle of May word came that the scheme was ready, and we would have to leave before the end of the month. What a rush that was, getting everything ready and saying goodbye to our friends, but in a way it was just as well, for we didn’t have the time to worry about what we might be heading for – it was just one big adventure!

By the beginning of June we were off on the ‘Buenos Ayrean’, heading for Quebec, and from there we went by train to Killarney in Manitoba – two weeks altogether it took us from our old home to our new one. There was land ready for us there, and they had even planted potatoes for us, but the first job was to build a shack to live in until we had the time and the money to build a proper house. It was hard work, that first year, but the crops were good, and we were happy enough, until the winter came.

Nothing could have prepared us for the size of the prairie, or for the winter winds that howled across it. To help pay our way, Alasdair got a job on the new railroad they were making, and Anna got work in a shop in Killarney village. But that meant that she was away all week, and with Alasdair away too I was left alone with the children, and I nearly died of loneliness! The neighbours were kind enough and would help in any way they could, but they were so far away – you couldn’t walk across for a cup of tea the way you could in Harris!

Life is hard here, and you have to work hard – but then you work hard at home too, just to scrape a living. And at least here your land belongs to you – well I suppose really ours still belongs to the Bank, for we had to take out quite a loan to get cash to buy stock and a wagon, but we are gradually paying it back, and in time it will be all ours, and we will be able to leave it to the children.

It is not the Golden Land that the emigration agents made it out to be, but when the sun shines on mile after mile of corn it looks golden enough. If you ask whether we would go back to Harris if we could, the answer would be yes, but I think it would be only for a visit – I remember too well the difficulties of life there, and though we have our own difficulties here in plenty, they are different and we have got used to them.

It would be good to meet again those who are left of the old family, but our new family is here and our future is here.

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