Rachel Martin

Rachel Martin


Scadabay to Cape Breton

My name is Raonaid a’ Bhreabadair, and you can tell from my name that my father was a weaver. Now that they are starting to keep records in the English language, they are calling us Martins, and as for my own name – sometimes they are making it Rachel or Ronalda and even Reginald! – when they are writing it down – but for all that I am still Raonaid to myself.

I was brought up in Scadabay, in the Bays of Harris, though my father came before that from Strond, where he had been a fishermen, and they say that our people came before that from the Isle of Boreray in North Uist.

Of course there had always been fishing in the seas around Harris, but when Captain Alexander bought Harris from his MacLeod cousin in Dunvegan, he set up a commercial fishery for the first time, based on his new harbour at Rodel. At the same time a new industry began, collecting and burning seaweed – and there is plenty of that around the east coast of Harris! So he settled people from all over Harris and the northwest of Scotland in the Bays, and it was at that time that the farmer of Strond got the area around Scadabay and Drinishader as part of his land, and so my father and others moved up there.

There was good money to be made on the kelp, but it was heavy work cutting the seaweed and dragging it on to the shore, where it was carefully burned very slowly in pits until the ash formed into a slag. Once the slag had cooled, it was shipped off to Liverpool, and I am told that it was used there somehow in making glass and soap! It was dirty work too, and the smoke from the kilns was everywhere – it was really sore on the eyes, and I am sure that is how my father lost his sight – and that is why he became a weaver, for once the loom was set up, he could do the rest by touch.

My brother Calum had been taken for the Navy, fighting against the French, and they say it was the war that made the demand for the kelp, but after the war was won they found other ways of making glass and did not need the kelp anymore, so the price began to drop.

While the price was good, we had lived reasonably well. There was no good land in the Bays, but my husband, Murchadh, was earning money from the kelp – even though the landlord took most of it in rent! – and there was enough money to buy in food. But when the price dropped, where was the money to come from to buy food – or to employ the weaver, for that matter? We could see that the good times were ended and that trouble was coming, and some of our neighbours were beginning to talk about emigrating, using what cash they had to pay their fare across the Atlantic to Cape Breton, and starting again there. My parents had died by this time, so we were free to go, if we wished to, except for my sister Mairi, whose husband had elderly parents to look after.

It was dreadful to think of leaving her, knowing that we would never hear of each other again, for neither of us could write. But in the end we decided – if we were going to go, we had to go soon, before we had used up the little money we had left. Shipping companies were advertising berths on boats to Canada, and we joined the ship in Stornoway, and set sail for a New World.

We were lucky, we had a fairly calm voyage of eight weeks – it was all right for Murchadh – he was used to the sea, but calm or not I was terribly ill with seasickness to begin with. And when we got to Cape Breton I nearly died of fright, when I saw the forests. I thought I knew what trees were from the little thickets on the islands in the lochs around Scadabay, but never had I dreamed of anything so huge as the giants of Cape Breton. And so dark! – I would never dare to go in there!

But we moved to the land we had got on the shores of St Anns Bay, a little strip of coastline running back to the steep slopes of the Highlands – Murchadh learned to go there hunting, but I never dared! We cleared some land near the shore and built a log cabin and planted a crop and gradually made a new life for ourselves. But it was cold in the winter – I had never seen the sea freeze before – but there was plenty of timber for fuel, and you learned how to stay warm. It was really quite like Harris, with the rocky shoreline along the bay – except for the trees – I have never really got used to the trees. We are happy here; we have our own land, and our family are growing up around us, and our neighbours speak Gaelic too, but how I miss Mairi! – I wonder if I’ll ever hear from her again?

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