The Gaels first emigrated to North America in the 1730s. By around 1763 the British controlled most of America. However, some regions or ‘colonies’ weren’t very happy with the way Britain governed them. A war, known as ‘the American War of Independence’, broke out between Britain and some of these colonies in 1775. The colonies won the war and established the United States of America.
Britain remained in control of the regions that weren’t part of the United States. These regions were known as ‘British North America’. British North America became the destination of most Scots emigrants before 1867, rather than the United States.
Thousands of Gaels emigrated to Prince Edward Island around 1769, Nova Scotia around 1773 and Cape Breton around 1791 but especially between 1802 and 1843. Some also settled in Ontario and Québec around 1800.
Canada wasn’t mentioned in Gàidhlig songs at this time as the country hadn’t been born. Songs still referred to ‘America’ or the region the immigrants settled in, for example Manitoba.
Canada rose as a nation out of British North America. The nation was born when four of the larger regions (Québec, Ontario, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) joined together on 1 July 1867. ‘Co-Chaidreachas’ (confederation) is the Gàidhlig term used to describe when provinces join together to create a new country. Through time the other provinces joined them. Newfoundland was the last province to join Canada, in 1949.
Many Gaels emigrated to Canada because life in Scotland was extremely difficult and challenging. In the 18th (1700-1799) and 19th (1800-1899) centuries the situation in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland was rapidly changing.
Landowners and estates in the Highlands and Islands wanted more money from their land. The tenants weren’t wealthy and were unable to pay the high rents expected by the landowners. Landowners, particularly in the Islands, were promoting the kelp industry. Kelp is a type of seaweed which was burnt to produce a by-product which was used to make soap and glass.
Unfortunately this industry wasn’t very successful. The landowners quickly realised that they could make higher profits from sheep than they could from people. They began to plan ways of removing the people from the land. This is referred to as the Clearances.
The population were removed from the fertile areas and had very small sections of land on which to survive. The potato blight and famine of the 1840s was a disaster for the Highlands and Islands.
Emigrating to Canada wasn’t free and someone had to pay the fare. Not every Gael wanted to move to Canada. How would they know that the situation would be better on the other side of the Atlantic?
Sometimes the landowners fought to keep people on their land; for example, when they needed people to work for them in the kelp industry. In 1803, the passing of the Passenger Vessel Act regulated the number of people allowed to emigrate to other countries. It became too expensive for people to emigrate after that. Later the landowners changed their minds and it became easier to emigrate around 1827.
The British Government encouraged emigration. Canada also encouraged people to emigrate to their country as they needed to establish a workforce and to populate the country. The Canadian Government published books to encourage Gaels to move to Canada.
Tall ships left Scottish ports bound for Canada. Often this sea journey was difficult and hard. It took a long time and sickness and disease often spread amongst the passengers in the vessel.
‘The Hector’ is one of the most famous emigrant ships. The ship transported Gaels to Nova Scotia in Canada in 1773. The majority of the people on board were from the areas surrounding Loch Bhraoin.
The ship transported the people to the place where Pictou now stands. During the journey they ran out of food and clean water and they were in a terrible state by the time they reached Canada. Eighteen people perished during the journey. Today, a replica of ‘The Hector’ is docked in Pictou, Nova Scotia.
After World War I, the situation in the Highlands and Islands was desperate, with high unemployment. In 1923 alone, 600 people left the Western Isles to seek a new life in Canada. Three hundred of those left on ‘The Metagama’ which sailed from Stornoway on Lewis. They were heading for the farms of Ontario. Another 300 left from Lochboisdale, on South Uist, aboard ‘The Marloch’. Their final destination was Alberta.
After the 1900s most emigrants settled on the Canadian prairies: a treeless grass-covered plain in the middle of Canada. There are Gàidhlig songs, such as ‘Comann mo ghaoil’ by Murchadh MacPhàrlain, 'S ann a-mach à Steòrnabhagh a sheòl am Metagama mòr’ by Ealasaid NicLeòid and 'Òran a’ Mhetagama’ by Mairead NicillEathain, which remember the people who sailed to a new land and a new life in those ships.
How do you think the people who were leaving felt? How did these emigrations affect the people who stayed behind?
The images used above are licensed under Creative Commons on Flickr by the following photographers: aaron.knox, One Tree Hill Studios and palestrina55.
The image of Ronald MacPhee and son, Hebrides settlers, at their farm near Ohaton is courtesy of Glenbow Museum.