Scotlands History\|Scots and Canada

Highlanders and the Highland Clearances

  • A photo of Rannoch moor early in the morning. Licensed under Creative Commons by mike138 (Flickr).

The Highland Clearances are still an emotive subject. Tales of the brutal eviction of Scots from their homes, and of their exile overseas, have inspired songs, poems, paintings and novels.

The famous 'Canadian Boat Song' first appeared in 'Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine' in 1829:

...From the lone shieling of the misty island
Mountains divide us, and the waste of seas -
Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland,
And we in dreams behold the Hebrides...

It appeared to be the words of a Gaelic exile, a victim of the Clearances, but its writer still remains a mystery. Many think that the 'Canadian Boat Song' was composed by a Lowland Scot from Musselburgh who didn't emigrate to Canada.

Long before the Clearances, Scots were taking the long voyage west to Canada to improve their lives and the lives of their children. Scots of humble origin became land owners and carved new Gaelic-speaking settlements from the Canadian wilderness.

These Highlanders were far from victims; they were educated men and women who set out to make the most of the opportunities that a new life in Canada offered.

Gaels left Scotland and raised settlements in Nova Scotia, Cape Breton, Prince Edward Island, Red River and Glengarry. There was sorrow as they left their ancestral home but also a new sense of freedom.

The Gaelic bard Micheil Mór MacDhómnaill (Michael McDonald) composed 'O 'S àlainn an t-àite' - 'Fair is the place' in 1772, after his arrived in Canada at Prince Edward Island:

O 'S àlainn an t-àite
Th' agam 'n cois na tràghad
'N uair thig e gu bhith 'g àiteach ann
Leis a' chrann, leis a'chrann, O.

Ni mi 'n t-aran leis na gearrain
'S an crodh-bainne chuir mu'n bhaile;
'S cha bhi annas oirnn 's an earrach.

Chuirinn geall, chuirinn geall.

O, 's fraoidhneasach, daoimeanach,
Glan mar scholus choinnlean,
Am gradan le chuid schoillseanach
Annas gach allt, anns gach allt, O.

Mear ri mire, leum na linne.

Fair is the place
I have here by the sea,
When it comes time to till it
with the plough, with the plough.

I shall make bread-land with horses
and put the cows to graze;
we shall not be in want in spring,
I wager, I wager.

Sparkling, diamond-like,
clear as candle-light,
is the salmon with his brilliance,
in every stream,
Merrily sporting, leaping from the pool.

While many Scots actively decided to emigrate to Canada, others were deliberately cleared from their lands and had no choice but to leave Scotland to begin a new life.

In 1771, Captain John MacDonald of Glenaladale and Glenfinnan mortgaged his estates to buy land on Prince Edward Island. John MacDonald paid for the passage of destitute Catholic Gaels from South Uist that had been evicted from their lands by Alexander MacDonald of Boisdale because they had refused to give up their faith. John MacDonald joined the emigrants on Prince Edward Island.

In the 19th century, Scots landlords in the Highlands and Islands realised that they could make more money from their lands by replacing crofters with sheep and high-yield crops. New farming techniques and devices had revolutionised farming, and greatly reduced the number of men needed and the time it took to manage a crop. The Great Famine of 1846 to 1856 drove many Scots from their lands.

Many Scots landlords evicted their tenants outright so that they could use all the land. Some simply relocated their tenants to different properties on their estates, but others hired ships and forcibly transported their former tenants to Canada for resettlement.

Across Scotland the ghostly remains of crofts can be found. Small communities vanished, their homes left to fall to ruin.

In Canada, the Scots built new Gaelic-speaking communities that kept their Scots traditions alive.