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Scots in Argentina
A Padre in Patagonia


Far sooth, far sooth, the winds they blaw.
Wi’ hail an’ sleet an’ frost an’ snaw;
The cocks, for cauld, can hardly craw,
Yir nose scarce own ye;
But her’ts are warm an’ mutton’s braw
In Patagonia. B.

It’s a long long way to Patagonia. Twenty-one days from London to Buenos Aires; then 10 days in this teeming city till the first boat south, the while some of one’s twenty-one days’ washing is washed; then 11 days by boat to Magallanes (formerly Punta Arenas - Sandy Point), on the Magellan Straits. In all 42 days of 6 weeks, and over 7000 miles. A train and aeroplane combination has now considerably lessened the last lap of the journey.

In 1520, when Ferdinand Magellan discovered the short cut from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the voyage occupied more months than our weeks. Magellan found the folks in these parts very tall, dressed in skins, and with clumsy feet; hence the supposed name for them — the Patagaos — the big feet. Darwin made his voyage in the Beagle down this coast in the summer of 1833-34, and thereafter gave the world the first detailed description of what is now known as Patagonia.

The Argentine Republic, with a population one quarter that of Great Britain and Ireland but an area nigh ten times larger, comprises 24 provinces and territories, each, on an average, larger than Scotland. To the two most Southern territories, Santa Cruz and Chubut, with part of the third most southern, Rio Negro, is usually given the name Patagonia. The island of Tierra del Fuego is also included; it is partly Argentine and partly Chilean.

Sailing south from Buenos Aires the first Patagonian port of call is Madryn, 700 miles, and the only port on the Patagonian coast where there is a pier to allow one to step straight on shore. Scarcely a blade of grass is to be seen here, but everywhere bleak rocks, both flat and precipitous, of a sort of sandstone—Tosca. And the wind it bloweth with a bite. A new arrival sorely needs his nightly application of face cream.

Next port of call is Comodoro Rivadavia—bleaker and more bare, if possible, than Madryn. Yet here are somewhere around 12,000 souls — Argentine, British, American, French, German, Dutch and an old colony of Boers. For oil was discovered, and thither gathered together the commercial eagles. Large oil-tanks dot the landscape —Argentine Government tanks, Dutch Shell, Standard and Anglo-Persian. The last mentioned, on the date of my visit, November 1924, had just struck an exceptionally good flow — 800 tons the first day, 1000 tons the second day, and still going strong. In the little cemetery (its surface was but grey dust), one small cross told its unadorned story. Angus Macleod, native of Skye. Here forever, at our feet, was a bit of Scotland. I heard the story later — murdered some years before with the month’s wages for his farm workers in his pocket. They who knew these parts in earlier days need not be told that neither murderer nor money was discovered.

And so on to Puerto Deseado, Port Desire, where were growing three small trees which had valiantly braved the wind successfully so far. Here, as at the next ports, San Julian, Santa Cruz and Gallegos, the country looks as innocent of grass as ever. No rain had fallen for many weeks in the grey and bare stretches, yet the sheep were eking out a living. On turning into the Straits of Magellan, one sees an entirely different country. Trees—in fact woods—make their appearance. There is grass which is really green, just because more rain falls here. Here too there are hills and mountains, solemn snowy sentinels of the straits. In this cold and windy zone, where but about two generations ago a few savage Indians roamed, there now graze millions of sheep, with a sprinkling of cattle and horses.

The centre from which radiate nearly all the activities of the district around the Magellan Straits is the town of Magallanes, with over 20,000 inhabitants, and claiming proudly to be the farthest south town in the world. The landing here was chilly. For although it was November, and therefore late Spring, a windy hailstorm was raging. The town is wonderfully modern. True, some of the streets were mostly holes and hillocks, and the bullocks, if sure, are very slow when yoked to carts. But Magallanes is not, as often thought, the back o’ beyont. There is electric light everywhere and the telephone. A gigantic wireless station stands on the shore. There were two daily newspapers in the Spanish language and one weekly paper in English — "the farthest South British newspaper". There are several large and excellently appointed banks, and two British clubs with every comfort of similar institutions in Britain, except the fireplace. The hotels are comfortable enough too. Our fellow-countrymen in the town are to be found in the Anglo-South American Bank, in the large stores and farming companies’ offices, representing home firms, and in business on their own. A Scot from Coatbridge met me, and introduced me to, three more Scots, each with his car, and representing respectively Law’s, Robertson’s and Cooper’s sheep dip. And the wool buyer from Bradford was around, getting ready to tour the far and lonely parts. For in the town, as in the camp, it is sheep and again sheep; sheep in the morning, sheep in the evening, sheep in the afternoon. And the Scot, like little Jack Horner, has his thumb in the pie, and has pulled out some plums.

We are now in Chile, and Chilean Patagonia can boast lakes and mountains and scenery which, though little known, rival Switzerland’s best. Here you have lowland and upland, pasture and glacier, forest and eternal snow, and creeks that Norway might envy. And the eye of the Scot looks on well nigh them all every day, and his foot is established in the way of its going. Morrisons, Macleods, Sutherlands, MacCaskills, Mackenzies, Macdonalds, Macphersons, Grants, Strachans, Slaters, Hamiltons, Hallidays, McColls, McGeorges, Tweedies, Aitchisons, Gallies all are here. Aye, even MacTavish is making a living, and talks the Gaelic every night to his nearest neighbour nigh 50 miles off, where lives Shon Maclean.

Patagonia knows what she owes to these hardy pioneers with the strong blood of the Hebrides, Caithness, Ross and Cromarty in their veins pioneers who refused to know defeat, and who, 50 years ago, started out to drive sheep from Buenos Aires to those then inhospitable regions. Twelve hundred miles it was, and two lambings on the way! And the track, when they finished, strewn with carcases (but not their own), cleaned to the bone by the vultures that were their daily travelling companions. But they did it. The story is one of the epics of Patagonia and some day should be told. Victory surely ever beams on such a breed. It is the stuff of which heroes are made. It is the spirit that has kept our Royal Standard flying.

The town of Magallanes typifies the sudden growth of the whole region. Some 25 years ago the motor car made its advent and the transition was straight from bullock waggon to Ford. The intermediate stage of phaeton, gig, cab and hansom was given a miss. Similarly, in the quick process of progression, the stage of gas was jumped and the change was from paraffin lamp to electric light. To the newcomer it is a strange sight to watch the old and the new side by side, both useful. For the steady non-jerky pull of the bullock can extricate a bogged car where the horse would fail; and in the far parts of the camp the candle and the lamp are a sure standby when the electric engine breaks down and the necessary "spare" is 200 miles distant across the snow.

It is difficult to convey an adequate idea of the immensity of things in Patagonia. Or rather is it difficult to expect to be believed when one tries to tell "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but". Here are the particulars about one of the first estancias I visited. Its size was 120,000 hectareas. Taking the hectarea at 2 1/4 acres, this gives a farm of 270,000 acres. A farm of 1000 acres in Scotland is reckoned a large one. This estancia carried 103,000 sheep. Just before I left, one of the shepherds in charge of a section Malcolm Mackay from Stornoway rode in from his far shanty. When he found who I was, he asked me to go and christen his baby. There was no track for a car. It meant horse-back. "We’ll do it in four hours it’s a thirty mile ride." he said. It was the thirty back that worried a soft townsman!

Here is another farm, almost exactly the size of Banffshire, and managed by a most cheery Banffshire loon. In ordinary times 400 sheep are killed every month to feed the farm hands, and at shearing time many more. This takes no account of bullocks, pigs, chickens, wild geese and their eggs, hares, wild duck and their eggs, young guanaco, which all occasionally swell the menu. In the kitchen of that estancia was a cook, an ex-captain of the Prussian Guards. In a chat—"the Scotch in kilt, they were of the war the best soldiers. I know. I was by them twice wounded. It was the most hard them away to run to make." We exchanged war memories and shook hands heartily. So doth Father Time soften old bitternesses.

Here yet again are the particulars of what is reckoned locally the largest sheep farm in the world, the Compania Explotadora de Tierra del Fuego. It owns several farms, both in Tierra del Fuego and on the mainland. This little concern was shearing 1 1/4 million sheep per annum. Yearly half a million lambs were being marked. At many of their farms they can, and do, shear five thousand sheep a day. Net lbs. of wool for 1923 9 million 268 thousand. The average death rate was kept down to 7 per cent. Capital of the Company, £1,800,000. Net profit for 1923 £800,000. The figures for to-day are certainly more modest.

From May to September camp folks in many parts are faced with being shut up by snow, when the only mode of travel is horseback. Flower pots are hidden away in cellars, and ink pots may have to be melted. The water jug standing on the table 5 yards from a big fire may be frozen to the bottom. The houses are nearly all built of corrugated iron. Mine playful host at one estancia assured me that some winters previously, while he was sitting over a big fire at night with a friend, every word he spoke froze and dropped in little pellets of ice on the rug. To which I could but suggest that, with so much ice around his slippered feet, he was fortunate to have escaped chilblains.

In Argentine Patagonia the east coast of the south of South America the visitor is impressed with the huge expanses of Pampa, and unending stretches of grey treeless country. What grass there be is grey. Sheep can live; they can even thrive. But cattle well, if you keep a cow you are amongst the elect. For probably you may have to buy alfalfa (the Argentine hay) from Buenos Aires. It does seem hard to be a farmer and to have to use tinned milk. What they need in Argentine Patagonia is rain; what they get is wind. During my stay in the Port of San Julian a storm blew up with no warning, and in 20 minutes empty petrol tins were careering about the streets. This Valkeerie dance went on for 3 hours. A musical interpretation of the scene would have been after the heart of Wagner. But a portrayal of the dust would surely have baffled him. Patagonia is a country only for fit men and hardy beasts. Some enemy is ever lurking at the gate. Woe betide the sheep overcome with cold or fallen on its back and unable to rise. Down from the nowhere swoops a carrancho and lights on a paling post or stone nearby. From there the situation is surveyed with leisure. Then the deadly work begins. Out comes one of the sheep’s eyes, then the other, then the tongue. Ere now other carranchos have joined in the feast. Before long the spot is marked alone by wool and bones. Bones, white bones, they mock you everywhere. For the winters especially can be very severe, and shelter there is little or none. An animal dies where it lies down, and lies where it dies. In an hour’s journey along the track I once counted over 200 carcases of 14 different beasts or big birds.

Patagonia owes much very much to Scotland, especially to the Stornoway and Dumfries districts. The Murdo Macleods, the Roderick Macleans, the Hector Macphersons, the Scotts, the Pattersons, the Frazers, and many of their brethren are to-day farming millions of acres in districts which to the "hijo del pais" seemed too forbidding. These men, and some of their fathers, looked Fate in the face and defied her. What to them if the first hapless Spanish colonists in Patagonia had starved to death or had given up the struggle in despair? Darwin called this "the land of bitterness". He was right, for he was thinking of its sterility for agricultural pursuits. But he forgot the hardy, long-suffering sheep, and the indomitable spirit of the Scots shepherd. As always, it was dogged that did it. Patagonia was and is no place for agriculture. Dig a sod to-day, and tomorrow the wind will have the roots of that sod innocent of earth. But what was no good for agriculture was, by grit and gumption, made possible for sheep-breeding. And more. For now in the sheltered "cafladones" where once the roaming Indian camped, pretty estancias may be seen houses and steading alike built of corrugated iron. Slips of ivy and honeysuckle brought from the Hebrides. Aberfeldy, Ballindalloch, Aberdeen, Glencarse, Glencairn, Arbroth, Dumfries, and many another place, are growing round the windows. Even heather from Birnam Hill had taken root, although the pathetic smile it seemed to give me made me believe that it would have been happier to be looking down again on old Dunkeld Cathedral, and to be hearing the evening murmur of the silvery Tay.

Of our countrymen in Patagonia, most owners made much money during and after the war. But the problems of the shepherd who has no share in the business were and are acute. The biggest of these problems are medical attention and education. When the nearest school and doctor are 100 miles away there are bound to be worries. The father would like his children to get at least as good an education as he got in the little parish school by the Gairloch. But how? And if sudden and serious illness comes on, how is he to get in touch with a doctor in time, or how perhaps get the necessary funds to guarantee the doctor’s coming. I saw some lonely and sad graves. In one case the wife had to be undertaker, gravedigger and minister for her husband. May Scots never cease to be grateful for the schools and the doctors of Scotland.

The Patagonian Indians, Tehuelche, are a fast disappearing almost disappeared race. I was fortunate to see a few of them. They were living in tents, and hunting the young guanaco whose skins they scrape, dry, stretch, and sell to traders. About 15 of these skins sewn together make a beautiful rug, to be seen occasionally in a Princes St. window at a non-clerical price. These Indians were drinking mate (green tea), and, in the season, live on eggs of the wild geese, ostrich and duck, and on the flesh of the guanaco and ostrich. Their method of cooking the latter is interesting. They light a fire and then heat some stones in the fire. These hot stones are placed inside the ostrich which is then grilled on the embers of the fire. The result is A.I. for the Indians.

Contact with the white man has spelt the doom of this remarkable race. They who for generations had been born and reared in the open, cannot stand before the white man’s illnesses. Down and out they go with influenza, measles, whooping cough and scarlet fever. Viejo Bayuco (old man Bayuco) whom I met early in 1925 near Santa Cruz will be a lasting memory. I prize his photograph. Guess his age. He remembered Darwin’s visit to San Julian in 1833. He was then a "young man". Let us put him at 102. He still rode his horse, and had every tooth except one. His hair was long and matted. But you could have laid a few small coffee spoons along the wrinkles on his handsome, sad face. Bent with years and proudly wearing a new long cloak of guanaco skins (I mentally broke the 10th Commandment) he still stood nearly 6 feet tall. He came to the Estancia to beg salt and jam. He got both.

The hospitality of the Patagonian settlers is to be experienced, for it is hard to describe. When the next farm is 50 miles along the track there are few means of sending word that you are coming. You just arrive. The bed is always ready, with a huge skin rug on the top of it. And you need that rug. But just you hear the mutton sizzling on the kitchen fire, the while the goodman of the house settles down for a crack with you. "Frae Brochty Ferry, did ye say? Man, 30 year ago I was on a fairm at Monikie; I ken every field atween that and the Murroes." Ever the conversation led back to the old home. "Hard nuts". Perhaps, but easily cracked, and a soft kernel revealed, when the old times and the old folks were mentioned.

By now the evening meal is ready. "God bless this home and all who are dear to it". And then to business. What an appetite the cold and cutting winds of Patagonia develop. Three mutton chops "just to start with". At one estancia I saw a sturdy son of the Hebrides, Murdo to be sure, dispose of 9 chops at a sitting, with four large slices of home baked bread and two cups of coffee. I arrived on the scene at the 9th chop. I was invited to join him in the savoury four wild geese eggs, hard boiled which I did. It is still on my conscience that perhaps poor Murdo went hungry away, for the Parson ate three quarters of his eggs. Little wonder that newcomers to Patagonia tend to grow round about. But Nature always seeks to make adjustments. The winds seem to want to blow through you, but they develop a growing appetite. That fosters fat. Fat keeps out the wind. So in time it is a case of "as you were". Not so with the clothes that once fitted you. They are as they were; you are not.

How came our countrymen to Patagonia? Some came direct from Scotland or via Buenos Aires; many more came via the Falkiand Islands "British Islands inhabited by priests and penguins" so runs an old description. Many of these early settlers came of the crofter stock a stock that has given worthy sons to our Colonies, and to far parts of the world. It is not unnatural that the North-Western parts of Scotland, where things are difficult, and where rain and wind are one’s birthright, come an easy first in the list of their birthplaces. During my journeyings I christened 57 children, 25 of whom were the sons or daughters of full-blooded Highlanders. Here are some of the names which vouch for themselves: Murdo Maclean, Donald Angus McDonald, Alasdair Morrison, Ian Malcolm Mackenzie, Roderick Donald Maclean, Donald Bain, Lauchlan Macdonald, Murdo Angus Stewart, Roderick Hector Mackenzie, Jean Mackay, Jessie MacGregor Bain. On some of the more remote puestos (Shepherd’s shanty) the children grow up to be very shy of strangers and very fearless in their work and play. On horseback they are dare-devils, yet will scamper and hide on your first approach to the homestead. One of them, who had never before seen a parson, confessed to his father later that "a man wi’ a collar that buttoned ahint" was worthy of a wary welcome.

Of the wild birds and wild animals of Patagonia, the two which interested me most were the ostrich and the puma. The ostrich is not, of course, the big African one, but a smaller species, Rhea Darwini, standing about 3 feet tall. The Indians enjoy their flesh. The Scots prefer their eggs. They herd in troops. From several reckonings I made by the speedometer of the car as we chased them along the tracks, they are able to move at over 20 miles an hour. Their married life, from the wife’s point of view, is an ideal one. The husband takes unto himself not one, but 4 or 5, wives. A shallow hole is scratched in the ground, often near a small bush, and this is the common nest. Thither the hens repair and lay their eggs. That done, their duty seems to be finished. From 20 to 50 eggs may be in the nest, each egg equal to 10 hens’ eggs. Mr. Ostrich does the sitting, hatching and rearing, and may be seen with 50 youngsters after him, the while his various spouses are disporting themselves in green fields and pastures new. The arrangement seems to work well.

The Patagonian housewife preserves the eggs in barrels. They make excellent omelettes, but are mostly used for cakes and puddings. Pet ostriches are common. Once we had a car breakdown just after leaving an estaneja. Two of these pets had followed us and were greatly interested in the mending process. We discovered later that they had swallowed 3 small screw-nuts - excellent for their gizzards but awkward for us. Patagonia provides some unique difficulties in the way of travelling, for, later on the same journey, the water in the car ran done, and we reached our destination only by the aid of the juice from two tins of asparagus.

The lion (Puma) is not beloved of the Patagonian farmer. He lives in dens and caves of the rock hills, measures about 8 to 11 feet from head to tail, and stands about the height of a leopard. Thirty or forty sheep may sometimes be his bag for one night. His frequent habit is to cover up his "kill" with grass which he scrapes round it, and to return and have his meal at leisure. This is his undoing, for the farmer, when he finds a grass covered sheep, injects it with arsenic. One such sheep we treated thus, and next day a lion, a fox, a carrancho (hawk) and two sea-gulls had eaten their last meal. One lion cub, eight weeks old, I saw at an estancia the latest in pets. But even at that tender age be had begun to be a little too playful with the hens, having knocked out four. So Master Leo got the chain.

Australia and China top the world’s list of sheep rearing countries. The Argentine comes third, and the United Kingdom eighth. Of Argentina’s 43 million sheep, the major portion is reared in Patagonian territory. Yet about two generations ago this was a vast forgotten land of ill repute. To-day, the Scot can claim a big share in making it an important factor in world economics. But back of it all is that modest, timid, unpretentious animal the sheep, subsisting on little, yet providing us with two prime necessities of life heat and meat.

Without the sheep Patagonia would be today what it was at the time of her discovery—a windy waste, the home of countless guanacos, ostriches and pumas, scarce able to maintain in precarious existence a few illiterate aboriginals.


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