Then and Now
The Heritage of Inverness County
by Jim St. Clair from the Oran
Heisker/Heisgeir Then and Heisker Now – a Gaelic site
Webposted July 07, 2004
To the casual observer driving into Whycocomagh from either
direction along the Trans-Canada Highway, the low-lying island in
Whycocomagh Bay is barely evident. The trees which cover the large
part of the ten or so acres blend into the growth along either shore
– and there is little evidence of beach or clearing.
From the South Side Road, the shape of the island is a little more
clear, but nothing remarkable stands out. A bit more of the
shoreline is visible as well as a section where the trees seem
In recent times it has been known as Sheep Island, and on maps it is
often referred to as MacDonald Island. But in earlier documents from
the 1800s, the name Heisker is attached to the island in Whycocomagh
Bay. The name, however, has long departed from local use.
Owned privately, it has been a quiet retreat for local people who
are looking for a nearby place for family enjoyment and a unique
opportunity to enjoy the view of the mountains surrounding
Whycocomagh and to fish and swim and perhaps "paddle your own canoe"
On days when fog or mist covers the lake, the island seems to
disappear for some hours, as it does when a major snowstorm sweeps
across the lake and visibility is almost zero. But then, as the
weather clears and the sun scatters the fog, once again
Heisker/Sheep/MacDonald Island reappears.
Out of the mist of times past as well, Heisker appears with a
collection of references to earlier events and people. Heisker, an
island or really two islands, sometimes called the Monach Islands;
Heisker, now a wildlife and bird sanctuary off the coast of the
island of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides; Heisker, with remnants
of many buildings of centuries past; Heisker, once a familiar place
to some early settlers around Whycocomagh Bay and to their ancestors
Apparently a name of Scandinavian origin recalling the days when the
Norse were pillaging and trying to order the course of events on the
western coast of Scotland, Heisker is on the early list of the
places from which Sir Donald MacDonald of Sleat collected rents in
1718. A tiny part of the MacDonald Estates, it was occupied at that
time by an Alexander McDonald and his family. They paid 220 merks
(Scottish currency) as well as a share of the produce gained on the
island which was known for being quite fruitful and a fine place for
raising sheep and cattle.
Eighty years later, according to the listing in the rental rolls for
North Uist, eleven families were living there with a total
population of sixty residents – MacDonalds, MacAulays, MacInneses,
MacIsaacs, MacLellans and Laings being there in 1799. Some of these
families were already well aware that times were changing, and
people were hearing about the possibilities of new economic
opportunities for themselves and for their descendants in Nova
Scotia, indeed in Cape Breton – island to island.
The next list of MacDonald Estate rentals in 1814 shows only the
families of Malcolm MacAskill and John MacDonald with eleven
individuals in their two families on Heisker. Although they had four
horses and four cows and 44 sheep in the possession of the two
families, the rent seems high as listed. And certainly the
population has started to change locations – some moving to other
parts of the Hebrides and some probably already moving to other
places as well.
Which of the families once resident in Heisker attached the name to
an island in Whycocomagh Bay is not quite evident yet from research
– but almost certainly one of the MacDonalds, since it was also
known as MacDonald Island for a time and is listed as granted to a
MacDonald in the records of Lands and Forests.
We will never know, moreover, which if any of the immigrants
recalled the importance of Heisker in the late Middle Ages when it
was noted as a place of learning and instruction and a monastery or
religious centre of some sort.
Who of the early immigrants sang Oran t-Haisgeireadh and other songs
of Heisgeir/Heisker as printed in >From the Farthest Hebrides –
songs gathered by Donald Fergusson and Angus MacDonald and printed
in 1978? When did the oral tradition of these songs and stories
disappear from local lore?
This week, from many places, Gaelic teachers are gathering in Mabou
at Dalbrae Academy for a time of learning and stimulation. They have
come to this Island of Cape Breton to share their learning and to
increase their knowledge, as centuries ago people may have gathered
on the Island of Heisker in the Outer Hebrides.
The Gaelic Language and Culture Institute, led by Margie Beaton, is
sponsored by the Strait District School Board and the Nova Scotia
Department of Education. Language and history, oral tradition and
Gaelic literature are all part of the offerings of the institute.
While the island of Heisker in Whycocomagh Bay will not be included
in the field trips, its name, although dimly recalled now, can bring
forth a recollection of Gaelic language and culture, of songs
remembered and forgotten – and the name has a resonance of early
immigrants who may well have been lonesome for their old home in a
place where the sound of the sea is ever present. Or they may have
wished in some way to remind themselves and others of the
significance of this remote place, once a major centre and a
productive home for many people.
This comment system requires
you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an
account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or
Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these
companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All
comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator
has approved your comment.