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The Scottish Catholics in Prince Edward Island 1772 - 1922
Chapter I


Few events in the history of civilized nations compare in interest and pathos, with the attempt made in the middle of the eighteenth century by Prince Charles Edward Stuart, to recover the throne of his ancestors.

From his landing in Scotland on July 23rd 1745, till his final escape into France, his pathway lay through so many vicissitudes of success and failure, of hope and despondency, that the story of those few months seem to belong to the realm of romance, rather than to that of true history.

One trait however, stands forth clearly from the background of doubt and obscurity, and shines like a thread of gold throughout it all, and that is, the unswerving attachment and loyalty of the Catholic Highlanders to the person of the unfortunate Prince. With only, little regard for consequences, they flocked to his standard, on the memorable day when its waving folds blessed by Bishop McDonald were flung out on the breeze at Glenfinnan. They pledged their wealth, their homes, their lives, to his cause. They were ready to go with him, to fight for him, aye and die for him with a tenacity of purpose, that seemed begotten not of calm reason but of thoughtless infatuation. And dearly did they pay, for their devotedness. Terrible indeed, was the retribution that followed their espousal of the Stuart cause and for years they were forced to pay the penalty amid incalculable trials and sufferings.

It is true that the Penal Laws had been in force in Scotland, for years prior to the coming of Prince Charlie; but, with the lapse of time, they had lost much of their earlier severity, and it often happened, that officials well disposed towards their Catholic countrymen, would allow the latter, intervals of comparative peace. But after Culloden's fatal day when the Stuart cause was ruined forever, the authorities laid deeper plans to harass the poor Highlanders, so that henceforth their existence became a veritable Egyptian bondage. Any leniency hitherto exercised in the administration of the Laws was no longer tolerated. New statutes, surpassing all former ones in ferocity, were enacted, and orders went forth enjoining stricter vigilance in dealing with the Catholic people. Nothing was left undone to make their lives miserable, and it would seem that the policy of the day was nothing less than a plan well thought out, to glut the vengeance of the House of Hanover. According to a modern writer: "more than a thousand persons were transported from the Country, the Highland Clans were decimated and dispersed, the Catholic Chapels destroyed, the Seminary at Scalan plundered and burned, Missals and Vestments publicly committed to the flames, and Priests and people persecuted with merciless rigor. The vigilance of the authorities was directed in a special manner against the Bishop of the Highland District, Right- Reverend Hugh McDonald, who was forced to flee the Country and spend some time in retirement in France." (Geddes)

Another circumstance, that added to the difficulties of the times was the conduct of the Landlords, upon whose estates the Catholic people were settled. These landed gentry, taking their cue from the Government of the day, treated their tenants with heartless severity, and pursued in their regard a policy of petty persecution, scarcely less trying than the iniquitous laws of the Country. Howsoever matters stood with the poor tenant, his rent must be paid an demand. Whether his crop yielded well or was a failure, whether his circumstances were good or bad, the collector never failed to come to his door insisting upon the "pound of flesh," and threatening seizure or eviction for the luckless one, who found himself unable to meet his obligations. Oft-times failure to pay the rent was hailed with undisguised pleasure by the haughty proprietor, who pretended to find therein some shadow of excuse for proceeding to extreme measures. Occasionally these evictions were carried out on a general scale, and for no other reason than that the Landlord would be able to unite a number of small holdings in a park, which he could stock with game for the amusement of himself and his friends during the hunting season.

One of the most heartless and bigoted of these landed proprietors was Alexander McDonald of Boisdale, in the Western Islands. Originally a Catholic, he gradually fell away from the Faith, mainly through the influence of his wife, who was a Protestant, and not content with his own cowardly perversion, he strove by all means in his power to drag his tenantry with him, as if by abandoning their religion they would furnish him a quasi-justifaction of his own miserable weakness in that regard. It is said of him that on a certain Sunday, he posted himself at the junction of two roads and brandishing a stout cane tried to keep the people from the Catholic Church and force them to his own place of worship, a circumstance which gave rise to the epithet "Credimh a bhata bhui," ["Religion of the yellow staff."] which they contemptuously applied to his particular style of evangelism. Meeting nothing but failure in his attempts to pervert the older people, he turned his attention to the children in the hope that he might here realize a larger measure of success. He established schools in his neighborhood, where instruction would be gratuitously furnished, and exhorted the parents to profit by the advantages thus supplied by his generosity. Soon however, it was discovered that the Faith of the little ones was being tampered with by ultra zealous Protestant teachers, who found many occasions to inculcate doctrines and opinions contrary to the spirit of the Catholic Church, and, should this state of affairs continue, the plastic minds of the children would be gradually turned away from the Faith of their Fathers. The parents therefore, apprised of this cowardly attempt at perversion at once removed their children from the schools, and would not permit them to return. The Laird thus thwarted in his designs, was more than ever enraged with his tenants and more than ever determined that they should of necessity come over to his way of thinking. He served notice on them to attend a meeting on a certain day, and exhorted all to be present as he had matters of great importance to announce to them. They accordingly assembled on the appointed day, and of the interested persons not one was absent. They came, all the more eagerly, that it had begun to be rumored about, that Boisdale having grown weary of his work of persecution, was now convinced of the futility of severity in treating with a people unswerving in their loyalty to religion; and that now he was gradually coming around to gentler methods of dealing with his tenants. Imagine their surprise and chagrin, when the Landlord, having addressed them in his usual overbearing manner, produced a document written in their native Gaelic, containing practically a renunciation of their faith, and a promise that they would hold no further intercourse with priests of the Church, and this document he asked them to sign under pain of being driven from their lands and deprived of their homes. With the spirit of the early christians every man refused to sign, and this unanimous decision was not the result of long deliberation, but a spontaneous outburst of refusal, showing a determination that could never be broken. The alternative of being deprived of their homes seemed to those devoted people but a paltry affair compared to the priceless boon of Faith, which they were called upon to sacrifice.

From the date of this meeting they began to talk of emigration. Matters had now reached a crisis, and it was plain that the passive resistance of former years was no longer sufficient to save the situation. The older people, it is true, did not fear for themselves. They possessed the firm conviction that, by the grace of God, they would persevere and triumph over the pretensions of an inquitous master, but how would it fare with their children? Would they in turn be able to cope with the stress and tyranny of a system that grew more effective as it increased in cunning, until it might well be called expert in its methods of perversion?

Would these young and innocent souls persevere amid such trying circumstances, or would they perhaps weaken in the struggle, and sell their birth-right for a "mess of pottage?" So the cry became more and yet more insistent: Let us go out from here! Let us go to a land beyond the seas, where the Upas tree of Landlordism has never taken root, where the sun shines upon a people free as the air they breathe, and where our children and our children's children may live in peace and security and adore God according to the dictates of their conscience. Thus they talked the matter over among themselves. Wherever they came together it was the main subject of conversation. Particularly at their Ceillidhs in the long winter evenings, when neighbors met for a heart to heart talk, the question of emigration was sure to come up, and not infrequently some strolling seannachie, his soul fired by the consciousness of present wrongs, would rehearse the trying circumstances which they patiently endured, while the free land of America was calling to them, aye imploring them to come across the seas and share in the peace and prosperity of the New World. In this way emigration became their one dominant idea, until they seemed to have no other purpose in life, but to go out from their native land and seek homes in America.

But many and great were the difficulties in the way. To bid adieu to the land of their birth, to sever ties that seemed as it were a part of their very lives, to abandon homes wherein they had spent so many years, and in which they had hoped to close their earthly career, these were indeed formidable barriers in their way; yet they seemed comparatively small compared to the difficulty of devising ways and means of defraying the expenses of such a journey. Some of the people possessed a little means, and for these the undertaking was feasible, but a great majority were comparatively poor and to these it seemed an utter impossibility. The rent roll of years had eaten up the results of their labors, and they had merely eked out a bare subsistence for themselves and their familities, so that nothing was put by for the proverbial rainy day; and hence, when the rainy day came in the form of emigration, the poor tenant had nothing to meet the extraordinary expenditure thus entailed. For him it seemed that he must continue to endure his wrongs in patience, and await a brighter lay, when in God's own good time he would find a relief.

But fortunately there was a man on the spot who was able to dominate the situation and procure the funds required by the poorer people. Captain John MacDonald, Laird of the Glens, took up their cause and by enlisting the kindly sympathy of other powerful personages, he succeeded in collecting sufficient money to defray the expenses of the voyage. He placed himself in communication with Bishop Hay, Vicar-Apostolic of the Lowland District, and with Bishop Challoner of London, through whose influence subscriptions were taken up, and a goodly sum raised to meet the needs of the emigrants. Captain John himself mortgaged his vast Estates in Scotland to enable him to purchase land in Prince Edward Island, whereon the emigrants would settle on their arrival in the new Colony. This purchase was effected in the year 1771, and forthwith he despatched laborers ahead to make the necessary preparations for the arrival of the emigrants, who, he hoped, would be ready to leave Scotland early in the following year. In the month of March, 1772, he chartered a vessel called the "Alexander" in Greenock. Thence she went North to Uist Island, and early in the month of May she set sail for Prince Edward Island with two hundred and ten emigrants, of whom one hundred were from Uist Island, and the remainder from the mainland. Of these by far the largest group was composed of MacDonalds, but there were also a goodly number of MacEacherns, MacKenzies, McPhees, Campbells, Beatons, Gillises, MacRaes, MacIntoshes, MacKinnons and probably others, whose names escape the writer at this time.


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