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Stories from the Scotsman
Canadians travel to Skye to mark pioneer journey


TWO centuries ago their ancestors uprooted themselves from their homes in the Highlands and crammed on to ships to start a new life across the Atlantic.

In June 1803, some 800 emigrants boarded a series of ships to take them from Skye to Canada. They settled in Prince Edward Island, the country’s smallest province, where they established a Scottish colony which today retains strong links with the north of Scotland.

Yesterday, descendants of the families who sailed on the emigrant ships recalled the pioneering settlers when they visited Skye to mark the bicentenary of the historic events.

A group of 18 Canadians from Prince Edward Island travelled to Skye and Raasay and marked the occasion by planting native Scottish trees in the old village of Leitirfura, near Kinloch.

They also visited the Museum of the Isles, in Armadale, Skye, where an exhibition of the voyages to the New World opened at Easter.

While the emigrants spent six weeks at sea to reach Canada, the visitors’ journey took 24 hours by air and bus. Among them was Hesta Macdonald, whose late husband Alexander Stewart Macdonald’s family was from Skye.

Mrs Macdonald said: "There is still a strong connection between Prince Edward Island and Skye in the place names and the way the children are still given Scottish names - my own sons are called Graeme Douglas and Kenneth Stirling. This event will help strengthen those connections and it is our hope that we will keep our ties with the Isle of Skye."

The 19th century emigrants left Skye, Ross-shire, Inverness and Argyll and sailed into the unknown with only the essential clothing and tools.

Their departure was not due to the mass clearances endured in other parts of the Highlands, but was largely voluntarily. At the time, Skye had suffered a series of poor harvests, a bad potato crop in 1803 and a scarcity of herring. This was exacerbated in 1802 by a sharp decline in cattle sales.

Cailean Maclean, who organised the Canadians’ visit, said: "The economic conditions on Skye were particularly poor at that time and the rents were rising very quickly. People were finding it difficult to make ends meet and so there were a lot of people who were minded to leave and when the opportunity came to emigrate, some of them jumped at the chance."

Emigration was seen as the answer to the economic problem by Thomas Douglas, the Fifth Earl of Selkirk, who also saw it as a way of maintaining the Gaelic tradition.

He obtained 80,000 acres in south-east Prince Edward Island which was settled eventually by thousands of emigrants.

JOHN ROSS
Tuesday, 24th June 2003

The Scotsman


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