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A Summer in Skye
The Emigrants


THE English emigrant is prosaic; Highland and Irish emigrants are poetical. How is this? The wild-rose lanes of England, one would think, are as bitter to part from, and as worthy to be remembered at the antipodes, as the wild coasts of Skye or the green hills of Ireland. Oddly enough, poet and painter turn a cold shoulder on the English emigrant, while they expend infinite pathos on the emigrants from Erin or the Highlands. The Highlander has his Lochaber-no-more, and the Irishman has the Countess of Gifford’s pretty song. The ship in the offing, and the parting of Highland emigrants on the sea-shore, have been made the subject of innumerable paintings; and yet there is a sufficient reason for it all. Young man and maid are continually parting; but unless the young man and maid are lovers, the farewell-taking has no attraction for the singer or the artist. Without the laceration of love, without some tumult of sorrowful emotion, a parting is the most prosaic thing in the world; with these it is perhaps the most affecting. "Good-bye" serves for the one; the most sorrowful words of the poet are hardly sufficient for the other. Rightly or wrongly, it is popularly understood that the English emigrant is not mightily moved by regret when he beholds the shores that gave him birth withdrawing themselves into the dimness of the far horizon,—although, if true, why it should be so? and if false, how it has crept into the common belief? are questions not easy to answer. If the Englishman is obtuse and indifferent in this respect, the Highlander is not. He has a cat-like love for locality. He finds it as difficult to part from the faces of the familiar hills as from the faces of his neighbours. In the land of his adoption he cherishes the language, the games, and the songs of his childhood; and he thinks with a continual sadness of the gray-green slopes of Lochaber, and the thousand leagues of dim, heartbreaking sea tossing between them and him.

The Celt clings to his birthplace, as the ivy nestles lovingly to its wall; the Saxon is like the arrowy seeds of the dandelion, that travel on the wind and strike root afar. This simply means that the one race has a larger imagination than the other, and an intenser feeling of association. Emigration is more painful to the Highlander than it is to the Englishman—this poet and painter have instinctively felt—and in wandering up and down Skye you come into contact with this pain, either fresh or in reminiscence, not unfrequently. Although the member of his family be years removed, the Skyeman lives in him imaginatively -  just as the man who has endured an operation is for ever conscious of the removed limb. And this horror of emigration—common to the entire Highlands—has been increased by the fact that it has not unfrequently been a forceful matter, that potent landlords have torn down houses and turned out the inhabitants, have authorised evictions, have deported the dwellers of entire glens. That the landlords so acting have not been without grounds of justification may in all probability be true. The deported villagers may have been cumberers of the ground, they may have been unable to pay rent, they may have been slowly but surely sinking into pauperism, their prospect of securing a comfortable subsistence in the colonies may be considerable, while in their own glens it may be nil,—all this may be true; but to have your house unroofed before your eyes, and made to go on board a ship bound for Canada, even although the passage-money be paid for you, is not pleasant. An obscure sense of wrong is kindled in heart and brain. It is just possible that what is for the landlord’s interest may be for yours also in the long run; but you feel that the landlord has looked after his own interest in the first place. He wished you away, and he has got you away; whether you will succeed in Canada is matter of dubiety. The human gorge rises at this kind of forceful banishment—more particularly the gorge of the banished!

When Thursday came, the Landlord drove us over to Skeabost, at which place, at noon, the emigrants were to assemble. He told me on the way that some of the more sterile portions of his property were over-populated, and that the people there could no more prosper than trees that have been too closely planted. He was consequently a great advocate of emigration. He maintained that force should never be used, but advice and persuasion only; that when consent was obtained, there should be held out a helping hand. It was his idea that if a man went all the way to Canada to oblige you, it was but fair that you should make his journey as pleasant as possible, and provide him employment, or, at all events, put him in the way of obtaining it when he got there. In Canada, consequently, he purchased lands, made these lands over to a resident relative, and to the charge of that relative, who had erected houses, and who had trees to fell, and fields to plough, and cattle to look after, he consigned his emigrants. He took care that they were safely placed on shipboard at Glasgow or Liverpool, and his relative was in waiting when they arrived. When the friendly face died on this side of the Atlantic, a new friendly face dawned on them on the other. With only one class of tenant was he inclined to be peremptory. He had no wish to disturb in their turf-hut the old man and woman who had brought up a family!; but when the grown-up son brought home a wife to the same hut, he was down upon them, like a severing knife, at once. The young people could not remain there; they might go where they pleased; he would rather they would go to Canada than anywhere, but out of the old dwelling they must march. And the young people frequently jumped at the Landlord’s offer—labour and good wages calling sweetly to them from across the sea. The Landlord had already sent out a troop of emigrants, of whose condition and prospects he had the most encouraging accounts, both from themselves and others, and the second troop were that day to meet him at Skeabost.

When we got to Skeabost there were the emigrants, to the number perhaps of fifty or sixty, seated on the lawn. They were dressed as was their wont on Sundays, when prepared for church. The men wore suits of blue or gray kelt, the women were wrapped for the most part in tartan plaids. They were decent, orderly, intelligent, and on the faces of most was a certain resolved look, as if they had carefully considered the matter, and had made up their minds to go through with it. They were of every variety of age too; the greater proportion young men who had long years of vigorous work in them, who would fell many a tree, and reap many a field before their joints stiffened: women, fresh, comely, and strong, not yet mothers, but who would be grandmothers before their term of activity was past In the party, too, was a sprinkling of middle-aged people, with whom the world had gone hardly, and who were hoping that Canada would prove kinder than Skye. They all rose and saluted the Landlord respectfully as we drove down toward the house. The porch was immediately made a hall of audience. The Landlord sat in a chair, Pen took his seat at the table, and opened a large scroll-book in which the names of the emigrants were inscribed. One by one the people came from the lawn to the porch and made known their requirements :—a man had not yet made up his passage-money, and required an advance; a woman desired a pair of blankets; an old man wished the Landlord to buy his cow, which was about to calve, and warranted an excellent milker. With each of these the Landlord talked sometimes in Gaelic, more frequently in English; entered into the circumstances of each, and commended, rebuked, expostulated, as occasion required. When an emigrant had finished his story, and made his bargain with the Landlord, Pen wrote the conditions thereof against his or her name in the large scroll-book. The giving of audience began about noon, and it was evening before it was concluded. By that time every emigrant had been seen, talked with, and disposed of. For each the way to Canada was smoothed, and the terms set down by Pen in his scroll-book; and each, as he went away, was instructed to hold himself in readiness on the 15th of the following month, for on that day they were to depart.

When the emigrants were gone we smoked on the lawn, with the moon rising behind us. Next morning our party broke up. Fellowes and the Landlord went off in the mail to Inverness; the one to resume his legal reading there, the other to catch the train for London. Pen went to Bracadale, where he had some business to transact preparatory to going to Ireland, and I drove in to Portree to meet the southward-going steamer, for vacation was over, and my Summer in Skye had come to an end.


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