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Heisker/Heisgeir : A Gaelic Site: Then and Now

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 thinner.

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" in private.

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 as well.

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.

Heisker Then and There...Heisker Here and Now.

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