In which a grandmother tells the sad story of exile from her native land.
Saskatchewan, Canada, 1901.
“Tell us that story, Grandma,” said twelve year old Glenna MacKenzie.
Outside the snug cabin near Wapella, Saskatchewan, Canada, an icy wind was blowing snow against the walls.
“And what story wud that be you’re after hearin’, mah pet?” asked Deirdre Mackenzie, a twinkle in her deep-set grey eyes.
“You know, Gran,” said her other grandchild, ten year old Donald, impatiently. “The one about how you had to leave Scotland, and cross the sea to Canada.”
“Aye, but ye heerd that story before,” protested Deirdre in her sing-song voice that still held traces of the Gaelic intonation. She’d been in Canada more than fifty years, and seldom spoke the old tongue except when she ran into other old Scottish-born women at potlucks or church socials. Her son and daughter and grandchildren were all English speakers, so she’d had to learn the alien tongue too though she was not always comfortable expressing herself in her second language.
“We want to hear it again,” clamored the two children.
“Besides you always tell it differently each time,” said Glenna. “And we like to know where our family came from.”
“Och weell,” said Deirdre with a smile. “I cannae deny mah own kith and kin. Pull your stools in close to the stove, mah wee darlin’s, for it’s a bitter cold neet.”
There was a rustling and creaking as the two children drew themselves closer to the warmth, and gazed expectantly at the old lady.
Deirdre had lived a hard life, and it showed in the fine lines around her eyes and the corners of her mouth. She looked older than her sixty years, but yet there was a certain contentment in her face as if she’d finally found sanctuary after a long and testing journey.
“I was younger than y’are now, Donald, when we had tae leave mah beloved land,” she began. “Mah family lived in a wee village on the west coast. The name was Airor in a district known as Knoydart. Across the sound was an island called Sleat. To the north were mountains, and to the south was Loch Nevis. It was wild and bleak country and difficult to scratch a livin’ there. Mah faither farmed some land he’d leased from the Laird, growin’ oats and barley and raisin’ a few black coos. We were puir like all the folk thereaboots, but we loved the country. ‘Twas our land and our home for generations. But when the Laird died, his widow sent her bailiff into the village to tell us tae leave our homes. We were to be evicted!”
“What does ‘victed mean?” asked Donald.
“It means you’re being thrown out of your home,” interrupted Glenna.
“But why?” persisted the boy.
“They do it when you don’t pay your rent,” said his sister.
“Aye, that’s right, lassie,” said Deirdre.
“Had your family not paid the rent then?” asked Donald.
“Mah faither told me that the Laird hadnae asked rent from his tenants for many a year because they were so puir,” explained his grandmother, “but his widow was a hard woman. She lived in London and she wanted money for her houses, her carriages and her clothes. The farmer’s rents were no enough for her needs, so she made up her mind to lease all her land in Knoydart to lowland farmers who’d pay a stiff price tae graze sheep there. She needed tae be rid of all the puir tenant folk, so she used th’ excuse of unpaid rents to drive us all away.”
“That’s mean,” said Donald, a serious expression spreading across his face. “That means she thought sheep were worth more than people.”
“Aye, lad,” agreed Deirdre with a sigh. “There’s some that thinks only o’ gold, and nothing of human sufferin’.”
“So did the man who came give you another place to live?” asked Donald.
Deirdre chuckled grimly. “Och no, Donald. They gave us nae time. They put us out in the wind and the rain, and burned down our houses.”
“You mean they just destroyed your houses, and left you with no shelter!” exclaimed Glenna indignantly.
“Aye, lass,” said Deirdre. “One old widow woman, Mrs. Sinclair, was old and bedridden. She couldnae move, so they picked her up, threw her doon in the heather, and set her house afire. She lost everythin’. She’d only the clothes on her back, and a single blanket ‘gainst the cold.”
“How cruel!” said Glenna. “What happened to your family, Gran?”
“Mah faither took us way up in the hills,” answered Deirdre. “He didnae want tae leave. We stud up there, lookin’ back at our wee house burnin’ like a bonfire. I cannae tell ye how it feels to watch your haim, the place where you ate and laid your head doon, burned in front o’ your very eyes. I was a bairn then, and I was mortal scared!”
“What did you do next?” asked Donald.
“After the men were gone away, my faither took us back doon tae the village, and we made a shelter out of scraps of wood and blankets,” replied Deirdre, “but it was puir shelter ‘gainst the wind and the rain. We had little food to keep us alive. There were other folks that stayed, but many of them died from cold or hunger. Mah faither decided we’d best gan to the coast, and look for a ship to take us to a better place.”
“You must have been sad to leave your home,” said Glenna. “I know I would be.”
“Mah mother and mah faither were born and raised there, so it broke their hearts tae leave,” declared Deirdre. “But all across the highlands and the islands of Scotland thousands o’ guid honest folk were turned oot o’ their haimes for the sake o’ greed and profit! Villages that had stood for hundreds o’ years torn doon all to make way for the sheep!”
“I’ll never eat a mouthful of sheep again!” declared Donald stoutly.
“Mutton, Donald, mutton,” corrected Glenna, who delighted in setting her younger brother straight. “Mutton is the name for sheep’s meat.”
“I’ll never eat mutton either!” exclaimed her brother, and they all giggled.
“Well, it wasnae the fault of the puir animals,” said Deirdre. “’Twas the greed o’ the lairds and the farmers from the Lowlands that drove us oot.”
She paused to listen to the gale that was whistling around the house and through the clump of willow trees that her son, Fergus had planted twelve years before to shelter their isolated home from the prairie winds.
“I doubt your ma and pa’ll be coming haim in this blizzard,” she said. They’ll likely stay in Moosomin with Mr. and Mrs. Robertson till it clears. But dinna fash yerselves. We’ve plenty o’ logs for the stove, and the food’ll last us a few days. We’ll be warm and snug here till the storm breaks.”
“Was it as cold as this in Scotland, Gran?” asked Donald.
“Aye, sometimes in December or January,” replied Deirdre. “When there was snow on the ground and if the wind was blowin’ strong off the sea, it could get a tad nippy!”
“Tell us about the ship, Grandma,” said Glenna. “This part of the story is really sad.”
A dark shadow seemed to pass over her grandmother’s face.
“Aye, it is that,” she acknowledged. “Well, mah faither brought us doon tae Campbelltown, where we took a boat across tae Ireland. The Irish boats charged much less for the passage to Canada, but they kept us waitin’ for a week or more before we sailed. We were all of us terrible hungry. We’d little extra money for food after we’d paid for our passage.”
“How many were in your family, Gran?” asked Donald although he already knew the answer.
“Why you know as well as I do, laddie,” said Deirdre. “There was mah mother and mah faither and mah brother and mah suster and me. We were crooded below the decks like cattle! There wasnae light, nor air and the smell…I couldnae describe it to ye! All those folks wi’ naewhere tae wash! If ye wanted tae sleep, there were some wee shelves, six feet by three, where you could lay doon your heed, but there was no enough o’ them. We had tae share or take turns. I used to cuddle up wi’ mah wee suster, Rhona!”
“Tell us about the food, Gran,” said Donald.
“Och, ‘twas terrible!” exclaimed Deirdre. “Stale oats. Rancid meat. Filthy water tae drink. ‘Twas nae wonder that so many were sick!”
“You told us that some people died on the journey,” remarked Glenna solemnly.
“Aye, lassie, that’s right,” continued Deirdre. “So many caught the cholera, and some of them died…” she paused, her face registering grief even after fifty years, “mah own puir wee suster caught the fever and passed away. She was only six years old. Mah brother, Neil, had it too. He was terrible sick, but he got well, thank the Lord.”
“But why didn’t the owners of the boat give you better food and cleaner water?” asked Glenna. “Why did they put so many people on one boat? After all, you’d paid for your passage!”
“They didnae care, lass,” said Deirdre. “They were plain greedy. They knew we’d been driven from our homes, and had naewhere to go.”
“But at least, you survived. You’re here, Gran, and we’re very glad!” said Donald brightly.
Deirdre leaned across, and stroked his brown hair.
“Aye, I’m here,” she said in her soft musical voice, “and I thank the Lord that He spared me tae see my grandson grow up such a handsome young lad!”
“How long was the journey across the sea, Gran?” asked Glenna.
“They promised us tae cross in thirty days, but ‘twas was more like sixty!” snorted Deirdre in contempt. “When we came off the boat at Pictou in Nova Scotia, I was as thin as a rake. Mah puir mother fainted dead awa’ as soon as she set foot on the land. She hadnae eaten a scrap for three days. She gave mah brother and me all her food.”
“When you got to Canada, I suppose all your troubles were over, weren’t they?” prompted Glenna, guessing what her grandma’s answer would be.
“No, indeed. They were just beginnin’,” answered Deirdre. “We were promised there’d be land for us in the new country, but that was just another lie they told to be rid of us. Mah faither went to work on a fishing boat. He’d done it before in Scotland, but they paid him next tae nothing. Mah mother worked in a rich man’s house, and mah brother and I had to fend for ourselves. After a while we moved doon to Halifax, which was a bigger toon. My faither got himself work in the harbor, but mah puir mother had worn herself oot. She got the fever, and up and died. She was only twenty-seven. After a while mah faither married again, but our new stepmother wasnae a kind woman. She was pinched and strict, and she beat mah brother and me. When I was fifteen, I married your grandfaither, Collin. I was so glad to get oot the house and away from that woman. I was young, but I knew how to cook and clean, and your grandpa was a kind and patient man. I grew to love him dearly. He had a wee farm over in New Brunswick, so we got by. Soon we had three bairns, your Uncle Douglas, your daddy, and your Aunt Glenna that you’re named after, and we were happy. Sure ‘twas the happiest time of my life.”
“But you’re happy now, aren’t you, Gran?” Donald inquired anxiously.
Deirdre smiled at his expression of concern, and answered, “Of course, mah pet, I’m content, but I do miss your grandfaither. I’m sad that he didnae live to see his two fine grandchildren. When he died, your uncle Douglas inherited the farm, and your Daddy, Fergus, and your Mammy, Tara, decided to come out here tae Saskatchewan tae start a new life. There was land goin’ cheaply in these parts for families willing to farm and build a homestead.”
“Why did you come with them, Gran?” asked Donald. “It’s a long way, and you’re quite old. You could have stayed with Uncle Douglas.”
Deirdre threw back her head and laughed at her grandson’s frankness.
“Aye, you’re right, laddie,” she replied. “I’m nae spring chicken, that’s for sure! But although mah bones may ache when the air is damp, I was still ready for a guid adventure! I had an itch tae travel, so I chose tae come out tae this new land wi’ your parents. I think your mother’s was grateful. I helped her when you bairns were just born, and I’m handy aboot the house, don’t ye think!”
“I’m glad you came, Gran,” said Glenna, “and Donald is too!”
The little boy nodded vigorously.
“I hope I’m as strong and useful as you when I’m your age, Gran,” he said awkwardly.
“I’m sure you will be, Donald,” replied Deirdre with a twinkle in her eye. “Now I think ‘tis time you two were off tae bed. Ye’re growin’ bairns and ye need a guid rest, and o’ course ancient ladies like me…” here she winked at Donald, “really need our beauty sleep. Your mam and your dad’ll likely be back tomorrow if the snow stops, and ye’ll want tae be fresh and chirpy tae greet them.”
“Thanks for telling us the story again, Gran,” said Donald. “It must be sad for you, but we really enjoy hearing it.”
“I know that ye like it,” answered Deirdre, “so I dinnae mind the telling of it. Many years have passed, and I dinnae feel the pain of it so much. I know ye’re all of ye good Canadians, of course, but I wouldnae want ye to forget where your family came from.”
“We’re all so proud that our Gran is Scottish,” said Glenna in a heartfelt tone.
As she hugged her grandchildren goodnight, there were tears in the old woman’s eyes. Long after they’d gone to sleep, Deirdre Mackenzie dozed peacefully in a chair by the stove, dreaming of the green hills and blue lochs of her faraway native land.
Beginning in the late eighteenth century the lairds and landowners of the Scottish Highlands began to introduce sheep farming to their estates on a major scale. Land previously leased to poor tenant farmers for modest rent was required as grazing for the profitable sheep herds. So there followed almost a century of systematic evictions of families from land that had been farmed by them for generations. This was euphemistically known as ‘The Highland Clearances’ or ‘The Improvement’! Homes were demolished and burned, and highland families cast out with little choice but to emigrate. Some tried to remain and resist, but police and the military were employed to enforce the evictions. Those who chose to emigrate endured harsh conditions on board cramped and disease-ridden vessels, many dying on their way to Canada or Australia. The Scottish emigrants to Canada at first established themselves in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, but many later moved west to Manitoba and Saskatchewan. For a while during the nineteenth century the third most commonly spoken language in Canada after English and French was Gaelic. A recent survey revealed that in several Canadian provinces around 20% of the population claimed Scottish ancestry on at least one side of their family. Canada retains a strong Scottish cultural heritage while the Highlands and Islands of Scotland remain tragically deserted and empty, most of the sheep herds having yielded place to lucrative and environmentally destructive grouse moors.