In the wake of Metagama – a fresh production

A crowded pier at Stornoway sees off the Metagama. (Pic: Stornoway Historical Society)A crowded pier at Stornoway sees off the Metagama. (Pic: Stornoway Historical Society)
A crowded pier at Stornoway sees off the Metagama. (Pic: Stornoway Historical Society)
For both Liza Mulholland and I, it was easy to spot the differences between our lives at home and those experienced by people in Detroit within an hour or two of arriving in the city.

The first afternoon we set up accommodation there, we were conscious that something dramatic was happening only a short distance away. We could hear sirens rending the air. We were aware, too, of police cars and the odd ambulance making their way down the length of Michigan Avenue where we were staying. A quick glance at our iPhones and we discovered the reason why. A gunman had entered a hotel a few blocks away and killed someone within its doors. For seven hours afterwards, the entire area was under siege by the city police until the perpetrator was arrested.

A few days later, Magnus Graham – from Skye with Lewis connections, and travelling with us for a MacTV documentary – and I were filming a short piece about the destruction of some of the former middle class areas in the city. Many of the houses there were crumbling after their owners had deserted them over the last five decades or more. Bushes and trees had risen through their foundations. Green leaves decorated their broken windows and doors. Each house was both simultaneously beautiful and sad, horrific and graceful.

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And then when we were filming, a dark Jeep-like vehicle parked a short distance away. Two men arose from its front seats and went into a nearby house. A few minutes later and they both emerged from the building again. One carried an axe in his hands. He began to chop the base of a tree-trunk lying nearby before walking in our direction, carrying that tool tightly in his fingers and dragging it menacingly along the tarmac. We decided it was time to leave!

I hope the arrival in that city of those Hebridean exiles in the mid-1920s would not have been as dramatic and intimidating as this. They had made their way to places like Detroit initially as passengers on boats like the ‘Metagama’, ‘Marloch’ and ‘Canada’, voyaging to Canadian ports like Montreal and St John’s, New Brunswick, before slipping across the border into the cities of the United States to find work on the high rise buildings and factories dominating that nation’s burgeoning industries.

There were many reasons for that. The majority of Hebridean men who travelled on these vessels had been employed – at the beginning of their period of exile – on farms that dominated states like Alberta, Saskatchewan and Northern Ontario. It was not a life that much appealed to many of them. In some ways, it was too similar to the agricultural existence they had left behind in islands like Lewis, Harris, South Uist and Barra. After the failure of crops in some parts of the Hebrides in the early twenties, they were all too acutely aware that this was not a way of life on which they wished to depend. There were also the scattered communities, the fact that there ‘were no ceilidhs on the prairie’, affected, too, by the extreme nature of the weather that often afflicted these parts of Canada.

But most importantly of all, there was little chance of transforming their fortunes while they lived in rural hinterlands. The prospect of change and improvement, however, could be glimpsed on the far horizon, the other side of the Detroit River, perhaps, or lying south of landmarks like the Niagara Falls. There were prosperous cities in these parts where ordinary people could dream of improving their lives.

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Undoubtedly, there were moments too that bore some resemblance to those that Inverness-based musician, Liza Mulholland, Magnus Graham and I encountered while we were in Detroit. Not only was it a location full of car factories bearing the names of Henry Ford, Chrysler and General Motors, it was also one of the places where the entire alcohol bootleg industry was of major importance during the Prohibition era. Booze was delivered to the ‘speak-easies’ in that city by what was known as the mosquito fleet, a series of small boats that crossed the Detroit River from Windsor in Ontario where a great deal of alcohol was distilled. (In winter, when the surface of the river was frozen, this smuggling was often done by lorries and small vans.)

This enterprise added to the racial tensions that sometimes afflicted the city. In Detroit, the groups that undertook these activities were largely unlike the Italian mobsters, led by Al Capone, that dominated Chicago. Instead, it appears that they were often Jewish, Greek and French. Given its scale, the second most important ‘employer’ in the city, it is not inconceivable that the odd Hebridean might have been involved.

However, many islanders did not eke out the rest of their lives there. Some found it difficult to exist in their new urban surroundings. (As a Portuguese man from Madiera said to me recently, ‘a lot of islanders find it hard to survive without seeing the sea on the horizon. It’s been part of their lives for too many generations.’) For many, however, it was the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression that made them leave cities like Detroit and Chicago to return to the islands and the mainland of Scotland. There were both fish and crops, friends and relatives they could depend on there.

Yet there were many too who prospered, going on to gain high positions in the car and banking industries as well as the educational world. During our short time in both Canadian locations like Toronto or Ripley (in the north of Ontario where many people from villages like Shader or Barvas in Lewis settled earlier) and the cities of Detroit and Chicago in the States, we met many people with historical connections to the ‘Metagama’, ‘Marloch’, ‘Canada’ and, indeed, earlier vessels that travelled from the Inner Hebrides. This included a number of people who had emigrated from islands like Eigg and South Uist to Cape Breton, later shifting to towns and cities like Windsor and Detroit.

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Clearly what they experienced there was a strange and unfamiliar life, especially for those who had to adjust to an industrial existence. For some, it brought only sadness but for others it gave birth to chance and opportunity, a way of restoring their self-worth after a period of grief and loss that afflicted much of the previous decade in the Hebrides as a whole.

In short, what we glimpsed was inevitably a snapshot, a small picture that would be wonderful to extend and develop over the next few years. It was enough, however, to lay the basis for a series of concerts, which will begin on the hundredth anniversary of the voyage of the ‘Metagama’ on 21st April 1923 from Stornoway Harbour.

Entitled ‘In the Wake of Metagama; An Atlantic Odyssey In Story and Song’, the first of these will launch on 21st April 2023 at An Lanntair in Stornoway. The second will take place the following evening at the same venue, before going on to other venues including Inverness’s Eden Court Theatre.

Those taking part include Liza Mulholland, whose grandparents sailed on the Metagama and settled in Detroit until returning home in 1930, and whose hard work and enterprise inspired much of this project. She still has many relatives in Toronto.

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The ‘In The Wake of Metagama’ ensemble also includes well known actress Dolina Maclennan and musician Calum Ailig MacMhaoilein, whose families also spent time in North America during these years. Each has their own individual stories to tell of these times.

Also composing and performing in the show are Willie Campbell, the wonderfully innovative musician from Tolsta, award-winning fiddler Charlie MacKerron of Capercaillie and Session A9,and Canadian cellist, Christine Hanson. Visually, the project is both aided and enhanced by the talented artist Doug Robertson, while also drawing on my own poetry, prose and songwriting in recalling the experiences of some of my own neighbours in Ness who spent time in North America, as well as my recent research excursion.

It is our hope and dream that the musical, artistic and narrative abilities of those taking part will generate a fresh curiosity about a time in which many Hebrideans discovered a new and startling perspective on the world, one that remains with some even to the present age.

(‘In the Wake of Metagama: An Atlantic Odyssey in Story and Song’ will be performed on Friday April 21st and Saturday April 22nd at An Lanntair in Stornoway. Both performances will begin at 8 pm. Tickets priced at £15/£14/£12.50 are available from An Lanntair.)