Reflecting on a time of immense change

The SS Metagama which sailed from Stornoway 100 years ago.The SS Metagama which sailed from Stornoway 100 years ago.
The SS Metagama which sailed from Stornoway 100 years ago.
By this time next year, there will be few children in the Western Isles unfamiliar with the names of two vessels – the ‘Marloch’ and ‘Metagama’ – which have left a permanent imprint on island consciousness as symbols of emigration and all the questions that surround it.

The centenary year of these ships’ most famous voyages will be marked by a wide range of events and projects including Dileab 23 which will involve schools and Comuinn Eachdraidh from the Butt to Barra. The Dileab co-ordinator, Marisa Macdonald, will also work with Fèisean nan Gàidheal and local writers, artists and performers to bring history to life.

Evelyn Coull MacLeod, Gaelic education manager at Comhairle nan Eilean Siar says: “It is extremely important for our young people to know our history and reflect on what was a time of immense change across the islands. We want to explore those who left, where they went to, what lives they forged for themselves and where are the wider diaspora of those who left now located.

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“We are looking for individuals within our communities to be involved as we are keen to promote and facilitate intergeneration learning. We would welcome contributions from those who have connections and stories about those who left to forge new lives for themselves”.

There will also be a range of community events, some promoted by the Western Isles Community Society, which is funded through the local lottery. Its chairman, Tony Robson, said these would initially include working with Dileab to create visual displays reflecting the emigration experiences of each island.

Along with the Stornoway Historical Society, there are plans to present an emigration exhibition in Stornoway Town Hall which will last for six weeks. Then in August, the 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band from Ontario will lead a tattoo in Stornoway when some of the emigrant ships’ descendants are expected to make the homecoming journey.

All of this is to mark a centenary of events which have come to form a major landmark in 20th century Hebridean history. Within two weeks in April 1923, two ships carried 600 people to new lives in Canada. The human cargoes differed significantly. Those who left from Lochboisdale on the ’Marloch’ were families, encouraged to depart by local priests who were engaged In a scheme to establish a new community in Red Deer, Alberta.

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If anything, because whole families left, the impact on the islands they departed from was even more devastating than in the case of Lewis. The ‘Metagama’ emigrants were – apart from 20 young women - men with an average age of 22 who went with expectations of work in a new land, initially on farms in Ontario which had promoted the migration.

Emigration had been a major feature of island life for the previous century and a half, much of it involuntary but also in some of its phases in pro-active search of a better life, away from the poverty that prevailed. So why, given that continuing history, did the departures aboard the ‘Marloch’ and ‘Metagama” acquire such iconic status?

Part of the reason was the scale of these single movements of people. Even that might have gone relatively unreported if the emigrants had followed a familiar route to Glasgow and then on to the new world. In 1923, however, the Canadian Pacific Railway, which owned these two vessels, sailed them into the island ports, bringing the drama of mass Hebridean migration to its source for the first time.

This was part of the whole marketing campaign on behalf of the Canadian Government to present these as positive events that would encourage others to follow – and they certainly knew how to organise publicity. This was probably the first time the islands had been at the centre of a media storm as reporters, photographers and newsreel makers descended to record these departures, without too much regard for the conditions that had driven them.

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The Stornoway Gazette remains the best guide not only to the emigrations of 1923 but also concurrent circumstances that surrounded them. For example, in the middle of all this, the leading citizens of Stornoway were holding a dinner to celebrate the Viscountcy bestowed on Leverhulme while, simultaneously, he was still pursuing his hatred of crofting by seeking to evict six families who had raided the Harris island of Killigray. All in April 1923.

How did the hopes raised and then dashed by the Leverhulme era impact upon the island psyche? That is just one of many questions worthy of historical retrospection. While memories and images now focus mainly on the poignancy of departure and the permanence of loss to the islands, these were by no means the only sentiments at the time.

This conflict of attitudes is perhaps best reflected in the Gazette’s extensive coverage of a lunch that took place on board the ‘Metagama’ in Stornoway harbour as she prepared for the loading of emigrants and departure for Canada. The scenes on the pier as parents waved farewell to their children, probably never to see them again, were scarcely reflected in the speeches or the prevailing mood as the good and great of Lewis civic life were entertained by the CPR.

The Gazette reported on the remarks of the company’s managing director, Major Duffy. “Last week one of their big liners called at Lochboisdale – the first, he believed, in the history of the island - and today they had the second milestone in the march of emigration from the Western Isles.

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“Speaking for the CPR company, he expressed the hope that this was only one of many milestones. He should like to call on Captain Fletcher, chairman of the Harbour Board, to say a few words and perhaps he would be able to tell them what additional facilities the Commissioners could give them in the near future at Stornoway. (Laughter).

“He should like the representatives of Stornoway and Lewis to see what comforts and facilities they were providing on board for the emigrants. It is just a pity, he added, that we could not get you all to Canada and show you the still greater facilities we can offer when we get you there. (Laughter and applause)”.

On behalf of Stornoway Town Council, Baillie Stewart responded in like terms. “They knew that in the Province of Ontario to which these young, healthy, virile people were going, they would be a valuable asset, and what was a loss to the Island of Lewis would be gain to the Province of Ontario. (Applause). He again thanked Major Duffy and the CPR Company for their kind invitation and hospitality and wished the Captain of the ‘Metagama’ good weather and a safe and successful voyage. (Applause)”.

This mood of jollification and mutal back-slapping on board the ‘Metagama’ reflected a shared belief that emigration was not only a good thing, but that this was only the beginning. As it transpired, there would be five direct sailings from the Hebrides to Canada over the following two years, involving the ‘Metagama’, ‘Marloch’ and a third CPR liner, the ‘Canada’. But the great Depression soon stemmed the outflow and more would decide to stay than to go. For that the Gazette, in April 1923, quoted historical precedent.

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It recalled the mass emigrations of 1773 when “in well-informed quarters it was believed that the exodus from the Island would become general and that Seaforth would be left with a deserted property on his hands. Circumstances however arose that tended to stem the westward tide from Lewis and the other islands of the Hebridean group.

“History has a way of repeating itself and again a strong current of emigration has set in from the Western Isles to Canada which, to those best able to judge, has its significance in the belief that it is but the beginning of a movement that will gather momentum as it goes”.

The Gazette reflected: “The great majority of the emigrants are just on the threshold of manhood, at that time of life when hypothetical difficulties and hardships are scorned and the heart rises gaily to the great adventure. For them, therefore, regrets at leaving home were tempered by a keen anticipation of the new life that awaited them in the great land beyond the seas where, full of hope, they were going to put their fortunes to the test.

“Thus, notwithstanding the hardly-disguised heart-tugs of relatives who were seeing them off the dominant note of the actual emigrants themselves was of buoyant expectation”. The Gazette granted however that while “emotions were kept well under control, even by the women”, there would doubtless have been "many affecting scenes previously enacted in the seclusion of village homes as the young folk, in expressive Gaelic, received the blessings and advice of aged relatives who were unable to accompany them to Stornoway, or unwilling to face the ordeal of a leave-taking in the public gaze”.

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Any study of these events is bound to conclude that there were both pull and push factors at work. Factors like the failure of the Leverhulme schemes and the lack of opportunities within the islands undoubtedly played their part. So too, however, did the extremely active efforts of emigration’s promoters to paint a picture of promised lands on the other side of the world.

In the weeks leading up to the departures, it was not just the Canadians who were at work but also Australia which was competing for the kind of immigrants the islands could offer. Also in April 1923, a representative of the Australian Government Emigration Department delivered “a very interesting lecture on the prospects for young people intending to emigrate from this country, illustrated by lantern slides depicting life and scenery in that continent”. It must have offered food for thought to the “large and appreciative audience” in Stornoway YMCA.

A fortnight after the ‘Marloch’s’ departure from Lochboisdale, their introduction to Canada was reported in the Gazette. It had been “a triumphal progress, extending from St John in New Brunswick to Montreal where they were awaited by an immense crowd of Highland people who gave a home touch to their welcome by the skirling of the pipes, the rousing cheers, the Gaelic salutations which formed part of the touching proceedings”.

So much history to explore, so many themes to examine, so many lessons to be learned… it will be an interesting year.