The Cape Breton Emigrant Letters 1847-59
Eighteenth century emigrants from Lismore went mainly to the United States of America, to the Carolinas and New York State. This wave of emigration was stopped by the War of Independence and the Napoleonic Wars; but, once peace was restored, the movement was predominantly to Canada, at first to Cape Breton Island at the North end of Nova Scotia.
On a visit to Cape Breton Island in 1993, Donald Black collected copies of documents relating to one emigrant: Archibald Black had been a tenant on the marginal township of Achanard on Lismore but he emigrated to Canada in 1820. His title deeds show that, in 1821, he was able to buy 270 acres of land in the south-west of the island for £85 Nova Scotia Pounds from Finlay McLennan. The land was freehold, a new experience for a former tenant on a Lismore township that had already experienced one round of clearance, and would be almost completely depopulated by 1840. The Black holding was number 27, to the north of Kingsville, and nearly all of the names in the surrounding gridiron of holdings were Highland: Cameron, Chisholm, McArthur, McAskill, McColl, McEachan, McDonald, McInnes, McQuarrie, McRae.
This was not an isolated colony of West Highlanders – the south west corner of Cape Breton Island, surrounding Kingsville, was a favoured destination for Lismore and other West Highland emigrants. The letters of Duncan McDonald (Donald Black’s great grand uncle) in the 1840s from North Mountain, West Bay (to the east of Kingsville), describe a sizeable community of islanders.
Duncan McDonald’s letters to his brothers Gilbert and Malcolm at Frackersaig and his cousin John in Dundee are about maintaining contact with home – “I wish to let you know that I am in health and hoping this will find you the same” “ I was glad by the perusing of your letter to understand that you were all well” – but also bringing his family up to date with how he was prospering:
“ I am married to Jane Cameron and we have four sons and three daughters. I have my lot along side the salt water and I may have fish every day in the year and I have 12 horned cattle and 20 sheep” (10 March 1847)
“I was working this winter on a barn as I am to raise it soon. The dimensions of it is 32 feet long 28 feet wide” (19 March 1853)
“ I am now going to give you an account of the boys as they have all grown to the state of manhood” (20 December 1859)
He describes setbacks:
“Potatoes is very scarce here but I can retain the seed but some others are so bad of they have nothing to plant” [These were the years of the potato blight epidemic] (10 March 1847)
and family tragedy:
“ my son Donald sailed [out of] a town of the States by the name of Provincetown on board of a fishing vessel to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and after five months fishing there they were returning to the aforemesd port and in about two days sailing of there and in a severe gale of the 17th October 1858 he was accidentally carried overboard. He was steering as the other men were in the act of taking down the sail and it is supposed that he was carried out by the main sail by the mismanagement of those that were doing it”. (20 December 1859)
An important part of this correspondence was maintaining contact between the Lismore Diaspora round about – McDonalds, Grahams, McColls, Blacks – and their families in Scotland:
“Concerning Alexr Grahams family you can tell his sister that Malcolm his son is bedfast this 9 years back, the rest of the family are all well. The rest of the people from your country are enjoying good health. …. I have never recd a letter from John Mhor [McDonald] Balevolin but on receipt of this you will tell him to write to me as I would feel happy to hear from him.” [the Grahams and John McDonald were resident in Baleveolan township]
“John Camerons sons from Appin wants to know about John Thomson.”
In spite of the modest prosperity of the Lismore colony, the young were restless, many moving on to the United States, but Duncan’s opinion was that there were better destinations:
“As you [Gilbert] were speaking of moving to Upper Canada or New York I would not advice you to go to either of them. But if you move any where my advice would be to go to Australia. But if you were to come here you would get plenty land to buy and it’s a healthy a country as where you are living.” (19 March 1853)
“…. there are great many going to New Zealand from all parts of the Hylands of Scotland …… [and] there are great many leaving this place for New Zealand” (20 December 1859)
It took some time for a letter to reach its destination. The letter written on 10th March 1847, posted at Plaster Cove, did not arrive at the Appin post office until 18th April, and then found its way to Frackersaig through the hands of the parish minister.
Contact between the Cape Breton and Lismore communities has continued nearly to the present day. In 1936, Archibald MacDonald grandson of Duncan, visited his relatives on the island during a visit to Europe to see the memorials to the Canadians killed during WW1; and as recently as 1993, Barbara MacKay wrote from West Bay to say that she had been to Duncan’s grave, and that a nearby hill was still referred to as Graham’s. (LISDD:2009.N11).