Ships of Despair

If the thought of a luxurious cruise across the sunlit ocean on a fully equipped, state of the art, floating city appeals then spare a thought for the emigrants who left everything behind as part of the of the devastating Highland Clearances. Those poor souls had little idea what lay in store and many with chancing to fate the winds of prosperity on a new life in the early to mid 19th century.

Along with around 80 other passengers from the Strath of Kildonan, including John her younger brother, a young Highland woman, Kate McPherson, set out from the far north Scots county of Sutherland to the Red River settlement (now known as Winnipeg) in Canada. These courageous young individuals were paving the way for other family members to follow on the creaking timber vessel, The Prince of Wales. On the two month crossing typhoid fever raging, and following the death of the ship’s doctor a few days after leaving Stromness, Kate nursed the sick, with everyone looking to her for guidance. This was far from the first wave of emigrants shipped out from the far north Highlands.

One of the earliest emigrant ships was the Hector, a rotting Dutch hulk, which sailed from Loch Broom in 1772 with Highland families on board bound for Pictou, Nova Scotia, on an 11 week journey. The perils of a journey on a ship of this age and condition across the mighty Atlantic are hard to comprehend. The passengers for the most part stayed between decks and there were reports that passengers could pick the wood out of her sides with their fingers even push a hole through the ships hull! A reconstruction of the Hector now sits at the quay in Pictou as a memorial and tourist attraction.

Emigrants originally left Scotland to promote trade or set up military outposts and way stations for merchant ships as far back as 1630. Later, free emigrants sought opportunity in a new land or fled poverty or oppression in Scotland. Up to 1816, it cannot be concluded that there were any great numbers of ships coming to Nova Scotia with Scottish immigrants aboard. The Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) had put a damper on immigration in general. Assisted emigrants, from 1815 to 1900, qualified to receive passage money or land grants in the destination country as an alternative to receiving poor relief. Many Scots from the Highlands emigrated to Canada in this manner. After 1840, New Zealand and Australia offered money for land grants to skilled workers to encourage immigrants.

In an article from the Inverness courier dated 1840 the journalist states of the emigrants departure on their long and arduous voyage, ‘Most of the passengers had hardly ever seen the sea before”. This tells you everything about a people who were to face a journey of unimaginable terror. These were simple, hardworking hill people used to the familiar bracken-covered Straths and the day to day routine around the Sheiling. The prospect of them taking a long ocean voyage is like you or I heading to the moon – only much more dangerous!

The Hercules sailed from Campbeltown in 1853, bound for Australia: “The accommodation was wretched, small-pox and dysentery broke out among the passengers. Eighteen of the children died.... Their stock of provisions became almost exhausted, the water became scarce and bad; the remnant of provisions left consisted mainly of salt meat, which, from the scarcity of water, added greatly to their sufferings. The oatcake carried by them became moldy, so much of it had been thrown away before they dreamt of having such a long passage.... Hugh MacLeod, more prudent than the others, gathered up the despised scraps into a bag, and during the last few days of the voyage, his fellows were too glad to join him in devouring this refuse’. The Hercules sailed from Campbeltown in 1853, bound for Australia. She had already picked up passengers from Skye There were 830 passengers on board. During a voyage to Adelaide of seven months 56 die. According to a doctor on board the passengers were: 'of a very weakly condition...all people of very shabby worn out constitutions badly suited for a long and wintry voyage.’.” The Georgiana sailed from Greenock, 13 July 1852:

"The sailing of an immigrant vessel was a deeply emotional experience, for those leaving and for those who remained. The Highlanders were like children, uninhibited in their feelings and wildly demonstrative in their grief. Men and women wept without constraint. They flung themselves on the earth they were leaving, clinging to it so fiercely that sailors had to prise them free and carry them bodily to the boats. A correspondent of the Inverness Courier watched the departure of some Kildonan people from Helmsdale: 'Hands were wrung and wrung again, bumbers of whisky tossed wildly off amidst cheers and shouts; the women were forced almost fainting into the boats; and the crowd upon the shore burst into a long, loud cheer. Again and again that cheer was raised and responded to from the boat, while bonnets were thrown into the air, handkerchiefs were waved, and last words of adieu shouted to the receding shore, while, high above all, the wild notes of the pipes were heard...the 23rd Psalm was sung, amidst much sobbing, and under very deep impressions...They declared, in very touching language, that they went forth trusting in God."

For those who felt they had no choice but to board ship to the other side of the world was one of last resort and desperation. The poor conditions, lack of provisions and medical care and dubious nature of some shipping agents who set up to profit from the affair must have been traumatic. As can be seen in John Watson Nicol’s painting of 1863, Lochaber no more, the grief and sorrow that must have prevailed during the embarkation of a vessel that would take a nations people away from their families, homes and country was simply heartbreaking.


‘Lochaber no more’ by John Watson Nicol

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© 2017 Robert Aitken

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