In the 18th and 19th centuries, hundreds of thousands of people crossed the Atlantic to a New World in America. Why? The Flora MacDonald Project, of the University of Sheffield is following the fortunes of a group who crossed from the Hebrides to Nova Scotia, or New Scotland, in what is now Canada.
Flora MacDonald is a well-known figure of British folk-lore, as she was the young lady who took Bonnie Prince Charlie, the ‘Young Pretender’ to the British throne ‘over the sea to Skye’ when he fled after his defeat at the battle of Culloden in 1745.
The song in which she is commemorated
“Speed Bonnie Boat like a bird on the wing,
Over the sea to Skye”
was in fact written by song writer Sir Harold Boulton in the early part of the 20th century.
However she was a real figure who lived in the township of Milton. The photo left shows the memorial that was raised to her by the Clan Donald society of Edinburgh.
The Hebrides – or the Western Isles, lie today at least 3 hours journey by steamer from the west coast of Scotland. But although today they are treeless, the shelly sand, known as the machair, on the west coast is extremely fertile.
The 18th and 19th centuries saw a huge increase in the population of the Hebrides, which soon increased far beyond the carrying capacity of the land. For a time the increased population was supported by the springing up of the kelp industry, using sea weed to produced an alkali used in the production of soap and glass. However at the end of the Napoleonic wars cheaper substitutes could be imported, so the industry collapsed and many emigrated, mostly to Nova Scotia – New Scotland.
The township of Milton is situated on the machair, the fertile shell-sand, interspersed with numerous lakes.
Here the Sheffield team. led by James Symonds, is excavating one of the deserted longhouses, where men lived at one end, cattle at the other.
However the bulk of the finds were dated to between 1790 to 1820, which was rather too late for Flora Macdonald, who was born in 1722. However this was the period when the population was expanding rapidly, and an over-population crisis was looming.
When the population crisis made emigration inevitable, many of the Hebrideans went to Canada, to Nova Scotia, or New Scotland …
The settlers were quick to adopt new building techniques, notably the use of wood- which is unknown in the Hebrides, which are treeless.
Here we see the Macdonald house of 1820 in the Highland Village Museum, in Iona, Cape Breton.
The Highland Settlers Project has been co-ordinated with the University College of Cape Breton.
However in many ways Nova Scotia was poorer than the Hebrides for the ground was less fertile than the machair, and the winters – lacking the benefits of the Gulf Stream – were harsher.
The settlers soon drifted off to work in the coal mines, and most of the farms are now themselves lost, covered by spruce forest which are themselves being logged of paper.
All that remains are the cellars, which are now being uncovered by the archaeologists.
As for Flora MacDonald, she and her husband Allen emigrated to America in the 1770s, first to North Carolina, where she supported the British side in the American War of Independence, and consequently lost everything. She then went to Nova Scotia, and finally she decided that Britain was best after all, so she returned to her former home in the Hebrides.