Before the main emigrant ships started leaving, almost exclusively, from the Clyde or other bigger ports, there was a period in the 1840s when there was significant emigration directly from Loch Laxford, Loch Eriboll, as well as, to a lesser extent, Lochinver. The biggest pulse of departures to the New World came after the potato blight hit the Highlands in the summer and autumn of 1846 – what is often today called the Highland Potato Famine, however, this series of emigrant ships leaving the northwest of Sutherland predate the famine, starting in 1842.
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The emigration was principally driven by poverty, a situation partly created by the clearances of the previous decades. This put the Sutherland estate’s tenants on newly-created crofts, mainly on the coast, which severely limited the tenants ability to be self-sufficient, especially in terms of being able to feed themselves.
Senior estate officials, such as James Loch and Evander McIver, also made a significant impact on the emigration of the Sutherland tenants. Both of these men, in different ways, and with differing degrees of sympathy for the crofters and cottars on the estate, provided assistance to encourage more people to emigrate. This was possibly done so the ‘burden’ of the crofters on the estate would be lightened, or in a genuine attempt to enable those who wished to emigrate to do so. It is often difficult to tell from this distance in time. Either way, with their input many Sutherland families made their way across the Atlantic.
Image : Pictou Land Grants 1846.
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The first couple of ships to visit Loch Laxford with the aim of picking up emigrants willing to pay for their passage were organised by two entrepreneurs, Duncan MacLennan of Inverness and John Sutherland of Nova Scotia and Wick. These chartered ships advertised and marketed their voyages across the north Highlands. The first such boat was the Lady Emily, a brig, which carried about 150 passengers to Pictou in Nova Scotia in 1842. Although some of the Sutherland emigrants may have ultimately ended up in America, all of the ships that called at Laxford disembarked their passengers in either or both Québec or Nova Scotia, as both were by far the most important destination ports on the east coast of Canada. In 1843 there followed the George, which carried c. 300 souls to Québec City and Pictou which it picked up in Cromarty, Thurso and Loch Laxford.
The final era of emigrant ships calling at Laxford was clearly precipitated by the destitution wrought by the potato blight, causing the estate to take action to make direct offers of assistance to encourage many of their tenants to go to Canada, and in this case the ships were directly organised by McIver. At least three ships, The Panama, in 1847 and The Ellen and The Greenock in 1848, left from Loch Laxford carrying 287, 154 and 400 passengers respectively, with the great majority of these coming from northwest Sutherland, and most likely came from Eddrachillis.
While emigrant ships to Canada didn’t have to keep records of passengers or ports passengers disembarked until 1865, we can work out from other indirect sources that many of the Ellen’s passengers came originally from Handa, bearing names common on that island such as Kerr, Falconer and Macleod. The Panama also likely carried a significant number of Handa islanders across the Atlantic. Although there were later waves of emigration from northwest Sutherland, particularly in the 1880s, these required the cross-Atlantic passengers to make their way to Glasgow or other bigger ports. The era of people making their way directly from northwest Sutherland to Canada was over.
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Alexander Ross, ‘Loch Laxford to the Zorras A Sutherland Emigration’, International Review of Scottish Studies, Vol. 28, (1993), pp.28-40.
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Pictou from Fort Hill: by Wm. Eager, 1840. Nova Scotia Archives, Documentary Art Collection: 1979-147.134 Copyright: Nova Scotia Archives https://archives.novascotia.ca/builtheritage/archives/?ID=7
Pictou land Grants: Nova Scotia Archives Map Collection: V7 230 West Branch, East River, Nova Scotia, 1846 Copyright: Nova Scotia Archives https://archives.novascotia.ca/maps/archives/?ID=659
Pictou Nova Scotia 1850s: Copyright Unknown.