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The Early Emigrants
Posted on: 14th June, 2019
We built our distillery with a founding aim of addressing the issues surrounding endemic population decline here in the Outer Hebrides.
Over the centuries, thousands of islanders have departed these shores never to return again, leaving behind family, friends and an ageing community faced with ever-dwindling numbers.
Our Diaspora Project sets out to understand the history of these emigrations, sharing the incredible stories of the men and women who sailed from here and hopefully help us connect with some of their families still scattered across the world today.
The story begins almost 300 years ago, at the turn of the 18th century when the Isle of Harris was a very different place. The village of Tarbert where our distillery now stands held less than a handful of houses and the road to these doors would have been travelled by sea rather than land.
St Clements Church, Rodel. Founded by Alasdair ‘Crotach’ MacLeod of Dunvegan and Harris, 8th chief of Clan MacLeod.
The population was settled mainly on the fertile machair lands of the western shores, and on nearby islands like Pabbay, Berneray and Taransay. Here, potatoes, oats and barley were grown, fishing was commonplace and cattle kept for milk and meat.
For centuries, Harris was ruled by the chiefs of the clan Macleod from castles at Dunvegan and Pabbay, a religious centre at Rodel and their hunting grounds in the forests of North Harris. But times were changing, and the old clan system built on the bonds of kinship and rent paid in kind rather than cash was in decline.
In 1745 the infamous Jacobite rising and struggle for the British throne culminated in the Battle of Culloden a year later. In the aftermath, the old clan chiefs began to act more like landlords than leaders as they chose to value money over the lives of the men and women who lived on their estates.
As rents in Harris rose and land-rights went to the highest bidder, it was the local farmers or 'tacksmen' who felt the pressure of this new regime first. One such farmer was Donald "Domnhall Iain Oig" Campbell from nearby Scalpay.
Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie). 1720 - 1788
Donald was best remembered for discovering the fugitive 'Bonnie Prince Charlie' at his door seeking shelter while fleeing Culloden in 1746. Finding the obligations of Hebridean hospitality more important than a reward for his capture, Donald gave him shelter and chased away a local minister who arrived with soldiers to claim the £30,000 bounty.
But, Donald was soon faced with painful rent increases being sought by his landlord, MacLeod of Dunvegan, and determined them to be more than his farm was worth. So, leaning on historic Harris ties to the tobacco trade in Virginia, the prospect of a new life in America became far more appealing.
In the 1760s he became one of our island's earliest recorded emigrants, leaving with his family along with many of his sub-tenants to Cumberland County in North Carolina, finally settling at a place called Mclendon's Creek. He was followed by his son-in-law Alexander MacLeod from Pabbay in 1774.
Donald Campbell's home island of Scalpay, just a few miles from our distillery in Tarbert.
Others were undertaking this long journey to the new world too, pushed by economic circumstance and pulled by the promise of a better life far from their Outer Hebridean homes.
It was to become an all too familiar story for islanders over the coming century.
Join us next time, as we continue to explore the roots of population decline here in Harris and the reasons which lie at the heart of our distillery's driving purpose to help our community survive and thrive.
IF YOU LIVE FAR FROM OUR SHORES AND YOUR FAMILY HAS CONNECTIONS TO THE ISLE OF HARRIS WE’D LOVE TO HEAR YOUR STORY.
TELL US ALL ABOUT YOUR JOURNEY AND GENEALOGY BY WRITING TO MIKE@HARRISDISTILLERY.COM
Our thanks to Bill Lawson and the team at Seallam! Please visit their Facebook page for more information on their work.