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In search of Scottish roots

His branch of the MacQuarries had emigrated long ago, but their ancestral home in the Hebrides still called to him.
By Brian MacQuarrie

As I lean on the spray-slicked rail of a large Scottish ferry, a seven-hour westward journey from the mainland behind me, the desolate peaks of South Uist emerge from the mist above the stormy North Atlantic.

The first view of this remote island, a majestic but treeless place, reminds me that Scotland is not all tartan kilts, jaunty golfers, and single-malt whisky. For here, on the edge of Europe, this splinter of the Outer Hebrides is a whipping boy for nature, which has pummeled and furrowed it with deep lines of unimaginable age.

South Uist (EWE-ist) is also the place that my great-great-great-grandfather left in 1825 for an uncertain future in the rocky forests of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. I have come to find this man, a young emigrant named Duncan MacQuarrie, among the ruins that once were home to thousands like him, the remnants of a broken clan system whose people were scattered like chaff in the wind.

The Clansman, a 325-foot ferry built tough to withstand the Sea of the Hebrides, turns hard toward Lochboisdale harbor, snatches of summer sunshine still puncturing the far-northern mist at 9:30 p.m. As I watch the crew lash the boat snug, I think of how Duncan, 175 years ago, was the last of his line to stand on this shore.

The past has always been present in my family, and that is why I have come. From stories of Canadian pioneer life to evocative songs of Highland lore to images of plaids and broadswords and bagpipes bringing clansmen home from battle, I have been steeped in the romance of mythic Scotland.

But I also know some of the reality. My ancestors never prospered on Cape Breton Island or, later, in Boston. My great-grandfather died at 32 from lung disease he contracted in a Boston brassworks, and my grandfather left school at 12 to help support his family with work in a South Boston livery stable. But his uncomplaining resilience always impressed me, and the fondness for Scottish culture that my father embedded in our souls made my journey to South Uist both compelling and natural.

But what would I find in such a place, a spit of rock and peat whose most populous days lay 200 years behind it? I come knowing nearly nothing of Duncan MacQuarrie - only that he carved a meager living out of the Cape Breton forest because his homeland could no longer support him. I know he belonged to Scotland's smallest clan, a family of ancient heritage but scant fame whose fate mirrored that of its Celtic neighbors throughout the Highlands. Duncan MacQuarrie's forebears were part of the region's long, reluctant transition from medieval feudalism to agrarian capitalism, a change marked by sporadic uprisings against the British crown that ended disastrously for the Highland rebels in 1746.

Brutal reprisals followed that final rebellion, the wrath of England's empire builders falling against a people who did not speak their language, did not share their perception of "civilized" society, and refused to swear allegiance to a British king before their chief. The endgame was exile, and my ancestor became part of that flood.

Thirty minutes after my ferry ties up in Lochboisdale, and 3 miles down the road, I check in at a bed and breakfast. There, an elderly woman whose English reflects the soft, lilting tones of a Gaelic speaker asks me my business on South Uist, an island so far from the tourist track. I offer my answer casually, thinking mostly of bed and a good night's rest.

"Oh," she replies, smiling slightly. "My auntie was a MacQuarrie."

The next morning, a bright but windy beginning to my first day on South Uist, I pocket the names and telephone numbers of my landlady's MacQuarrie connections and head to an archeological excavation 5 miles to the north. There, in the ghost town of Milton, a multinational team that includes archeologists from Boston University kneel in the dirt as they slowly uncover the jumbled foundation of a two-century-old home, a place that once sheltered a dozen or more people from the bitter weather. I had heard of this work through an acquaintance in Boston and planned my trip around the dig. In their efforts, I believed, lay a rare chance to learn about the life and times of my ancestor, perhaps even to find the ruins of his home.

The team leader, James Symonds, who heads an archeological research and consulting group at the University of Sheffield in England, has been drawn to the Hebrides for the last four summers by this puzzle: "Where have the people gone, and why?"

Symonds first asked himself that question while visiting South Uist during a 1992 dig at an Iron Age fort. That excavation seemed a natural digression for mainstream British archeology, which Symonds says tends to explore prehistoric, Roman, or medieval ruins in England. But looking around South Uist, roughly 20 miles long and 7 miles wide, Symonds was struck by its hundreds of old, abandoned homes and foundations, some clustered in whole villages that have vanished into history. "It occurred to me that there was a big story here that no one had thought of," Symonds says.

So, by rekindling interest in the saga of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the Bonnie Prince Charlie of Highland lore who led the 1745-46 rebellion to reclaim the British throne for the Stuarts, Symonds secured a government grant and volunteers from Earthwatch, an environmental organization based in Maynard, Massachusetts. Their goal: to excavate the ruins of a Milton home believed to be the birthplace of Flora MacDonald, a legendary rebel sympathizer who hid the prince from his English pursuers and ferried him to safety.

Once Symonds began digging there, he could trace none of the pottery and other artifacts to MacDonald's time. But Symonds's curiosity had been whetted, and his findings generated backing for continued annual excavations.

At its peak in the early 1800s, Milton may have been home to 100 people, tenants of the chief of Clanranald, a branch of the MacDonalds who once swaggered through the Hebrides as the mighty Lords of the Isles. Few of these tenants had any written right to the land. But under the code of the ancient clan system, the tenants would not have been concerned about paper rights. The chief was their patriarch, a combination of judge, landlord, and field general who held near-absolute power over his clan but could be expected to act in their interests. Under the old ways, evicting tenants for profit would have been unthinkable.

For previous centuries, the islanders' lives had changed little: They raised livestock, kept sheep near mountain shelters called sheilings, and fished and farmed for food. But these pursuits were merely for sustenance. Since the dawn of Celtic Scotland in the sixth century, warriors had represented the real wealth of the Highlands.

At the start of the 19th century, only two generations after Bonnie Prince Charlie's quixotic disaster, the clan system had been obliterated by the victors. Now, instead of warriors, the debt-burdened chiefs calculated their worth by the number of Great Cheviot sheep that they could shear for England's textile mills.

They also saw profit in Hebridean kelp, or seaweed, which enjoyed a skyrocketing demand during the European trade embargoes of the Napoleonic wars. The islanders harvested the kelp, then laboriously processed it on the beach into glass, soap, and fertilizer. During the kelp season, which coincided with the winter's worst weather, the men lived in stone-reinforced pits about 5 feet deep and 6 feet wide that they burrowed in the sand.

"These are things that would shock us," says Stephen Davis, a Nova Scotia archeologist, peering into his excavation of a jarringly primitive kelp shelter. "People lived here, and died here probably."

A South Uist family was expected to harvest 3 to 4 tons of kelp a year, just to meet their rent as tenants. But at least, for a while, the work was available. After 1815, with the end of the wars, the old trade routes to Europe reopened and the bottom eventually fell out of the Scottish kelp market. Suddenly, South Uist's 7,500 people found themselves unable to pay rent for land that their families had held for a millennium.

The chief of Clanranald tried various work schemes and welfare projects to help his tenants. But the islanders, who could not compete with the profit potential of the sheep that replaced them, were forced by the clan's leaders to move to less and less desirable land. Finally, when charity or patience ran out, thousands of islanders were forced onto emigrant ships that sailed for the New World.

They left behind the signature "black houses" that Symonds finds fascinating. Double walls of stone, compressing an insulating layer of turf, formed the outside of these 30-foot-long dwellings. A thatch roof, held down with heather ropes and stone weights, kept out the rain. And the hearth, placed in the middle of the floor, filled the house with a thick, peaty smoke that escaped only through the solitary door. The interiors were "dark, dank, unsanitary and foul-smelling," reads a plaque at the South Uist museum. "The furniture was nearly nonexistent. Beasts and humans entered by the same door."

In such a primitive place, my great-great-great-grandfather most likely was born. Here, among the moss-covered ruins of stark homes built by long-forgotten families, I begin my search.

The search starts with these scraps of fact: Duncan MacQuarrie, born 1802 in Scotland; left unmarried from Lochboisdale, South Uist, 1825; died sometime after 1881 on Cape Breton Island.

From my father's questioning of older relatives in the 1950s, we also knew these facts: Duncan disembarked at what is now Port Hawkesbury, at the southern tip of Cape Breton, a rugged island separated from the rest of Nova Scotia by the Strait of Canso. After booking further passage on a coastal vessel to the growing town of Mabou, Duncan walked 20 miles inland to Ainslie Glen. There, he staked a pioneer's claim to what my grandfather's relations, nearly 50 years ago, still recalled as a "terrible hard farm to work."

Duncan cleared and worked that hillside forest, scratching out an existence among 226 rocky acres that had been passed over by the first wave of Highland emigrants who settled Cape Breton in the late 18th century. For sheer toil, the routines of a pioneer farmer there must not have differed much from his life in the Western Isles of Scotland.

Cape Breton's mountains also reminded the emigrants of their native land, according to contemporary accounts, but little else could comfort them. The formidable forests, so different from their treeless island home, made the women weep when they thought of clearing them. And the winters, shorn of the Gulf Stream that kept the Hebrides relatively mild, were longer and more brutal.

Duncan married Catherine MacKinnon, another Scottish native. Their first child, Donald, most likely was named for his paternal grandfather in keeping with Highland tradition. With this in mind, my South Uist search also cast its net for Duncan's probable father, a Donald MacQuarrie who had been born in the last half of the 1700s. If I found Donald in the few records of the time, I would also find my emigrant ancestor. Such a quest, I figured, would be aided by the scarcity of MacQuarries in the far Western Isles, then and now. At the time of Duncan's departure, the clan had been clustered 60 miles southeast of South Uist on the tiny island of Ulva and the neighboring Isle of Mull.

What drew Duncan MacQuarrie's family to South Uist will never be known. But Ulva had been different from South Uist. MacQuarries had lived on Ulva for more than 1,000 years, a small but ancient family that traced its line to conquering kings and held a seat of honor at the councils of far-flung island warlords. Alliances with powerful neighbors, the MacLeans, offered the small MacQuarrie clan some protection. But the family paid its ultimate fealty to the MacDonalds, who ruled much of the Hebrides with a fierce independence that not even Scottish kings could curb.

The MacQuarries, as did most island clans, switched allegiances to suit their needs, even backing the English crown if Scottish rule from distant Edinburgh did not satisfy. But more often than not, the MacQuarries took the field for Scotland, fighting with Robert the Bruce in 1314 to wrest independence from England, and with a Highland army in 1651 that backed the Stuarts against Oliver Cromwell. In that campaign, according to clan histories, only 40 of 800 MacQuarries and MacLeans survived a hellish rear-guard action near Edinburgh.

A century later, after the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie's small but determined army, the clans disintegrated under Draconian government policies designed to prevent future uprisings. Clan tartans were banned; weapons could not be carried; and the playing of bagpipes was prohibited.

Ulva became one of the first victims of the Highland Clearances, a name given to the systematic depopulation of Celtic Scotland. Lachlan MacQuarrie, the 16th and last chief of the clan, had dug himself a debt-lined pit from which he and his kin could not escape. Sold for sheep runs in 1777, Ulva steadily lost its people.

Amid the family's general misfortune, however, one bright light shone. Major General Lachlan Macquarie, a cousin of the last chief, crowned a long army career with an appointment to Sydney as colonial governor of New South Wales. Macquarie's social reforms for ex-convicts in the penal colony, as well as an aggressive public works agenda, earned him recognition as the "Father of Australia."

These clansmen from Ulva, the last chief and the famous soldier, were near-contemporaries of Duncan MacQuarrie. But unlike the cousins, Duncan spent his early days in a place where those without lineage or army commission were consigned to a shadow life. Anonymity, I discover, was the norm for a place where comprehensive tenant records were not kept before the 1830s. A scrap of documentation could exist, BU archeologist Mary Beaudry tells me, but a better place to seek Duncan MacQuarrie might be in the long memories of the living.

Matters of family and centuries-old genealogy hold great sway on South Uist. The inquisitive, friendly welcome that I receive within my first hour on the island repeats itself time and again in the two weeks I spend rambling up and down South Uist's few, twisting roads.

My visit coincides with the island's annual Gaelic festival, and spirits seem to be universally buoyed as a result. The raucous sound of bagpipes fills one smoky pub until the early-morning hours, as young men play the centuries-old airs in a friendly, whisky-aided competition. And nightly ceilidhs (KAY-lees) - hours-long gatherings for song, fiddle music, and dance - set feet to tapping and voices to singing across all generations.

This place seems to have a soul, detached from the mainland's 21st-century world, that speaks to an isolated culture content with itself - a nonmaterialistic people who accept hard work and respect the 50 generations that preceded them here.

One glimpse of that world comes through the eyes and memory of Donald Allan MacQuarrie, the patriarch of the only MacQuarrie family on South Uist. When I arrive at his door, unannounced, I think that this tall, husky, 53-year-old may open the genie's bottle that holds the clues to my ancestors. He has no such clues, however, only a brief genealogy passed down from his grandfather that traces his family to North Uist, another island more than 40 miles away. But Donald Allan, as the islanders call him, helps open a window on a culture that has changed subtly but perceptibly within his lifetime.

After warming slowly to the preposterous sight of an American stranger on his doorstep, Donald Allan offers me a dram of whisky, a practice that is repeated throughout the trip. When I beg off, explaining that I do not wish to mix whisky with cold medicine, Donald Allan looks surprised. Then he smiles, leans forward, and winks: "Och, and I suppose that would be fatal."

Score one for Donald Allan. I call for a whisky (the Scots spell the word without an "e"), and we talk for two hours of old MacQuarries and South Uist. He lives in a "council house," a tidy, county-subsidized home near the crossroads village of Daliburgh. But he was born in a typical Highland cottage, a whitewashed stone home with a thatch roof and dirt floor that overlooked a small lake, or loch, filled with trout and salmon. Donald Allan drives me there in his car, pushing tapes of bagpipe music into the cassette player as we barrel along the narrow main road toward Lochboisdale.

"I'm awfully, awfully interested in pipe music," Donald Allan says slowly and seriously. "The rest of the family does not know what good music is. They think it's boring, you see. But it's not."

While showing me the roofless ruins of his three-room boyhood home, a place once thought so picturesque that it adorned postcards, Donald Allan talks wistfully of the grandfather who raised him, Angus MacQuarrie, a sailor in the British Merchant Navy who roamed the world from Aberdeen to Rangoon. "He was a tall, thin man. Very regimental. Yes, yes," Donald Allan says. "My grandmother did all the [farm] work. The only things my grandfather knew were ropes and knots and weather."

Donald Allan relates other memories, such as the day when he was 12 years old and first drove the family's cattle 5 miles to auction. Thinking of it, he motions me to the car, bagpipe music blaring again, and off we speed to the piles of stones that once formed the walls of the island cattle mart. "The village would all drive the beasts down. Yes, and the dogs would be barking and fighting," Donald Allan says, smiling at the memory. "It was a big day, the day of the cattle sale. There used to be hundreds of people here."

Now, many sales take place on the mainland, and the price of a South Uist "beast" is determined more by simple weight than by trained eyes and cagey bidding. And now, Donald Allan says, he would not move back to his boyhood home, even if he could, because his wife prefers living close to the shops.

There is other telling evidence of a shift on South Uist. Donald Allan reaches into the glove compartment and pulls out a mobile phone, talking through the bagpipe music to check if his wife has returned from Mass.

"Handy things, these," he says, admiringly. At the house, Donald Allan's son appears, turning on the television to watch a mainland soccer match, an all-day peat fire warming the room. This 24-year-old son, one of eight children, is named Duncan MacQuarrie, a modern namesake of my mysterious ancestor. He works in aquaculture, breeding salmon in a pen in Lochboisdale harbor, a business that helps keep a few young people home. "It's a job," Duncan says, almost dismissively. On the wall is a photo of him at a family wedding, wearing a rented kilt and smiling broadly. His hair, cut short and spiked, is dyed blond.

Donald Allan MacQuarrie could not lead me to my great-great-great-grandfather, but my quest becomes something of a mission for many of my new contacts. The museum supervisor, for example, advises me to talk to Iain Smith, a 92-year-old man who lives on "MacQuarrie's land" in the far south of the island. No matter that Neil MacQuarrie, whose farm, or croft, it had been, left South Uist more than 150 years ago. The name has stuck in this place where the 1840s smack of recent history.

The pub crowd tells me where to find old Iain: "Now, take the road south from Daliburgh. You'll see a left, but don't take that. Take the next right. And as you drive along, you'll see a wee cottage by a sharp turn. That's Iain's. You'll know it, because there'll be a dog lying by the side of the road."

The directions, imprecise as they seem, could not be better. There is the turn, there is a sheepdog, and there is a wee cottage by the side of the road. As luck has it, Iain has just returned home with a neighbor.

After the obligatory whisky, Iain speaks in Gaelic of Neil MacQuarrie: "He was godfather to my father." No memory of a Duncan, Iain's friend translates, but the old man insists we visit the ruined MacQuarrie croft anyway.

So off we go on a wet Sunday afternoon, Iain Smith leading the way up and over uneven ground with a shepherd's staff to support him. "This would have been a big croft for the time," Smith says, surveying yet another pile of stones.

South Uist has not produced the connection I had sought, and neither has the local croft data I researched. I call Bill Lawson, a former Scottish university professor who has spent 40 years compiling old croft records of the Western Isles. Such a list will always be incomplete because of the paucity of records, but Lawson has made the challenge part of his life's work. As a result, his books on croft histories have become something of a bible in island homes.

Using a database that lists birth and death records in Scotland as well as Nova Scotia immigrant statistics, Lawson points me toward a Donald MacQuarrie, born in 1750 in Sollas, North Uist, as the likely connection for my family. Because my ancestor named his first son Donald, Lawson notes, this could be the link. The records show no other Donald MacQuarrie from the Western Isles who could have been Duncan's father.

Up to North Uist I drive, via a one-lane causeway and the intervening island of Benbecula. I duck into a telephone booth by the side of the road, find an Iain MacQuarrie in Sollas, and call to introduce myself. An invitation follows.

"Brian MacQuarrie, I presume," Iain says in greeting at the house, jokingly reversing the roles of Stanley and Livingstone. "Well, well," he murmurs, using a common Highland phrase to break the ice as he leads me into his trim farmhouse. "So, do you think we're cousins?"

I think the possibility exists. I recite my genealogy, and Iain retrieves his copy of Lawson's croft history for North Uist. Excitedly, he tells me that the Donald MacQuarrie uncovered by Lawson had been his direct ancestor, too.

If ever there was a link to my past, Iain MacQuarrie appears to be it. We have some things in common: both 48 years old, both divorced, both fathers of girls. But the similarities end there. I write for a newspaper; Iain raises cattle and sheep and drives a school bus to make ends meet. But the interest in shared blood transcends the 3,000-mile distance between us - strangers, really - and all the cultural ramifications of growing up in two very different places.

The consuming subject of the afternoon becomes the MacQuarrie experience in the Uists. And like old Iain and Donald Allan, the younger Iain takes me on a tour of the village where my great-great-great-grandfather might have been born. That village, Sollas, contains the best soil in all of North Uist. The coastal plain is broad and fertile, lying between a line of mountains and a spectacular coastline with wide, white sand beaches and an arc of dunes that would do Nauset proud.

Today's beauty masks the trauma that hit here in 1851, when Lord MacDonald ordered a "redundant" population moved to less desirable land to stanch the financial bleeding that had placed him 200,000 pounds in debt. When the villagers would not move, according to contemporary newspaper accounts, a detachment of Glasgow police was summoned to descend on the town.

The Sollas men stood aside, apparently to avoid arrest, but their women pelted the police with rocks. They received truncheon blows in return, but the resistance caused the police, sickened by the job, to halt the beatings. "The story goes that one of the women's ringleaders was a MacQuarrie," Iain says. "After the battle, there was so much blood on their heads that when they washed their faces and hands in the stream, you could see the blood being carried away. To this day, it's called the Stream of Blood."

Iain MacQuarrie takes me to that stream, a rocky rivulet that tumbles from the mountains to the sea. He then drives home to play a prized videotape, his record of a 1999 ceremony that marked the 100th anniversary of the return of the tenant farmers to reclaim their ancestors' land. As the videotape rolls, Iain tells me more tales of struggle. He recounts how the evicted MacQuarries of Sollas, with children, cattle, and roof timbers in tow, walked for two days across bare mountains and through trackless bogs to reach their new home in Loch Euphort. "It was bleak ground," Iain says.

But when I drive to Loch Euphort, I do not see the pain of wresting a living from the thin soil - only pristine coves, jagged peaks rising from deep ocean, and small homes with million-dollar views.

Later, as I return to South Uist through a wide Highland pass, the glimmering beaches of Sollas disappearing behind me, I decide that discovering Duncan MacQuarrie's 200-year-old home is no longer necessary.

I have found my ancestor. I have found him in the welcoming spirit of these gentle people and in this hard but beautiful land that toughened him physically while demanding humility.

Duncan left one rocky land for another, but he did not leave behind a love for the place. The music and spirit of Cape Breton, even today, are testament to the cultural affection that he and other immigrants instilled in their descendants.

I know Duncan better now. And I thank him for laying the foundation of the opportunities I enjoy. But now, more than ever, the imagery of an old Canadian boat song tugs at me. And although I cherish my Boston home, I now feel better connected to the haunting words of this emigrant lament:

From the lone sheiling of the misty island, Mountains divide us and a waste of seas. Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland, and we in dreams behold the Hebrides.

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