Leaving Islay - About Emigrations in the 1700s and 1800s

Most people lucky enough to find themselves on this beautiful island wouldn't dream of leaving the Isle of Islay if they didn't have to. The island is blessed with better weather than most of Scotland - the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream flow past its shores, it is sunnier, the land is fertile, fresh water can be found in several lochs, and peaty water runs down the hillsides to supply the island distilleries. The population of Islay rose to approximately 15,000 by 1830, attesting to its desirability. How was it that the numbers could drop so dramatically that there are now only little more than 3,000 residents?

Following the decline of the MacDonald's "Lordship of the Isles" in the late 1400s, the Campbells of Cawdor, through marriage and politics, strategically placed themselves in a position to assume ownership of almost all of Islay by early in the 17th century. Many of Cawdor's cadet family members were put in charge of running the estates and farms, held by long leases, or tacks. Of course, they sublet the farms to tennants who did the manual labour, and usually paid their rent in produce and livestock.

Little did the tenants know, or care, about the Cawdors' lifestyle, or the fact that they were running up significant debts. Problems were compounded by poor management, a poor economy in Scotland, and the fact that many of the tenants were unable to pay rents. One of Cawdor's creditors, Daniel Campbell of Shawfield, was a more astute businessman who managed to eventually buy Islay through clever dealing for only 12,000 pounds in 1726. And Ileachs were to learn that life on their island would never be the same again.

First Emigration (1737-40)
Both in parliament and in business Daniel Campbell of Shawfield and Islay was a man to be reckoned with. The current tacksmen were relations and friends of Cawdor, so they were the first to be affected by the new ownership. Shawfield was not inclined to keep them on after their leases expired, so they started to look elsewhere. America, then a British colony, was looking for protestant emigrants, and in 1737 Captain Lauchlin Campbell of Leorin negotiated for land grants in the New York Colony, known as the Argyll Patent. He subsequently emigrated with his own and several other families, and he encouraged many more emigrants in the following three years. In all, 472 Islay passengers were listed on the sailing ships, as documented in the "History of the Somonauk Presbyterian Church" 1 It was the promise of owning their own land that enticed this first wave of Islay people to leave their beloved island.

Second emigration (late 1700s)
When the second Daniel Campbell died in 1777 he was succeeded by his brother, Walter Campbell, another man who had the best wishes of the island and islanders in his heart, and improvements continued. Population in this period was increasing at an alarming rate. It was a bad time to have a serious food crisis, which did occur. This time it was to the Carolinas in America that Highlanders and Islanders, including an estimated 1,300 Islay men and women 2, set their sights. America was prospering, there were opportu-nities for farming and employment in the lumber industry. Their children had an opportunity to get ahead in this new land. To this day they claim that there are more Scottish descendants living in the Carolinas than there are in Scotland! In North Carolina there is a very active society called the North Carolina Scottish Heritage Society with many members who are Islay descendants. Their quarterly magazine is filled with names familiar to all Islay genealogists, and they have regularly been publishing the Islay Graveyard survey by Roger McWee and Nigel Ruckley (www.finlaggan.org). This is a huge project taking several years which includes mapping, geology, photographing and decipering inscriptions, and indexing the names. (see also www.theargyllcolonyplus.org 3)

Third Emigration (1800s)
Back on Islay, life for the tenants was changing. Shawfield had the land and farms surveyed with the idea of agricultural "improvements", boundaries changed, and leases changed also. The tenants adapted within their abilities, but their lives were not greatly improved. Campbell was succeeded by his grandson, Daniel Campbell the Younger, who expanded on his ancestor's original plans for the improvement of Islay. Among his many achievements, he built the village of Bowmore which, of course, provided employment for some of the locals, but few had skilled trades. Campbell tried to establish fisheries since the island was surrounded by the sea, but it was difficult to convince farming tenants to become fishermen. Flax growing was encouraged, and a fairly successful linen weaving operation was started, but that endeavour did not employ many islanders. A ferry was established to the mainland, which gave the children of the farm labourers an opportunity to work off-island, mainly in the menial agricultural labour they were accustomed to, or in domestic service.

However, they added some to the family income, much needed with ever-increasing rents. The intention was probably to come back home when economic times got better, but many remained in Glasgow or the countryside of the Lowlands, and thus another wave of emigrants, or in this case, "migrants", left Islay. In 1862 many of these Ileachs banded together to create the Glasgow Islay Association to help promote the Gaelic language, and to come to the assistance of fellow-Ileachs in need. (Their annual meetings and ceilidhs were much-anticipated social events that helped to maintain ties to each other, and to their beloved Island. It is an association that still is active today, and current members will be celebrating their 150th anniversary in in 2012).

There was little emigration from Islay (or most of Great Britain, for that matter) during the American War of Independence, and there was even an Act of Parliament to increase the cost of transatlantic voyages which made such travel prohibitive. During the time of the Napoleonic Wars there was a uptick in Islay's economy because of the need for beef by the British Army. However, when peace with France was finally achieved, the demand for Islay's produce caused a huge downturn in the economy and the tenants were again in dire straights.

Fourth Emigration (early 1800s)
The tax on sea voyages was repealed, so the islanders were again looking for the chance to escape poverty. In 1818 another wave of Islay residents sold out their meager holdings, and set sail for the west. Imagine how difficult it must have been to say goodbye to their loved ones, and their ancestral homeland, probably forever. An account of one of the groups leaving the island by Hugh Ray follows:

"In the year 1818, the year in which Queen Victoria was born and George III still reigned, an emigrant vessel sailed from Greenock bound for Charleston, South Carolina. Among the passengers was John Darrach and family from Kildalton, Islay, and Archibald MacFayden and family from Killechoman, Islay. I mention these, as Angus, my father, was the third eldest of the Darrach family, and was twelve years old, and Effie, my mother, the second of Arch. MacFayden's family, was in her fifth year. The vessel was old and not very seaworthy, she was a good sailor and left behind a suspicious looking craft that the captain thought might be a pirate, and the country and the seas were still in an unsettled state after the Napolionic Wars......"4

They spent about ten years in North Carolina until they decided to move up to Canada, then still a British colony, possibly because they wouldn't swear allegiance to the American flag. The story is carried on by Colin McFadyen, another member of this group of Islay folks. "...Along with families like the MacMillans, MacLauchlans, Calders, Rays, Campbells, Mathiesons, Angus McFadyen, his wife, a Carmichael, and their two children, Colin and Effie, made the journey." In 1910, Colin reminisced when he was but a lad.... "It was a genuine trek. The whole distance was covered in wagons, the men and boys walking alongside the rude vehicles. I walked every foot of the way myself, although then only nine years old. The journey from Carolina to Hogg's Hollow [Toronto], where we first located, occupied seven weeks, and on only two nights did we have the shelter of a roof..... We crossed the Niagara River at Black Rock, the crossing being made in a ferry worked by horses with treadmill power. When we reached the Humber River, six miles out of Little York, as Toronto was then called..... The party finally reached Hogg's Hollow and settled there for a year. Then they set out for their permanent home in the township of Eldon. This was the worst of the whole journey. Once, when they struck a cedar swamp, the wagons sank to the axles, the whole day was spent in going four miles. The horses were barely able to pull the wagons through the slime, and the men had to carry the luggage on their shoulders...." 5

(Fifth Emigration) 1820-1860s
Few Islanders were in Canada before these intrepid families, but many would soon make their way across the Atlantic. Following the War of 1812 with the United States, the British government was anxious to have the Canadian border areas populated by those people loyal to the crown. After they had offered land grants to retiring military men and their families, and to British Americans who refused to swear allegiance to the United States (referred to in Canada as United Empire Loyalists, or UELs), land was being offered to British subjects. Sometimes these emigrants were financially able to pay their own passage, sometimes with assistance of aid societies, their former land-lords, or the government. However, there were conditions attached to the land grants (usually 100 acres) - besides swearing allegiance to the King, they were expected to build a house (almost always constructed of log), and clear at least 5 acres of land, and the road frontage of their lots before they received their grants. This was often a huge problem - pioneers from the Scottish Islands probably never saw such monstrous trees in their lives, but they were suddenly expected to remove them! The wood was used to make houses, barns, fences, furniture and many household implements. Some of the trees were simply burned to make way for the first crops that the settlers could plant.

"Building a Log Shanty" excerpt from George Arundel Hill, A Guide for Emigrants from the British Shore to the Woods of Canada (Dublin, 1834):
"Having decided on the extent and plan of your edifice, your men proceed to hew down such trees, convenient to the intended site, as are of proper thickness. The straighter these the better; and if cedars should be procured without much difficulty they should be chosen. The trees are now cut into the proper lengths and collected together. Digging for a foundation is of course never thought of. Having placed two end logs in the place where they are to remain, a man with an axe, within a few inches of the extreme ends of each, puts a kind of cut, whose breadth is the diameter of the letter V turned upside down; the front and the rere (sic) logs are then cut, like the said letter V, so as to lie close on the end logs, and thus become, as it were, locked together. A similar operation is repeated "two end and two side logs" until the wooden walls have attained the required height, when the door and window spaces are cut away. If the trees have been carefully selected, so as to be as nearly of one size and as straight as possible, there will be little trouble or difficulty in laying the logs so as almost to touch each other in every part; and though some of your men will endeavour to persuade you that this is a matter of no consequence, and that it is the easiest thing in the world to ram a piece of basswood into the chinks, mind them not. You have now to get up the roof, which for a shanty is made by splitting the straightest basswood trees in two, and after they have been hollowed out with axes, placing them, the hollow part up, side by side, and as closely as you can, so that the ends will rest on the upper back and front logs. To prevent rain getting through, the other troughs, similarly prepared, are placed one over every joint, with the concave side under, and the roof is finished."

Pioneer log homes like this one on Victoria Road, Eldon township, built of large cedars, began to pop up in the wilderness of Ontario.

This extensive log barn, built in the 1850's is still being used by the descendants of Donald Brown (formerly of Bowmore parish) on the old family farm in Fenelon twp.

Many of the Islay emigrants came to Ontario, where surveyors were busy mapping the townships into organized concessions and then rectangular lots to accommodate the new settlers. Two of the early townships to receive its new Islay settlers after 1820 were Chingacousy, west of Toronto, and Oro township in Simcoe county, north of Toronto near where the city of Barrie now stands. Ten years later the next wave of Islay emigrants made their way to Eldon and Fenelon townships near Lindsay, finally followed by those who came to the Bruce peninsula and were the pioneers of Grey and Bruce counties in the 1850s and 60s.

It was about this time that the Campbell dynasty came to an end in bankruptcy, and after a worrisome period of time, John Ramsay, a Glasgow entrepreneur, purchased most of Kildalton and Oa parishes. Being concerned about the poverty, overcrowding and even famine on the Islay farms, Ramsay assisted many families to emigrate, knowing that they stood a better chance of improving their lives overseas. However, this was interpreted by some critics as "enforced removals", in the same vein as the clearances, and Ramsay faced a barage of criticism from the press and in the House of Commons.
To satisfy his own concerns, and those of his critics, he travelled to Canada on his own in 1870 to see first-hand how his former tenants were faring. "His diary of this visit, which is now published for the first time (though it was privately printed for distribution among interested friends), relates what he saw and what he heard from the emigrants themselves, as to how they had burgeoned in a manner which would have been impossible in Islay so long as the population had remained so thick upon the land. He noted with pleasure and some surprise how, once removed from the clan aura, they worked willingly for wages in the summer, thus providing themselves with capital to clear their holdings in the winter, sow their crops the following spring, and regularly pay off the price of their farms." 6

There were, of course, others who emigrated to different areas of the province at other times, perhaps to join relatives who wrote to encourage them to come to Canada for a better life. Islay folks were very clannish and they preferred to settle near one another for support in work, worship and their social life. They came together if help was needed to build barns, the first schools and churches. Often the 2nd and 3rd generation of these new Canadians married children of their Islay neighbours, and the wedding celebrations were great occasions to socialize. But the Isle of Islay was never far from their hearts, and they celebrated their heritage by using the name of "Islay" to name their children, roads and communities. Islay Corners, located just south of the village of Glenarm, was the home of Donald Gilchrist, who was a stonemason by trade, the first school teacher and postmaster, a farmer, school board trustee, staunch Presbyterian by faith and later an Elder in Glenarm Presbyterian Church. The farm in this photo is that of Lot 16, Concession 2, an original Gilchrist farm, and where the first Islay school house (SS#2) was built at the northwest corner. 7

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Canadian government again advertised the availability of land, now in the Canadian Prairies. The railway was extending to the Pacific, so getting there became much easier than trekking across land and swamp by ox cart or on foot. Great numbers left their new homes in Eastern Canada to migrate to the west,, and several Islay men and women now settled in communities such as Argyll, and Portage La Prairie, Manitoba. Sadly, back in Eldon Township, the community learned the tragic news that one of their own, William Gilchrist, son of their postmaster, was among the victims of the Frog Lake Massacre in Saskatchewan, a Cree Indian uprising in 1885. Pioneer life was not an easy one at the best of times, but this national incident hurt the Islay community deeply. (see also here)

In the little community of Islay Corners, Ontario (near Lindsay), young Dan Gilchrist was enticed by a local Member of Parliament to homestead in the Northwest Territory, to an area not far from today's Edmonton, Alberta. He promised that the railroad would be coming through that area, and Dan Gilchrist took up a 2,000 acre homestead of the fertile land only 200 yards from the future train station, which took on the name of Islay, Alberta. Dan was followed by many of his former neighbours - McMillan, Bell, McEachern, McKay, Jamieson McFadyen and Gilchrist, where again they turned virgin land into fertile, productive farms, and their new community prospered and grew. 8

The author travelled across Canada in the summer of 2010, and visited this village in Alberta, and we were delighted to find the local church built in 1906, proudly announcing to the world that its roots lay back home in Islay.

As mentioned earlier, there are villages and neighbourhoods with Islay descendants all over the countryside. Many of their ancestors are buried in rural cemeteries like Oro and Glenarm, Boston Mills and Bethell, Ontario, where they rest, still close to their Islay neighbours. A walk past the gravestones, noting "native of Islay" their names are like reading the 1841 Islay census. The Islay diaspora also emigrated to different areas of the USA, New Zealand and Australia, together or following close behind so they would eventually live near their kinfolk and friends.

The internet has produced a wonderful network of genealogists and family researchers who help each other find family and to make connections between families. (go to: rootsweb.ancestry.com to subscribe, if interested). It started around 1998 by Steve Gilchrist of Washington State, and it has been a great resource of information for hundreds of people. As a matter of fact, it has been so successful that since 2000 there have been several gatherings of Islay descendants in Ontario, British Columbia, Brisbane, and the grand-daddy of them all - The Return of the Children in 2004, when about 50 folks from Scotland, Canada, USA and Australia, descended upon Islay for several days of research, lectures and fun!

There was plenty of time to travel the Island, and find the burial places of Island ancestors, too. In Kilnaughton cemetery, Helen Blair (nee Campbell) found the gravestones of brothers Alexander and Duncan McCuaig of Port Ellen, the sons of Angus McCuaig and Mary McArthur, who were also Helen's 4X great grandparents.

The Isle of Islay will continue to say goodbye to her children, and to welcome their children back home. It's that kind of a place!


  • Special thanks to the Islay Family History Society, an excellent resource for genealogical research - www.argyllcommunities.org/islayfamilyhistory
  • The Museum of Islay Life, Port Charlotte. It has fascinating exhibits as well as a library containing some very useful information, especially about the history of the Glasgow Islay Association. www.islaymuseum.org/
  • The Islay weblog which makes so much of Islay's life, past and present, available to the world with a click of a button.

Toni Sinclair, Buckhorn, Ontario.

  • 1 Day Book of Daniel Campbell of Shawfield, 1767 - Freda Ramsay
  • 2 Islay, Biography of an Island - Margaret Storrie
  • 3 Argyll Colony Plus - The Journal of the North Carolina Scottish Heritage society
  • 4 Reminiscences of the Highland Pioneers in Eldon - Hugh Ray [Ontario Historical Society "Papers & Records" 1927
  • 5 Eldon Connections - Rae Fleming
  • 6 "John Ramsay of Kildalton", Freda Ramsay, 1969
  • 7 "A History of Fenelon Township", Fenelon Township Bicentennial Committee, 1987
  • 8 Personal letter from Muriel Stone of Islay, Alberta to Archibald Tolmie, historian, Victoria Co, Ontario, April, 1976. (Tolmie Fonds, Trent Valley Archives, Peterborough, Ontario)

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