A local history of the Hebrideans – part two

On Tuesday, May 8th, 1923, more than 200 immigrants from the West Hebrides of Scotland arrived at the C.P.R. and C.N.R. railway stations in Red Deer.

An estimated 2,000 local residents turned out to greet them, almost the entire population of the City at the time.

The Hebrideans were part of large resettlement program, sponsored by the Scottish Immigrant Aid Society.

The people of the West Hebrides were suffering from the deep economic depression that followed the First World War. The S.I.A.S. offered the chance of better lives in the agricultural heartlands of Central Alberta and northeastern Alberta.

Moreover, the Hebrideans were considered to be the ‘right’ kind of settlers. The speeches at their official welcome to Red Deer referred to the predominately Roman Catholic immigrants as a, “Class of people that keep their Sabbath.”

However, language was a problem as most spoke Gaelic, not English.

Also, most had been fishermen and had little or no experience with farming.

As soon as the Hebrideans arrived, they were taken to the old Red Deer Indian Industrial School west of the City.

Once there, they were provided with food and accommodations as well as instruction in farming and English. As soon as they were deemed ready, the new settlers were moved to farms either west of Red Deer, or in the Westlock and Vermillion areas.

However, grumblings soon began to emerge.

Rumours circulated that the new immigrants were given special favours, such as an exemption from taxation. Others claimed that Soldiers Settlement Board, who provided many of the prospective farms, was displacing needy veterans for the Hebrideans.

On the other hand, stories of unhappy settlers also began to circulate.

For some, the new strange life proved to be overwhelming.

In several cases, the promised assistance in terms of loans, agricultural equipment and small houses on the new farms failed to materialize.

In quite a few instances, the land provided by the S.S.B. were locations already abandoned by veterans as being almost impossible to farm.

Father Andrew MacDonell, who headed the Scottish Immigrant Aid Society, tried to secure new resources to help with the Hebrideans’ settlement.

A contract was given to Hugh Baird, formerly with the local contracting firm of Baird and MacKenzie, to construct small cottages as housing for the families.

Contact was made with local farmers to see if they would help give the Hebrideans some experience. The hope was also that if things worked out well, the new settlers might be offered jobs as farm labourers, instead of being expected to start farms of their own.

Unfortunately, problems grew worse.

Father MacDonell accused the provincial Minister of Agriculture, George Hoadley, of being hostile to the project because he wanted the settlers to be located near the new community by Rimbey that had been named in his honour.

Whatever the reason, the provincial government provided very little help.

In August of 1924, another large group of Hebrideans arrived in Red Deer.

However, this time, there was no welcoming ceremonies although the Board of Trade provided rides out to the old Indian School. The local enthusiasm for the settlement plans had ebbed.

Many of the newest settlers were placed on farms near Clandonald in northeastern Alberta. Again, promised funds, equipment and housing were often lacking. Most Hebrideans suffered a tough winter.

A few settlers returned to the Hebrides.

Most moved to places like Calgary and Edmonton to find jobs. Several went to the B.C. coast where they were able to secure employment in the fishery.

Father MacDonell continued to try and bring out more settlers, not only from the Hebrides, but also from the Catholic communities in Northern Ireland.

Many of the latter group were settled at St. Brides, Alberta, next to the Saddle Lake First Nations reserve. Unfortunately, severe hardships continued.

While the grand settlement proposal had met with a lot of failure, Alberta still benefited from an influx of new immigrants who eventually established new and better lives even if it was not on farms.

Many distinguished Albertans today can trace their roots to the Hebrideans who came to Red Deer in 1923 and 1924.

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