Local history of the Hebrideans – part one

There has been a lot of discussion in the media in the past year about immigration.

Therefore, this may be a time to reflect back on one of the more significant organized immigration efforts in Central Alberta – the relocation of hundreds of men, women and children from the West Hebrides of Scotland to this region in the mid-1920s.

The period following the end of the First World War was a very harsh one for much of the western world.

Millions of young men had been lost in the War, or else returned home with horrific injuries to their bodies and minds. The economy had been shattered. Unemployment and financial destitution were widespread.

An energetic Roman Catholic priest, Father R. Andrew MacDonell, who had served as a military chaplain during the War, decided to do something about the enormous distress in his native Scotland.

Immigration to western Canada had successfully provided new lives and new hopes for large numbers before the War. MacDonell quite reasonably felt that it was a good way of finding solutions to the problems of the post-War world.

In 1922, he was part of a four person delegation to tour western Canada.

He decided that the Red Deer area and parts of northeastern Alberta provided the best prospects for his plans. The regions were part of a well-established agricultural heartland.

Moreover, there was a large former Indian Industrial School just west of Red Deer.

The complex had been used as an agricultural training centre by the Soldiers’ Settlement Board for returned veterans. It was now available for the Hebrideans.

Father MacDonell worked ceaselessly on the other advance arrangements.

He struck an agreement with the C.P.R. to provide sea and rail transport for the immigrants. He contracted with the Soldiers’ Settlement Board to help with the training of settlers and the location of potential farms throughout Alberta.

Finally, while Father MacDonell worked under the auspices of the Scottish Immigrant Aid Society, he relied extensively on the support of the federal Department of Immigration and the provincial Department of Agriculture.

There was considerable excitement in the community when the first groups of Hebrideans arrived in Red Deer on May 8th, 1923. The first train came into C.P.R. station in the morning and then another at the C.N.R. station in the afternoon.

An estimated 2,000 people turned out for the welcoming ceremonies, not far short of the entire population of the City.

The dignitaries present made lofty speeches– referring to the Hebrideans as a, “Class of people that keep their Sabbath” and as “loyal subjects” of the British Empire.

There was a realization that most of the newcomers did not speak English. Consequently, a number of local residents were recruited to speak Gaelic to the Hebrideans upon their arrival.

Over the next few weeks, the Hebrideans, who had largely been fishermen, were trained in farming and English. Father John McMillan, another Roman Catholic priest, was assigned to help with the resettlement.

As each settler and family were deemed ready, they were sent out to farms west of Red Deer, or in the Westlock and Vermillion areas.

However, before long grumblings began to emerge. Rumours began to circulate that the Hebrideans were given special favours, such as an exemption from taxation, and grants, not loans. Others claimed that Soldiers Settlement Board was displacing veterans to secure farms for the new settlers. Consequently, a public meeting was organized by the Sylvan Lake Board of Trade to dispel these rumours.

On the other hand, stories of unhappy settlers 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.

Nevertheless, the recruitment and transport of settlers, primarily from the Barra, South Uist and Benbecula Islands, continued. Father MacDonell and the others with the Scottish Immigrant Aid Society, tried to secure new resources and adopt new plans to deal with the problems. Unfortunately, the controversies continued to grow.

(to be continued)

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