Why do our ancestors move around so much or why do they stay put for generations? What was happening in the world around them where they lived and what kind of toils may they have faced? Understanding the historical context of the time in which your ancestors lived can shed light on these kinds of questions and create a clearer picture of their life and legacy.
CNN Anchor Erin Burnett knew she had Irish and Scottish roots but had always wondered about her point of origin across the Atlantic. Her mother’s side of the family came from Boston and was part of the strong and determined working class of the early 1900s. Her great-grandfather, John Charles Stewart, had immigrated to Boston from Prince Edward Island, Canada and owned his own grocery store near his home on Elmwood Street in the Roxbury/Boston area. He was the first American in the Stewart family–a family whose Scottish roots stretched deep into the mystic highlands on the Isle of Skye.
The Great Irish Famine of 1845 to 1852 was responsible for a significant increase in emigration from Ireland to North America and even Australia. With the height of recorded Irish emigration happening during this time it is not as well known that hundreds of thousands of people also emigrated from the Scottish Highlands, many assisted by landlords and the government. Even during the ten years following the height of the Great Famine, the emigration continued, specifically to Canada.
In direct response to the growing needs in the Highlands, the Scottish government created a map in 1848 of the “Distressed Districts” on the Isle of Skye, to better locate and assist them. The Parish of Portree was right in the center of an area most destitute on the Isle of Skye.
The distinctive landscape of the Portree area is a result of crofting, a type of farming prevalent to the highlands of Scotland and used largely as a means to sustain populations. Usually a small and arable enclosed area of land, a croft allows a common working community to grow crops when surrounded by a rocky and highland-hill terrain. Having a potato-dependent structure much like Ireland, the potato blight destroyed their crops and Isle of Skye residents had no employment and no food to sustain them. Erin’s 3rd great-grandfather, John Stewart, was a crofter of eight acres in Sconser, Portree Parish at the height of this poverty.
In an excerpt from an 1851 letter to the Association for Protection of the Poor, Mr. Donald Ross, secretary of the association wrote of this small village on the Isle of Skye:
“…Sconser is the most desperate case. There are about 400 persons this night without 400 ounces of meal among them all. Many of them are actually starving.
“…At Sconser there are no less than eighteen families without land, without food, and without labour.”
At the time this letter was written, Erin’s 3rd great-grandfather John Stewart was 60 years old living with his wife and seven children, ranging in ages 14 to 28. Most of John’s extended Stewart family had already left Scotland and relocated to Prince Edward Island in Canada. Though he was one of the last of the Stewart cousins to remain in Portree Parish, there were nine mouths to feed in his Stewart household and John’s thoughts may have been far across the Atlantic, hoping for even greener pastures than the breathtaking but deadly backdrop that surrounded him.
In 1858, on one of the last organized emigration campaigns from Portree, John and most of his family left the Isle of Skye on the ship James Gibb, never to return. John joined his extended family in the Caledonia area of Prince Edward Island, Canada and farmed the rest of his days there.
When thinking of the effects of the “Irish Potato Famine” in areas outside of Ireland, the Scottish Highlands may not come to mind. But, as a haunting reminder of how a grave time in history reached the most remote of places, Mr. Donald Ross said it best when he closed his letter, “Think of Ireland, and think of Skye.”
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