Finding my ancestral lands

We started laughing halfway up the hill. Bent double to duck the clutching branches of the thick spruce forest, tripping on the plastic ponchos we’d bought that morning at the Fortress of Louisbourg, my sister and I could hear the Atlantic Ocean booming on the sandy shore of Kennington Cove. Mercifully, the first rain we’d encountered on our trip to Cape Breton Island that dry summer of 2001 had discouraged beachgoers. There was no one to witness the mad plunge of two 50-plus women through the sodden undergrowth toward, we hoped, the site of our Scottish great-great-grandfather’s homestead.

For years, we had talked about going to Nova Scotia together to trace our family’s early days in this land. Nova Scotians by birth, we’d grown up in Ontario, visiting the Maritimes only twice on vacations with our parents. Finally, my sister, Pat Doig, joined me in Toronto from Saskatoon, and the two of us headed east on a hot August afternoon. “Our trip was as exciting as going to Paris to me,” she claimed. “I’d forgotten the visual impact of the Maritimes, how much of it was forest and lakes or rivers. Then, there were little snahot moments, places we may have passed with Mum and Dad that made me think of them a lot. It was also a ‘sister’ journey, with the two of us on own, stopping whenever we felt like it to hunt through antique shops. But mostly it was a search for family. And you have to go back to the land to feel close to your ancestors.”

Our last visit to “the cove,” as it was always known in our family, had been 40 years earlier, shortly before all of the land in the area was expropriated for the reconstruction of the Fortress of Louisbourg, a National Historic Site. (Wolfe had landed at Kennington Cove in 1758 and then captured the fortress.) To return the area to the 18th century, all buildings in the area, including the MacAulays’ sturdy family home had been razed and burned (along with the Gaelic church down the road). The sweeping view of the ocean our grandmother had loved was gone, blocked by an impenetrable screen of spruces. Indeed, the land must have looked much the same as it had when her grandfather and his family arrived in the late 1830s from North Uist (pronounced yoo-ist), in the Outer Hebrides, the remote string of islands off Scotland’s west coast.

Swapping lore and memories
We swapped photographs and bits of family lore with relatives in Halifax. As children, they’d summered with our grandmother at the cove. Our cousin Olive Tingley pointed out a bare outcropping above the beach in one of our photos. “Go straight up from there and you should find the place,” she said, noting that all that was probably left would be the small foundation of the home’s cold room that had stored root vegetables.

But we did find it, a line of stacked stones nestled in the earth among wildflowers and raspberry bushes, part of a foundation that represented a better life than the marginal existence our ancestors had endured in Scotland. As insignificant as the ruin appeared, it made our trip worthwhile. Pat and I were thrilled to find this small link to our pioneering forebears. We felt closer to the hardworking John MacAulay, our great-great-grandfather who had had the courage to leave loved ones forever, to bring his young family to this remote farm.

Like many immigrants coming to Canada today who find community in both rural and city centres, the Hebrideans were helped by family and friends who had settled in Cape Breton before them. Used to hard work and dependent on one another for survival in those islands off Scotland’s western shores, they brought a strong sense of family connection. (Even today, the first questions a Maritimer is likely to ask are: “Who’s your father? Where are you from?”)

Next page: Searching further afield

The Western Isles
The Outer Hebrides had always seemed so far away to me, but the reality is they’re easily reached by air or sea. Almost a year after the trip to Kennington Cove, my husband, Ted Barris, and I, excited and curious, stood on the deck of a Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd. ferry chugging into the harbour at Stornoway on the isle of Lewis.

With 8,000 residents, the town is by far the largest in the islands. A palm tree in a front yard signalled that although the weather can be wet and windy, the climate in the Hebrides is moderated by the Gulf Stream. In brilliant sunshine, we walked to Stornoway’s Museum nan Eilean to see Island Lives, an exhibition that included a model of the smoky, dark interior of a typical, comfortless 19th-century croft home. (The land holdings were purposely made too small to sustain a family, so most crofters had to find paying jobs and provided a source of labour for landlords.) We saw how the men harvested kelp, fished or went to sea to earn money, and how wives and children gathered seaweed to nourish the thin soil in lazy-beds — laboriously built raised rows for vegetable gardens. Peat cutting was a vital activity in the treeless islands. Women commonly transported the dried fuel in large creels (baskets) hunched over their backs.

The hard-working islanders seemed somehow to reach through time as Ted and I noticed old lazy-beds still evident throughout the islands. And many a propane-equipped home also had a dome of peat stacked up in the yard.

Late in the afternoon of our arrival on Lewis, we drove to see the mysterious standing stones of Callanish, placed on site between 3000 and 1500 BC. The stones’ undeniable presence seemed even more palpable as rays from the slowly sinking sun picked out a rainbow in the slight mist.

Driving south to the isle of Harris the next day to catch the ferry to North Uist, we eased around sheep dozing in the sun on the single-track road. The treeless topography made oncoming traffic easily visible so we could pull into a “passing place” to let vehicles by. Gaelic road signs bore English subtitles, but the Gaelic radio programming we briefly tuned into was incomprehensible to these North American brains. Harris, actually the southern part of the isle of Lewis, begins where two sea lochs reach far inland. Where Lewis was rolling, wet and peat-covered, northern Harris had ice-carved mountains that as we drove south and west gave way to very rocky areas that opened on astonishing scenes of turquoise water and white sandy beaches.
Next page: Whose are you?

Whose are you?
More surprising than a tropic-like vision in the north Atlantic was my conversation about family ties with Bill Lawson, a lawyer and surveyor who has been recording the genealogy of the Hebridean people for more than 40 years. Lawson and his wife, Chris, run Co Leis Thu? (in Gaelic, What people do you belong to?), a resource and research centre in Northton, Harris.

“My great-great-grandfather, John MacAulay, left for Cape Breton in 1838,” I began. Without missing a beat, he replied, “Oh, that would be Zachary’s people.” And then he showed me my great-great-great grandfather’s record in his many cross-referenced binders of families. “The foundation to Zachary’s croft is still there,” he said, “and he’s probably buried in that old burying ground marked on the map. You’ll find stones but not a marked one. They didn’t need to mark them. Everyone knew who they were.”

Lawson had long ago recognized that the oral tradition of the island people meant their history would soon be lost as the young moved away and the older people died. He became fluent in Gaelic, at least where history is concerned. “I’m not too good with diseases of sheep,” he said, with an impish laugh. Documents written in English in the islands are written by strangers, he maintains, so he’s inclined to trust the oral histories, especially given the naming patterns in island families. With many identical names, it was the family relationships that established identity. “Older people, 40 years ago, were considered pretty poor if they couldn’t name five generations. Seven was not unusual,” he said. “The name of our business is not ‘who are you?’ but ‘whose are you?’”

Deciding their hobby had gotten out of control, the Lawsons have donated their resources and genealogy business to a trust linked to Lews Castle College, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands. Currently, they’re working on computerizing the extensive material. Housed in the renovated the Old Schoolhouse, the centre has historical and natural environment exhibits as well.

Our home in ages past
Leaving the ferry from Harris on the small island of Berneray, we crossed a causeway and were finally on North Uist, my family’s home island. They had left in a wooden ship, and I had come in a modern one, after flying high above their route.

A single-lane road wound past the small community of Sollas, North Uist, to a lonely curve where a sign declared Malacleit (in English, Malaclete). We followed Lawson’s clear directions and were elated to find the rectangular outline of rough foundation stones almost entirely covered by sod. A broad slope swept up behind, and a wide tidal basin spread before it. Zachary, 91, had lost the croft in 1851. My guess is that he and his unmarried daughter, Rachel, 52, could no longer manage to make a living there. They were the last to live on that land. He died two years later, 15 years after his eldest son had sailed for Cape Breton. For me, this empty landscape held whispers of the past. “Hello, Grandpa Zachary,” I said, “I’ve come a long way to visit with you.”

Watching a lamb bounce beside its mother outside my hotel window a couple of hours later, I spoke with my sister at her home near Saskatoon. I felt like bouncing, too. “I’m calling from North Uist,” I said, “and I just found our great-great-great-grandfather’s home.” I could sense the tears. Someday, when the time is right, she’ll find Zachary’s place, too. She understands. She’s the one who told me you have to go to the land to truly connect with your ancestors.

Here are some Internet sites to help trace ancestors:
How-to articles and genealogical info for beginners and experts:
Genealogical resources from the new Canadian Genealogy Centre site: