25 July 2023
A special visit has been made to the church of Clachan Lochbroom to mark the 250th anniversary of the first emigration from the Highlands to Nova Scotia.
July 1773 saw 180 Highlanders board the Hector, a small, old, frail vessel, at the head of Loch Broom in Wester Ross. This was the first emigration from Scotland to Nova Scotia and formed the basis of the Scottish communities of Nova Scotia that exist today, communities that retain strong ties with their “homes” in Scotland.
July 2023 saw descendants of those first emigrants return to the church of Clachan Lochbroom to mark the 250th anniversary of that sailing.
Pipe Major Robbie MacInnis of the Pictou Nova Scotia pipe band
A last view of home
Why to Clachan? Because we know that on this exact spot their ancestors stood to receive Communion before leaving their homes, relatives, and their country, forever.
Clachan’s famous minister, James Robertson [known as am Ministeir Laidir, the strong Minister, for his strength that saved lives when a church roof collapsed - and perhaps also for his firm character] held the service in the open air as the numbers attending were too great for the church. It was an emotional occasion with steady rain mingling with the tears of the emigrants. It is said that “between the tears of the congregation and the rain from heaven, the communion cup was never empty”.
Those emigrants who were Lochbroom families will have felt the pain of leaving familiar scenes even more strongly. Clachan was their parish church, the burial ground held their relatives, and at least one was in sight of his family home just across the fields, the laird’s 18-year-old son William Mackenzie from Ballone [now called Inverbroom].
The Hector sets sail
After the service the emigrants were rowed in small boats across to the waiting Hector at its mooring off the point of Ard na Long, where many of the emigrants from Sutherland and Inverness-shire had camped whilst awaiting the ship’s arrival.
The Hector mooring site can be seen below the scree patch beyond the forestry on the right-hand hillside
But there was also reason to look forward to better times. The emigrants were told they would have shelter provided, a year’s provisions at cost price, fishing rights on coast and river, and their land grants of many acres each. All they had to pay was £3-5-0 per adult for their passage. The prospects must have looked so bright.
No wonder that family groups of adult siblings with their children and elderly parents, and groups of near neighbours, chose to take this opportunity. The emigrants were leaving the cultural devastation caused by the Stuart defeat at Culloden, and were taking their community and its culture with them.
Many came from the forfeited estates i.e. those estates owned by the Mackenzie Earl of Cromartie in Lochbroom and Lord Fraser in Inverness-shire who were on the losing side. Two of the emigrants, Alexander Cameron and Alexander Fraser, had met as lads when they witnessed Culloden battle and had to evade Hanoverian troops – the next time they met was on the Hector.
What could possibly go wrong?
The last view of home that the Hector passengers saw
The voyage started too late in the year and ended up taking 11 weeks instead of 6. The journey was difficult - food ran short, and disease caused at least 18 deaths, most of them children.
On arrival in Nova Scotia on 15 September 1773, the emigrants found there was no accommodation provided – a great blow with winter approaching. The promised land grants were uncleared forest several miles inland, away from the source of fish. Bearing in mind that Dr Samuel Johnson journeying through the Highlands in the same year as the Hector sailed commented on the absence of trees, and that the people from Lochbroom would have been coastal dwellers used to catching fish to feed themselves, these two factors alone were unfavourable.
Added to all this, when the settlers refused the plots allocated to them in the forest they were denied the right to buy the agreed provisions. They had to take the provisions from the company employees, but left a record and scrupulously paid for them in due course.
The descendants return
But despite all these troubles the Hector passengers thrived. They preserved their ties to Scotland through trading, family, religion, and Highland music and culture.
So when these Hector passenger descendants came to Lochbroom for two days it felt like a family occasion, not a meeting of strangers. Both visitors and locals provided pipers and other music, there was dancing, singing, and conversation – a ceilidh lasting 48 hours. Some of the hosts had relatives on the Hector, some of the visitors’ ancestors were from nearby, and some of the host community should have been on the Hector, their family having come to Lochbroom in 1773 intending to take passage but arriving only in time to see the ship sailing past!
Anchorage view - looking north from the burial ground towards the sea. The old stone in the turf is within the old burial ground
Standing in the burial ground at Clachan on 8 July 2023, seeing memorial stones that their ancestors saw in 1773, amidst the unchanged hills and loch, the Hector families were in touch with their spirited ancestors. 250 years just dissolved. It was a moving moment for all.
Clachan Lochbroom Heritage Trust
Clachan Lochbroom Heritage Trust SCIO is a registered charity (SCO47544) responsible for the historic Clachan church. The trust was formed in 2017 and the church has been community owned since 2018.
Clachan church stands on the shore of Loch Broom in Wester Ross around ten miles from Ullapool. In 1773, a last communion was held at the Clachan Church for one of the first waves of Scottish emigrants bound for North America. The sailing ship Hector was moored in the loch nearby: and from the church the Highlanders were rowed out to begin their journey to Pictou in Nova Scotia.
The Church – rebuilt in 1817 – is today being gradually renovated, and is open to visitors most Tuesday afternoons or by arrangement (but please check the Facebook page before visiting). Donations are very welcome. Please visit the website to find out more and make a donation.
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