The Gaelic way of living in the world
The little village of Geshader, with its eleven crofts, lies on a peninsula into Loch Roag in the district of Uig, on the west side of Lewis. The first Uig clearances began in 1804 and continued until 1851. As Comunn Eachdraidh Uig (Uig Historical Society) describes it: “The late 1840s were years of desperation in Lewis (but also elsewhere), with much of the population near starvation…” The solution for self-interested proprietors like Sir James Matheson was to encourage his tenants to emigrate. And so, in the summer of 1841, 26-year-old missionary Donald Macdonald of Geshader followed members of his family who had gone earlier to Cape Breton and sailed with his new wife, Jane, a Maclean from Lochs, on the John Walker, arriving in Sydney Mines some six weeks later. They eventually settled in North River, where Dòmhnall Ceisdear (‘Donald the Catechist’) as he was called, dedicated his life to the spiritual welfare of the Presbyterian flock. For many Gaelic immigrants of that time, their language, culture and faith were inextricably linked.
The other day, I had the pleasure of visiting a great granddaughter of Dòmhnall Ceisdear at her home in North River Bridge. Pamela (Macdonald) Morrison and her husband Donald run a B&B there. It was interesting to learn that, in 1954 when she was 15 years old, her parents Abraham and Margaret joined a more recent diaspora --namely, the one to Massachusetts-- and moved the family there. Both parents sang in the Gaelic Choir and the family attended the Needham Presbyterian Church. Pamela remembers hearing Rev. Charles (‘Holy’) Macdonald from Tarbot and Rev. A.D. Mackinnon from Lake Ainslie preaching there. On May 12, 1962, A.D. preached for the church’s 75th anniversary services and wrote in his diary: “The service at 4 o’clock was in Gaelic. The church filled to capacity. Chairs were taken in to the sanctuary and people stood around the entrance throughout the service ….Met hundreds of friends.”
The pull of home was strong for these Macdonalds. In 1979, after a quarter of a century away, they returned to Cape Breton from the U.S. But thinking of the many who had left their homeland never to return, I am reminded of the words of a Gaelic poem by Norman Macleod, “Am Bàrd Bochd” (the ‘Poor Bard’), at one time schoolmaster at Loch Croistean School, down the road from Geshader. In it, he mentions friends no longer there; and he concludes by extolling their loving friendship which will shine like the stars for him as long as he has life and memory.