Journey to trace ancestors was ‘like going home’
AN AMERICAN descendant of Lismore’s last weaver, John MacDougall, returned to her ancestral homeland this month to thank Lismore Historical Society for helping her compile a book of letters between John and his son, who emigrated to Minnesota.
Margaret Miller, John MacDougall’s greatgreat-granddaughter, published her book last year, entitled: ‘My Dear Son: Letters from John McDougall (weaver), Isle of Lismore, Scotland, to his son, John, in America’.
The 37 letters, handwritten between 1870 and 1888, give an insight into the life and thoughts of a landless cottar whose children had either died or left Lismore to begin new, more prosperous, lives in faraway lands. They include news about people and events on the island, in Port Appin, Oban and neighbouring communities.
Weaver John was born on Lismore in 1803 at Ballimackillichan, and married fellow islander Catherine McCallum of Balure. The couple raised their eight children at Ballimackillichan, and lived there until Catherine’s death in 1886.
‘The clearances affected Lismore,’ Margaret said. ‘Families were being moved off the land, because leases were not being renewed by the landowner.
‘John McDougall, a weaver, was fortunate to stay, but all his children left Lismore. I don’t know how they did it. They didn’t have much money. It called on their strength.’
One son born in 1837, also called John, settled in Redwood County, Minnesota, but his father’s letters also sent news to other Lismore emigrants in the area, such as Catherine McCallum’s sisterin-law Ann McCallum, and Ann’s children.
The children and grandchildren of the younger John McDougall and his wife Isabel McCallum, who were born in the United States, saved the letters and gave them to the Lismore Historical Society in 2011.
Margaret, who took four years to compile the book, told us: ‘I came back to Lismore to understand what the letters were saying: a lot of expressions didn’t mean anything to me. There was a heavy re-use of names; there were four John McCallums in the letters. I was pulling my hair out figuring out who all these people were. The people of Lismore have been great – they opened up a lot of the characters.’
One relative brought to life was the younger John McDougall’s sister, who also emigrated to Minnesota in 1877 but who died suddenly a year later.
Her husband took their three oldest boys, aged 10, 11 and 12, to work down the state’s copper mines, and put their three youngest boys up for adoption – one of whom was Margaret’s grandfather. Margaret is named after her tragic great-grandmother, who, she says, missed Lismore terribly.
Margaret Miller, who lives in Arlington, Virginia, visited from Sunday May 29 to Wednesday June 1 with her brother Bob Wilcox, who lives in Munich, and their cousins Donna Potter and Lee Ann Stearns from North and South Dakota respectively. They paid respects to the siblings who died or departed at a grave marker, which lists their names, in Lismore Parish Church yard.
She told The Oban Times: ‘When I came to Lismore, I felt like I was coming home.’
Margaret Miller, Lee Ann Stearns, Donna Potter and Bob Wilcox at Lismore Parish Church, and, inset left, emigrants John McDougall and his wife Isabel McCallum and John in Highland rig before he left for Minnesota.