This summer we were delighted to welcome Jeff Chown and his wife Laura to Uig… and therein lies a tale, best told by Jeff himself:
In July of 1886, 24-year old Angus Macleod, a servant at the Baile na Cille manse, decided to set out for Canada with his cousin Donald Morrison from Valtos. His mother, Margaret nee Morrison, had been widowed ten years earlier when her husband Roderick was killed at the fishing in Caithness. Three sisters and a brother had probably struggled with the loss of the father. For reasons now unknown, Angus was never to write home and the family assumed he had a premature death across the ocean — several nephews were named Angus in commemoration.
[singlepic id=1205 w=240 float=left] However. Angus found his way to a small town by the name of DeTour, Michigan, and in 1900 was tending bar at a hotel run by Don Smith from Barvas. He met Smith’s sister-in-law Lottie Martin, a young waitress, and they married and had a daughter, Margaret McLeod—my grandmother. Although an only child, Margaret married a coal loader on the St. Mary’s River named Bill Chown and eventually had five children, two before Angus died in 1929. At present Angus has 17 great-grandchildren and 13 great-great grandchildren scattered from the East to West coasts of the United States.
So finally, after 124 years, communication from Angus came back to the Isle of Lewis in the form of a visit from myself, Jeffrey Chown, his great-grandson and a college professor at Northern Illinois University near Chicago. I hope the reader will indulge my description that it was a most magical homecoming, as I eventually met 12 delightful relatives and learned about as much as you can in a three-day holiday in Uig.
The engine of the magic is the technology of the internet. Five thousand miles and over a century of time dissolve quite quickly with the help of the world wide web. My aunt had a recommendation letter that Reverend Angus Maciver provided Angus on leaving the Manse. By searching Maciver in the 1881 census at the Scotland’s People web site, sure enough, I discovered an Angus MacLeod working as a farm servant at Baile na Cille. Curious to know if the Baile na Cille manse was still in existence, internet searching led me to make the acquaintance of Sarah at the Uig Historical Society. A dark room was suddenly flooded with light. Sarah knew the families Angus came from and could supply the social history and context for why he left. Suddenly I had a guide who could answer just about any reasonable question I could pose, who could dig up the relevant census forms, who could explain where my ancestor came from.
[singlepic id=1207 w=240 float=right] A bit about myself: every summer for the last 19 years I have taught a class at Dublin City University with American students. With the new information I was getting, I resolved this time to make a side-trip to Lewis and began availing myself of the information online, as well as bombarding Sarah with questions. My Irish friends have an expression for when you are stunned called “gob-smacked” that I have always liked. Sarah gobsmacked me by proposing that I meet some relatives I heretofore did not know existed.
I flew to Glasgow, rented a car, drove up through Skye, and the next morning took the car ferry to Harris. After visiting Seallam! and genealogical authority Bill Lawson at Northton, my wife Laura and I drove through the breath-taking scenery on the way to Crowlista. Fortunately, Sarah was still at work on a Saturday afternoon and when she said “Welcome home,” I knew this would be an adventure far beyond the quick tourist holiday. We then hashed out the details of my itinery. The American expression would be “Wow!”
Laura and I spent the night at the beautiful Gallan Head hotel with one of Andy’s wonderful dinners. The next morning we quickly toured the Callanish stones, saw the site of the Uig chessmen, drove down to Carnais and took in as much sight-seeing as we could. We were ready for the first introduction with Anna Mackinnon and her family in Ardroil.
[singlepic id=1212 w=320 float=left] Anna and I share a passion about genealogy and were probably in danger of being rude to my wife and Anna’s family as we powered up our computers to compare notes. We are both descended from the Old Soldier and poet Murdo MacLeod, although from different wives. Again I was stunned as Anna produced a beautiful conch shell with an engraving of the Lord’s prayer that Murdo had carried in Egypt during the Napoleonic wars. As my wife snapped a picture of the two of us holding the shell, my mind reeled a bit about the two hundred year gap from when Murdo carried that shell to when the two of us stood there admiring it.
The next morning I met a descendant from Angus’s mother’s family, Angus Kenneth Morrison in Valtos. More delicious cakes and tea, and Angus showed me the stone ruins of the blackhouse at 2 and 3 Valtos, where Margaret Morrison’s family had been back in the 1850s. On Valtos Pier I was curious to see a preserved fishing boat that was probably something like the one that Roderick Macleod, Angus’ father, had worked before he met his death.
[singlepic id=1214 w=240 float=right] In the afternoon, Sarah introduced me to five more relatives at the relaxing quarters of the Uig Cafe. Fin Morrison, a close relative of the Donald Morrison who left with Angus in 1886, dropped by. Unfortunately, I didn’t work up the courage to ask one of the Morrison descendants to read the Gaelic song Hi Ho Ro Tha Mi Duilich that Donald Morrison had composed. Maybe next time—my wife and I make documentary films. There is also the story of our common relation, the Megantic Outlaw, to explore.
Then I had the distinct pleasure of meeting two great granddaughters of Angus’s sisters from Timsgarry—Chrisann Morrison and Jessie Macdonald. They had gifts: two detailed family trees that I have been poring over since and a lovely cheese board made on the island for my wife. As we chatted about our respective families it felt emotionally soothing to me, as if the trauma of an 1886 emmigration had lingered and was now being lessened by the reconnection we were making. It was a wonderful afternoon, as I also met two more relatives from Crowlista, John Hector Macleod and Alec Murdo Matheson. They explained the importance of the sheep industry on the island to their curious American cousin, who spends much too much time in the city.
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I had to go back to Dublin and then Chicago the next morning, but one more adventure was waiting. I booked a night at Baille Na Cille. The former church manse is now a high-end bed and breakfast run by the charming Richard Gollin. Richard good-naturedly teased me about Angus making it big in America and now his great-grandson was coming back to stay where the island boy had been a servant. Well, Michigan’s upper peninsula has its own rugged beauty and I think Angus did alright with the farm in Stalwart that his wife inherited—but, alas, this was not John Wayne coming back with his prize-fighting winnings in The Quiet Man. Baile na Cille was lovely, the dinner guests memorable, the food first-class, but I’ll probably book something more modest on my next visit.
The internet and jet planes of today make connections between North America and the Isle of Lewis much less forbidding that when Angus left his people in 1886. I feel fortunate that I could supply some continuity between the two locales for myself, for Angus, and for the new friends and relatives I met on Lewis. Slan leat!
There are a few more pictures here; we hope to see Jeff and Laura again next year. Meanwhile if you have a similar unexplored connection with Uig and have hit some genealogical brick walls or want to know if there are relations still living in Uig, do get in touch as we may be able to help. Our patch is from Scaliscro and Kinlochroag to Mealista, so if your family connections are outwith this area, have a look at the Caidreachas Eachdraidh directory and contact the historical society that covers your family’s place of origin. Most have a similarly comprehensive knowledge of their local genealogy. Our forum might be worth a try too, though it’s not taken off yet.