Granny Newton, my father’s mother, once told me that Rio de Janeiro was the most beautiful city she had ever seen. For a farmers daughter born in the village of Ballallan on the Isle of Lewis in 1896, seeing Rio de Janeiro might have seemed an impossible dream. However, from the 1800s to 1930s, there were several waves of emigration from Lewis to both North and South America. Some were voluntary in search of work and a better life, others were forced by famine, war or oppression. At times people went by the boatload to destinations in the Canadian Prairies, Cape Breton, and the Carolinas. From the 1890s-1930s, many also went to work on massive sheep farms in Patagonia. Quite a number of young men from the district where my granny lived took up the offer of work as shepherds in South America. My grandfather was one of these.
I remember being astounded to discover that Granny had been engaged for seven years. My grandfather went to Patagonia first in 1913, on a visit back home they got engaged and then he left again, returning seven years later to get married.
It’s hard to imagine now how difficult communication must have been over these seven years. In today’s world of instant communication via twitter, text-message, Skype, email and phone, it is hard to imagine being totally dependent on letters. Imagine waiting weeks or months for letters to come. Imagine how precious each word on the page, and how delightful the glad reunions if and when they came at last. Imagine waiting for your loved ones to write to tell you they had arrived safely at their destination, and not being able to reply immediately, but having to wait, and put all your thoughts and feelings into words on a page. Seven years of writing letters puts a whole new perspective on the meaning of patience for me.
Eventually my granny also found her way to Patagonia, at the other end of the earth. On the way she saw Rio de Janeiro, and never forgot it. I am sure it was a bittersweet journey, the excitement of a new life in a new country coupled with the sadness of the parting from family. It was to be 20 years before she returned home again. I am so glad that travelling today does not mean the same kind of separation.
I was interested to read this letter telling of the experiences of an emigrant to Canada around the same time as my grandfather went to South America. Although the location is different, it shows the permanence of the decision, and the pain of the distance, but also the adventure and promise of the new world. Many built very successful lives and grew to love their new homeland. My granny had a brother who also went to South America and never came home, eventually settling in Peru. Others have descendents today all over South America, Canada and the US. The links below give some more information about emigration from Lewis during these times.
More links about emigration in the early 20th century: