Manitoba History: Review: Wayne Norton, Help Us to a Better Land: Crofter Colonies in the Prairie West

by R. M. Sunter
Department of History, Guelph University

Number 29, Spring 1995

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Wayne Norton, Help Us to a Better Land: Crofter Colonies in the Prairie West. Regina, Canadian Plains Research Center, 1994. ISBN 0-88995-118-7.

The emigration of groups of crofters from the Western Isles of Scotland to Manitoba and Saskatchewan in 1888 and 1889 was the last to be conducted with the financial assistance of the Imperial Government. Wayne Norton has provided a fine study of this venture and the reasons for its failure, a setback which had considerable impact upon Canadian immigration policy, which under Clifford Sifton’s guidance concluded that British settlers were unsuited for the Prairies. The truth, of course, was very different. The Scottish farm worker, with the skills acquired in Lowland agriculture, proved to be a very successful immigrant. The problem with the 1880s emigrants was that they were not skilled agriculturists, and even their crofter status was more than doubtful. None had farmed on more than a marginal scale, some were inshore fishermen, while all were desperately short of the monetary reserves which might have eased the transition to farming a quarter section in Canada.

The object of the British government was not primarily to produce settlers likely to make a rapid success of agriculture in the Canadian West, but to quieten the increasing agitation in the overcrowded islands on the Atlantic coast of Scotland. Discontent and land hunger had certainly not been ended by the report of the Napier commission and subsequent legislation, for in the island of Lewis the great problem was the number of marginal crofters or cottagers who had been contributing to an increasing population despite clearance and sporadic emigration. Alarmed by the growing disorder in the island, the Scottish Office decided to take advantage of a temporary increase in the willingness of the inhabitants to contemplate emigration as a means of alleviating the endemic poverty of the island.

The plan envisaged the establishment of colonies in Canada which would thereafter act as a focus for further emigration. The idea had superficial appeal for it had worked in the past. Unfortunately the potential settlers recruited in Lewis and Harris by Malcolm McNeill, a Scottish bureaucrat who had long advocated emigration as a solution to the island’s difficulties, were not skilled farmers who might have created thriving settlements quickly and attracted others. McNeill deliberately chose emigrant families from the cottager category and they were not provided with sufficient assistance to augment their meagre assets and allow them to become established.

In the plan outlined by the Marquis of Lothian, Secretary of State for Scotland, each head of family was to receive 160 acres of good land and £120 from which the costs of travel and purchase of implements and stock would have to be made. The aim of McNeill was to secure the largest possible number of adults, whose wage labour, it was supposed, would enable the farms to become established, and by stretching families to include brothers and sisters of the nominal head of family this was accomplished in spite of the ludicrously short space of time permitted for recruitment. McNeill arrived in Lewis on May 5th 1888, and found his families within five days, and they were to leave the island on the 14th of that same month. It was virtually impossible to dispose of their possessions within this time period, and only eighteen of the original twenty-one families actually embarked and then only after spending a considerable part of their £120 advance to pay existing debts. In the face of opposition from the Land League, who viewed the scheme as a distraction from land reform, which it was, McNeill pressed ahead gathering a second group of emigrants in Harris after a similarly hurried selection process, and despatching them to Canada where the aid of the Dominion government had been secured.

Prospective immigrants from Scotland’s Western Isles were lured to the Prairie with pamphlets and posters put out by the Department of the Interior.
Source: National Archives of Canada

A further emigration was planned for 1889 and in all 475 people left Lewis and Harris for new homes in Canada to settle near Killarney, Manitoba and Saltcoats, Saskatchewan. Much of Norton’s book relates the efforts to establish settlements in Canada where the general shortage of cash and inexperience with agriculture combined to bring the scheme to disaster. Promises had been made to other adults within the family groups that they too would receive homesteads, and not surprisingly many of them took up the offer, making the shortage of cash even more acute. One of the strengths of the work is the close examination of the settlements and their different fortunes. The Harris party of 1888, for example, fared much better than did their Lewis counterparts. Norton attributes this in large part to the greater number of females of working age in the Harris group, seventeen from twelve families, as opposed to seven from eighteen Lewis families. Perhaps the female members of the group were more willing to contribute to the costs of settlement from their wages than were the adult males? In general the Manitoba settlers were more successful than those who were sent to Saltcoats in Saskatchewan. The Manitoba groups were settled in an area of established farms and had much better prospects of earning wages than those who were located in still underdeveloped Saskatchewan. Credit was available, at least to those crofter settlers close to Killarney, and although the increased debt proved burden-some to many of the chronically under-funded Islesmen they were far more fortunate than their 1889 counterparts further west.

Essentially the failure of the venture to attract a steady flow of migrants from Highland Scotland was pre-determined by the under-funding of the settlers who were intended to be the magnet to attract others by their success. Nor surprisingly as Norton indicates, “for the first time in Canadian history, Highland Scots had become classed with such undersirable groups as the Irish and East End Londoners.” Clifford Sifton, the former Attorney-General for Manitoba, as Minister of the Interior in the Canadian government, appears to have had his views of crofter settlers coloured by their debts to local merchants. Blame, however, should more appropriately be attached to the British officials and land-owners who were trying to stimulate emigration for their own purposes without putting nearly enough resources into the project to have any real hope of success. As Norton demonstrates, this comparatively small colonization venture had very far reaching consequences, both here and in the United Kingdom, discouraging any attempts to repeat the exercise.

Page revised: 11 April 2010