As I was poking about for blog fodder this week, I found a rough draft of this post that I’d done up in warmer days back in the summer (wherefore art thou now, fair season?). I’m not entirely certain why I didn’t follow through on it at the time, but no matter. What you’re about to read is a personal story about a pilgrimage I made last year. It’s a bit different than the material I usually put up here; however, I think it’s something to which almost all of us can relate and so I thought I’d share it with you.
You’ve likely heard it said of Canada, and of the United States, that we are countries of immigrants. For a large percentage of the population, this statement rings true: If you climb up into your family tree (and often you don’t have to go very high), you’re bound to come across at least one ancestor – but likely many more – who came to the New World from one much farther away.
Take Prince Edward Island, for example. We have an aboriginal population here that has been around for thousands of years; but other than that, everyone else is descended from immigrants. Those immigrants came from a slew of different cultures and all walks of life over hundreds of years. For me and many others on the Island, some of our migratory ancestors came from Scotland, specifically, the Highlands region and the many islands that form it (Skye, Mull, the Uists, etc.).
In the last week of June 2015, my girlfriend and I were coming on the end of our three-month Scottish sojourn. During the planning stages, we’d decided that, come what may, we couldn’t possibly leave without a visit to the timeless Isle of Skye. She’d been there before, and it had become her favourite place in Scotland. As for me, it was to be the culmination of a journey more than a decade in the making.
It was back in 2003, a couple of years before my great-grandfather – after whom I’m named – passed away at the age of 93. My father, mother, and I were visiting with him and my great-grandmother one Sunday when talk turned to family history. This was just before I’d begun to take up genealogy in earnest, so I really didn’t know all that much other than that my dad’s side of the family originated largely in Scotland. My great-grandfather started talking about his mother’s family, Nicholsons, and how they came from Skye, from a place he called “Petrie”.
At the time, it didn’t hold great significance for me – I’ll admit it. But for him it meant a great deal. He’d been to the UK on two occasions, and “Petrie” on Skye was the one place he’d wanted to see above all else, yet sadly he’d never been able to make it. And now, at his advanced age, he no longer possessed the means to answer some of the burning questions that plagued his mind. I told him that I would see what I could do about it.
Over the next two years, I looked high and low for information on “Petrie”, but my efforts always came to naught. It just didn’t seem to exist. Eventually, I chalked it up to his simply being mistaken; he must have been thinking about some other place. And then one day, when I was in a secondhand bookshop in Halifax, everything changed.
In the Summer of 2004, my mother and I were in John W. Doull’s, which used to be located in an old bank on Barrington Street before it moved to Dartmouth. She must have been in some sort of Scottish section of the store, because she came to me with this thin, red hardcover. It was a sort of vintage coffeetable book about the Isle of Skye. She had a section of it bookmarked. “You don’t suppose this is the place Gramps was talking about, do you?” I took a look.
The largest center on Skye, it was a place I’d come across before and dismissed. But it was only then that it hit me: By “Petrie”, my great-grandfather must have meant “Portree”. How had I not drawn that connection before? It had to be one and the same. Relieved to have finally resolved the mystery, we purchased the book as a Christmas gift for him, which ended being his last (he passed away in September 2005).
When he opened the book, we pointed him to the section on Portree and said: “When you told us about your ancestors being from ‘Petrie’, did you mean ‘Portree’?” He looked at us a bit quizzically. “Well, yes”, he responded. “Portree. That’s what I said. Portree”. We didn’t bother to correct him.
Following his death in 2005, family history was something into which I began to delve more deeply. As I would eventually come to discover, my Nicholson ancestors (to my knowledge) never actually lived in Portree; rather, they hailed from a sparsely settled hamlet further North along the coast, called Culnacnoc. But Portree was where they departed Scotland. It was the one place that had been remembered, that had been passed down through the generations to descendants like my great-grandfather. I knew that one day, I was going to make that pilgrimage to Skye, to Portree. For the both of us.
From the Isle of Skye to PEI
For our family, it all begins with my 3x great-grandfather, Angus Nicholson. He was born about 1830-33 into a very typical family for the time (and location). His father, Samuel, was an agricultural labourer, not a very profitable line of work anywhere, let alone the largely infertile and rugged land of Skye. His mother, Christy (MacPherson), likely kept house and took on the many other day-to-day things to help keep the family functional. Angus fell in the middle of an average size brood, with a couple of older siblings, and a few that followed after.
By 1851, Angus and his family had relocated from Culnacnoc marginally north to a place called Valtos. Samuel had made the transition from agriculture to sheep herding. Angus, now aged 18, was a farm servant, along with another brother or two. I don’t doubt that life was hard. But seismic change was in the offing.
In the early 1860s, Angus and his mother, along with his youngest brother Archibald (and possibly other siblings), opted to join the migration of Highland Scots to North America, a movement that had begun years before and had already brought many to the shores of Atlantic Canada. While there could have been any number of reasons for their immigration, I strongly suspect that they hoped to fashion better lives for themselves, and felt it was their only option. At least one brother, the eldest, had already put down roots and chose to remain, and there is no indication I’ve found that the patriarch Samuel made the journey across the Atlantic. Perhaps he also stayed behind. Perhaps he’d already died.
In any event, Angus and his mother, and at the very least Archibald, ended up in Glenwilliam (Lot 63) in the Island’s “Down East” region. It wasn’t long after that that Angus married Jessie Martin, herself an immigrant born and raised on Skye and who had likewise come to the Island.
In 1881, a census taken on the Island shows Angus and his family living in Lot 63, alongside Archibald and his family. Living with Archibald is the matriarch, Christy, who’d reached the ripe old age of 86 (and who died by the time of the next census in 1891). Both brothers were farming sizeable 100-acre plots of land that were certainly more fertile than any they’d known in Skye. The area in which they’d chosen to settle was a favoured haunt of Scotsmen, allowing them to maintain at least some of their traditional culture despite attempts by the Island’s government to eradicate aspects of it (such as their native Gaelic tongue) through assimilation.
After tilling the soil for nearly 40 years, Angus passed away in 1898 at the age of 65. By then he had well and firmly established himself, with a number of his children off and married with families of their own. One of them, the youngest, was my 2x great-grandmother, Christina. She was born c.1877, and while I don’t have any photographs of Angus, I do have two of her that I greatly treasure. The first is a portrait of her and my 2x great-grandfather, John Hamilton Stewart, taken on or around their wedding day in July 1900 in Maine; the second is a shot of them taken in older age, probably in the 1950s.
I often wonder about Angus, though. What did he feel as he turned his back on the only home he’d ever known? Did he one day intend to return? For him and his family and the many others like them, theirs was a one-way ticket to what they hoped would be a better life. It was unpredictable, a gamble. For some, the risk paid dividends; for others, it brought only hardship. But one thing was almost certain: for the large majority of immigrants at that time, there was no going back.
At least not in their lifetime, anyway…
After bidding farewell to St. Andrews, where we’d spent an eventful three months, my girlfriend and I made our way to Edinburgh. At the airport, we picked up a rental car and hit the open road for the Misty Isle. Although on maps the distance does not seem great, in reality the drive is longer than it looks given the twists and turns in the road as you work your way up into the Highlands. By the time we arrived almost six hours later, it was coming on dusk. We checked in with friends in Broadford, the second largest settlement on Skye, where we’d arranged to set up camp for the week. In the morning, we’d push on to Portree. If not for being exhausted after our day of travel, I’m not sure if I would have slept that night.
The next day dawned a typical dull grey, along with the ever-present threat of precipitation. We tucked into a bit of nourishment and tossed back some much needed coffee at a neighbouring cafe. Then it was key in ignition and North along the A87 to Portree.
As we worked our way closer and closer, everything became increasingly surreal. It was actually happening. I’d thought about it so often, especially during the three months in St. Andrews. At long last the day had finally come.
Forty minutes later, we kept right on the A855, the main drag into the town. Following signs for parking, we managed to wrangle a space in a crowded lot just off Bridge Road and from there proceeded to set out through the town on foot. The sites were many to take in and I wanted to experience it all. But first, there was one place in particular I needed to see.
Cutting through Somerled Square and wending our way down Wentworth Street we came to the sloping Quay Street, which takes you down to the harbour. My heart began to beat a little bit faster as we turned a bend and beheld the long pier. This was what I had been waiting for.
I walked up to the railing and gazed out over the water at the harbour mouth, the very mouth through which Angus Nicholson and his mother had sailed all those years ago, never to return. Then I looked around. This was the last little bit of Scotland they touched before setting out on their journey. My spine tingled. 150 years later, the part of them inside me had returned, had come full circle. I found myself fingering my great-grandfather’s favourite pocket knife, which I’d come to inherit, and which I’d grown into the habit of always keeping on my person. I closed my eyes and gave it a squeeze.
We made it, Gramps.
PEI History Guy