An Australian in Moidart
by Bill Atkin

Australia is a young/old country with a long memory. So many people have crossed the world to the Lucky Country and dispersed to the vastness of Down Under that one chord only has kept the people connected. That chord is attachment to family. New attachments and links are constantly being forged in Australia. Each new wave brings the stories and traditions of "the old home country". So it is natural in 2012 to visit the place left in 1851 and carry a sense of attachment transmitted by word of mouth across seven generations.

Our mob left the West Highlands in 1851 on Marco Polo. This was part of a group emigration to Port Phillip. The families initially stuck together and settled near each other. A core group - including John MacDonald and Margaret MacIsaac - settled at Little River (between Geelong and Werribee). From there the families scattered in the gold rushes. John, Margaret and their many children found their way to Heathcote ( a gold prospecting town) where John died in 1875. I remember as a boy that my family went "back to Heathcote" in the early 1970s. MacDonals married MacKenzies married Crowes married Atkins -. Several generations found their way to Australia Felix - the Western District of Victoria (including Koroit) - and then to Crowes ( with a new railway line) then Irrewarra at Colac and thence to Melbourne.

Many stories were transmitted. Some were so incredible that a sceptical little boy started to "check the facts". This didn't help for confidence in one's own perspective because most of the stories turned out to be true.

Further links were found on the wwweb. Michael Murray's excellent treatise "Prayers and Pastures" gave a specific track to follow. Fortunately the large family paid off as the ages and names could be traced at John's death certificate, the 1851 ship's passenger list (Egnaig), the 1851 census (Acharacle) and the 1841 census (Glenuig). Then the baptism registers were found for six children (Glenuig and Moss) 1831-46. Finally a death record for Ronald 1845. All of this happened due to the accumulated links and published data made by generous individuals over time.

The web struck again. Contact with Tearlach MacDonald for An Tilleadh resulted in a link to Allan and Elizabeth MacDonald at Arisaig. This proved a great boon with generous and gracious hosts fortified by a powerful library and even more powerful memories. We found ourselves at the heart of the Gaeltacht and family history.

At home we have expeditions called "hub and spoke". The team gather at the hub and go on day trips. We took trips to Glenuig and were delighted to see Egnaig - hosted by Jean and Ken Bowker and Gordon Barr of An Comann Eachdraidh Muideart. This revealed a whole township - abandoned (like many a gold rush town) - but evocative of so much history. We particularly enjoyed seeing the the excise house next to a local house. The Egnaig cemetery was peaceful. The steady march of time, entropy, deer and the elements have affected the village site and limited visibility. It was so much more rewarding to stand at and in the houses knowing this was what the family saw before leaving for Australia.

It progressively dawned on us that the family spent twenty years at Glenuig. In 1825 Reginald George Clanranald sought to sell his estates. We found two Ranal MacDonals listed as tenants at Glenuig. "Asking around" found us locating the old school by the lochside and a previous school up the glen. It appears the family were at the old old school and may have taught there. More enquiries revealed a close link with Smirisary where the MacIsaacs were base. A loose hint suggested a Forbes connection possibly on the islands north of Morvern. Naturally we took as many photos as we could and found everyone kindly allowed us to visit whenever we asked.

Side tracks took us to the Clan Donald Centre at Armadale where there is an excellent family history centre with a special focus on archaeology. These activities are of special help to us and, I imagine, - to all the families of diasporan chloinn Domnhuill. This centre appears to have a great opportunity for expansion and action as a hub to link diasporan folk with local history groups.

Another sidetrack led us to Rhu Arisaig with Allan MacDonald. It was eerie to see signs of an obvious settlement (and temporary seminary) now an idyllic rural picture.

Everyone we met was generous and courteous. We had especially moving visits with Tearlach MacFarlane and Angus Peter Maclean who made us feel like family and spoke of our common attachments warmly. The charisma of gentlemen such as these is a treasure of the Highlands.

With so many snippets and links made, the mind seeks more. The whole remains true whilst the colours and detail of specific information deepens the sense of real attachment. The potential links between the self-grown groups seems obvious to a visitor. The hub and spoke of a clan centre with local history groups offers an elegant mechanism to enhance all our experience of our common humanity. At a very practical level the specific links to homeland enabled by visiting "the very site" cause those emotional moments that are priceless. We will never forget standing at the final resting place of the last who stayed.

Coincidentally, the web has struck again. Whilst in Arisaig and Moidart we received emails representing several families in Australia who wish to share information. Our advance party will now be able to plug them into the local history groups, the Glenuig estate, the extended family and An Tilleadh. Maybe further strengthening and deepening of ties will follow.

With thanks - and hooroo ...

Irene and Bill Atkin

27th June 2012