The emigrant islanders who put the Hebrides into Detroit

A meeting in the sitting room of Malcolm Mackay's house on 12th Street, Detroit, in March 1919 brought together islanders from Lewis who had settled well in Motor City but were feeling the painful tug of home.

Tuesday, 12th December 2017, 4:57 pm
Updated Tuesday, 12th December 2017, 6:38 pm
Detroit around 1920. PIC: Copyright United States Library of Congress.
Detroit around 1920. PIC: Copyright United States Library of Congress.

Less than three months earlier, on New Year’s Day, more than 200 men returning home to Lewis after serving in World War One died in the freezing waters of The Minch after their boat, the HMY Iolaire, smashed on the rocks at the Beast of Holm near Stornoway.

There was scarcely a family on Lewis who didn’t lose a blood relative that night in one of the worst naval disasters to hit British waters.

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Detroit around 1920. PIC: Copyright United States Library of Congress.

Presumably, those sitting in Malcolm Mackay’s sitting room thousands of miles away were too counting their losses.

In Detroit, discussion was held on how to send money home to the dependants of those soldiers who survived the war but died so close to the safety of their families.

In the spirit of the evening, it was also proposed to set up a support group for islanders who had made their way to Motor City after crossing The Atlantic in the search of a new life.

Detroit around 1920. PIC: Copyright United States Library of Congress.

As a result, The Lewis Society of Detroit was created on 12th Street that night.

Minutes of the society are now held by the Stornoway Historical Society after they were brought home to the island in 2007.

It is not clear how many Hebrideans ended up in Detroit but, according to the Hebridean Connections genealogy project, the city attracted many second generation immigrants whose families had originally settled in the eastern townships of Quebec.

By the time of the meeting at Malcolm Mackay’s house, Detroit was booming with workers drawn to Henry Ford’s Rouge Plant, the largest industrial complex in the world.

Some did well in other work. Peter Macritchie, born in the early 1900s at Uig, served as editor of the Detroit Times for a while.

Norman Morrison, from Kneep, emigrated in 1923, aged 24, to Canada on the ship SS Metagama and later settled in Detroit. He learned his trade as a carpenter and returned to the family home six years later.

The Great Lakes were also a source of work for the Lewis men. Kenneth MacMillan served as a ship’s officer and later married a Lewis woman, Mary Macleod from Enaclete, who also settled in Detroit. The couple had six children.

By 1954, the Hebridean population of Detroit was big enough to support a new Free Church of Scotland in the city.

Previously, Hebridean worshippers had met in homes and halls with a church built in Detroit long after many congregations, particularly in Canada, merged with other native presbyterian movements.

Today, the Presbyterian Free Church of Livonia, the new name for the old Detroit Free Church, is still open with several minsters from Lewis serving there over the decades.

For members of the Lewis Society of Detroit, the pull of home was also eased by nights of Gaelic and English songs, social nights at Vermont Hole and country dancing.

The Hogmanay Social was the big event of the year with planning starting in August.

Funds were given to emigrants who had fallen on hard time or ill health with money also sent back to the island in 1920 to help built the war memorial in Stornoway.

Ads were also placed in the Stornoway Gazette about its work to give reassurance to others setting out on the journey across the water.

On March 26, 1921, it was moved to send to the newspaper “names and addresses of the officers of the Society so that Lewis people coming to Detroit would not know where to communicate or find us.”

Today, a small handful of Lewis people, mainly in their eighties and nineties, remain in Detroit after emigrating there in the 1950s and 1960s.