MacKay Family

Aberdeen Press & Journal, 11 February, 1999

THE Mac Kay sisters, from the Isle of Harris, have an unusual treasure chest of childhood memories. They remember milking goats on the rich pastures of Argentina, and watching spectacular lightning storms from the safety of their home. Above all, they remember watching their father help round up wild horses. “When they needed more horses they just went and rounded them up,” said Chris Ann MacKay.  You could see the dust coming over the brow of the hill, that’s how you knew they were coming. “We children were allowed to watch from a safe place, which tended to be the roof of the kennels. All the children would sit up there like an audience at the theatre. Then they would break the horses in. Some men were expert at it; lassoing them, getting them used to being handled in gradual stages.”

Although both their parents were islanders from Harris, Chris Ann and her sister, Annie, were bom in Patagonia. Their father, John Mac Kay, first emigrated as a young man to be shepherd in South America. He returned to Harris to get married in 1928, then went back to Patagonia with his new bride.

He was one of hundreds of young men who left Scotland in die late 19th and early 20th centuries, taking a journey of a month by sea to a country they could have scarcely imagined. When the governments of Chile and Argentina offered up vast tracts of land to European farmers, many of whom had land on die Falkland Islands already, the potential for raising sheep was quickly grasped. But shepherds were needed. The landowners turned to Scotland, as Greta MacKenzie, from Lewis, author of die book Why Patagonia?, put it: “for men who have knowledge of sheep and knowledge of bad weather”. In die Highlands, where jobs were scarce, they found what they were looking for.

Church ministers helped spread the word, and recruit honest, reliable young men. A single zealous cleric, Rev Donald MacCallum, from the village of Keose, on Lewis, recruited 34 young men, although the village had only I5 homes. John Mac Kay worked for the Blake family, who owned the San Julian Sheep Farming Company, and the family lived in what they called “the settlement”, a collection of houses 10 miles inland from Port San Julian. There, they were spared the isolation some of the shepherds faced, and the worst of the Argentine winters. “The summers were superb,” said Annie Martin, Chris Ann’s elder sister. “You could say you were going for a picnic next Wednesday, and you would know the weather would be fine.” The sisters still have photographs of the picnics, or asados, which involved the whole community.

Christmas and New Year, which occurred at the height of the Argentine summer, brought special picnics on the beach. “It was always a big celebration,” said Annie. “It was like a barbecue, with lambs cooking on spits. I don’t think meat has ever tasted so good.”

Although they were thousands of miles away from Scotland, the MacKays had a wide collection of Scottish and bagpipe music which they played on their gramophone. Another Scottish shepherd working for the same company, had his own pipes. For a child, it was idyllic: long hot summers, cold, snowy winters spent sledging, and nights wrapped in blankets made from in warm guanaco (a wild llama) skins. There was no local school, so the children had nothing to hamper their freedom.

It was the need for education that forced many of the families in the settlement to return to the UK, or to emigrate to North America. The MacKays planned to return to Harris in 1938 for a few years until the girls were old enough to go to boarding school and then go back, but World War II broke out, and their stay became permanent.

Life on Harris hit Annie and Chris Ann hard after leaving the warmth of a Patagonian summer. “It must have been very hard for our mother,” said Annie, “moving from a land of plenty, where she was used to getting meat, vegetables and fruit whenever they were needed, into wartime rationing. Everything was so different. We took badly to the weather – the gales and the rain.”