COLONSAY FAMILY HISTORY SECTION
This section of the site is linked to all the geneaological resources that we host. The basic resources are listed first, as transcribed by Kevin Byrne from the original records, and these are followed by links to special resources which are dynamic. These include a list of all known emigrants, together with their ship and destination if known - if you can add to this list, please do; and you can arrange to have your contact details listed beside any individual who is important to you. In this way, researchers can contact one another and share their information.
Another such feature is intended to assist in one-name research. All the Colonsay and Oronsay family names are given or can be added - these are linked to specific pages. If you have information about specific families, please submit it so that it can be shared. Where a name is highlighted it is linked to information, otherwise it is are waiting for content to be submitted.
In addition, there are numerous Clan Societies and a growing number of DNA projects and Historical Societies that might be relevant - we are very happy to provide links to such sites, so please let us know about them.
Colonsay was a territory of Clan Donald from the rise of Somerled in 1156 until the fall of King James in 1688. From at least the early 14th century it was governed by Clan McPhee with the support of their traditional lieutenants, Curries, McAllisters and Bells (or MacMillans). Other families were also recorded, e.g. O'Cahan, O'Quinn, McNeill (Barra) etc.
Malcolm, the last recognised head of clan McPhee, was executed together with a few close relatives by Coll McDonald in 1623, for some unrecorded misdeed. Subsequently, many junior members of clan McPhee sought opportunities elsewhere, but the senior branch retained its link with the island. By chance, at about that time, there was a Franciscan mission to the area operating under the protection of local magnates, including Coll McDonald, and we are fortunate that they kept good records. These are preserved at the Vatican and Cathaldus Giblin has extracted the names of some 200 Colonsay and Oronsay persons who received the sacraments.
After the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688, Colonsay and Oronsay were subjected to an abrupt regime-change. The ancient house of MacDonald was ousted, together with many of its followers, and it was replaced by that of McNeill (of the South). The McNeills introduced their "kindly folk" (distant kinsmen, mostly from Lowland regions) and thus the earlier tacksmen began to find that their position was insecure. It is noteworthy that surviving members of clan McPhee lost nothing in this transition, and in fact retained a high-status position in Colonsay throughout the next three or four generations.
Emigration to America from this area commenced in the early 18th century and the McNeills, through their extended family, were heavily involved its development. The voyage of "The Thistle" to North Carolina in 1739 was a seminal event - virtually every family on board had a connection of some sort with the McNeills of Colonsay and the subsequent leadership of the clan itself devolved upon that family. Of course, the events of the '45 brought the clan system to an abrupt end and it hastened the social and economic reforms which were already under way - we know that Colonsay's first recorded emigrants were members of the tacksmen class (Curries and McNeills) who chose to go to North Carolina in the years between the '45 and the American War of Independence (1775 - 1783).
By the time that the war was over, Scotland was in the throes of an agricultural revolution. The traditional "run-rig" system of collective farming based upon fermtouns was no longer economically viable; landlords needed to create larger, independent units which could be leased for high rents to incoming tenants. The new tenants would have the training and resources to work the land efficiently, and would necessarily be incomers. Some proportion of the existing population would be retained as a labouring class, but most of it would become surplus to requirements. Thus it was that Colonsay experienced its first recorded clearances, in the 1790s. The first party to be cleared was shipped to Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1791 on board the "General Washington". There were 138 souls involved, in the bare clothes in which they stood; no definite account of their fate has yet been discovered, but we may be certain that they will have found themselves in a difficult situation. The following year, another party was deported, this time to Pictou in Canada, on board the ageing and decrepit "Hector". The people arrived to find themselves entering into winter without proper food or shelter and confronted by uncleared virgin forest; they were fortunate to receive the help of native inhabitants and some of their descendants have been identified.
Clearances now ceased in Colonsay for over a decade, but in 1806 a different approach was tried. In that year, a large party of Colonsay persons were persuaded to re-locate to Prince Edward Island, under the leadership of their tacksmen. They travelled aboard a wellfound ship, "The Spencer" and they were given funds with which to establish themselves on pre-arranged agricultural holdings. This venture proved to be a success, so much so that many of the remaining people in Colonsay began to emigrate of their own volition - so started a tidal flow that has continued to the present day. As people left, the landlord was constrained to replace them, and thus an inward migration began from the Ross of Mull.
People were clearly unhappy with the social order, and Baptist missionaries at this time were embraced with enthusiasm. Things were always difficult but from about 1815 (Waterloo) conditions deteriorated further. Smallpox, crop-failure, famine, cholera, tuberculosis and scarlet-fever were visited upon a population necessarily impoverished by falling rates of infant mortality and consequent congestion. In 1835, local conditions forced the community to issue a petition to Parliament; it brought no relief, but it did form the basis for a leader in "The Times" newspaper. There is a suggestion that some Colonsay folk were "cleared" to Australia in the 1850s, but this awaits verification. At all events, emigration from Colonsay certainly continued, but it tended now to be via Glasgow and in many cases it got no further than to industrial employment in the factories or shipyards. Yet some people did make the final break, whether as seafarers or emigrants, to USA, Canada, Australia and even to Asia and Africa.
Research continues. If you know of a Colonsay grave or other connection anywhere in the world, please get in touch. We are always glad to receive obituaries or other information - it is a dream that we might start work upon a "Colonsay Biographical Dictionary". If you wish to contribute, please submit a paragraph or two about your own Colonsay ancestor.
The following basic resources are currently available:
The Old Parish Register covers Baptisms, Marriages and some Deaths 1796 - 1854
The Colonsay Census Page includes all records 1841 - 1901; this is a vital resource since the census was taken at each 10-year interval. In addition, the page includes details of Colonsay natives who had moved elsewhere within Scotland by 1881.
The Colonsay Graveyard Inscriptions include most inhumations in recent years
The Oransay Graveyard Inscriptions include the mediaeval records
Colonsay Baptismal Register 1881 - 1911 This has never before been published.
Colonsay residents in 1625, taken from records of the Vatican
Ship lists for "Spencer", "Economy" etc. when available.
The Colonsay "One-Name" Information Exchange Although this was started on 24 December 2006, it was buried in an obscure location so has not made much progress. Have a look - it provides a simple way to make contact with people researching the same line.
The Colonsay Register is an amazing resource - it lists all known emigrants and can include any resident prior to 1910; it enables you to put your own contact details beside the name that is of interest.
Monographs is to be a new section, devoted to monographs, biographies and essays. It might be the germ of a Colonsay Biographical Dictionary.
Notes and Queries is where we can display general messages, requests for information and so forth.
We will be happy to post links here to relevant sites, such as Clan Societies, DNA projects etc. Just submit the details please, then we will post them.
In the meantime, please read about The Isles of the Hebrides DNA Project