The road to Reiff

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The following article by Margaret Ward was published in the July/August 2000 edition of "NZ Genealogist", the covering note Marg included in her copy to me says "I've always felt bad about the `in-bred' remark. Haven't seen any evidence of it!". Further research since her article shows there was some marriages between distant cousins in the ten generations of partially documented genealogy in Coigach, but in general such typification was a prejudice not proven, as Marg remarks.

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Stac Polly (mountain) and typical landscape on
the road to Reiff. Inset: John McDonald.

          By Margaret Ward

MY JOURNEY to Reiff began a long way back. It began in my childhood when my father spoke of strange sounding places like "Ullapool" and the difficult one, "Loch Broom".

I can't remember how he conveyed it to me, but I gained the impression that his ancestors came from these strange-sounding places. They sounded very foreign and remote and I never thought to ask if he knew of any relatives remaining in these Scottish places. Our family sported some very Scottish names: Roderick, Stuart, Margaret, Neil, Alistair, Christina, Isabel, but I didn't realise at the time, how they bound us to these remote settlements on the other side of the world.

Years after my father's death, an advertisement appeared in our local paper. Descendants of emigrants from the Ullapool and Loch Broom area were asked to contact the Ullapool Museum with information about their Scottish ancestors. We were asked to send a postcard and information about our locality. Ullapool was celebrating its bi-centenary and the museum wanted to mount a display showing the places to which its sons and daughters had emigrated in the 19th century.

The year was 1988, and I sent away my postcard and letter. I had also asked for a pen-friend to correspond with, but had no response. At some stage I received a letter from a professional researcher offering her services. Nothing else. Time passed. The letters from the other side of the world, along with the postcards, were taken down from the display and filed away in folders.

One day, in 1992, an Ullapool museum volunteer was idly looking through the folders. A name, Margaret McDONALD, caught her eye. That was her beloved granny's maiden name!

She read on. Pieces of jigsaw fell into place. This was a letter from a grand-daughter of her granny's brother! From far-off New Zealand! Her mother had spoken fondly of the uncles who sailed for New Zealand but contact was lost when the original settlers passed away. The following generations did not feel such a strong tie to the land of their fathers.

I shed tears when the significance of this letter struck me. Our family had been gathered in to become part of our origins. Cousin Mary MacLENNAN's ensuing letter reunited our family with relatives we didn't know existed.

Subsequently, other cousins made the acquaintance of the Scottish branch, but it was not until 1999 that it became our turn. We visited awhile in Inverness with Cousin Roddy MacLEOD's family. A phone call came from Ullapool. "Have you heard rom the New Zealanders?" was the query.

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Tumble-down remains of John McDonald's house at Reiff.

Ullapool was our next port of call. Cousin Mary was elderly and frail by now, but still full of spirit and so pleased to see us. We went to the museum and sighted my letter.

I had maps of the area and place names came to mind - Altandhu, Polbain, Achiltibuie, Reiff, Badenscallie. I wasn't sure of the significance of these names for our family, but decided to suggest we go to Reiff the next day. That was the site of my grandfather, John McDonald's home. We climbed up out of Ullapool and 10 miles along the road turned onto the road to Reiff.

It was a treeless landscape covered with heather about to bloom. The road was narrow with passing bays marked by tall poles topped with a diamondshaped sign and visible from a distance. We passed glacial-formed mountains and lochs. Signs of peat harvesting appeared now and again.

Mary directed us to Domie Harbour where her only child, a son, was tragically drowned in 1974. We were to have lunch with Iba ROSS whose husband was lost in the same mishap.

The sun was smiling on the Highlands this particular morning and when we reached Iba's house, her coal fire ensured we soon peeled off extra clothing. The travellers were offered a drink - whisky, no less!!

Iba had told Mary she had some family history off the Internet. The Internet? At Reiff? This remote enclave in the western highlands of Scotland? Yes!

Iba and her family of seven who all live a stone's throw from where they were born, were fully in touch with the outside world and in communication via the Internet with a branch of the family in Canada. I'd been totally unaware of these MaCDONALD-ROSS families but legend had it that there were relatives in America. I had always wondered if we might have some connection to the wealthy hamburger-chain McDonalds!

She also had documents naming all 10 of my grandfather's siblings - we had been aware of only five!

Young people kept arriving at the house - I wasn't really sure who they were. It finally dawned on me that Iba's husband had been my second cousin and these, his children, were relatives too. We talked and laughed a lot. One of them, Dianne, was an artist like our daughter, Anna. Just as we were about to leave, I remembered I hadn't got to see grandfather's' home. It was a few hundred yards down the road - walls tumbled down to waist height and looking like a fence around the modern house built in the midst of it.

This was right on the shore - any further and you'd be in the sea. I haven't discovered if the family I were driven there by some rapacious landlord, or if they lived there by choice. There certainly wasn't a living to be had there for the 11 children. Emigration had to be an option.

I had bought a book about the clearances, The Highland Clearances, by John Prebble. I was overwhelmed by the callousness of the landlords who exchanged people for sheep. The Highlanders were portrayed as downtrodden and lacking in leadership qualities.

The young people, who took all their possessions on their backs and walked to the nearest emigrant ship, weren't lacking in spirit and determination - the voyages were hellish but they obtained for themselves and their descendants a land with freedom of choice, a chance to own, actually "own" land and to determine their own future. They were not forced to poach the waters of their new lands for food - they were free to fish them and to take any game they fancied. Another benefit to come from the clearances was mentioned to me by an elderly Scotswoman:

"Och!" she exclaimed, "They were all in-bred!"

Only when you delve into the history of your family in the Highlands, do you realise how true were her words!

And, after all this, what did I find at Reiff?

I found a remote village on the west coast of the Scottish Highlands where the weather could be very severe as gales powered in from the Atlantic Ocean. A dozen, or so, houses made up the village sustained by the fishing industry. They dotted the higher ground on the top side of the road - no shop, church or school - they were back down the road. Houses that had stood the test of time, were modified to utilise more modern materials - no more thatched roofs - and skylights were fitted to let in more light. Only the remains of some earlier homes were visible and modem houses had been built to replace them.

The treasure at the end of the road to Reiff was meeting distant cousins, recognising family similarities, connecting with Canadian relatives via the Internet and discovering so much more about my grandfather, John McDonald's, family.

John McDonald came to New Zealand in 1879, arriving at Port Chalmers on the sailing ship, Timaru. He worked as a shepherd initially at Ardgour Station, near Cromwell. He moved to Ardmore, Kelso in 1884.

After marrying Isabella McLEAN, they settled in Tapanui, where he was a stock dealer and finally, run-holder of Dalvey Run.

Margaret (McDonald) Ward (#13871),
PO Box 162,


This file, and others dealing with history and genealogy of Coigach, links from my homepage at:

Any suggestions for additions or edits please feel free to email me,

Donald MacDonald-Ross, at:

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