RETURN TO PATAGONIA

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John Randall introduces a new and expanded edition of Greta Mackenzie’s famous book

Before I moved to Lewis, I was entirely unaware of the close links between the Outer Hebrides and Patagonia. Then I started meeting people who had been born there or who had relatives there. On Eilean Chaluim Chille at the mouth of Loch Erisort, I saw the gravestone of Charles Menendez Macleod. And shortly afterwards, I came across a copy of ‘Why Patagonia?’ by Greta Mackenzie, first published in 1995 and already long out of print.

That was the start of my education about an almost unbelievably dramatic episode in island history, an extreme example of the way people from the islands, and particularly Lewis, travelled literally to the other end of the world to find employment and start new lives in one of the most inhospitable environments on earth. The economic and social circumstances which drove this emigration, mainly in the first decades of the 20th century, have of course changed dramatically, but the human and family legacy survives.

I have since had the privilege of getting to know Greta and her family, and of being present when she has given illustrated talks about Patagonia and her visits there, including at events organised by the Islands Book Trust. The interest and enthusiasm generated by these presentations to large audiences were remarkable, and the question of a new edition of Greta’s best-selling book inevitably arose. Since the first edition, Greta and her family have returned to Patagonia in 1996 and 2002, visiting new places and uncovering further links, and adding to their outstanding library of photographs.

I am delighted that the Islands Book Trust are now able to publish this new and much enlarged edition of Greta’s famous book. It incorporates the full text of ‘Why Patagonia?’ together with substantial new material, written and pictorial, from her subsequent visits and research. The length of the book has roughly doubled, and I have no doubt from the interest expressed at previous Book Trust events that it is eagerly awaited, not only in the islands but further afield. Indeed, we are now planning a Spanish edition to cater for the demand in the countries of South America and elsewhere in the world.

Here are just one extract from Greta’s book to whet the appetite:

‘Two years after our first trip to the far south of the American Continent, during a leisurely discussion on a possible family holiday destination a remark was made;  “Why not Patagonia again?”

The call hit home! All agreed that this was an excellent idea and lines from Bruce Chatwin’s book ‘In Patagonia’ sprang to mind:
“Patagonia; she is a hard mistress. She casts her spell. An enchantress!  She folds you in her arms and never lets you go”.

It had been obvious during our visit in 1994 to this vast and varied land, that much waited there to be explored and especially that a great deal of our island’s history remains there.

Without delay the decision was made by my brother Ian and his wife Isabel, to accompany my husband Norman and me and the itinerary was drawn up. In early January 1996 we were off on the long-haul flight to Buenos Aires via London, Amsterdam and Río de Janeiro.  As we emerged from Ezeiza International airport at Buenos Aires, with the usual hustle and bustle of its thronging crowds, the Gaelic greeting from our waiting friend, Guillermo Santana Mackinlay, and his waving arms and welcoming smile, made us feel ‘it’s good to be back!’

In a short time Guillermo had deposited the happy but travel-weary foursome at our hotel in the city and he prescribed for us a few hours’ rest before he would return to collect us in the evening to join himself, his family and some friends for dinner.

There over a sumptuous meal, excitement mingled with much chatter in Spanish and English, with Guillermo enjoying the rare chance to practise his Gaelic, in which he is decidedly fluent.  Seated beside me were ladies who had been introduced as Beatrice de Zapata along with her daughter Gracie. Betsy, as she preferred to be known, said that she was delighted to have the chance to meet with Scottish folk, as both of her late parents had been born in Scotland and that regretfully she herself had never had the opportunity to visit the country she had heard so much about in her young days.

As the conversation progressed, she explained that she had been born in southern Patagonia and had spent her childhood there as her father had been employed as a shepherd on one of the large estancias.  The family had later moved north to the province of Buenos Aires. Reaching for a pack of photographs that she had brought along, she passed me one saying that this was where her father had been born in Scotland.

It was immediately recognisable to me and my heart missed a couple of beats! The stone-built cottage with its red corrugated iron roof, long since abandoned as a dwelling house, was situated on the ‘Ard Mhor’ down by the shore only 400m away from our own home. It had been a very familiar landmark throughout my lifetime and I knew that a son from that family had been one of the young men who had made Patagonia his destination at the beginning of the twentieth century.

“Are you the daughter of Donald Maciver?” I ventured!  It was Betsy’s turn to be rooted to her chair, much to the puzzlement of the rest of the people in the room, who had not been part of our conversation.  Astonishment abounded at the coincidence of our meeting and I cannot but marvel that in a city of some fourteen million people, I had met a descendant of a Lewis man within hours of arriving in South America.’

The new book by Greta Mackenzie entitled ‘Return to Patagonia’ is published by the Islands Book Trust price £14.99 plus P and P, and is available from booksellers, by phoning Margaret Macdonald on 01851 880737, or through the website www.theislandsbooktrust.com