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Issue 75 - The Windward mystery

Scotland Magazine Issue 75
June 2014

 

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The Windward mystery

Patricia Cleveland-Peck discovers the connnection between Scots, sloops and boatbuilding in the Caribbean

Windward, a village on the east coast of the small Grenadine island of Carriacou is a centre of boat building, is well known for the beautifully simple sloops which are hand-crafted on the beach. It is surprising however, to find that in this idyllic Caribbean setting of deserted palm- fringed beaches, a number of the residents, including whole families of ship builders claim to be of Scottish descent.

I first heard of this whilst staying on the adjacent island of Grenada. Carriacou is only 13 square miles in size with a population of some 7000, so it is possible to tour the island on a day trip; both a ferry and light aircraft make the journey from Grenada although there are a number of guest houses and properties to rent for those who wish to stay longer.

I was fortunate that at the time of my first visit a boat was being built at Windward by Master Shipwright Alwyn Enoe and I was able to witness him and his sons working on it. A model is made, chain saws have replaced some of the old tools but the methods used are traditional and the horizon still serves as a spirit level. When complete the vessel is launched with a traditional ceremony.

Alwyn, although not of Scottish descent himself, said he had learned much of his craft from descendants of the original Scottish shipwrights. Names such as Compton, McLawrence, McCloud, MacIntosh, McLaren (or McKlaren) McFarlane, McKensie and McQuilkin are found both amongst the living and in the village cemetery.

These people insist on their Scots ancestry but when asked exactly ‘from where’ or even ‘when’ their forebears came to the Caribbean, they shake their heads and say they do not know.

I became fascinated by this enigma and began research. In he eighteenth century many of the old sugar and cotton estates were Scot’s owned, something reflected in the estate and place names: Craigston, Dumfries, Meldrum, Limlair and Bogles and while it is a possibility that these planters or their Scots overseers and managers, left some descendants, legitimate or otherwise the sheer number and variety of Windward surnames today precludes this being the only source.

In several books I read that shipwrights had been brought out from Scotland by the plantation owners to build vessels for inter-island transport. This does seem a possibility, Alexander Alexander describes sailing from Greenock to Grenada in 1800 and then making the onward journey to Carriacou by sloop. A traveller in 1831 wrote of Carriacou that, “fowls, turkeys and guineas birds are bred in abundance and carried over to supply the markets in Grenada” and a later writer claims that, “since two thirds ( of the cotton plantations) … had direct access to the sea, small boats would have moved the cotton…” In the past as for legitimate transport small boats were also needed in the Grenadines for another popular pastime – smuggling. Certainly there was ample work for boat builders but I could find no firm evidence that any had been sent over from Scotland by the planters.

There are however other possibilities, for the Scots were present in the West Indies as early as 1600. Some came out as planters but a greater number came later as indentured labourers, especially after the emancipation of the slaves when workers were desperately needed to keep plantations going. Indentures in theory meant that after a number of years the worker could claim some land for himself and there is evidence that indentured labourers came to Carriacou, although I have found no shipwrights specified.

In other areas, however, many of these Scots suffered lives of toil no better than that of slaves because of Scotland’s policy of ridding itself of unwanted elements, which over the years included Covenanters, Jacobites and sundry ‘ prisoners and vagabonds,’ by sending them to the West Indies.

In Barbados some of the descendants of these unfortunates known as ‘poor whites or ‘redlegs’- so called because beneath their kilts their legs burned in the sun – still intermarry and live apart.

The Windward ‘Scots’ until recently also kept themselves strictly separate from the mainly Afro-Carribbean community. They looked different and were even said to speak differently. As late as 1950, Patrick Leigh Fermor mentioned their having Scottish accents. They were even said to have inherited the Scots canniness with money…

It has accordingly been suggested that some of the poor Scots from Barbados may have made their way to other islands including Bequia which, with its abundance of indigenous white cedar, also has a strong shipbuilding tradition and that the Windward ‘Scots’ in fact came not from Scotland but from Bequia. Or that they might have come from Nova Scotia which is also a centre of shipbuilding tradition and to which Scots are known to have emigrated.

My quest for evidence continues. Craigston and Meldrum Estates in Carraicou belonged to the Urquarts of Craigston Castle near Aberdeen and it is known that boats were still being built on the beach in this part of Scotland within living memory. Meanwhile whatever brought their ancestors, it is fortunate that these craftsmen are still exercising their skills.

Between the wars 129 trading sloops and schooners were built on Carriacou. The number lessened as fewer sailing boats were needed for transport and smuggling was outlawed. When the Carriacou Regatta was initiated in 1965 however, the element of competition sparked an upsurge of interest. The focus was initially on locally and regionally built workboats and Master Shipwright Zepherin McKlaren’s Mermaid of Carriacou was unbeaten in this class for almost a decade. Since then Carriacou sloops have continued to win, not only at home but in the famous Antigua Classics and the West Indies Regatta in St Barths.



Info

The story of this resurgence is told in a documentary film by Alexis Andrews soon to be released see
www.vanishingsail.com
For information about Carriacou see
www.grenadagrenadines.com