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Home  >  Features  >  Looking Back: Patagonia

Looking Back

Friday November 27 2020

Looking Back: Patagonia

Writing in 1954, the Rev. Murdoch MacLeod of Valparaiso talks about the Scottish communities settled in Patagonia, at the southern tip of Chile, and the Church of Scotland's outreach there.



IN the farthest south of the American continent lies the land to which these Scots came. It can be see on the map just north of Cape Horn: the western section of Patagonia, belonging to Chile.

Sheep-farming in these latitudes came about as a kind of overflow from the Falkland Islands. During the ‘70’s of last century Harry Reynard, a grand old north-country Englishman, hazarded the placing of a shipload of breeding ewes on Elizabeth Island – so named by Sir Francis Drake – in the Straits of Magellan. So pronounced was the success of this experiment that soon the continent was invaded. Neither of the Republics concerned showed much interest in their remoter areas at that time. Settlers made their own terms with the Indians.

Of all the stories of these early migrations perhaps the most remarkable is that of the six Scotsmen who drove their flocks overland from the River Plate all the way to Magallanes, a journey that occupied over two years, and gave them two shearings and three lambings on the way.

Once established, the industry prospered exceedingly. From New Zealand came Lochaber-born A.A. Cameron, who formed the first of the great syndicates which started off with several farms, one of them larger than Yorkshire, and to-day owns 2¼ million sheep, some six thousand head of cattle, rather more than that number of horses, and enough fencing material to go more than round the world.

The First World War brought many changes. Many left Patagonia to serve; and few returned. But even so the Scots population remained strong.

The late Dr. Douglas Bruce of St. Andrews, Buenos Aires, who carried out an extensive survey about this time, put down the number of our countrymen in the whole of Patagonia at not much less than a thousand. One man, now an independent flockmaster, relates that on his first job in Tierra del Fuego, 47 years ago, he found the orders for the day being regularly given out in Gaelic.

Social life in Patagonia has not always been possible. But much has happened since a Scottish-born mother of stalwart sons could go for 22 months without a chance of seeing or speaking to another woman.

A Chilean estancia, or farmhouse, does not consist of one house. The approaching visitor will learn to distinguish the casa grande, the “big house,” with its high windbreak, extensive gardens and greenhouses. He will find that there are cook-houses, warehouses, office buildings, power house, machine shop, probably a school, certainly a football ground, clubs and recreation rooms, not to mention the homes of the under-manager, accountant, stockmen, mechanics, foremen, day and seasonal workers – all this in some cases laid out in accordance with the principles of town-planning, in others simply as if they had dropped from the sky. The one unfailing law is that of hospitality, free and unbounded.

Among the buildings listed no mention has been made of a church. Both the Church of Scotland and the Church of England have in the past had regular chaplaincies in the territory. Even when these were fully staffed the ground could be only partly covered, much less to-day when there has been no resident minister of a Reformed denomination since 1943.

“And ye shall be witness unto Me… unto the uttermost part of the earth.” It has been my privilege, in the midst of other duty, and as opportunity offered, to represent the Church of Scotland in these uttermost parts for the past 20 years. The Lord has His witnesses there as elsewhere, and, while one would sometimes think there is a special grace that keeps them, their spiritual needs are very great.

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