And must I leave, dear land, thy bonny braes, thy dales,
Each haunted by its wizard stream o'erhung
With all the varied charms of bush and tree,
And must I leave the friend of youthful years,
And mould my heart anew to take the stamp
Of foreign friendships, in a foreign land,
And learn to love the music of strange tongue.
Entry into the field
It was in 1866 that I entered on my ministerial labours. For nine months previous to my going to the Banda Oriental I was supplying the pulpit of St. John's during the Rev. Mr. Gebbie's absence in Scotland. It was rather a wide field when I exchanged Buenos Aires for the Banda Oriental. I need not say that its physical features are a great contrast to Buenos Aires. The former country is undulating with spurs of hills. It has in some parts broad stretches of woodland descending to and following the courses of the rivers and brooks. My sphere of labour extended along its western limit by the magnificent river Uruguay, from Salto to Colonia, a distance, I should think, of 300 miles. Along with B. 0. I visited our countrymen in the neighbourhood of Concordia. There were four preaching stations, which I supplied with considerable regularity for a number of years. I call these stations by the name of the towns near which I held service: Concordia, Paysandu, Carmelo, and Colonia.
At these stations I preached monthly, the attendance averaging from twenty to thirty. It was a difficult matter to make a beginning. The country was suffering from civil war during the Flores Revolution. After holding service at Concordia I came to Paysandu, to San Juan Estancia, the property of the late Mr. Thomas Drysdale; afterwards visited Mr. Mohr Bell's estancia, beautifully situated on the Uruguay. Mr. Bell very kindly accompanied me on my journey, till I was within a short distance of Fray Bentos. I then took steamer to Nueva Palmyra, started inland on horse-back, with the intention of going to Colonia, and made my way to where the late Mr. James T. Ramsay was living. He kindly offered to take me to the Bells' estancias near Carmelo. We were early astir and horses saddled. I had not got seated in the saddle when the horse suddenly moved, and I fell on my shoulder, the bone being fractured, causing me great pain. Instead of abandoning the journey that day, another horse was brought, and we mounted, having a long journey of ten leagues before us. It was safely accomplished, without any more mishaps; but that night when retiring there was great difficulty in getting off my coat, the shoulder was so swollen. After resting some days, it improved rapidly, and I had service in the neighbourhood. That is one month's journey.
At times the irregularity of steamers was a source of great vexation. I may mention that my brother had lately come to the country, and had established himself within eight leagues of Concordia, and it was at his house where I held service, and. where I spent the Sunday when I was on duty elsewhere. I always took note of the steamers' arrivals and sailings. I have ridden these eight leagues expecting a steamer to sail on the morrow for the Uruguayan ports, and found no steamer; an accident had happened to it; it had got stuck on a bank. What is to be done—stay at a hotel for a few days or return to the camp? It was not once that I suffered from these disappointments, but repeatedly. In winter it was very hard to get along. At the period that I speak of there was in Entre Rios no maize or alfalfa, and horses so lean that a person might walk nearly as fast as the horse could travel, especially in the times of revolution. In going eight leagues I have been six hours on horseback, and on one occasion I had to dismount and drag the horse behind me for several leagues.
Crossing the river
Once when preaching at San Roque Estancia, the property of Mr. Archibald Bell, I was detained by a temporal which raged with unabated fury for three days. After allowing two days to pass before returning to Palmyra, so that the stream would subside, I found by its roaring when drawing near that it was in full flood. As I gazed on it, and hesitated for a moment what to do (for I had already come two leagues on my journey), I looked on the opposite bank and saw that a native had just crossed. I thought to myself if a native has crossed, why should not a Scotchman, and a Highlander especially ought not to flinch from danger. I dismounted, removed the bit from the horse's mouth, and then my powerful steed breasted without hesitation the strong current, myself clutching by the mane; in a few minutes we were safely landed. That was my first and last attempt in crossing a flooded stream. I acknowledge it was foolhardy, but I had no wife or child. On several occasions I have had to return when streams were overflowing their banks. Reading a Church record the other day, I noticed that in Natal, Africa, a minister is in the habit of crossing streams holding on by the horse's tail; perhaps at some future time my successor in the Banda Oriental will avail himself of that mode when visiting his parishioners. But to return from this digression, I need not add that I was wet to the waist, and had a journey of six leagues before me. After running that risk there was no steamer that day, and I had to wait a day or two. When I disembarked at Palmyra it was generally midnight, frequently 1 a.m. One night when landing from the steamer I was told that that very day the Captain of Police had been killed. That was not a soothing opiate for the few hours' repose before starting on a solitary journey through an unfrequented wood.
Walking rather than riding
The usual hour of the steamer's arrival at Concordia was about 4 p.m. In winter there was very little daylight before starting on the journey to my brother's. He always sent a horse awaiting the steamer's arrival, but, owing to the steamer's irregularity, he often had to return home, and I would arrive a day or two afterwards. At that time Concordia was not the bustling town that it is to-day; no horse could be hired, and I had to run about the town and try to find a horse at some chacra, but they were so wretchedly lean that J preferred walking the distance of eight leagues. I divested myself of boots and stockings and took to my bare feet, accomplishing the journey in about six hours. It was not merely once that I walked it, but several times. On one occasion I narrowly escaped being out all night. There was very little traffic on the road, and with the increasing darkness it was very difficult to keep to it. When within a league or two of my journey's end I had to strike out on the open plains; there were no stars, and a drizzling rain, accompanied by mist, was creeping over the landscape; no landmark whatsoever. On I went till at last I came to some pools that I knew were within a few squares of the house. Then the welcome barking of the dogs, and my toilsome journey was at an end. With an empty stomach it is not pleasant to spend a winter's night in the open camp. In my frequent journeys hither and thither it might be said that I lived on horseback.
When the cholera took an epidemic form in 1867-68 I had to journey on horseback all the way from Salto to Colonia, not once but several times. When I journeyed from Paysandu to Colonia I took two horses; half of the distance I had never travelled, being an entire stranger. The journey extended to about fifty leagues. At sunset I have come to a shepherd's house when he was getting ready his "asado" and cordially been invited to partake of it and pass the night. After lying down on my recado I would drop into a profound sleep, and at early dawn was in the saddle again. I have unsaddled and hobbled my horses when no pulperia was at hand, and I have been invited to pass the night at a neighbour's house. When passing through the town of Mercedes on the Rio Negro, I was struck with the frequency of crape on the doors. The mortality was great in these towns along the Uruguayan river.
All weather conditions
At the pulperias indicated by a flag floating in the breeze I have had sardines and biscuits. When sleeping in the open air I often thought of Jacob on his way to Padan Aram. I was not favoured with such a dream, but there was the thought of the Guardian Angel. In summer it is very pleasant to sleep under heaven's canopy, but it is a different thing in the depth of winter. One July afternoon I left my brother's house for Concordia; my horse got into a morass; I had to leap out of the saddle, and sank to the knees. After some, trouble I got the horse extricated, but my trousers were so dirty that I had to wash them; having thoroughly wrung them, they were put on, and the journey resumed. As the day waned the air was cold, indicating a frost. It was near midnight when I arrived near the town, unsaddled and lay down to sleep after wrapping myself in my thick poncho. On awakening in the morning the ground was thick with an intense frost. I never felt any bad effects from the wet clothing.
Riding by night
Occasionally I travelled inland from Paysandu, a distance of thirty leagues. That journey was generally performed in summer. To avoid the great heat, I travelled at night. It was a very lonely journey; sometimes I would meet people, other times not a single person. Never was I molested in these journeys, always travelling alone. Once I carried firearms, and only once. It was a district that bore a bad name for murderers. At the pulperia where I put up for the night (and slept on the counter when it was shut up) the people who frequented it had huge knives on their persons, and their countenances were sinister-looking. After that journey I never carried a revolver; to me it was totally inconsistent with a messenger of the Gospel. Let no one misunderstand me; if I was an estanciero, or engaged in any secular calling, I should go armed to the teeth, and sell my life if attacked as the soldier does on the battlefield. When travelling at night to my brother's it was very fatiguing, going for hours in the dark; you had to trust to the instinct of the horse, which unerringly brought one to his journey's end.
A home of my own
For three years I was living an itinerant life, having no house of my own. In 1869 I settled down at Juan Gonzalez, on a piece of land connecting the Bells' estancias, bought by them from a Mr. Tregartan. The house that was transformed into a manse was at one time a pulperia consisting of three apartments; I enlarged it afterwards. I erected a galpon and other buildings. As I lived some distance from a town I must have land for sheep and horses. That year was most unfortunate to the flockmasters of the Banda Oriental. A severe epidemic broke out among the flocks, causing very heavy losses; I suffered as well as others with my flock.
In this year I married. If ever a man needed a wife it was the writer, after so many years' discomforts. There is no man that pities the lot of the priest so much as I do. I can so feelingly enter into his state, after my own experience. The house that I turned into a manse was in a dilapidated state when I entered into possession of it, but gradually it became a very comfortable dwelling. It cost me a great deal of personal labour and expense. When at home I was constantly occupied in one work or another. The day was not long enough, but even the nights were utilised in one unceasing round of toil. The, alfalfa and maize that I grew were the admiration of the surrounding neighbourhood. My sheep were of a superior class. Outside the big estancias my wool realised the biggest price in the market. The object of my ambition was to bring everything that I undertook to the highest state of perfection. I was baffled; bad years came, stock dwindled away.
It was a bad neighbourhood, surrounded by a nest of thieves, harassed incessantly by revolutions. I do not think the Republic had six months cessation from hostilities during my eleven years' residence there ; these were headed by Flores, Aparicio, and others. Where I lived was in the direct route between Carmelo and Colonia, bands of soldiers passing and repassing. Most of my horses were stolen; to save half a dozen I built a stable, had them in by day and out by night. Notwithstanding all my vigilance I was often taken unawares, and had to buy back my own property by offering money to the soldiers.
My stipend the first year was £300 sterling. Look at expenses in steamers, hotels, and horses. The working of it cost £100 sterling. The second year's stipend did not amount to £250 sterling, and the expenses were £60. The third year and the following years till the end of 1874 only £200 sterling. It gradually contracted and got small by degrees and beautifully less. During the last two years of my residence 1875-76 there was no stipend; I lived on my fleecy flocks. In looking over my diaries during those years I have been struck by the frequency of the entry feeling very tired. There is a world of meaning in those words. When leaving the Banda Oriental in 1877 I had a sore bereavement.
No, not forgotten! Though the wound has closed,
The Highland wedding
During those years in which I visited Entre Rios there were several families who understood Gaelic. I frequently addressed them in their mother tongue, the audience numbering a dozen. These are now dispersed, some going to Corrientes, and others have crossed the bourn from which no traveller returns.
On one of those journeys we had a Highland wedding, the musical instrument the bagpipe. The party rode to Concordia, crossed the Uruguay to Salto, where the ceremony was performed. The bagpipe is heard to the greatest advantage on lochs and lakes, more so than on land, but its soul-stirring strains have often led and encouraged our countrymen to deeds of daring and prowess, second to none on the page of history.
Dodds, James Records of the Scottish Settlers in the River Plate and their Churches, Buenos Aires, 1897, pages 340-346, with added section headings.
Born 1834 in Kilmun in Argyllshire;
Arrived in Argentina in 1866;
Ministered on the East bank of the River Uruguay (Banda Oriental) and in Entre Rios, 1866-83;
Married Emma Agnes Gordon, of England, in Buenos Aires on 10 August 1869;
Their children were born:
Hilda Gordon McNeill on 10 May 1873;
Egbert Gordon McNeill on 31 July 1876, who died in 1877;
Took charge of St John's Scots Church, Quilmes from 1883 to 1910;
Retired in 1910;
Died in England in 1917.
Lachlan McNeill maintained a diary during his years in Uruguay and drew on this record to write the above account for James Dodds when the latter was writing the history of the Scottish settlers in the River Plate.