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The Immigration Story of Isabella Sutherland (Scottish War Bride)

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Isabella Stewart Torrance Sutherland was born in Bothwellhaugh, Scotland on September 24 1926. Her father was Gideon Torrance McArthur, who was a coal mine manager and her mother, Margaret Allan McArthur, was a housewife. Her siblings were Christina, Samuel, Andrew, Peter, Margaret, Mary, Catherine, and Sarah.
Isabella was a 13 years old schoolgirl when World War II broke out in Europe. By trade, her father was a coal miner but he also served as an ARP warden and would go out on patrol when air raid sirens sounded. Isabella’s mother stayed at home and looked after the ten children in the family.
Daily life for Isabella and her family changed as a result of the outbreak of war. School attendance was decreased to half a day, gas masks had to be carried, and ration cards were used. She had no difficulty in recalling the numerous items that were rationed, including “butter, cheese, eggs, potatoes, milk- you mention it and it was rationed- petrol, clothes.” Although rationing was a significant change in Isabella’s life, she did not remember any times in which it was difficult to live on the rations. Her appreciation of the United States’ contributions was evident when she responded that “The Americans was very good. They had sent us over packages of powdered eggs and packages of powdered milk… they didn’t send troops but at the beginning of the war they sent a lot of food over.” She also indicated that the conveyance of such goods was often inhibited by the significant number of German submarines patrolling the Atlantic Ocean. Another initiative to help ease the strain of rationing was the British government’s provision of milk and juice for school children at lunchtime. As well, meals were provided to children of poor families.
Another transition for Isabella’s family was blackouts, a change she described as “that was a bad one.” As soon as it got dark, windows had to be covered with a piece of back tape around them so that no light could be seen. The headlights of busses were also taped and pointed down towards the ground, thus visibility was limited. Air raids were very familiar to Isabella’s family as they lived fairly close to Clydesdale Shipping, a prominent target for German bombing attacks. Isabella remembered spending nights sleeping on camp cots in an underground air raid shelter which had been constructed in a field by either the council or government of that area.
The war did not restrict Isabella’s social life, in that they were still able to go to the pictures; however, she did recall that these outings often prompted situations where “we’d bump into something, and say excuse me but it would a telephone tree that we were bumping into because everything was so dark.” Although Isabella was not particularly fond of dancing, this form of entertainment was also available.
In addition to daily life transitions, Isabella also changed her lifestyle by actively participating in the war. She was a bit unsure if the effort by women in the war was voluntary or if there had been expectations for women to contribute to the war effort. There was certainly no doubt in her mind that “women expected themselves to contribute. We felt like we should.” Her employment at a bolt factory, where parts for planes were built, was recalled by her husband, Chester. Isabella remembered that her father did not like his daughter working there because of the long hours. She was only able to work at the factory for three months as her hands got sore from handling the bolts and nuts. She then went on to work at Hairmyres’ Hospital where she helped the Canadian nurses look after “wounded men that came from overseas, the Canadians.” She explained that some of the Canadian soldiers would go back to the front line, while others returned to Canada. She chose this type of work as she had always been interested in nursing but had not been able to attain the qualifications for such a position. Isabella continued to be active in the war effort and became a clerk in the Auxiliary Territorial Service when she was seventeen and a half years old. She completed four weeks of basic training, which included “marching and learning how to salute, which I never could do properly.”
When questioned about what she was doing when she had heard that war had broken out, Isabella thought she had either been in church or at Sunday school and that it had been 11:00 in the morning. Her recollection that she did not think “Churchill was the minister then- I think it was Chamberlain when they declared war,” was confirmed by her husband. She further explained that they did not realize until later what was involved. Isabella continued to explain, in a somewhat exasperated voice and probably very similar to how she would have responded in September 1939, that Chamberlain and Hitler had signed a peace pact only a month before and everything had seemed to be all right with Hitler. In reality, everything was not fine and Isabella believed that Hitler had just been waiting to attack. An event that Isabella also recalled was when Germany overtook France and “we always said that they had capitulated. It means that they gave up! I was in school. It was in art class that day. The teacher fainted because she was so upset that Britain was on their own, beside their allies, the Commonwealth.” On a much happier note, Isabella recalled being in the barracks in England when they heard that the war was over. There was a great celebration and it was not long before “I put my kilt on.”
Within the turmoil of war, Isabella, like so many other young Scottish women, was introduced to Canadian soldiers. When recalling her first meeting with Chester, she confirms with her husband that “I think it was at the movies, wasn’t it?” Her response to the question as to what attracted her to Chester began with an initial pause but was then jovially answered with “I don’t know if it was the uniform or the man!” She did think Canadian men were a bit more outgoing than Scottish lads, but “you must remember we had seen a lot of devastation around and we didn’t have the things that they had in Canada, like silk stockings for instance, and all you wanted to eat and drink; so we were thinking, well, we won’t let this go by- we’ll just grab a hold of him!” Although the plan sounded very simple, the application was a bit more complex as Isabella and Chester were not able to see each other very often as the latter was in Holland, Belgium, and France. Isabella described the brief courtship, in which they “had only met for a week, and then {he} went overseas, and then he came back fro two weeks- a two weeks leave- and then back again and then the next time he came back we got married.”
Undoubtedly, war did speed up the decision to get married, but as Isabella explained, “that’s the way it was in those days, you didn’t know- you just took what was going when you could get it!” Despite the fact that time was limited, Isabella was still somewhat surprised when Chester proposed. Furthermore, “I thought he was a married man, to tell you the truth!” She explained that young women would ask to see a soldier’s pay book because that would tell you whether they were married or not. “You didn’t go out with them unless you saw their pay book.” Obviously, Chester’s pay book must have passed inspection, but Isabella’s family was far less pleased. She was discouraged from marrying a Canadian because “I was going too far from home and if I needed help, they wouldn’t be able to.” Although her marriage to Chester would mean leaving her home country, she did not really consider the implications until she landed in Canada.
In preparation for the wedding, Isabella recalled that they had to get permission from their parents and Chester had to have permission from his commanding officer in the forces. As well, blood tests were also required. Isabella recalled the date of the wedding was November 22, 1945 and that the ceremony had taken place in a church in Scotland. Isabella briefly described that the wedding was attended by all her family and that the people of the village donated the wedding cake. She recalled that she wore a white satin dress with a long veil, both of which had been borrowed because “we had coupons still at that time of the war and coupons for a wedding dress would have taken too many coupons. I wanted a new coat to bring to Canada- 18 coupons.” A honeymoon was not feasible as Chester had to return to Germany in two days time. On New Year’s Day, 1946, Chester left Scotland to complete his final postings in Europe. He returned directly to Canada from South Hampton on March 2 1946 with Isabella to follow five months later. In total, it was seven months before the couple was reunited after their separation on New Year’s day.
For Isabella, the process of immigrating to Canada included an interview with a board who informed her of what was expected of her. She was told that her passage to Canada would be paid and that a train ticket to her husband’s home would be supplied. She admitted that her knowledge of Canada had been very limited and that the only images she had were of “Eskimos and snow! I learned that in school.” As well, Isabella still regarded Canada as a British colony rather than an independent country.
As Isabella prepared to depart from Scotland and embark on her journey, she packed two trunks which included everything she owned. One trunk held all the gifts that she had received from the wedding and the other included items such as silverware, dishes, sheets, and a quilt that her mother had made. Her lack of familiarity with the Canadian climate was evident as she recalled that “I didn’t realize it would be so hot- I had heavy clothing on, a tweed suit, so I changed to a dress quickly.” One item that was not forgotten was her kilt.
With preparations concluded, Isabella began her journey to Canada on a train from her hometown of Glasgow to London and then on to South Hampton. She recalled that her parents and sisters were at the train station to see her off and that she was a bit apprehensive as “I didn’t know what was before me.” After the seven hour ride to South Hampton, she boarded the war bride ship Lady Nelson. Isabella had sailed on pleasure cruisers before but had never experienced travelling on ships such as Lady Nelson. The trip to Halifax was very comfortable as the ship was “not crowded, good food, well taken care of.” As well, the weather cooperated and Isabella was fortunate in that she was not sea-sick at all. Above all, the atmosphere was pleasant as Isabella and other war brides amused themselves with card parties. She was able to stay in touch with many of the new acquaintances she had made. Although the experience was pleasant, Isabella did realize that she “was going farther from home.” After nine days at sea, Lady Nelson docked at Pier 21 on a warm August morning.
With the arrival of the ship in Halifax, Isabella proceeded to the purser’s office, where she was given a train ticket for Malagash. Fortunately, Chester was there to meet her as the ticket that she was given was not the destination of her husband’s home. Unfamiliar with areas of Nova Scotia, Isabella explained that “if he wouldn’t have been there, I would have been in Malagash. I was supposed to go to Molega but there was no trains in Molega.” Isabella was also unfamiliar with Canadian money and definitely unaware of the financial resources of her husband. Chester laughed as he recalled that his new wife was passing out money to the children at the dock and “we didn’t have two cents to jingle in our pocket.” As a result of her leaving the ship early, she was not sure if any war brides on Lady Nelson encountered any difficulties such as unfilled promises by young Canadian soldiers. Although Isabella was not personally acquainted with any war brides who did indeed encounter such an experience, she emphasized the seriousness of the situation as she explained that “there was no money to go home. They paid your way over and paid your money to the destination of your husband’s home town.” Although she thought she had remembered reading about the Red Cross helping some of the women to return, particularly if they were sick, she was not sure what was done with the women in that particular situation. With a slight pause and a twinkle in her eye, she brightened the solemn mood as she concluded that the officials might have given them “the train ticket to Malagash!”
The final stage of Isabella’s journey was from Pier 21 to the small rural community of Molega, in Queen’s County. As the landscape passed the car windows, she realized that Canada was “a vast territory, lots of trees- I thought ‘will these trees never end?’ I went in Molega Road and I thought that road would never come to an end.” The isolation of Isabella’s new home was in sharp contrast to her urban hometown where she could “go out and jump on a bus every ten minutes and go to town, and go here, go there. There was no transportation here at all. We didn’t have a car. When we got in Molega, we were stuck. After awhile, we got a horse and a wagon.”
In addition to transportation problems, Isabella soon realized that her new home lacked indoor plumbing and running water. The experience of carrying water from a well and drinking from a dipper was a transition for Isabella and certainly, the introduction to an outhouse was an experience that she did not like.
Another transition for Isabella was the change in climate, which included adjusting to winters with lots of snow and to summers with hot temperatures.
Furthermore, the numerous mosquitoes, bugs, and woodticks that accompanied Canadian springs sharply contrasted the few houseflies back in her native Scotland. Isabella responds in laughter to Chester’s reminded about the wonderful swimming beach in Molega. She then explains that she couldn’t swim.
Living in a rural Canadian community also meant a change in domestic duties for Isabella in comparison to young wives in her Scottish community. Isabella’s family purchased most of their baked goods such as breads, cakes, and pies at a local co-op, therefore, leaning how to bake was not essential for young women. In addition to the lack of convenient cooperatives, Isabella also reminisced about the fish and chips they used to buy on Saturday nights from a mobile cart. Although there were no such luxuries in Molega, Isabella did enjoy the “vast amount of food in Canada- all you wanted.” After six years of rationing, she appreciated the plentiful food.
For Isabella, living in Canada was not always easy; indeed, as time progressed she grew very homesick fro her Scotland home. She maintained contact with her family with air-mail letters. In addition to missing her family, she did not feel accepted in the community or by her husband’s family. She recalled that “my husband welcomed me, but he was the only one.” Nevertheless, when she reflects back upon her decision to come to Canada, she states that “she wasn’t pleased, but quite pleased now- turned out for the best.”
Despite the difficulties, Isabella adjusted to her new homeland and overcame the challenges that Canada presented. It is clear that she wanted to become a Canadian when she commented that “when you go to another country, you take their traditions.” Her closing remarks were: “Canada’s a wonderful country, great opportunities for young people and there’s lots of room- you’re not crowded.”