North Uist was hit hard during the Highland Clearances, and there was large scale emigration from the island to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada.The pre-clearance population of North Uist had been almost 5,000, though by 1841 it had fallen to 3,870, and has further dwindled to about 1,300 people today. The clearances occurred later on North Uist, which was predominately Presbyterian, than on South Uist which was mostly Roman Catholic.
The main reason for the massive scale of emigration was the failure of the island's kelp industry. Since the French Revolutionary Wars the kelp industry had been North Uist's main source of income. Though with the collapse of their main source of income the crofters of North Uist could not afford the high rents. Even as the landlords reduced the rents, such as in 1827 when the rents were reduced by 20%, many crofters were forced to emigrate.
The first real clearances on North Uist occurred in the 1820s. In 1826 the villages of Kyles Berneray, Baile Mhic Phail and Baile mhic Conon, located on the north-east corner of North Uist, were cleared of their inhabitants. Although some moved further east to Loch Portain, most of those affected moved to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.The effect of this is shown in the rental roll of 1827, which states that over fifty families had "Gone to America", meaning Cape Breton. As the economic conditions worsened and with reports of islanders succeeding overseas, the numbers of families emigrating from Scotland to North America greatly increased.In 1838 1,300 people from North Uist were recorded as being cleared. It is misconception that most families involved in the clearances were "cleared" from their holdings, though in 1849 there was rioting as 603 inhabitants from Sollas were forcefully cleared by Lord (the 4th Baron) Macdonald.In the incident the women of Sollas took large part in the rioting.As a detachment of Glasgow police officers advanced on the protesters, the Sollas men were said to have stood aside, but the women of Sollas stood up to the authorities, and pelted the police with rocks. The police then descended upon the Sollas folk and attacked them with their truncheons.In fact a Hebredian settlement inCape Breton County, Nova Scotia was originally called Sollas (now Woodbine).North Uist surnames affected during the clearances were the MacAulays, Morrisons, MacCodrums, MacCuishs, and MacDonalds.