The Americans, The Earl of Selkirk, and Colonsay's 1806 Emigrants to Prince Edward Island

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Submitted by John W. Sheets -

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June/July 2001
John W Sheets
Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Archives and Museum
JCK Library 1470
Central Missouri State University
Warrensburg, Missouri 64093 USA

ABSTRACT: In September 1806 the ship "Spencer" landed at Prince Edward Island with over one hundred people from the island of Colonsay, Argyll, Scotland. Traveling in large, extended families, they had responded to a local laird, John McNeill, "Improving" their lives and to the Earl of Selkirk offering land across the Atlantic. Selkirk wanted Gaelic-speaking emigrants to block colonial America on the verge of expansion. His promotion of Prince Edward Island led to the "Baldoon" settlement in the Great Lakes and to the "Red River" settlement at Lake Winnipeg. Success of the Colonsay settlers started a "chain of migration" into Canada that depopulated the isolated, tiny island. Early 19th century emigrations from Gaelic Scotland often involved planning and sponsors reacting to the politics, personalities and changing spaces in the era of Jefferson and Napoleon.

Contemporary events separated by considerable distance, whether physical, political or social spaces, can sometimes agitate one another in unsuspected ways. January 1806, in London, witnessed Nelson's funeral at St Paul's Cathedral, then Pitt's in Westminster Abbey. Lord Grenville's new cabinet of diplomacy featured Charles James Fox, also a family friend of Thomas Douglas, the 5th Earl of Selkirk. By March this energetic young Scotsman, little more than a year from extended time in North America, was rumoured the next Minister to the young United States. Impatient over his confirmation, Selkirk did not hide his strong opinions about the Americans, "a set of lawless vagabonds, straggling upon the frontiers of our provinces." He was revising his popular Observations on the State of the Highlands, which the year before announced that "our own colonies should be peopled by men, whose manners and principles are consonant to our own government."1 America's President Jefferson, neither aristocrat (in mind) nor Anglophile (by action), may not have noticed, or cared, because he wanted the latest word from the Corps of Discovery under Lewis and Clark, camped since December at the mouth of Oregon's Columbia River. Jefferson's westward vision owed much to the book of another Scotsman, Sir Alexander Mackenzie's 1801 Voyages from Montreal through the Continent of North America. On 23 March 1806, Lewis and Clark started the journey home laden with diaries, journals, notes, maps and drawings of Jefferson's 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Later, a tide of Americans would surge up the Mississippi and Missouri rivers to challenge and cross the vague borders with Canada, thus fulfilling Selkirk's worst suspicion.

On 23 February 1806, Rev Donald McNicol baptized nine children in the new church near the old quay in Colonsay, a remote and small island of the Inner Hebrides off Scotland's west coast.2 He actually lived on the much larger island of Jura, separated by ten miles of ocean to the east and much closer to the mainland. Since coming to Argyll's Parish of Jura, the minister regularly went to Colonsay by hired boat, at obvious risk, and with some success-eg, a revival of the Old Parish Register in 1796 (for marriages and baptisms), completion of the church in 1802 (with the laird, Archibald McNeill), and plans for a permanent minister (but not until 1836). In 1805 Archibald sold the estate to his cousin, John McNeill, who would alter the island's agriculture and remodel the lives of its 800+ people (many also named "McNeill" but often unrelated to the lairds). Some of the children baptized that day were destined for quite different lives in quite different places. Young Donald Bell presumably died in childhood because his parents, Angus Bell and "Pegy" McFaden, baptized another "Donald" on 30 June 1816. Hester Currie survived to marry John McNeill in 1833, who became the Colonsay miller for over forty years; he died in 1875, she in 1878.3 Duncan "Ban" McNeill also survived to marry Catherine Currie in 1830. He worked as a mason in Colonsay long enough to pay rent and give service to five McNeill lairds. When he died in 1897 at 91 years-old, his wife's nephew Donald Mackinnon, Edinburgh University's first Professor of Celtic Languages, eulogized him in The Scotsman. Like his eight brothers and sisters, Duncan "had the gift of good memory and sound judgement-with a distinct touch of humour and an appreciation of music and song."4 But three of the baptized children would leave Colonsay forever during the summer of 1806. One year-old Margaret Bell, newborns Mary Currie and her second-cousin Catherine Munn would board a ship full of family and friends from Colonsay, bound for Prince Edward Island where the Earl of Selkirk offered shelter, provisions and land. He wanted more and more Gaelic-speaking Scots to stem the tide of Americans into Canada. In very subtle ways, Jefferson's explorers and Selkirk's designs caused a major exodus from Colonsay, whose dwindling numbers in the 19th century owed much to international politics, a market economy, and above all, the old and new spaces attached to emigration.

The British army expelled most of the French Acadians from their Isle St Jean during the Seven Years' War. In 1763 the Treaty of Paris ceded the island to the Crown which surveyed and divided it into 67 townships of 20,000 acres each. Favoured aristocrats and officers obtained townships provided they pay a nominal rent and convince at least one hundred tenants to move there within the following decade.5 Once Britain's "Isle of St John" separated from Nova Scotia and its politics in 1769, a few tenuous English and Scottish settlers arrived followed by two hundred Catholics in 1772 from the Outer Hebrides' South Uist, who settled near Tracadie Bay north of Charlottetown. But most Scottish Highlanders were escaping their poor harvests and higher rents to meet families and friends elsewhere. Much further south lay the Carolina colonies offering warmer weather, more land, and Scottish governors. For example, on 4 November 1767, after a fall in cattle prices, fifty islanders from Jura landed at Brunswick, North Carolina, on Cape Fear; the governor gave each man, woman and child 100 acres inland near the "Argyll Colony" (today's Fayetteville). On 21 August 1769, the "Molly" left Islay (next to Jura) "full of passengers to settle in North Carolina…" The "Scots Magazine" reported "fifty-four vessels full of emigrants from the Western Islands and other parts of the Highlands sailed for North Carolina between April and July 1770, conveying twelve hundred emigrants." Five hundred more from "Islay and the adjacent islands" prepared to leave in the summer of 1771.6 Despite an American Revolution, this trend continued until the 5th Earl of Selkirk and others arrived in Canada decades later.

Thomas Douglas, the seventh and surviving son of the 4th Earl of Selkirk, was born 20 June 1771 at their Kirkcudbright estate in southwest Scotland. In April 1778, American sailors under Captain John Paul Jones (born and baptized in a Kirkcudbright parish) raided the family's mansion to capture the earl, then traveling with two older sons. These "pirates" scared the staff (but not his wife), took some silverware (later returned), and engendered a lifelong antipathy for Americans in the future earl.7 He enrolled at Edinburgh University in 1785 to study arts and law under philosopher Dugald Stewart, and often fraternized or debated with classmates like Walter Scott. Young Douglas possibly heard a discussion of colonization in North America on the eve of a departure for revolutionary Paris in April 1791, when he accompanied an older brother and their brother-in-law, Sir James Hall, a patron of Edinburgh's scientific elite. In Paris, they attended the National Assembly to hear Robespierre, dined with Condorcet and Lavosier, and even met Thomas Paine who later sent them a copy of The Rights of Man. These were men of intellect who engaged in society's "Improvement" rather than discuss it. Upon return, Douglas toured Ross and Cromarty in the Highlands over the summer of 1792, in time to see more emigrants leaving for the United States and others opposing an economy of sheep and clearances. Perhaps then he started to learn some Gaelic that would prove useful in the future.8 He resumed the Grand Tour in Paris, and on to Naples and Switzerland; the Gentleman's Magazine of 1795 granted an exception to the rule of young gentlemen abroad: "Though heir apparent to a princely fortune, he had never listened to the syren voice, nor tasted the intoxicating cup of Pleasure…"9 Instead, in 1798 he went home to manage the estate and care for his ailing father.

After Viscount Castlereagh crushed the "United Irishmen" of many faiths, Thomas Douglas visited its north to witness the devastation and resentment among the people. And after his father's death in 1799, the 5th Earl of Selkirk approached the Colonial Office about an Irish colony in France's "Louisiana" or Britain's "Upper Canada" as much to displace the malcontents as to initiate an investment. But Americans feared a colonial "Louisiana" and English politicians showed no sympathy for the Irish. The interactions, or machinations, between Selkirk and the government eventually hatched a scheme to transport Scottish Highlanders to "St John's Island." While the Irish revolted in 1798, this Canadian colony grew to 4,372 people; it was a young population with a majority "under 16" and very few "over 60."10 The next year Parliament designated it "Prince Edward Island" after George III's fourth son, later Duke of Kent and Victoria's father. Selkirk was by no means the only entrepreneur headed there. By one count from 1770 to 1800, at least one in three emigrant ships from Scotland landed in Prince Edward Island. Against the advice of his mentor, Dugald Stewart, in 1802 the Earl let his agents recruit unhappy tenants from Skye, Mull and Uist in the Hebrides, mostly crofters and labourers able to pay or borrow their trans-Atlantic costs.11 Selkirk stayed in Glasgow, practiced his Gaelic, then, in April 1803, shifted his attention from land west of the Great Lakes to 80,000 acres on Prince Edward Island. Lots 57, 58, 60 and 62 in Queen's County, St John's Parish, lay in the southeast District of "Belfast" (for an abandoned French village "La Belle Face"). Just days after the Ship's Passenger Act curtailed other voyages, in July 1803 over 800 emigrants and three ships gathered at Tobermory, Mull. Rev Angus McAulay, an agent, a preacher and sometimes a doctor, boarded the "Polly" with almost 400 people from Skye; the "Oughton" was reserved for Catholics from Uist, and the "Dykes" to passengers from both Ross and Mull plus the Earl of Selkirk, certainly challenged by such a diversity of Gaelic dialects.12

Under warm, foggy and "rather boisterous weather" in the Gulf of St Lawrence, on 8 August 1803 the "Dykes" sailed into Murray Harbour on the southeast corner of Prince Edward Island. Selkirk went ashore and, unbeknown to anyone, walked over the future home of Colonsay's emigrants where "the muskettoes [sic] made vehement attack on us…The wood is small, and nothing but spruce and birch…At one place, I went a little into the wood and saw large stumps…this coast had been laid waste by a great fire 30 or 40 years ago-The soil appears very poor sand-This is Lot 62…" Within days the "Dykes" had a load of timber and Selkirk began a survey of lots. The settlers-some with Colonsay-like surnames of McFee and McMillan-favoured the marshes or bays where seaweed meant good thatching and fertilizer back home. Rev McAulay wanted his land at Point Prim, between Orwell Bay and Pinette Harbour, near Belfast village in Lots 57 and 58. Giving dispute over lots and prices, the Ross and Skye people engaged him in groups of extended kin, according to the earl: "The proposals came in pretty generally by Partnerships of 3, 4 and 5 families of connections who clubbed together for the quantities of land each proposed to purchase and agreed to take one joint lot to be afterwards divided by themselves." He wrote, and believed, "I had been talking my best Gaelic, and divided my dinner with them, which seemed to have won their hearts." When the "Oughton" finally arrived on August 27th, its Catholics went to Lot 53 in St George's Parish, near Three Rivers Harbour on the east coast. He thought them "very dirty-lazy…a very poor set of people…I did not like to mix these people with the Skye settlers…" Very soon everyone was clearing the land, building temporary cabins, and stocking provisions from the agents and from the forests or shores of their new home. Selkirk, meanwhile, had learned his first lessons about the business of emigration. Next time "the lands of different parties should have some intervals between them, which they could invite their friends to come after them and occupy…it appears clear that the numbers engaged in it were inconveniently great…the careful selection of a few families consisting mostly of young people in the prime of life, and all working hands-One or two parents of an age rather advanced…they might be kept together and close [to] succeed in preparing the way for a greater number."13

By September 1803, Selkirk prepared to leave Prince Edward Island for a sojourn in the northern United States, then to Upper Canada where he hoped to establish a second settlement of emigrants. On the 18th, going to Pictou, he again traversed Lot 62 but with a different opinion: "Day light found us very near the spot where I first landed on the island, we continued with the Ebb along shore toward Wood Islands…The land is good above the Bank…This high ridge seems to continue all the way from Wood Islands inland to Belfast…"14 From Halifax he sailed to Boston, then overland to upper New York where many Highlanders had settled, his father had owned property and he kept a breeding stock of sheep. At every stop, young Selkirk gathered facts about agriculture, economics, politics, or whatever, and nowhere was this more evident than in the capital of Albany and in the company of Alexander Hamilton, son of a Scottish merchant (who had emigrated from Ayr to the Caribbean). Finally, here was a famous American with British sympathies. Hamilton had served George Washington as the first Secretary of the Treasury from 1789 to 1795. In 1803, though, practicing law on the margin of American politics, he still deeply doubted Jefferson's dispersion of powers among the individual states. After all, what good was a "democratic leveling" of society? The Constitution barred him from the Presidency by a foreign birth in the West Indies; he had opposed Jefferson in the protracted election in 1800-01, only to switch sides against Aaron Burr, now the Vice President and a fatal nemesis in New York. With Hamilton, Selkirk felt he "seldom passed a pleasanter day-nor met with a man of whom I formed a higher opinion…[Hamilton] joins a degree of candour in discussion very rarely to be met with…He seems to be rather dejected at the prevalence of the democratic [Jefferson's] party--& very roundly avowed that he thought the British Govt contained as much liberty as was consistent with a stable government." And Hamilton did not limit himself to parlor-room exchanges between gentlemen. Upon hearing of Jefferson's "Purchase of Louisiana," he had quickly published a reaction in the New York Evening Post of 5 July 1803: "Every man, however, possessed of the least candour and reflection will readily acknowledge that the acquisition has been solely owing to a fortuitous concurrence of unforeseen and unexpected circumstances, and not to any wise or vigorous measures on the part of the American government." No doubt such opinions swayed the Earl of Selkirk who disliked and feared the pioneer mob on its way north and west.15

He pushed on to Niagara Falls, thinking "every Gentleman who is acquainted with the back settlers speaks with disgust of their moral character" and arriving at York (soon "Toronto") in late November. There he met the Lieutenant-Governor and an agent about a "settlement of Highlanders to a Township near Lake Erie."16 On horseback, he followed the north shore of Lake Ontario to Glengarry where Gaelic language and its speakers prospered. Into French Canada, he further witnessed the tenacity of culture around both Quebec City (at the legislature) and Montreal (with fur traders of the Northwest Company). The New Year brought him back to New England and New York; in Albany's state senate he listened to Alexander Hamilton "twice on abstract Law Questions which he reasoned closely & perspicuously without any attempt at flourish…"17 Perhaps enlightened by his American friend, in May and June 1804 by horse and by boat, Selkirk went to a site on Lake St Clair between Lakes Erie and Huron; he christened it "Baldoon" for a family estate in Kirkcudbright. Amid such ample woods and water, even more Gaelic-speakers could maintain their language while forming another wedge between British interests and American influences. The earl left Baldoon in late July to meet its 102 settlers at Queenstown aboard the "Oughton," by now on passage from Tobermory. No one warned them about the challenges ahead; Baldoon's marshes spawned malaria that presaged nothing but years of struggle. On 30 September 1804, Selkirk visited Father Burke, the Roman Catholic Vicar-General of Halifax, who shared a "cordial aversion to the Yankees…relative to the importance of the Southwest of Canada, and the necessity of a solid settlement there distinct from the Americans." He returned to Prince Edward Island on October 2nd for a final inspection before crossing the Atlantic. There were problems between Rev McAulay and the other agents over winter provisions, but Selkirk's thoughts were on the future: "To new Settlers likely to bring followers from Europe, to give land 20 or 25 per cent below current rate of the country." Days later he made notes about a "Road to Wood Islands" and his "intention of encouraging Europeans and insulating [a] settlement to prevent Yankee ideas and principles…"18 The Earl of Selkirk boarded a ship in New York harbour on 20 November 1804, a Scottish aristocrat headed home with new schemes in mind for his spaces of the New World.

To borrow a very American phrase, Thomas Douglas 'hit the ground running' once in London. The Tory government, so inimical to Selkirk's late father and Scottish peers, was under siege. News from Baldoon was not good, but no news from Prince Edward Island possibly meant a better situation. He immediately converted the many thoughts and notes from North America into a spring 1805 publication, Observations on the Present State of the Highlands. To justify and promote more Gaelic emigration, he attacked its critics, the Highland lairds. Their "Improvements" to the land merely imported capitalized farming for profits in distant markets, eventually excluding the crofter and the labourer already being "Cleared" from their homes. Manufacturing would never come to the Highlands, with its few minerals and fewer roads; its dispossessed bore little chance of success in any city of industry. He especially dissected the motives of the Royal Highland Society and Parliament's Select Committee. According to him, they formulated the Ship's Passenger Act in 1803 more to supply the proprietors and the army with men than to protect a Highlander on a timber ship. Destinations like Prince Edward Island let emigrants keep their families and cultures intact, new spaces where small strips of land with small cabins suited their old ways. Ostensibly, Selkirk championed the trans-Atlantic emigration of whole kindreds of Gaels from the same locale-the more non-English speakers in one place, the better. Ulteriorly, such "National Settlements" under the aristocracy would, and must, thwart an expanding America-better and cheaper than sending British troops now needed against Napoleon.

Positive reviews of Observations appeared in respectable journals like the Scots Magazine and the Edinburgh Review. The earl petitioned an ailing Pitt about the lax land laws, low prices and more Americans in the Canadian colonies, with scant reaction. In the summer of 1805 he presented "Outlines of a Plan for the Settlement and Security of Canada" wherein the government should convince the Dutch, the Germans, the Welsh, even the Irish to emigrate under its aegis, "…in short any who speak a different language from the English…to preserve themselves from the contagion of American manners." By year's end, the news from Baldoon grew worse, citizens in Prince Edward Island demanded land seizures from absentee owners, so Selkirk considered a Scottish candidacy in the House of Lords. Pitt's death in January 1806 coincided with the first full, usually anonymous rebuttals of Observations. According to the critics, Highlanders and their culture were not admirable, they should stay home to work and fight for the Crown, America was no "Land of Opportunity," and the Earl of Selkirk's self-interest predicated his Observations. Nevertheless, Canada attracted more emigrants, America needed a new British minister, and Thomas Douglas practiced the role of a diplomat to Thomas Jefferson. To contain France, he proposed liberating Spain's Latin American colonies, even ceding Florida to America as a gesture of trust. However, in "Granting Lands in North America," he revived a favourite theme (now based on the Rev Thomas Malthus and his popular 1798 Essay on Population): "…in a Colony where an original nucleus of population has been planted, that population increasing at a certain rate, will be capable of carrying forward the improvement of the country with a proportional degree of rapidity…" Selkirk launched a second edition of his Observations, with few changes, an Edinburgh publisher and more appendices. One appendix explained the "Importance of the Emigrants for Our Colonies [and] Custom of Settling in the United States…"; another advertised his "Measures Adopted [and] Settlement Formed in Prince Edward Island…Progress [and] Final Success." This second one closes, "Of the possibility of inducing the Highlanders to go to our own Colonies, I presume that no further doubt can be entertained…In some considerable districts, the current appears already to be decidedly turned." Once his chance to represent the Crown in America faded, Selkirk necessarily paid more attention to Prince Edward Island, Baldoon and a settlement further west.19

Islanders had abandoned Colonsay for Britain's trans-Atlantic colonies throughout the 18th century. Their evidence remains anecdotal, yet focused in "The Best Poor Man's Land" of the Carolinas. Soon after North Carolina achieved "Royal Colony" status in 1729, Governor Gabriel Johnston (1699-1752) used his Scottish circle to encourage more emigrants. An "Argyll Committee" visited and chose the hill country of Cross Creek, not Cape Fear's peninsula; back home, they recruited an "Argyll Colony" mainly from its larger islands of Islay, Jura and Mull. In February 1739, members petitioned the Inveraray Presbytery for a minister to accompany them. No minister boarded "Black Neil" McNeill's ship at Campbeltown, Kintyre, in July, but other McNeills and a few McDuffies did. Were some of them from Colonsay? In an estate cemetery southwest of Cross Creek (later Fayetteville) lies "Murdoch Currie, native of Colonsay, Scotland, died in 1775 aged 60 years." Another gravestone reads "Angus Currie, born in the island of Colonsay, 17 September 1770, came to America in 1791 and died 10 June 1845. He was long a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church." The "Edinburgh" sailed from Campbeltown on 29 August 1770 with seven crewmen and provisions for emigrants; about a dozen spaces were reserved for "Donald Curry," "John Curry" and their families. From Colonsay's quay in Scalasaig (Hut Bay or Skalli's Bay), did elderly Murdoch Currie also board the "Edinburgh," survive the weeks at sea, then arrive near Cape Fear and Wilmington a few years before the Revolution? At that time, Colonsay traditions place its laird, Archibald McNeill, on the military staff of South Carolina's governor. In 1791 the ship "General Washington" brought "138 Souls" to Wilmington, possibly with Angus Currie who followed the Cape's waterway one hundred miles inland to previous settlers from Islay, Jura, Mull and Colonsay. Emigration so infected Colonsay's people that Rev Francis Stewart admonished it in his 1792 parish summary for Scotland's first Statistical Account: "…in summer 1791, a considerable proportion of the inhabitants crossed the Atlantic…Instead of trying the effects of industry at home, they foster the notion of getting at once into a state of ease and opulence, with their relations beyond the Atlantic." Colonel Archibald McNeill organized and commanded the 3rd Argyll Fencibles in 1799 and, after a posting to Gibraltar for two years, found himself overextended. He and his wife, daughter of the 5th Earl of Granard, "had no children" and, after a survey of Colonsay and its southern parcel, Oronsay, sold both to his cousin John McNeill in 1805 for "a certain adequate price"; as the Earl of Selkirk might say, the 'current had decidedly turned.'20

Low tide connects tiny Colonsay to even tinier Oronsay. The Augustinian Priory and good soil reflect Oronsay's ancient history and good harvests. John McNeill's father rented Oronsay from his brother, Archibald's father. By 1772 when John was five years-old, this "Tacksman of Oronsay" thrived by farming. He employed herdsmen, labourers, dairy-maids and servants who produced a surplus of butter, cheese, potatoes, barley, flax and black cattle. A maturing John McNeill pursued advanced studies in agriculture, later content to live and prosper in Oronsay where his first child (of ten) was born in 1791. As the new laird of 1805, he would apply such 'Science' to 'Improve' the entire property and its resources, including the tenants. To start, he reduced the number of cows and horses, rotated the crops with more fertilizers, drained meadows, paid the poorest labourers, and built roads, bridges, dykes and fences. Obviously, John McNeill expected more 'effects of industry at home' from a population of some 800 still scattered over a rugged landscape. Years later a visitor observed "The chief cultivation of Colonsay is confined to a valley which traverses the island, containing a lake. Mr Macneill has transplanted hither his tenants from less favoured situations." This impression describes the crofting district of Kilchattan (Catan's Church) along Loch Fada (Long Loch) in Colonsay's mid-section. Some of those to be 'transplanted' had lived in Balnahard (Cape Homestead), the elevated and isolated north end accessible by a steep track. Like Oronsay, Balnahard seems self-contained with its duns (forts), megaliths, church stones and a standing cross; a complement to the Oronsay Priory, Cill Chatriona (Kilcatrine's Church) was an ancient nunnery of some size. Balnahard residents may have 'favoured' the northern view to the Ross of Mull over an impeded glance south toward the rest of Colonsay; an old inn once meant travelers to and from Mull and more contacts beyond Colonsay. While documents do not say why, by 1806 over one hundred islanders wanted to leave Colonsay and many of them lived in Balnahard. Not everyone agreed with a new laird born and raised in the opposite end of Colonsay.21

By chance, these future emigrants benefited from contested spaces on the Continent. Napoleon's move toward the Baltic threatened the Royal Navy's source of wood, tar and pitch, so more and more trans-Atlantic vessels were equipped for a cargo of Canadian timber; passage rates declined to the colonies while employment rose in the colonies. By May 1806, the Chief Justice of Prince Edward Island complained to an Irish colleague about the incessant timber ships because "'from noon until night you hear of nothing but lumber…'" In June, emigrant spaces, food and water on timber ships to Prince Edward Island fell to &6 per adult. The Earl of Selkirk in London and his agents throughout Highland Scotland feasted on this delicacy of politics, prices, people and opportunity. In an appendix to the revised Observations, he advertised a sensitive approach to "The difficulty of directing the emigrations of the Highlanders [whose] peculiar language and manners tend to seclude them from intercourse with other people…To emigrate, implies a degree of violence to many of the strongest feelings of human nature-a separation from a number of connexions dear to the heart…" Nevertheless, "a considerable body of people, connected by the ties of blood and friendship, may have less aversion to try a new situation" and "the encouragement held out, must therefore be of such a nature as to suit those whose means are scanty." Caught in the throes of Improvement, how could families and friends resist cheap passage, available land, successful settlers, and maybe more family and friends to greet them? For the promoter, more Highlanders would move to Canada already immunized against Americans by their Gaelic-based culture-so he assumed. The promises worked in 1806, a year when no less than five ships from the "Western Highlands and Isles" arrived in Prince Edward Island with nearly five hundred passengers.22

The "Spencer" of Newcastle was a 330-ton, 3-masted, fully rigged vessel based on the river Tyne. It was constructed in 1778, approximately 100 feet long, 25 feet wide, 17-18 feet deep, with four "4-pounder" guns (and some repairs in 1803). A "deck with beams" allowed planking for an extra level to transport emigrants on the outward voyage; the planks were removed to carry timber and other cargo for the return. In 1806 "Mr T Smith" was the owner, "Forster Brown" the "Master."23 After leaving Oban in late July or early August, its square sails became an ominous sight for more than one hundred Colonsay natives at the Scalasaig quay; the "Spencer" weighed anchor offshore, then waited for the islanders' boats to deliver its human cargo. Not only must they deal with emotional separations from special people and favourite places, the emigrants faced a perplexing array of questions about their 40-50 days at sea. With little cooking and tasteless provisions on board, what extra food should they take in what containers? Possibilities were butter, cheese, onions, bacon, porridge cakes, boiled eggs and scalded milk in crockery and tin ware. For illness and sea-sickness, was there space for magnesia, other salts, castor oil, or some Spirits? What about furniture, bedding and extra clothes for the harsh winter? Were any cows, pigs or sheep allowed? Word traveled fast back and forth across the Atlantic. Past emigrants, like Am Muileach (Mull People) on the "Dykes" in 1803, often carried their Gaelic Bibles, schoolbooks, mementos and some money-but in bills of exchange, pounds, or dollars?24

With heavy hearts and high expectations, the Colonsay emigrants boarded the "Spencer" to cross the Atlantic in clusters of extended kin. The infant girls baptized on 23 February 1806 provide good examples. Margaret Bell was accompanied by four sisters (5-13 years old), a brother (3 years old), her mother and father John, with his father and two brothers. More complicated was the genealogical labyrinth surrounding second-cousins Mary Currie and Catherine Munn. Sixty year-old Duncan Munn and 58 year-old Flora Brown went with six of their children, married and unmarried-Malcolm, Neil, James, Angus, Ann and Effy; Angus had married Margaret McNeill in 1803, baptizing Catherine in 1806. Margaret's 51 year-old father, Malcolm McNeill, traveled with three married siblings and all of their respective children, plus children's children; his sister, 40 year-old Mary, had married Duncan McDuff whose daughter Nancy (or "Annie") married James Currie in 1804, baptizing Mary in 1806. Such convolutions of kinship and support did not stop there. Malcolm's brother Dougald McNeill was married to Flora McMillan whose brother Malcolm was married to Grisael (or "Grace") McNeill, sister of Malcolm and Dougald! With Malcolm McMillan and Grisael McNeill were no less than ten children, including Elizabeth (or "Betty") married to James Munn. This critical mass of McMillans, McNeills and Munns exceeded sixty individuals, young and old, or more than half the emigrants on board.25

On 22 September 1806, the "Spencer" reached Pinette Harbour where the Collector of Customs, William Townsend, carefully enumerated 115 passengers from Colonsay. They definitely conformed to the Earl of Selkirk's prescription jotted in his diary of 1803, ie, a smaller number "of a few families consisting mostly of young people in the prime of life [with] one or two parents of age rather advanced…" There were 64 males and 51 females, with 43 "under 16," 68 "from 16 to 60," and only 4 "above 60." In separate male and female lists, the Collector entered sons after their fathers and daughters, even daughters-in-law, after their mothers, or mother-in-law. For example, Duncan Munn is followed by his unmarried son Malcolm and his married sons Neil, James and Angus (Nos 37-41 under "Males"); wife Flora Brown is followed by her unmarried daughters Ann and Effy, then daughters-in-law (in correct marital order) Catherine Currie, Betty McMillan, Margaret McNeill and, of course, her just baptized grand-daughter, Catherine Munn (Nos 31-37 under "Females"). Still, the Collector, or his scribe, mangled a Gaelic name or two. John Bell's wife, Grisael McCannell, likely changed to "Christian McDonald" (No 12) while Gilbert McAlder and his four sons (Nos 42-46) became "McAldridge." Whether this mattered or not, the nearly six score of emigrants from Colonsay had survived the Atlantic and set permanent foot on new space. They spent the winter at Pinette, with provisions and in quarters provided by Selkirk. The next spring, 1807, they moved to the Wood Islands area of Lot 62 to begin their new lives in a New World.26

In one sense, these Hebrideans coming to Prince Edward Island were minor players in a much grander drama. Or, like another trans-Atlantic tale from Colonsay, "…the fates of mere individuals exist in sheer coincidence with international events." But the major players met some unintended consequences by the end of their lives. On 23 September 1806, one day after the "Spencer" reached its destination, Lewis and Clark reached the safety of St Louis, Missouri. President Jefferson forever celebrated their success at describing and measuring the incomprehensible spaces of his "Purchase." Once the War of 1812 secured New Orleans and the Mississippi River, a "Manifest Destiny" seized America; its westward wave of people, and their disputes, dismayed even Jefferson in his later years. While the Colonsay emigrants prepared for their first winter, the Earl of Selkirk prepared for a place in national politics. In the Picture Gallery of Holyrood House, Edinburgh, Thomas Douglas was elected to the House of Lords on 4 December 1806, taking his seat at Westminster on the 15th. The next year he met, courted and married (on November 24th) Miss Jean Wedderburn-Colville whose family kept a controlling interest in the Hudson's Bay Company. In 1808 Selkirk dispatched a nephew, Basil Hall, to Prince Edward Island and a shimmer of profits there resurrected his dream of a dominion in western Canada. With Alexander Mackenzie, he bought Company stock now shrinking in price since Napoleon had shrunk the Baltic fur markets. It was a banner year for his investments, writing about national defense or parliamentary reform, and election to the Royal Society on July 1st; still better, his only son and heir, Dunbar James Douglas, was born in London on 22 April 1809. After much spending, more scheming, some persuasion and patience, Selkirk reached his ultimate destination in May 1811; the Directors of the Hudson's Bay Company ceded 116,000 square miles to him around Lake Winnipeg-a territory in today's Manitoba, Minnesota and North Dakota almost five times the size of Scotland. Did such a nascent empire provoke the American attack and destruction of Baldoon in the War of 1812, certainly not improving the Earl's opinion of 'Yankees' ? It provoked the rival Northwest Company to fight him in the courts and on the land. "Red River Settlement" extracted a fortune of time and money from Thomas Douglas, who spent 1815-18 in Canada. Given the bloodshed and damage on the Canadian prairie, British courts forced payments from him, shattering health and spirit. The 5th Earl of Selkirk died on 8 April 1820, 48 years-old, in Pau, France, where he is buried.27

Although the "Spencer" took nearly 15% of his people away, John McNeill of Colonsay accelerated his 'Improvements' and profits during Napoleon's era. Britain's wartime economy devoured Argyll beef, barley, oats, potatoes and burned kelp (powdered seaweed for industry). Colonsay's population went from 786 in 1811 to 905 in 1821, but islanders still left, in part, due to the laird's heavy hand. He did not appreciate a Baptist minister from Mull baptizing two of his daughters and others in local lochs, so he refused employment to the converts. To find work, men rowed their boats to Mull or Islay while some Baptist families went to Wellington County, Ontario (north of Toronto) in the 1830s. For those staying, John McNeill was forever the affectionate "Old Laird" of paternal instincts, Gaelic speech and staunch Presbyterianism. On the first household census of 6 June 1841, Colonsay and Oronsay listed 979 residents, approximately 50 per square mile. Their distribution, though, was not even; Kilchattan boasted 255 people in 43 households while Balnahard struggled with 32 in just 6 homes. Nevertheless, the parish minister from Jura applauded the laird in Scotland's second Statistical Account: "Mr McNeill has thus, by judicious, persevering and well-directed efforts, not only brought his estate in a high condition of cultivation and productiveness, but he has likewise much improved the condition of the small crofters, and afforded constant occupation to a numerous and comfortable population." Actually, he had witnessed a decade or more of falling prices for Colonsay's exports and mercifully died on 24 February 1846, the eve of the Potato Famine. Colonsay and Oronsay lost another 15% of the population by the 1851 census, thus entering decades of emigration and 150 years of depopulation.28

By comparison, Prince Edward Island, its emigrants and their descendants flourished. The Colonsay people joined a growing population of more than 7,000. Like the previous Selkirk settlers, they occupied narrow, Acadian-style strips of land, 1/8 by 1 ¼ miles. A cabin "fronted" either a road or the coast within sight and sound of neighbours; they cleared more ground slowly and, at great effort, expanded into the forest. Malcolm, Neil, James and Angus Munn negotiated contiguous lots of 100 acres along the road to Wood Islands. Although Neil never developed his land and James operated a shipyard on the coast, the brothers appear side-by-side on an early "Plan of Township 62." As Selkirk wished, more emigrants followed the McNeills, McMillans and Munns to this part of the island. In 1808 the "Clarendon" arrived in Charlottetown with 188 passengers, almost all from districts in Perth or hamlets in Mull. Each possessed the same stated "Cause of Emigration" being "Want of Employment." One family embedded in the ship's list of Mull people came from Colonsay, "Labourer" John Munn with his wife and six children. The Gaelic dialects and their speakers blended well under the pastoral care of Rev Angus McAulay in Belfast. So crucial was he during the early years that over one hundred men signed a letter of appreciation to the Governor on 5 November 1811. It expressed "our gratitude and respect to the Reverend Doctor…The greatest part being unacquainted with the English tongue would be totally deprived of clerical instruction were it not for his knowledge of the Gaelic language." Among the signatures, and from the "Spencer," were James Currie, Malcolm McNeill, Hector McMillan, James McMillan, Malcolm Munn and James Munn. Such devotion led the Earl of Selkirk to donate "a beautiful hill" in Belfast for building a space of worship, finished by the settlers in 1824 and named St John's Presbyterian Church. Its second Sunday service in Gaelic endured until a few years before World War I.29

A transplanted legacy from Colonsay literally multiplied, mutated, and inherited itself through the next generations. Large families dominated; Angus Munn fathered nine more children, James matched him with ten. The emigrants' children, though increasingly bilingual, tended to marry within their proximal space of common culture. For example, Hector McMillan from the "Spencer" married Isabella Fraser whose parents sailed on the "Polly." Ann Munn married James McMillan from the "Spencer" and they produced ten children. Future arrivals from Colonsay, like Malcolm Blue, quickly met other islanders and just as easily married one of them-in his case, James Munn's daughter Flora. Malcolm Blue's handwritten "Lease for 999 years of 100 acres on Lot 62" (next to his father-in-law) was a delayed "Indenture" to the estate of the Earl of Selkirk, made 3 March 1829, then registered 16 May 1834. Whatever the technicality, Malcolm, wife and children fared better than his remnant family still in Colonsay. The 1841 Canadian census shows a household of seven owning cattle, horses, hogs and sheep; they "produced…during the last year" 6 bushels of barley, 15 bushels of wheat, 60 bushels of oats, and 300 bushels of potatoes. In Colonsay, Malcolm's "70" year-old father John and "20" year-old brother Alexander were "Agricultural labourers" for John McNeill, living on the east coast with fishermen and their families at Riasg Buidhe (Yellow Marsh). Other Blues had departed for Prince Edward Island, not always arriving by the most immediate route. Angus Blue and family spent 1832 in Cape Breton before coming to Lot 62 at Little Sands. His daughter Jessie married Malcolm Munn, son of Malcolm Munn on the "Spencer"; his wife Catherine McNeill was the sister of Duncan "Ban" McNeill, baptized on 23 February 1806 in Colonsay.

Even those leaving Prince Edward Island sometimes landed not far from their Colonsay roots. Born in 1842 at Wood Islands, Donald (or "Dan") Munn was a great-grandson of Duncan Munn and Flora Brown from the "Spencer." He knew the aftermath of Belfast's riot of 1 March 1847 when Irish Catholics and Scottish Presbyterians clashed over a by-election; problems of power and poverty had grown within the insular community of nearly 40,000 people. He left for "Canada West" where Gaelic emigrants from Scotland were seen altogether differently since the Potato Famine. The Dundas Warden of 2 October 1851 had complained of "emigrants of the poorer class, who arrive here from the Western Highlands…they are reduced to the necessity of begging. But again, the case of those emigrants of which we speak is rendered more deplorable from their ignorance of the English tongue." He settled in Bruce County, on the shore of Lake Huron, where an enclave of Colonsay Baptists lived in Elderslie Township. Dan Munn from Prince Edward Island married Margaret Currie McNeill, grand-daughter of the Baptist leader Lauchlin McNeill. Lauchlin's wife, who died in Colonsay during January 1841, was Catherine Currie, older sister of Hester Currie, the one married to Colonsay's miller and also baptized on 23 February 1806.30

In a study of Scotch-Irish emigrants on Amherst Island, Ontario, CA Wilson of Guelph University posits that "Following the same individuals through their lives and across the ocean is the most promising way to recapture the immigrant experience…" A similarly constructed story about Colonsay's emigrants aboard the "Spencer" in 1806 shows how very different were Gaelic emigrations in the 19th century. Unlike the famine ships after 1846, earlier voyages and landings benefited greatly from sponsors, planning, cooperation, some support, and a degree of choice. Large, extended families could guard and gird themselves for some of the shocks on both sides of the Atlantic. But they also started "a chain of migration" that gradually lost its Gaelic culture; Colonsay populated parts of Canada while depopulating itself.31 The story of the "Spencer" designates those Big Forces and Big People who impacted so many lives. Very apparent were: an adolescent democracy in America; the antipathy of a Scottish aristocrat; his ambitions, energy and assets; an "Improving" laird in the Hebrides; and, a French general-cum-emperor. Crucial connections between the major and minor players also emerge. One was a vehicle of faith, Rev Angus McAulay, the other a vehicle of transport, the "Spencer." The one died and the other went out of service in the same year, 1827. Some of the McNeills, McMillans and Munns from the "Spencer" found their final space in the Wood Islands Pioneer Cemetery. After long lives, they wanted the future to know their original space. A gravestone's base for James McMillan ("died February 11, 1861 aged 78 years") and his wife Ann Munn ("died March 10, 1870 aged 82 years") reads "Natives of Colonsay, Scotland…emigrated to this Island in 1806."


1. JM Bumsted 1984, Introduction to The Collected Writings of Lord Selkirk 1799-1809, Vol 1, pp 1-85 [53-4] and 161.

2. He had performed two marriages two weeks earlier on 9 February 1806 (Colonsay Old Parish Register, 539/2, New Register House, Edinburgh).

3. Their first son died of tuberculosis in 1862, 28 years-old, in an Edinburgh hospital after working in the Glasgow shipyards (Edinburgh Death Register, 1862/685/3/575, New Register House); father and son are buried together in Colonsay's Kilchattan cemetery.

4., "The Corncrake" Nos 17-18.

5. IR Robertson 1976, Highlanders, Irishmen and the Land Question in 19th century Prince Edward Island in Comparative Aspects of Scottish and Irish Economic and Social History, LM Cullen and TM Smout, eds, pp 227-40 [227].

6. B Bailyn 1986, Voyagers to the West, pp 397-405; SM Millett 1998, The Scottish Settlers of America, p 141; ICC Graham 1956, Colonists from Scotland, p 95; D Meyer 1957, The Highland Scots of North Carolina 1732-1776, p 86; D Budge 1960, Jura, pp 125-7; JP MacLean 1900, Highlanders in America, pp 231-4 and 419. MacLean (p 111) lists the men and women of 1767 who received "Acres to Each Family."

7. JM Gray 1964, Lord Selkirk of Red River, pp 1-6.

8. Bumsted 1984, pp 10-19.


10. AH Clark 1959, Three Centuries and the Island, p 237.

11. JM Bumsted 1982, The People's Clearance, Appendix A, Table 1, p 225; Bumsted 1984, p 31.

12. PCT White, ed 1958, Lord Selkirk's Diary 1803-1804, pp 4 and 12; cf D Mackinnon 1885/86, On the dialects of Scottish Gaelic, Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness XII:345-67.

13. Diary, 8-12-15-19-30 August 1803 (pp 2-42); the "Polly" with Rev McAulay had arrived before the "Dykes" on 7 August 1803.

14. Ibid, 18 September 1803 (p 43).

15. Millett 1998, pp 172-7; Diary, "Monday 24th to Tuy Novr 1" 1803 (p 92); NE Cunningham, Jr 2000, Jefferson vs Hamilton, p 163. Selkirk also wrote that Hamilton "admits that as Territory Louisiana is of no value to the U.S. & thinks they ought to exchange the Western bank of Mississippi for the Floridas" and "has serious apprehensions of the present ascendancy of Democratic principles ending in Anarchy" (pp 128 and 129).

16. Diary, 13 November 1803 (p 131); Bumsted 1984, p 40.

17. "As for the Highland Scots, by 1815 they had made Gaelic the third most common European language in British North America [after English and French]…" (JM Bumsted 1991, The cultural landscape of early Canada in Strangers within the Realm: Cultural Margins of the First British Empire, B Bailyn and PD Morgan, eds, pp 363-92 [388]); Diary, 26 February 1804 (pp 239-40).

18. Appendix of Diary, 2-17 October and "…November" 1804 (pp 347, 350, 353).

19. Bumsted 1984, pp 43-55, 164, 185. In the "Importance of the Emigrants…" Selkirk cites the early colony at Fayetteville, North Carolina, "…perhaps the most numerous colony of Highlanders on the American continent."

20. M Fowler 1986, Valley of the Scots, pp 21-32;, "The Corncrake" Nos 31-32; JV Loder 1935, Colonsay and Oronsay, p 168; Old Statistical Account XII (1791-96), pp 329 and 332. Also buried in the McEachern Cemetery of Mill Prong Estate, east of Wagram, North Carolina, is "Flora, consort of Angus Currie, born in the island of Cantyre [sic] 20 May 1774, came to America in 1775 and died 19 September 1834." The "actual survey made in 1804 by David Wilson" exists in the National Archives of Scotland, RHP2992, Edinburgh.

21. Loder 1935, pp 264, 271, 273, 278.

22. Bumsted 1982, pp 191-2 and 226; _____ 1984, pp 163, 165, 167.

23. I thank Douglas C MacMillan, a Colonsay descendant and retired naval architect, for this information from "Lloyd's Register of Shipping…Number 532."

24. John Lewellin Lewellin (1778-1879) was born in Wales; with a wife and six children, he came to Prince Edward Island in 1824. As a land agent and local politician, he traveled the island and knew many emigrants and their families, especially ones from Colonsay because he lived close to them at "Gaspereaux" on Lot 61. Lewellin published Emigration-Prince Edward Island in 1832 for an expanding readership of potential settlers (reproduced in DC Harvey ed, 1955, Journeys to the Island of St John or Prince Edward Island 1775-1832, pp 175-213 [201-4]).

25. I acknowledge and thank Mae Saunders, a Colonsay descendant in Halifax, and DC MacMillan whose family histories (combined with information from Kevin Byrne, Colonsay) uncover the extended kinship on the "Spencer." The Public Archives and Records Office of Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown, has a copy of his (1984) "The MacMillans and the MacNeills who emigrated in 1806 from the Isle of Colonsay, Argyllshire, to Prince Edward Island, Canada, on the ship Spencer and settled in Wood Islands."

26. Cf Note xiii. The original "List of Passengers imported in the ship Spencer" rests with the Public Archives and Records Office of Prince Edward Island, Ms 2702. It is reproduced in The Island Magazine, 1977, No 3, p 35 (missing the last female, "51 Nancy Darroch…26"), and in Bumsted 1982, pp 268-70.

27. JW Sheets 1993, Miss Catherine McKinnon's 'Russian Fortune,' Scottish Studies 31:88-100 [97]; cf C Martin 1916, Lord Selkirk's Work in Canada, and H Bowsfield 1968, Selkirk, in addition to Gray 1964 and Bumsted 1984. Always busy with pen and press to overcome obstacles, Selkirk published A Sketch of the British Fur Trade in 1816.

28. J McNeill 1914, Baptist Church in Colonsay; JW Sheets 2000, "National culture of mobility": the Colonsay-Canada connection in Transatlantic Studies, W Kaufman and HS Macpherson, eds, pp 69-83; 1841 Colonsay Census, 539/2, New Register House; New Statistical Account VII (1845), p 546. John McNeill's famous son (of two), Duncan, retired in 1867 from Edinburgh's Court of Session to the House of Lords; in 1874 he died, ironically, in Pau (Scotsman, 22 February 1867; Oban Times, 7 February 1874).

29. Clark 1959, p 68; Selkirk Papers 19315, National Archives of Canada, Ottawa; Bumsted 1982, pp 275-80; AM Putnam 1939, The Selkirk Settlers and the Church They Built at Belfast, pp 36-48.

30. MA MacQueen 1957, Hebridean Pioneers, p 36; North Cumberland Historical Society of Nova Scotia and the 1841 Census of Prince Edward Island (courtesy of M Saunders); 1841 Colonsay Census, Book 7, No 94; C Fraser 1982, Hopefield and Its Families 1856-1989, pp 39-41; Robertson 1976, pp 234-6; JM Gibbon 1911, Scots in Canada, p 132. Not everyone around Lot 62 spoke Gaelic; settlers from Guernsey lived in Lot 64 (Clark 1959, p 66). I thank Mary I MacKay of the Bruce County Genealogical Society for Dan Munn's 1922 obituary from the Paisley Advocate.

31. CA Wilson 1994, A New Lease on Life, pp 3-4; Sheets 2000. Reproduced with kind permission of the Registrar General for Scotland

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