Thirty five year old William Keith had taken up the job as minister at Kildonan in 1776. This easy-going man’s life of salmon fishing, sermon preparation, good food and company was augmented by marrying seventeen year old Isabella Grant. He probably got to know her when he was assistant at Fearn, as her father was minister of Nigg. Their first three children, Peter, William, and Margaret, were born at the manse in Kildonan. But by 1787 the living at Golspie was vacant. Keith applied personally to the Countess of Sutherland and the young family moved to the coastal village. There William and Isabella’s brood grew: Sutherland, George, Elizabeth, Anne, James, Sophia then Lewis were added to the nursery. The Keiths were now settled. William would stay in Golspie for the next 29 years. Apart from his writing the statistical account for the parish, we know a few things about his life in Golspie in decades of profound change for the region. We know that in 1794 he was down in Edinburgh at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, because he co-signed a letter to the King supporting the war against the French. We know that back home he pursued his role as community leader: in 1801 he wrote to the Justice of the Peace recommending the removal of the parish fox hunter, a man so inefficient that he had managed only to kill one fox in the last year, and that with the assistance of forty volunteers! And we know that there was heartbreak. He and Isabella lost a total of six babies, including six month old Anne in 1793. They also lost three adult sons. In 1803 nineteen year old William died in Bengal. Although he was probably with the British army, death by disease was more likely than by military action. In 1808 George died, again at the age of nineteen. Between these two, in 1805, twenty four year old Patrick died in Berbice, a part of South America that is now in Guyana.Patrick’s business in the British Empire was even more sinister than young William’s. Berbice was a slave colony. Many Highlanders were involved in the slave economy of the Caribbean. Not all were plantation owners: there were merchants, doctors and managers as well as tradesmen. It seems Patrick was a plantation manager. David Alston of Cromarty has done enormous work on these people and has made his research available on his website http://www.spanglefish.com/slavesandhighlanders/ He suspects that Patrick was the man who managed Lord Seaforth’s Brahan plantation. Seaforth’s secretary, Peter Fairbairn, says Keith had been in the colony from at least early 1803 before he ‘quitted at a moments notice’ in October 1804 and went ‘to the East Coast to conduct a task gang’. Sutherland Keith seems to have followed his elder brother across the Atlantic. By 1819 we know that he owned six slaves and three years later he had ten. He died in Berbice in 1825 at the age of thirty eight.
In 1811, after the death of three sons, William lost Isabella, at the age of forty nine. He lived on another five years before Sutherland was required to pay for a tombstone to commemorate the life of his seventy six year old father, in the graveyard of St Andrew’s church, Golspie. William Keith was an unexceptional man but whose life epitomised a changing Scotland and the international connections of Highlanders. Born just before the country bitterly divided itself over Bonnie Prince Charlie’s claim to the throne, in middle life he became a pillar of the establishment, supporting King and Country during the ructions after the French Revolution. He was concerned more with social status and the gentle pleasures of life than with the radical religious revivals affecting the Highlands. In this ordinary man’s pursuit of career, family and betterment for his children he tests the stereotype of the Highlander as insular and impoverished. He had studied at two of Europe’s great universities, Aberdeen and Edinburgh; he would have been fluent in Gaelic and English, was at least competent in Greek and Latin, and perhaps had a smattering of modern European languages; he took up jobs in various parts of his home region as well as several hundred miles away in Argyll; his daughters married locally and in London; and his sons took advantage of the financial benefits the British Empire offered to white men in places as far apart in India and the Caribbean. This very ordinary, middle class family, based in Golspie two hundred years ago, was better travelled and with more world-wide connections than many of us today!
Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae, Vol 7, p 87-8.
Principal Acts of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, (Edinburgh: James Dickson, 1794), 17. [available on googlebooks]
National Archives of Scotland, JP32/7/5/48, William Keith and John Polson, Golspie, to justice of the peace in Accounts, affidavits and letters concerning payments for the killing of foxes and eagles in Strathnaver, the parishes of Lairg and Farr, the Reay and Skibo estates and other places in the county, including details of claimants names, the time and place of killing and the animals’ ages. April 28 1801.
NAS Papers of the Mackenzie Family, Earls of Seaforth (Seaforth Papers), Letters from Peter Fairburn, Seaforth’s secretary, GD46/17/26 cited in http://www.spanglefish.com/slavesandhighlanders/