Even on the hottest days spent on an east Sutherland beach it takes a certain flexibility of imagination to feel oneself in the Caribbean. In the late eighteenth century more Sutherland people than we might expect had first hand knowledge not only of Jamaican sunshine, but of the profits available to those with the right combination of luck, skill and brutality.
The farm of Midgarty, just south of Helmsdale seems as unlikely a place as any to dig around for connections. In the late 1700s the lease was held by Major George Sutherland. After a career in the British army George settled down to two marriages and many children. By the time his children came to adulthood, the opportunities to benefit from Britain’s appropriation of much of the West Indies and the establishment of the plantation economy, worked by African slaves, were clear to anyone with a modicum of business sense. Six of his ten or eleven children, and the modernisation of Midgarty, came to depend on the West Indian trade.
The Sutherlands must have rejoiced at the match made for Janet, George’s eldest daughter. Her husband was one of the Grays of Skibo, a wealthy West India planter. Money might have been abundant but the marriage was unhappy. They separated by mutual consent and Janet lived out a long life in London. We know little about Janet but more about Williamina, Charlotte, Elizabeth, Roberta and Robert.
In about 1784 Williamina married Robert Baigrie from Buchan. He had spent his whole career on merchant ships in the West India trade, first as cabin boy, then seaman and finally captain. Successful voyages had earned him two or three thousand pounds. Much of that money made its way to Sutherland. Amid some family acrimony, he took over the family farm. When Williamina and Robert moved in the Midgarty house was plain and ordinary, the entrance path from the main road picked out by stone pillars. Robert’s profits paid for a large wing with two ‘very handsome rooms’ designed to resemble a ship’s cabin. He also invested in a system of running water. Lead pipes connected a well at the top of the hill to the house. More money transformed the garden into an orchard.
Another Sutherland daughter was Elizabeth. Known as quite the beauty, she married Joseph Gordon. The younger son of an important local family of minor gentry, the Gordons of Carrol, he had earned himself a fortune of a few thousand pounds. This had apparently come about through his work as a coppersmith in the West Indies. The fatness of his pocketbook rather suggests he eventually ran the coppersmithing business. Joseph’s gamble with the notorious illnesses of the Caribbean paid off and on his return he could afford to take up the tack of Navidale, just north of Helmsdale.
Roberta, or Bertie, remained single for some time. Until she met Robert Pope. Robert had just returned from twenty years in the West Indies as a planter, again with a fortune of several thousand pounds. Casting around for property, Navidale, held by Joseph and Elizabeth, came to his attention. Their lease was expiring and they were moving to Embo. On visiting he was ‘smitten with tender passion’ for Elizabeth’s sister Bertie. ‘He made no secret of his attachment, and was in consequence very much teased about it by the gentry of the parish of Loth’. This annoyed the pair and Bertie felt compelled ‘in order to escape their unceasing and clamorous raillery, to take refuge’ with another sister, Jean, at the manse of Kildonan. Robert followed her and they married in secret. They returned to Navidale to set up home. Again plantation profits were invested in east Sutherland farms: in the thirty eight year lease of Navidale and in the two highland farms, Tiribol and Dallangal, which he held in Kildonan.
It was unusual for white women to live in the West Indies, but Charlotte was not daunted. She married Dr Macfarquhar and elected to live with him there. They raised a son and three daughters but decided their son needed to be educated in Britain. They bade him farewell and put him on a transatlantic ship. During the voyage he was playing on deck and fell overboard. The shock killed Charlotte and the double tragedy resulted in Dr Macfarquhar’s death a few months later.
Robert was the youngest of Major Sutherland’s children. Family connections meant he was sent to the West Indies very young. There he met Olive Moon of Kingston, described as a ‘quadroon’. She was a free woman whose father was white and mother ‘mulatto’. Their son, Robert, was born in 1795. The boy was sent back to Scotland to be brought up by relatives at Torboll, Dornoch Parish, quite possibly because his skin colour would have held him back in Jamaica. Robert senior succeeded as a planter. At one point the Countess of Sutherland considered selling the whole parish of Loth and he intended to buy it. However the sale was postponed and in the meantime he speculated, with disastrous financial consequences. By 1810 he was in St. Domingo where he had a few years of great importance as chief counsellor to Christoph, king of Haiti.
Three plantation owners, a ship’s captain, a doctor, a coppersmith, a fortune lost, several fortunes invested, a small boy growing up at Torboll, and four deaths. East Sutherland’s strongest connections with the Caribbean today might be mainly through exotic holidays, but two hundred years ago they were of blood, money and land.
Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica or Parish Life in the North of Scotland [freely available online at archive.org if you want to read more]
Correspondence with Dr Michael Rhodes regarding his genealogical research on Robert Sutherland and Olive Moon.