In 1774 elderly William Gordon made a life-altering decision. Despite having farmed all his life at Wynmore in the Parish of Clyne upon lands belonging to William Baillie of Rosehall, he decided that his final years would be lived out in North Carolina. He was born about 1705. He may have attended school for a few years, but he probably spent most of his childhood herding cattle and learning men’s work on the land rented by his father, and by his grandfather before him. Sometime in his twenties he married. He had six children, but we only know the names of Alexander and John. Alexander, not necessarily the oldest, was born in 1735, when William was about thirty. As the lads grew, he apprenticed one to shoemaking and another to weaving. Alexander married, at about the age of thirty, a Margaret MacLeod and provided the Gordons with two grandchildren. First a girl, born in 1766, then a boy born two years later. Margaret died, possibly giving birth to this George. Alexander remarried, a woman by the name of MacAskill.
In the ensuing years William saw many changes. Among the families of the chiefs cash became more valued than the prestige of fighting men or in the rentals given in vast mounds of butter, cheese and meat. Chiefs became landlords as they began to consider the value of the land and the relationship between themselves and the farmers as purely commercial. Wynmore was on a parcel of land which, according to William Gordon, ‘often changed Masters, and that the Rents have been raised on every Change’. Under the landlord, latterly Mr Baillie of Rosehall, Wynmore was rented by a tacksman ‘at a very high Rent’. This cost, plus the profit of the tacksman, was passed on to the tenants. William complained that the ‘Possession for which his Grandfather paid only Eight Merks Scots he himself at last paid Sixty’.
People from Sutherland had been emigrating to the Americas from the 1730s. First they were recruited to a military colony in Georgia, but by the 1770s they, along with other Highlanders from Argyll and Skye, were flocking to Carolina. There the Cherokee people had been somewhat subdued and lands were available for the taking. Gaelic-speaking farming communities spattered the map of the colony.
The decision to emigrate was not an easy one. Ellmers has theorised that migration generally requires five factors and a trigger. Most of these were discernible in William’s decision. There was structural stress in the society and economy in which he lived and this, according to his comments on rent, was a stress that he was experiencing. There had to be an opportunity to leave: this was provided for William by a letter from his Carolina-based sons inviting him to join them. A person must have a risk-taking personality. This may or may not have been the case: I rather suspect that in cases of group or chain emigration, this element is not so necessary. Lastly, there must be a removal of social constraints against migration. Considering the popularity of emigration in the 1770s, and its history in the area for several generations, this seems likely. Then there was usually a trigger. In William’s case this came in the winter of 1771-2. That winter was a terribly harsh one. Many of his cattle, the staple crop whose sale provided them with their annual income, permitting them to pay their rent and buy the needful, died. The cold and the length of the winter probably meant they ran out of feed and the beasts expired from hunger. It is possible that William and his wife were already seriously considering travelling with his daughters in law and grandchildren to join John and Alexander. Altogether he decided that ‘his Circumstances were greatly reduced not only by the rise of Rents but by the loss of Cattle’. He was elderly and lame and declared that it was ‘indifferent to him in what Country he died.’
His family were important to him in these last years. Despite his stated indifference, his testimony suggests a tension. His two sons in Carolina ‘wrote encouraging him to come there’, he declares he ‘was induced to emigrate for the greater benefit of his Children’. Their persuasion, combined with declining circumstances at home, and his realistic assessment of his age, lameness and dependency, amounted to a decision to go. Like many migrants he was motivated by a concern for his children’s future. He hoped ‘his Children would earn their Bread more comfortably elsewhere’. There is no mention of his other four children, whether they were still alive, or still in Clyne. But he was also concerned about facing his old age. The prospects for the elderly and disabled were not good. The poor relief role of the church would prevent him from starving, but in the absence of a welfare state only the care and provision of family would keep maintain a reasonable standard of life. Not only does he hope his sons ‘may get bread for themselves’ but hopes this will ‘be a help to support him.’ Doubtless he was also fond of his sons, their wives and his grandchildren, and preferred, like many grandparents, to follow them around the world to enjoy their company as much as for pragmatism.
William and his wife, two daughters in law and their children sailed from Thurso to Wilmington, North Carolina, on the Bachelor of Leith on 30 May 1774. It seems that by 1775 Alexander, and presumably the rest of the family, was living in Iredell County, in the Piedmont region, where the flatlands meet the mountains. They probably settled on land which he and his brother had secured before sending for their parents and wives.
For discussion and application of Ellmers’ thesis to Highland emigrants: Amanda Epperson, ‘It would be my earnest desire that you all would come’: Networks, the Migration Process and Highland Emigration’ The Scottish Historical Review 88.2 (October 2009), 313-331.
‘Report of the examination of the emigrants from the counties of Caithness and Sutherland on board the ship Bachelor of Leith bound for Wilmington, North Carolina (1774)’ in Viola Root Cameron, Emigrants from Scotland to America 1774-1775: Copied from a loose bundle of Treasury Papers in the Public Record Office, London (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1965)