A Tale of Two Kildonans

To commemorate the bicentenary of the emigration of Kildonan people to Red River, Canada, we have the contributions of two guest bloggers. This week Professor Marjory Harper of the University of Aberdeen writes about the impact of the Kildonan people in what is now Manitoba, and how they are remembered today.

Winnipeg is a city of monuments and memorials to the Highland pioneers who in the early nineteenth century established themselves at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. None could have foreseen at the time that the tiny Red River colony, conceived by Thomas Douglas, fifth Earl of Selkirk, and populated most notably by emigrants from the Strath of Kildonan, would before the end of the century become the capital of a vast province, a major transportation hub at the centre of Canada, and the gateway to the prairies.

Tiny as it was, the infant Red River settlement was mired in controversy on both sides of the Atlantic. In June 1813, Lord Selkirk himself was present in Stromness to witness the embarkation of a contingent of 100 individuals from Sutherland. The second group of colonists to leave Scotland, many were victims of the savage Kildonan clearances, orchestrated by William Young and Patrick Sellar, and they had been selected from 700 applicants who saw no future in their native land. It was not long before they had a taste of the hazards of transatlantic travel, when typhus broke out on the ship, and a panic-stricken captain landed them, not at York Factory, where they had been expected, but 150 miles away at Fort Churchill. By the time they reached Red River, in August 1814, more than a year had elapsed since leaving Scotland.

The arrival of the Kildonan exiles ignited smouldering tensions between the rival fur trading enterprises of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company. While the Napoleonic conflict raged on in Europe, Scots squared up to each other in their own “pemmican war”, over who would have access to the supplies of buffalo meat which were so essential to the survival of the fur traders operating in the vast territory then known as Rupert’s Land.

By 1816, when the Battle of Seven Oaks (now part of Winnipeg) determined that the Hudson’s Bay Company traders would emerge as victors from that struggle, the Kildonan pioneers had been joined by another wave of emigrants from the strath. A year later they were visited by Lord Selkirk, who earmarked land for a church as well as an experimental farm, and promised the settlers a Gaelic-speaking minister.

In the event, it was more than thirty years before they secured their minister, the non-Gaelic-speaking John Black from Eskdalemuir in Dumfries-shire. His appointment in 1851 triggered the construction of the church, which was completed in 1854 and is today the oldest stone church still standing in Winnipeg. Its location is very different from the depopulated but picturesque environment of its Sutherland counterpart, after which it is named, for it is to be found on the northern outskirts of Manitoba’s capital, adjacent to a busy highway and backed by the wide Red River.

There are, however, several similarities between the two Kildonan churches which are separated by 5,000 miles of ocean and continent. Neither is now in regular use as a place of worship, but each is preserved as a heritage site. Gravestone inscriptions that surround each building commemorate the individuals and families who shaped the histories of their hinterlands, while a plaque on the east wall of the Sutherland church memorialises George Bannerman, one of the Selkirk emigrants who was evicted from the strath in 1813 and whose great-grandson, John Diefenbaker, was Canada’s prime minister from 1957 to 1963.



Kildonan Church in Sutherland and Manitoba. Photos by Marjory Harper

Interred alongside the pioneers of Winnipeg’s Kildonan are the Canadian clergyman, historian and novelist Charles Gordon (better known as Ralph Connor) and his wife. Gordon’s “Glengarry” novels, which were best-sellers on both sides of the Atlantic in the early twentieth century, highlight the integrity and resilience of Scottish pioneers in another part of Canada, Glengarry County in Eastern Ontario, where Connor’s father, an emigrant from Perthshire, was also a minister.

Perhaps the best-known Sutherland memorial in Winnipeg is the Selkirk Settlers’ Monument, a full-scale bronze replica of the Emigrants’ Status in Helmsdale, which was unveiled in September 2008, fourteen months after its Scottish twin. The Lord Selkirk Association of Rupert’s Land has ensured that the settlers’ story is also remembered in cairns, plaques and monuments scattered throughout the city.


The Settlers’ Monument, Winnipeg.  Photo by Marjory Harper

But let’s return, finally to the Kildonan Presbyterian Cemetery. These stanzas from the Reverend John Mackay’s poem, Old Kildonan – despite some poetic licence in terms of the reference to the steeple – encapsulate the spirit of the cleared pioneers.

Have you been to old Kildonan
Seen the Red with gentle sweep
Guard the little rude, God’s Acre
Where the Selkirk settlers sleep?
Have you read the simple stories
On those headstones, old and grey,
Telling of a deep heart-hunger
For a dear land fear away?
Where the homes they left forever
Stand beside the Northern Sea,
And the old church lifts its steeple
Over heather, hill and lea.

The Young Fur Trader from Clyne

On a warm summer’s afternoon in 1816 fifteen men and horses struggled through swampy fields where the Canadian city of Winnipeg now stands.  As the sun sank the marshes nudged them dangerously close to the stockaded wooden fort they were hoping to avoid.  Fort Douglas belonged to the fur trading Hudson Bay Company, but these men were allied to the rival North West Company.

In 1670 Charles II gave the HBC, which now trades as ‘The Bay’, a monopoly on trade across a vast territory stretching from the Rockies through Northern Quebec.  They established trading posts along the shores of Hudson Bay and waited for Aboriginal people to sell the produce of their traps.  Furs from the interior were traded several times before they arrived at HBC forts, each band demanding its own mark-up.  Native traders bargained for cloth; guns and gun powder; metal items like pots and axes; and decorative items like beads.

Trade was cemented through relationships.  Native women were critical elements of the trade in early centuries, enabling traders to survive Arctic conditions and ensuring good deals for their relations.  While some encounters between traders and Native women were brief, others could last a lifetime.  Generations of children from these ‘country marriages’ eventually formed a new ethnic group: the Métis.  Most Métis lived in the Red River area near Fort Douglas.  They farmed and hunted buffalo, processing meat and hide to supply the fur trade.  Many Métis worked for and married into the HBC, but others allied themselves with the rival Nor’Westers. 

Although the HBC technically had a monopoly, from the 1730s independent French Canadian traders had established forts in the interior, siphoning off furs before they reached the coastal British posts.  French competition was replaced after 1759 by an aggressive and flexible rival operated by Highland Scots: the North West Company.  Tensions built towards violence in the early nineteenth century.  Fur-bearing animals had been almost exterminated by hunting and the HBC tried to regain the initiative by building a fort on a key NWC trading route.  In 1812 an additional provocation was the arrival of immigrants at Fort Douglas intending to farm at Red River.  Many of these immigrants were from Kildonan.  Clearly neither the British government nor the HBC saw the Métis or Natives to have any right to the land on which they lived and worked.  Although the settlement would threaten the Métis ability to provide the North West Company with supplies, threatening both company and the economic basis of the Métis, no treaties were agreed and local communities were not consulted.

For the next few years the region was plagued with recurrent violence.  It was therefore wise that the leader of the Nor’Westers that afternoon tried to circumvent Fort Douglas undetected.  Cuthbert Grant, the Métis son of a trader from Strathspey, was a ‘stout, powerful fellow of great nerve’.  His men were spotted by some Saulteaux sympathetic to the HBC who alerted the governor of the fort.  Robert Semple was a veteran of the American Revolution who, despite the delicacy of local politics, decided to ride out with twenty men to assert his authority.  One of these was a young man named Sutherland from Clyne parish.  Despite being founded as an English company, by 1816 62% of HBC employees were Scottish.  41 individuals were Highlanders.  Sutherland and his comrades followed Semple out beyond the wooden stockades, unaware that the fifteen Métis were merely an advance party.  Fifty more followed them.  Local farmers, perhaps Kildonan men, alerted Semple who sent for a three pound field piece.  Too impatient to wait for its arrival, the governor plunged on and the two bands met at Seven Oaks. 


Fort Douglas (1817) from the pencil sketch by Lord Selkirk.
Reproduced in George Bryce, Lord Selkirk’s Colonists (Toronto: Musson, 1909), 112.

 The parties spread out, eyeing each other warily andready for trouble.  Grant sent a messenger demanding that Semple’s men surrender or be fired upon.  Irritated, Semple grabbed at the aide’s reins and gun.  The aide slipped from his horse and ran for cover.  An HBC man accidently fired his gun.  Grant’s men ducked behind their horses and began a heavy volley.  Semple’s men returned musket shots.  One of Grant’s bullets broke Semple’s  thigh, rendering him helpless to the Métis who would soon kill him.  After their volley, the Métis threw themselves on the ground to reload.  Unfamiliar with this French-Canadian style of fighting, Semple’s men cheered, but the Métis jumped up and charged.  Some of the HBC men fled but others, including the young Clyne man, fought viciously.  After fifteen minutes one of Grant’s men and twenty of Semple’s were dead.  The wounded were killed and many of the bodies mutilated.  It wasn’t until four years later that Alexander Sutherland was given absolute notification that his son was ‘among the unfortunate party that were murdered at the Red River’.  Seven Oaks has been called a battle and it has been called a massacre.  However you describe it, this fifteen minute incident had a deep impact on the Canadian North West.  It changed the fortunes of the colony of Scots; the fate of the rival fur trade companies; and it helped precipitate the rise of the Métis nation.  And in the middle of it all was the young fur trader from Clyne.

Gerald Friesen, The Canadian Prairies: A History (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1987)

D.T.Lahey, George Simpson: Blaze of Glory (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2011)

Arthur J. Ray, I have lived here since the world began: An illustrated history of Canada’s native people (Toronto: Lester Publishing, 1996, 2005)

Suzanne Rigg, Men of Spirit and Enterprise: Scots and Orkneymen in the Hudson’s Bay Company, 1780-1821 (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2011)

Cuthbert Grant Jnr, Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online:


(accessed 09/04/10)