An American patriot, the Countess and the Clearances

When researching his recent book, ‘Set Adrift Upon the World: The Sutherland Clearances’ (published by Birlinn), James Hunter came across an intriguing possibility which he blogs about here.

Could one of 1820 London’s up-market drawing-rooms have seen the Countess of Sutherland come up against a clearance critic in the shape of a US ambassador? The possibility arises from the family background of William MacKay who’s to be met with in Memorabilia Domestica, the memoirs of Donald Sage, a Sutherland minister. There Sage writes of how, as he preached in the open air at Langdale just prior to the 1819 clearance of Strathnaver, his ‘eye fell upon’ MacKay’s ‘venerable countenance’. ‘I was deeply affected,’ Sage goes on, ‘and could scarcely articulate the psalm’.

This was not just because Sage was close to MacKay whom he knew as ‘Old Achoul’. In what was being done to MacKay, then in his late nineties, by the Countess of Sutherland and her employees, Donald Sage saw something emblematic of what he called ‘the extinction of the last remnant of the ancient Highland peasantry of the north’.

As indicated by the title given him by Donald Sage, William MacKay, who could trace his ancestry to his clan’s medieval founders, spent much of his life at Achoul to the east of Loch Naver in what today’s been designated as Wild Land Area 35. Evicted from Achoul in 1807, he’d moved in with his daughter and son-in-law at Grumbeg on Loch Naver’s other shore. Now Grumbeg too was to be cleared and William was en route for Caithness where he’d die, aged 99, in 1822.


From Grumbeg and looking across Loch Naver to Achoul. Image: Cailean MacLean, Skye.

Might William have wished in 1819 that, half a century earlier, he’d joined those members of his family who then emigrated to America? The opportunity to do so must have been there in 1772 when George MacKay, William’s cousin, made it possible for some 200 people to quit Sutherland for Wilmington, North Carolina, aboard the Adventure, a ship George had chartered. Among the Adventure’s passengers was William MacKay’s younger sister, Elizabeth, sailing for Wilmington with her second husband, Archibald Campbell and their ten children.

From Wilmington the Campbells moved inland to settle at Crooked Creek in Mecklenburg County – near the present-day city of Charlotte. There, when America’s Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, the Campbells – unlike most newly arrived immigrants from the Highlands – took the patriot, or anti-British, side. Two of George and Elizabeth’s sons, Alexander and Donald, died in the fighting that followed. Those men’s younger brother, George, just three when the family left Sutherland and not old enough to join future US president George Washington’s Continental Army, took no part in the struggle for American independence. But he made clear where his sympathies lay by adopting ‘Washington’ as a middle name.

Nor was the self-styled George Washington Campbell’s hostility towards Britain to cease when, having trained as a lawyer and having moved across the Appalachians to Tennessee, he went into politics. Representing Tennessee first in the House of Representatives and later in the US Senate, Campbell was a leading backer of America’s 1812 declaration of war on the United Kingdom – serving as President James Madison’s Secretary for the Treasury during much of the ensuing conflict.


By The Bureau of Engraving and Printing – Restoration by Godot13, Public Domain,

By 1819, when his mother’s brother, William MacKay, was being evicted from the second of the two Strathnaver homes he’d been forced to abandon, George Washington Campbell was in St Petersburg as US ambassador at the court of Tsar Alexander I. From St Petersburg, Campbell corresponded with his Scottish relatives – among them Donald MacKay, one of the ambassador’s Strathnaver kinsmen, then serving with the British Army’s 42nd Regiment (the Black Watch) in Ireland.

Ambassador Campbell, then, is likely to have known at least something of Strathnaver’s clearance. This raises an intriguing possibility stemming from Campbell’s movements in 1820 when, on his way home from St Petersburg, he spent several weeks in London. While there and while meeting with a number of British politicians and aristocrats, might he have found himself in the same company as that prominent fixture on the capital’s social scene, Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland and Marchioness of Stafford?

What might Lady Stafford have said on meeting with this American statesman and diplomat? And how might Campbell have responded? Perhaps, one hopes, with words to the effect that he was glad to have the opportunity to learn why the countess had found it necessary to twice evict his uncle.


William MacKay of Achoul’s ancestry can be traced in The Book of MacKay, put together by Angus MacKay and published in Edinburgh in 1906. George Washington Campbell’s papers, including some correspondence with his Scottish relatives, are held by the Tennessee State Library and Archives in Nashville. The fullest account of Campbell’s life is George Washington Campbell: Western Statesman, by W. T. Jordan, published in Tallahassee in 1955.

Clearances Fieldtrip in Kildonan

How many people can you cram into a ruined corn-drying kiln?  This was one of the questions that we set themselves as we explored the historical landscape up the Strath of Kildonan a short time ago.  A group of eleven from the University of Aberdeen and the University of the Highlands and Islands met in Helmsdale to put life into our studies of the Highland clearances by retracing the steps of those who resisted, those who resettled on the coast and those who emigrated to Canada.  The group gathered on Friday evening from Inverness, Thurso, Elgin, Aberdeen and Dornoch for a short lecture by Dr Elizabeth Ritchie of UHI’s Centre for History on ‘Why did the Clearances happen’ to give some context for the sites we would visit the following day.  As Saturday dawned clear and chilly, we familiarised ourselves with the new iphone app created by Timespan which formed the basis for our fieldtrip.  Our first stop was only a few miles up the road at Caen where a long stone barrow provides evidence of human habitation as far back as the Neolithic period, and the footings of some longhouses and a corn drying kiln show people still populated the township in the early nineteenth century.  We examined copies of  old maps and birth notifications from the Old Parish Registers which named many of the hundred or so people who used to live and farm what is now a very wet hillside above the river.  The names began to bring the dead stones to life.  Even better examples of houses and kilns were evident at Kilphedir and we saw how people had clustered the buildings together on the higher rocky ground, keeping the fertile fields for crops and the upland pasture for livestock.  West of Kinbrace we searched for the ruins of the meeting house at Achnahui.  Caen might have been wet but it was only going to get worse!  Some judicious bog-hopping brought us to the enclosed burial ground and low walls which are all that remains of the little chapel which served the surrounding community.  Many parishes in the Highlands were too big for one minister so remoter regions had meeting houses and assistant ministers.  For some time Achnahui’s  assistant minister was Donald Sage who later wrote a fascinating account of life in late eighteenth century Kildonan and of the clearances in his book Memorabilia Domestica.  As we stood in the ruin and surveyed the moorland, we imagined the landscape cultivated, fertile and populated.  We played some Gaelic psalm singing, in the lining out tradition, on the laptop and imagined the people walking to the meeting house, bringing with them their stools, to sing and hear the weekly preaching.  Our packed lunches energised us to explore Kinbrace cemetery where we found the grave of one George Grant who had lost an arm serving with the 93rd Highlanders at the disastrous (for the British) Battle of New Orleans in 1815.  Who ever said that nineteenth century people never went more than a few miles from their homes!  Just north of Suisgill we delved further back in time as we inspected the impressive defensive ditches of the Iron Age broch by the river.  Our hopes of discussing the Kildonan riots in the old church, the very spot where the land surveyors were chased from the Strath by angry inhabitants, were thwarted by a locked door.  Instead we gathered round the grave of Alexander Sage, the minister and the father of Donald, and fortified ourselves with fruitcake as Aberdeen’s Professor Marjory Harper explained the events of 1813.  We concluded our fieldtrip by examining the crofting landscape at Marrel to compare how land use changed when people were cleared to the coast.  Sated with history we happily collapsed into Timespan’s café for revivifying cake and tea before trundling down the road via the Emigrants’ Monument and a fleeting glimpse of Dunrobin Castle.  The students (and staff) all had a huge amount of fun exploring Sutherland’s history in a practical way and more fieldtrips are definitely in the pipeline!Image

This is how many people you can fit in a corn-drying kiln.

[Photo belongs to Kirsty Reid]