Wandering in the Strath: A History Fieldtrip

Alison Kennedy, a fourth year Scottish History student at UHI, writes about her experience of a fieldtrip in Sutherland.

Recently students and staff from the Universities of Highlands and Islands and Aberdeen, met in Helmsdale to explore the landscape of the clearances and other historic sites in the Strath of Kildonan.

First stop was Lower Caen which was the subject of a community archaeological excavation in June 2013. The dig focused on the final phase of occupation and the abandonment of a longhouse and its outbuildings. Later, displayed at Timespan’s Museum, we saw some of the artefacts discovered at the township: pottery, the remains of shoes and parts of a whisky still. The site is up a steep incline from the road and the settlement would have been exposed to the elements. Often cattle were kept under the same roof as the family, especially during the severe winter months. In the spring of 1807 200 cows, 500 cattle and more than 200 ponies died in the severe conditions in Kildonan alone.

Next stop was Kilphedir and the clearance settlement of Chorick. Here we are in the corn drying kiln!

The fieldtrippers in the corn-drying kiln

The fieldtrippers in the corn-drying kiln

These were often built into the slope of the hillside and were used to dry cereal crops. At Eldrable, on the opposite side of the River Helmsdale, we spotted horizontal cultivation terraces which farmers had used to grow their crops. Some agricultural critics suggested that terraces like these produced poor crops and encouraged farmers to draw furrows up and down the slope to improve drainage.

Remains of runrig field systems, Eldrable

Remains of runrig field systems, Eldrable

We then stopped at Baile an Or, site of the Sutherland gold rush in 1869. Robert Gilchrist’s find of an ounce of gold, worth £3, prompted a host of prospectors to arrive. Now no evidence remains of the extensive settlement of rough huts built to house as many as 500 hopeful people.

Last stop for the morning was Ach-na-h’uaidh at the southern end of the Strath of Strathnaver. The Rev. Sage preached at this meeting house for the last time in 1819 when he and his parishioners were cleared to make way for sheep farming. The walls and adjoining graveyard partially survive, together with three headstones marking the final resting place of some shepherding Chisholms and a Gordon.

Gravestones at Achnahui

Gravestones at Achnahui

Our picnic lunch was eaten in the shelter of Kinbrace Cemetery’s wall as we endeavoured to find a spot away from the wind. A circular sheepfold stood in the distance, and a brightly coloured corrugated iron roof of a disused shepherd’s house was a few yards away. One of the table stones in the graveyard is dedicated to George Grant who died on 1 May 1857. George served with the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. Many men from Kildonan were away serving with the regiment when the Clearances swept through their native land.

By Kinbrace Cemetary

By Kinbrace Cemetary

Retracing our steps, we visited the broch at Upper Suisgill. Many of the stones used in the construction have been robbed to use elsewhere but the remains, measuring 12m in diameter and walls up to 4.5m thick, show what an impressive structure this must have been.

Our last stop was Kildonan church where a sermon on the clearances and emigration was preached by Professor Marjory Harper from the imposing pulpit to all the students. Today the church is used for special services and events. The plaque commemorates George Bannerman of Kildonan, great-grandfather of the Right Honorable John G. Diefenbaker, Prime Minister of Canada 1957-1963, whose ancestors probably came from the nearby township of Learable, as well as commemorating the settlers who migrated to the Red River Settlement.

Plaque at Kildonan Church

Plaque at Kildonan Church

Arriving back at Helmsdale we had a look at the exhibits in the excellent Timespan Museum and Arts Centre and immersed ourselves in the virtual world of the reconstruction of Caen township.

Part of the Diaspora Tapestry

Part of the Diaspora Tapestry

Our day finished with visiting the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry Exhibition hosted by local needle-workers in Helmsdale Community Centre. It depicts Scotland’s global legacy through tapestry. Although by now dark, our goodbyes were made fittingly under the Emigrants’ Monument erected in memory of the people who went to the Red River Settlement. A very enjoyable day!

Clerk, Archibald, Second Statistical Account for the Parish of Duirinish, Skye 1834-45
Discovery and Excavation in Scotland Vol. 14 (Archaeology Scotland, 2013)
Inverness Courier
Sage, Donald, Memorabilia Domestica; or Parish Life in the North of Scotland (Wick, 1899)
Timespan – Museum without Walls, Scotland’s Clearances Trail App, Helmsdale Heritage and Arts Society (2012)

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.

A Truly Desperate Journey

Two hundred years ago this April a group of men, women and youngsters from Sutherland set out on what has been called ‘the toughest journey ever made in Manitoba’. To commemorate the bicentenary of the emigration of Kildonan people to Red River, Canada, we have the contributions of two guest bloggers.  This week James Hunter, Emeritus Professor at the University of the Highlands and Islands and author of many popular books on Highland and emigration history, shares with us some of his current research, informed not only by tramping through the glens of Sutherland but by making his own journey to Canada’s far north in winter time.

Five days into April 1814, John Charles, chief trader at Fort Churchill, a Hudson’s Bay Company post close to the bay’s western shore, noted that he had that morning despatched ‘an Esquimaux lad’ and an ‘Indian’ to Churchill Creek ‘with a supply of snowshoes’. Situated near the spot where the thousand-mile long Churchill River reaches the sea, Fort Churchill was linked to Churchill Creek, a Churchill River tributary, by a fifteen-mile trail. At the inland end of this trail – beyond the boundary between the tundra-like marshes or muskeg of Hudson Bay’s coastal plain and the spruce and tamarack forests of the subarctic interior – was a little cluster of log cabins. Thrown up hurriedly the previous autumn, this makeshift outpost, where John Charles’s Aboriginal subordinates unloaded their snowshoe-laden sled, was home in April 1814 to between eighty and ninety people from Sutherland – most of them refugees from mass evictions or clearances initiated a year before in the Strath of Kildonan.

Those people were ten months into what was arguably the most gruelling and protracted journey ever made by emigrants from Europe to North America. A disease-blighted Atlantic crossing and a bitter Hudson Bay winter were behind them. But they remained 800 miles short of their intended destination. This was a settlement then being established by the Earl of Selkirk at Red River – a settlement that would grow into present-day Winnipeg. Hence the Churchill Creek group’s need for the snowshoes supplied by John Charles. Only with the help of such specialist equipment, or so it was thought by Bay Company men like Charles, would any of Churchill Creek’s temporary residents have a reasonable chance of completing their odyssey’s next phase – a 150-mile trek to York Factory. This substantial complex was the HBC’s North American headquarters. It was also the stepping off point for anyone venturing into the continental interior by way of the Hayes and Nelson Rivers – together constituting much the most direct route from Hudson Bay to the earl’s still embryonic colony.

Prior to the advent of air transport, the most straightforward way to get from Fort Churchill to York Factory was by sea. But Hudson Bay in April is frozen coast to coast and, by the HBC’s early nineteenth-century operatives, was not reckoned navigable until the third or fourth week of July. From the perspective of emigrants anxious to reach Red River in time to catch the tail-end of the crop-sowing season, that ruled out the option of waiting at Churchill until a sea passage to York Factory became feasible. If Red River’s aspiring settlers from Sutherland were to obtain any kind of harvest in the fall of 1814, they needed to start voyaging up the Hayes as soon as its ice cover broke in May. This meant that some at least of the Sutherland emigrants needed to quit Churchill Creek for York Factory as soon as winter’s grip had slackened sufficiently to make an overland trip possible.


James Hunter is shown the sights in Churchill, Manitoba, in -35 degrees!

That had long been clear to Archibald McDonald, the young man in charge of matters at Churchill Creek. During March, therefore, McDonald had selected, from among the younger and fitter of the people for whom he was responsible, the thirty-one men and twenty women he intended to lead into the snow-blanketed barrens between the Churchill and Hayes Rivers – the latter the more southerly of the two. McDonald, despite (or perhaps because of) his knowing nothing of wilderness travel, expected all to go well. John Charles, aware that nothing akin to McDonald’s expedition had been attempted before, was less optimistic. Archibald McDonald’s male companions, Fort Churchill’s chief trader reckoned, would ‘make out with ease’ – because their frequent winter forays in search of game and firewood, as well as keeping them in training, had accustomed them to the use of snowshoes. Charles worried, however, about the capabilities of what was the first group of European women to have sailed into Hudson Bay. None of the ‘females’ getting ready to set out for York Factory, Charles pointed out, had walked ‘any distance’ during the six months they had spent at Churchill Creek. Despite their having been ‘directed … to be exercised in snowshoes’ some days prior to their departure, this did not augur well, Charles thought, for the Sutherland women’s capacity to cope with hazards which, as the veteran HBC man well knew, would test the strongest and ablest of men.

Difficulties were certainly to arise. But when, just after six o’clock on the morning of Wednesday 6 April, the Sutherland party’s long march got underway, it did so in a festive atmosphere. This was encouraged by the stirring sound of the bagpipes played by Robert Gunn who came from the township of Kildonan and who, as Archibald McDonald reported, ‘took his station in the centre’ of the column snaking – in ‘single files’ – out of Churchill Creek. At the column’s head was an Aboriginal guide sent some days earlier from York Factory with a view to ensuring that McDonald and his people took the best way south. The guide, McDonald wrote, was ‘followed by the men’ – all of them hauling sleds piled high with tents, ‘bedding’ and ‘provisions’. This arrangement, Archibald McDonald explained, had the effect – especially in places where ‘the snow was soft and deep’ – of creating a beaten-down trail that, McDonald hoped, would make it easier for the column’s female component to cope with the ‘arduous task’ of trudging forward, hour after hour, on snowshoes.

Churchill and the Strath of Kildonan, both of them around 58 degrees north, share the same latitude. But Kildonan Aprils, though they might bring snow and frost on occasion, also bring definite signs of spring – among them, in good years anyway, the early ‘bite’ of grass so critical, before the strath’s clearance, to the wellbeing of its cattle herds. Nothing like this is true of April on the coasts of Hudson Bay. As in Sutherland, to be sure, the month is characterised by lengthening days and rising temperatures. It followed, then, that Piper Gunn and the other Sutherland people making for York Factory did not encounter intense cold of the kind they had endured at Churchill Creek during December, January and February. But neither did they meet with any real warmth. At times, indeed, Gunn and his companions had to cope with windchill so severe that some of them, as they afterwards recalled, were badly affected by frostbite. ‘We cannot form an adequate conception of the misery suffered by these people on this trip,’ commented Manitoba’s earliest historian. ‘The females suffered most.’

Suffering more than most was Jean MacKay, like Piper Gunn a former resident of Kildonan township. While there had been repeated ‘falls and tumbles’ as a result of people losing their footing when ‘ascending and descending … banks and ridges of hard snow’, those had not resulted in serious injury. However, on 13 April, a week into a journey that must at times have seemed interminable, Jean MacKay fell so heavily when crossing a stretch of ‘bare ice’ that she had to be carried into that evening’s camp. ‘I attended her,’ Archibald McDonald wrote, ‘and found her much inclined to vomit, shivering all over, faintish, abdomen tense, pulse throbbing … and somewhat feverish.’ Jean, it transpired, was four or five months pregnant.

What happened next to Jean MacKay and her companions will be recounted in James Hunter’s book, Set Adrift Upon The World: The Sutherland Clearances, to be published by Birlinn next year.

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)