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.

The Factor, the Amazon and the Fiery Little Antagonist

Had you walked through Dornoch of a Saturday night in the closing years of the eighteenth century, you might have spotted the indomitable Christina Leslie wrestling drunken patrons out of her inn.

Christina was born at Meikleferry, probably in the early 1760s.  She was an “amazon in size and strength” being over six feet tall and “her person [being] extremely robust”.  This came in handy on market day when “fierce, disorderly fellows quarrelled and fought with each other there, like so many mastiffs”.  When trouble broke out she launched herself into the fray, backed up by her Lochbroom-born ostler Donald, known as Ton’l in gentle mockery of his Gaelic accent.  “When her guests were fixed in each other’s throats, Mrs. Leslie made short work with them, by planting a grip with each hand on the back of their necks, tearing them apart, and finally by holding them until her ostler, by repeated and strong applications of his fists, had sufficiently impressed them with a sense of their conduct.”  Apparently she was less fearsome when not having to deal with disorderly fellows, having an “expansive countenance” and “mild expression”.  Christina’s forte was physical force, but her husband’s was verbal.

Hugh Leslie was an innkeeper, but was also the fiscal and the procurator in Dornoch Sheriff Court.  The performances between him and his legal opponent, Hugh Ross, were a source of great entertainment.  A schoolboy recollected that “Hugh Leslie’s bodily presence was always made known by his cough. During play-time I would frequently spend half an hour in the court-house, and I have often come upon Hugh Leslie in the midst of one of his forensic orations. He made use of no ingenuity of argument, or of special pleading; but he took up all the strong points of the case, and battered away at them, until, in ten cases for one, he was ultimately successful. … Poor Leslie’s arguments, which he delivered with such heat and rapidity, that he could neither illustrate them with sufficient clearness of expression, nor very distinctly remember them when he had finished, his cool and more able opponent took up one by one, and demolished, with pointed wit and sarcasm.  Ross held up all his words and arguments, from first to last, in a light so distorted and so perfectly ludicrous, that his fiery little antagonist could not recognise them again, but, starting to his feet, while Hugh [Ross] was going on, he would hold up both his hands, and, trembling with rage, cry out, ‘0, such lies! such lies! did ever you hear the like?’ These explosions of temper Ross met by a graceful bow to the bench, and a request to the Sheriff to maintain the decency of the court.”

The couple had twelve children.  In 1790 their sixth was born and named after the first who had died in infancy.  Angus Leslie attended the school at Dornoch and was eventually employed by the Duke of Sutherland as one of his under-factors on the Strathnaver district of the estate.  In Strathnaver some of Scotland’s most notorious clearances were implemented from 1814.  Angus was involved in enforcing the evictions.  One of the families he evicted was that of a stonemason named Donald MacLeod.  MacLeod was also a small crofter in Strathy on the north coast.  Leslie turned him and his family out of his house and croft in the middle of winter, during a heavy snowstorm, and, at the same time, forbade any of his neighbours, for miles around, to give them shelter.  Angus had picked on the wrong man.  Donald MacLeod was a highly literate, intelligent man who decided to fight back.  He wrote a series of letters in the Edinburgh Courant and a pamphlet, which reflected “very severely, not only on Leslie’s action, but upon the measures taken by the late Duchess of Sutherland against her Highland tenantry.”  One of the ironies is that only a few years before Angus turned the MacLeods out of their house with needless harshness his own father, Hugh, would have been involved in the arrest and imprisonment of another Sutherland factor, Patrick Sellar, for doing similar.  After MacLeod’s work was published, Angus resigned his position and instead took up the farm of Torboll, by Loch Fleet: a more peaceful living than factoring, or even being a lawyer or an innkeeper.


The ‘Edinburgh Evening Courant’: the newspaper in which MacLeod’s denunciations of Angus Leslie were published. Please note this is illustrative – it is not the edition that MacLeod was published in.

Source: Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica or Parish Life in the North of Scotland [freely available online at if you want to read more]