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.

Building “The Mound”

Clive Hayward writes this week about the building of “The Mound”, that critical piece of engineering between Dornoch and Golspie.  Clive has just completed his first year of study on the MLitt in Highlands and Islands History at the University of the Highlands and Islands.  As ever, we welcome comments, queries, questions and corrections in the comments section.

Thomas Telford and William Young appear unlikely bedfellows, one being a celebrated engineer and the other being an infamous factor of the Sutherland estate associated with the Clearances.  However, their collaboration to implement the Sutherland Road Act of 1805 has left a monument to their achievements.  The original road ran along the east coast of Sutherland crossing Loch Fleet at the Little Ferry and the Dornoch Firth at the Meikle Ferry.  The creation of the parliamentary road removed two major obstacles by bridging the Helmsdale River and the Dornoch Firth at Bonar, but in between was the tricky passage of Loch Fleet.  Thomas Telford, the consulting engineer for the Commissioners for Highland Roads and Bridges, originally envisaged building new piers for the ferry as the construction of a traditional bridge was out of the question.  William Young however proposed a causeway across the estuary at the Mound.  The Commissioners initially baulked over the price of the estimate but when the Marquis of Stafford offered to contribute to the cost of the project, the proposal was accepted.

The Marquis was greatly interested in improving Sutherland’s infrastructure and was a major contributor to the finance of new roads. The construction work also offered employment to the local population, recently displaced by the “improvements” undertaken by the estate. Contractors however were hesitant to submit estimates for what promised to be a difficult operation.  Only two were forthcoming (one being very high whilst the other contractor was not regarded as being sufficiently competent), and the whole venture was in doubt.  Young persuaded Earl Gower (the eldest son of the Marquis) to intervene and an offer to undertake the Mound was submitted to the Commissioners by the Earl, in partnership with Young and his associate Patrick Sellar.

To cross Loch Fleet, which is a tidal inlet of the sea, Telford designed a huge earth causeway almost 1000 yards long. The plan was to start by building a stone bridge, with sluice gates, close to Craigtoun rock, on the northern side of the bay. The engineers decided to start work on both banks simultaneously and meet in the middle.  To get the stone and timber to the shores of Loch Fleet they constructed a horse drawn railway.  Difficulties in finding a rock base for the foundations delayed the project beyond the estimated one season and, just as it was nearing completion, a strong tidal surge put a hole in the causeway.  Telford decided to widen the whole causeway and despite much anguish the two ends were finally joined together. Construction work on this huge project began in 1814 and was completed by June of 1816.

The bridge originally had four arches, although this was later increased to six. Each contains a sluice gate preventing sea water travelling upstream when the tide comes in but allows river water out as the tide falls. These gates are self-regulating, but to cope with the river’s spate there is a mechanism of winches and pulleys to manually lift the gates. This was installed, again under the direction of Thomas Telford, in 1833. Winch houses were built at either end of the bridge and a cottage for the gate keeper was built at the northern end of the crossing. The causeway and sluice gates stop the sea over a mile short of its natural high tide mark. This had a dramatic effect on the environment upstream of the Mound. The build up of silt in the shallow fresh water created the ideal conditions for alder and willow trees. The Mound Alderwoods is now one of the largest of its type in Britain and is a designated nature reserve. The other effect of the building of the Mound was to make the ancient ferry crossing at Little Ferry on the mouth of the loch obsolete.


Image from the collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

As a major construction project in 1814, it was second only to the development of the coalmine at Brora in injecting large amounts of capital into the Sutherland region.  The total project cost £9749, more than sixty per cent being spent on labourers’ wages. When the Marchioness visited the project in August 1815 she found: “sixty people at work and 150 expected the following week.”  It is hard to overestimate the project’s importance in creating work, albeit temporary, in an otherwise non-industrialised environment.

The Mound was one of William Young’s crowning achievements.  Despite Telford’s oversight, the construction, planning and day to day working was in the hands of amateurs and relatively unqualified workmen.  Young was in no sense a trained engineer but he battled through the project from start to finish and it is a testament to his tenacity.

Adam, R.J., (ed), Papers on Sutherland Estate Management 1802-1816, 2 vols., (Edinburgh 1972).

Richards, E., The Leviathan of Wealth, (London 1973).

The Development of a Coalmine at Brora

This week’s blog is contributed by Clive Hayward.  Clive is completing his first year as a part time MLitt student on the History of the Highlands and Islands programme offered by the Centre for History at the University of the Highlands and Islands.

The name William Young is possibly known to inhabitants of Sutherland and readers of this blog.  A sub factor of the Sutherland estate in the early nineteenth century his name became synonymous with the Great Clearances.  However the name William Hughes is probably less well known in the area.  Hughes was a mining engineer and having managed a Flintshire colliery he moved north to work on the Caledonian Canal and Spyrnie Loch.  The two met in October 1809 and discussed the coal and limestone of Sutherland, the result of their discussions was the development of a coal mine at Brora.  Coal mining itself was not new to the area, coal had been found and mined there as early as 1598 and in the middle of the eighteenth century substantial operations were carried out at Inverbrora Point, but these had been abandoned in 1777 due to the rather poor, sulphurous, quality of the deposits.  However in February 1810 following his discussions with Hughes, William Young wrote to Earl Gower (George Granville who became the Second Duke of Sutherland) with proposals to develop the mine.  Hughes, with his experience, used a further visit in July to deduce that better and deeper coal deposits might be found on the north bank at Brora.  These proposals were accepted and the Marquis of Sutherland, having had experience of coal mines in Staffordshire, took an active interest in the endeavour.  As R J Adam suggests: “it was a significant moment of involvement which was to lead to a very large expense and a very uncertain return.” The sinking of a trial bore was undertaken during the winter and on 12 June Hughes reported that three useable seams had been found at a depth of 220 feet, Hughes recommended that the bore be continued to 500 feet and a new shaft be sunk to work on the seams already discovered.  The estimate cost of all this was £372, a somewhat optimistic figure as by the end of 1812 over £3,300 had been spent!

Work continued in 1814 and 1815 not only on the mine but on the surrounding infrastructure, including the development of a harbour and a railway to take the coal down to the sea.  However during this period, financial challenges, mismanagement and accidents beset the mine before a survey by a mining engineer, William Bald, reported favourably about the coal.  His report also recommended the building of a brick and tile works and for salt pans to be constructed all to be powered by the mined coal. Young and Hughes enthusiastically supported the new ventures making Brora into what would nowadays be called an “industrial estate”.  Despite some misgivings the Sutherland family continued to back Young financially even though expenditure was vastly exceeding estimates.  As Adam suggests: “in retrospect the story of Brora, under Young, is a microcosm of his whole Sutherland history.  Large plans, eager beginnings, defective controls, disappointing returns, the catalogue is formidable.” By 1816 the expenditure of the Marquis in the development at Brora came to over £30,900.  Young admitted that the outlays at Brora were “immense” but believed that the enterprise would soon become self-sustaining.  Although the years prior to 1820 did indeed produce an expansion in the production of goods it all soon fell apart.  As Eric Richards suggests: “the salt and coal trades suffered from poor quality and the price reducing effects of southern competition.  The entire Brora industrial establishment made a loss of £4,000 between 1819 and 1821 mainly in the colliery operations.” The Marquis, unwilling to sanction further expense on the Brora colliery, meant it lingered on until closure in 1825.

The story does not end there however.  In 1872, the then Duke of Sutherland re-opened Brora Colliery, and for a number of years had it under estate management.  Indeed Queen Victoria visited the mine just after its reopening, travelling on the newly completed railway pulled by a locomotive named “Florence”.  The works were afterwards leased to a Mr John Melville.  In 1914, when the clouds of war were gathering over Europe, Captain T.M. Hunter leased the colliery.  The firm of T. M Hunter Ltd. carried on until 1949.  The colliery and brickworks were taken over by a company named Brora Coal and Brick Co.  Afterwards, with a grant from the Highlands and Islands Development Board, the pit was run by Highland Colliery Ltd., and subsequently the miners themselves became shareholders.  The mine closed for good in March 1974.

Adam, R.J., (ed), Papers on Sutherland Estate Management 1802-1816, 2 vols., (Edinburgh 1972).


Photo from collection of Clyne Heritage Society.  http://www.clyneheritage.com/index1.html