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Selkirk the Colonizer

From the north and west of Scotland have come two types of men with whom every schoolboy is now familiar. One of these has been on many a battlefield. He is the brawny Highland warrior, with buckled tartan flung across his shoulder, gay in pointed plume and filibeg. The other is seen in many a famous picture of the hill country, the High-land shepherd, wrapped in his plaid, with staff in hand and long-haired dog by his side, guarding his flock in silent glen, by still-running burn, or out upon the lonely brae.

But in Thomas Douglas's day such types of Highland life were very recent factors in Scottish history. They did not appear, in-deed, until after the battle of Culloden and the failure of the Rebellion of 1745. Loyalty, firm and unbending, has always been a characteristic of the mountaineer. The Highlanders held to the ancient house of Stuart which had been dethroned. George II of England was repudiated by most of them as a 'wee, wee German Lairdie.' More than thirty thousand claymores flashed at the beck of Charles Edward, the Stuart prince, acclaimed as 'King o' the Highland hearts.' When the uprising had been quelled and Charles Edward had become a fugitive with a price on his head, little consideration could be expected from the house of Hanover. The British government decided that, once and for all, the power of the clans should be broken.

For centuries the chief strength of the Highland race had lain in the clan. By right of birth every Highlander belonged to a sept or clan. His overlord was an elected chief, whom he was expected to obey under all circumstances. This chief led in war and exercised a wide authority over his people. Just below him were the tacksmen, who were more nearly related to him than were the ordinary clansmen. Every member of the clan had some land; indeed, each clansman had the same rights to the soil as the chief himself enjoyed. The Highlander dwelt in a humble shealing; but, however poor, he gloried in his independence. He grew his own corn- and took it to the common mill; he raised fodder for his black,, shaggy cattle which roamed upon the rugged hillsides or in the misty valleys; his women-folk carded wool sheared from his own flock, spun it, and wove the cloth for bonnet, kilt, and plaid. When his chief had need of him, the summons was vivid and picturesque. The Fiery Cross was carried over the district by swift messengers who shouted a slogan known to all; and soon from every quarter the clansmen would gather at the appointed meeting-place.

The clans of the Highlands had led a wild, free life, but their dogged love for the Stuart cause brought to them desolation and ruin. By one stroke the British government destroyed the social fabric of centuries. From the farthest rock of the storm-wasted Orkneys to the narrow home of Clan Donald in Argyllshire, the ban of the government was laid on the clan organization. Worst of all, possession of the soil was given, not to the many clansmen, but to the chiefs alone.

While the old chiefs remained alive, little real hardship was inflicted. They were wedded to the old order of things, and left it unchanged. With their successors, however, began a new era. These men had come under the influence of the south, whither they had gone for education, to correct the rudeness of their Highland manners. On their return to their native country they too often held themselves aloof from the uncouth dwellers in the hills. The mysterious love of the Gael for his kith and kin had left them; they were no longer to their dependants as fathers to children. More especially had these Saxon-bred lordlings fallen a prey to the commercial ideas of the south. It was trying for them to possess the nominal dignity of landlords without the money needed to maintain their rank. They were bare of retinue, shabby in equipage, and light of purse. They saw but one solution of their difficulty. Like their English and Lowland brethren, they must increase the rents upon their Highland estates. So it came about that the one-time clansmen, reduced to mere tenants, groaned for the upkeep of their overlords.

Nor did this end the misfortunes of the clansmen. An attractive lure was held out to the new generation of chieftains, and greed and avarice were to triumph. Southern speculators had been rambling over the Highlands, eager to exploit the country. These men had seen a land of grass and heather, steep crag, and winter snow. Observing that the country was specially adapted to the raising of sheep, they sought by offering high rents to acquire land for sheep-walks. Thus, through the length and breadth of the Highlands, great enclosures were formed for the breeding of sheep. Where many crofters had once tilled the soil, only a lone shepherd was now found, meditating on scenes of desolation. Ruined dwellings and forsaken hamlets remained to tell the tale. Human beings had been evicted: sheep had become the 'devourers of men.' In many parts of the Highlands the inhabitants, driven from mountain homes, were forced to eke out a meagre existence on narrow strips of land by the seashore, where they pined and where they half -starved on the fish caught in the dangerous waters.

From such a dilemma there was but one escape. Behind the evicted tenantry were the sheep-walks; before them was the open sea. Few herrings came to the net; the bannock meal was low; the tartan threadbare. In their utter hopelessness they listened to the good news which came of a land beyond the Atlantic where there was plenty and to spare. It is small wonder that as the ships moved westward they carried with them the destitute Highlander, bound for the colonies planted in North America.

This 'expatriation ' was spread over many weary years. It was in full process in 1797, when Thomas Douglas became Lord Daer. His six elder brothers had been ailing, and one by one they had died, until he, the youngest, alone survived. Then, when his father also passed away, on May 24, 1799, he was left in possession of the ancestral estates and became the fifth Earl of Selkirk.

As a youngest son, who would have to make his own way in the world, Thomas Douglas had prepared himself, and this was a distinct advantage to him when his elevation in rank occurred. He entered into his fortune and place an educated man, with the broad outlook upon life and the humanitarian sympathy which study and experience bring to a generous spirit. Now he was in a position to carry out certain philanthropic schemes which had begun earlier to engage his attention. His jaunts in the Highlands amid 'the mountain and the flood ' were now to bear fruit. The dolorous plaint of the hapless clansmen had struck an answering chord in the depths of his nature. As Thomas Douglas, he had meant to interest himself in the cause of the Highlanders; now that he was Earl of Selkirk, he decided, as a servant of the public, to use his wealth and influence for their social and economic welfare. With this resolve he took up what was to be the main task of his life, the providing of homes under other skies for the homeless in the Highlands.

In the spring of 1802 the young earl addressed a letter to Lord Pelham, a minister in the British government, in which he dwelt with enthusiasm upon the subject of emigration. His letter took the form of an appeal, and was prophetic. There had previously come into Selkirk's hands Alexander Mackenzie's thrilling story of his journeys to the Arctic and the Pacific. This book had filled Selkirk's mind with a great conception. Men had settled, he told Lord Pelham, on the sea-coast of British America, until no tract there was left uninhabited, but frozen wastes and arid plains. What of the fruitful regions which lay in the vast interior? It was thither that the government should turn the thoughts of the homeless and the improvident. Leading to this temperate and fertile area was an excellent northern highway - the waters of Hudson Bay and the Nelson.

Lord Selkirk received a not unfavorable reply to his appeal. The authorities said that, though for the present they could not under-take a scheme of emigration such as he had outlined, they would raise no barrier against any private movement which Lord Selkirk might care to set on foot. The refusal of the government itself to move the dispossessed men was dictated by the political exigencies of the moment. Great Britain had no desire to decrease her male population. Napoleon had just become first consul in France. His imperial eagles would soon be carrying their menace across the face of Europe, and Great Britain saw that, at any moment, she might require all the men she could bring into the field.

As the government had not discountenanced his plan, the Earl of Selkirk determined to put his theories at once into practice. He made known in the Highlands that he pro-posed to establish a settlement in British North America. Keen interest was aroused, and soon a large company, mostly from the Isle of Skye, with a scattering from other parts of Scotland, was prepared to embark.

It was intended that these settlers should sail for Hudson Bay. This and the lands beyond were, however, by chartered right the hunting preserve of the Hudson's Bay Company, of which more will be said. Presumably this company interfered, for unofficial word came from England to Selkirk that the scheme of colonizing the prairie region west of Hudson Bay and the Great Lakes would not be pleasing to the government. Selkirk, however, quickly turned elsewhere. He secured land for his settlers in Prince Edward Island, in the Gulf of St Lawrence. The prospective colonists, numbering eight hundred, sailed from Scotland on board three chartered vessels, and reached their destination in the midsummer of 1803.

Lord Selkirk had intended to reach Prince Edward Island in advance of his colonists, in order to make ready for their arrival. But he was delayed by his private affairs, and when he came upon the scene of the intended settlement, after sunset on an August day, the ships had arrived and one of them had landed its passengers. On the site of a little French village of former days they had propped living, like a band of Indians, in these improvised wigwams.

There was, of course, much to be done. Trees and undergrowth had to be cleared away, surveys made, and plots of land meted out to the various families. Lord Selkirk remained for several weeks supervising the work. Then, leaving the colony in charge of an agent, he set out to make a tour of Canada and the United States.

Meanwhile, Selkirk's agents in Scotland were not idle. During the same summer (1803) a hundred and eleven emigrants were mustered at Tobermory, a harbor town on the island of Mull. Most of them were natives of the island. For some reason, said to be danger of attack by French privateers, they did not put out into the Atlantic that year; they sailed round to Kirkcaldy and wintered there. In May 1804 the party went on board the ship Oughton of Greenock, and after a six weeks' journey landed at Montreal. Thence they travelled in bateaux to Kingston.

These settlers were on their way to Baldoon Farm, a tract of about nine hundred and fifty acres which Lord Selkirk had purchased for them in Upper Canada, near Lake St Clair. Selkirk himself met the party at Kingston, having journeyed from Albany for that purpose. He brought with him an Englishman named Lionel Johnson and his family. The new settlement was to be stocked with a thousand merino sheep, already on the way to Canada, and Johnson was engaged to take care of these and distribute them properly among the settlers. The journey from Kings-ton to the Niagara was made in a good sailing ship and occupied only four days. The goods of the settlers were carried above the Falls. Then the party resumed their journey along the north shore of Lake Erie in bateaux, and arrived at their destination in September.

Baldoon Farm was an ill-chosen site for a colony. The land, prairie-like in its appearance, lay in what is now known as the St Clair Flats in Kent County, Ontario. It proved to be too wet for successful farming. It was with difficulty, too, that the settlers became inured to the climate. Within a year forty-two are reported to have died, chiefly of fever and dysentery. The colony, however, enjoyed a measure of prosperity until the War of 1812 broke out, when the Americans under General M'Arthur, moving from Detroit, de-spoiled it of stores, cattle, and sheep, and almost obliterated it. In 1818 Lord Selkirk sold the land to John M'Nab, a trader of the Hudson's Bay Company. Many descendants of the original settlers are, however, still living in the neighborhood.

Before returning to Great Britain, Lord Selkirk rested from his travels for a time in the city of Montreal, where he was feted by many of the leading merchants. What the plutocrats of the fur trade had to relate to Selkirk was of more than passing interest. No doubt he talked with Joseph Frobisher in his quaint home on Beaver Hall Hill. Simon M'Tavish, too, was living in a new-built mansion under the brow of Mount Royal. This 'old lion of Montreal,' who was the founder of the North-West Company, had for the mere asking a sheaf of tales, as realistic as they were entertaining. Honor was done Lord Selkirk during his stay in the city by the Beaver Club, which met once a fortnight. This was an exclusive organization, which limited its member-ship to those who dealt in furs. Every meeting meant a banquet, and at these meetings each club-man wore a gold medal on which was engraved the motto, 'Fortitude in Distress.' Dishes were served which smacked of prairie and forest, venison, bear flesh, and buffalo tongue. The club's resplendent glass and


Image Place D'Armes, Montreal, in 1807
From a water color sketch after Dillon in M'Gill University Library

polished silver were marked with its crest, a beaver. After the toasts had been drunk, the jovial party knelt on the floor for a final ceremony. With pokers or tongs or whatever else was at hand, they imitated paddlers in action, and a chorus of lusty voices joined in a burst of song. It may be supposed that Lord Selkirk was impressed by what he saw at this gathering and that he was a sympathetic guest. He asked many questions, and nothing escaped his eager observation. Little did he then think that his hosts would soon be banded together in a struggle to the death against him and his schemes of western colonization.


This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

The Red River Colony, A Chronicle of the Beginnings of Manitoba, By Louis Aubrey Wood, Toronto, Glasgow, Brook & Company 1915

 

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