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Saint Mary's Isle

When the Ranger stole into the firth of Solway she carried an exultant crew. From the cliffs of Cumberland she might have been mistaken for a trading bark, lined and crusted by long travel. But she was something else, as the townsfolk of Whitehaven, on the northwest coast of England, had found it to their cost. Out of their harbor the Ranger had just emerged, leaving thirty guns spiked and a large ship burned to the water's edge. In fact, this innocent-looking vessel was a sloop-of-war, as trim and tidy a craft as had ever set sail from the shores of New England. On her upper deck was stationed a strong battery of eighteen six-pounders, ready to be brought into action at a moment's notice.

On the quarter-deck of the Ranger, deep in thought, paced the captain, John Paul Jones, a man of meager build but of indomitable will, and as daring a fighter as roved the ocean in this year 1778. He held a letter of marqué from the Congress of the revolted colonies in America, and was just now engaged in harrying the British coasts. Across the road firth the Ranger sped with bellying sails and shaped her course along the south-western shore of Scotland. To Paul Jones this coast was an open book; he had been born and bred in the stewartry of Kirkcudbright, which lay on his vessel's starboard bow. Soon the Ranger swept round a foreland and boldly entered the river Dee, where the anchor was dropped.

A boat was swung out, speedily manned, and headed for the shelving beach of St Mary's Isle. Here, as Captain Paul Jones knew, dwelt one of the chief noblemen of the south of Scotland. The vine-clad, rambling mansion of the fourth Earl of Selkirk was just behind the fringe of trees skirting the shore. According to the official report of this descent upon St Mary's Isle, it was the captain's intention to capture Selkirk, drag him on board the Ranger, and carry him as a hostage to some harbor in France. But it is possible that there was another and more personal object. Paul Jones, it is said, believed that he was a natural son of the Scottish nobleman, and went with this armed force to disclose his identity.

When the boat grated upon the shingle the seamen swarmed ashore and found themselves in a great park, interspersed with gardens and walks and green open spaces. The party met with no opposition. Everything, indeed, seemed to favor their undertaking, until it was learned from some workmen in the grounds that the master was not at home.

In sullen displeasure John Paul Jones paced nervously to and fro in the garden. His purpose was thwarted; he was cheated of his prisoner. A company of his men, however, went on and entered the manor-house. There they showed the hostile character of their mission. Having terrorized the servants, they seized the household plate and bore it in bags to their vessel. Under full canvas the Ranger then directed her course for the Irish Sea, Thomas Douglas, the future lord of the Red River Colony, was a boy of not quite seven years at the time of this raid on his father's mansion. He had been born on June 20, 1771, and was the youngest of seven brothers in the Selkirk family. What he thought of Paul Jones and his marauders can only be surmised. St Mary's Isle was a remote spot, replete with relics of history, but uneventful in daily life; and a real adventure at his own doors could hardly fail to leave an impression on the boy's mind. The historical associations of St Mary's Isle made it an excellent training-ground for an imaginative youth. Monks of the Middle Ages had noted its favorable situation for a religious community, and the canons-regular of the Order of St Augustine had erected there one of their priories. A portion of an extensive v/all which had surrounded the cloister was retained in the Selkirk manor-house. Farther afield were other reminders of past days to stir the imagination of young Thomas Douglas. A few miles eastward from his home was Dundrennan Abbey. Up the Dee was Thrieve Castle, begun by Archibald the Grim, and later used as a stronghold by the famous Black Douglas.

The ancient district of Galloway, in which the Selkirk home was situated, had long been known as the Whig country. It had been the chosen land of the Covenanters, the foes of privilege and the defenders of liberal principles in government. Its leading families, the Kennedys, the Gordons, and the Douglases, formed a broad-minded aristocracy. In such surroundings, as one of the 'lads of the Dee,' Thomas Douglas inevitably developed a type of mind more or less radical. His political opinions, however, were guided by a cultivated intellect. His father, a patron of letters, kept open house for men of genius, and brought his sons into contact with some of the foremost thinkers and writers of the day. One of these was Robert Burns, the most beloved of Scottish poets. In his earlier life, when scarcely known to his countrymen. Burns had dined with Basil, Lord Daer, Thomas Douglas's eldest brother and heir-apparent of the Selkirk line. This was the occasion commemorated by Burns in the poem of which this is the first stanza:

This wot ye all whom it concerns:
I, Rhymer Robin, alias Burns,
October twenty-third,
A ne'er-to-be-forgotten day,
Sae far I sprachl'd up the brae
I dinner'd wi' a Lord.

One wet evening in the summer of 1793 Burns drew up before the Selkirk manor-house in company with John Syme of Ryedale. The two friends were making a tour of Galloway on horseback. The poet was in bad humor.

The night before, during a wild storm of rain and thunder, he had been inspired to the rousing measures of 'Scots wha hae wi' Wallace bled.'But now he was drenched to the skin, and the rain had damaged a new pair of jemmy boots which he was wearing. The passionate appeal of the Bruce to his country-men was now forgotten, and Burns was as cross as the proverbial bear. It was the dinner hour when the two wanderers arrived and were cordially invited to stay. Various other guests were present; and so agreeable was the company and so genial the welcome, that the grumbling bard soon lost his irritable mood. The evening passed in song and story, and Burns recited one of his ballads, we are told, to an audience which listened in 'dead silence.' The young mind of Thomas Douglas could not fail to be influenced by such associations.

In 1786 Thomas Douglas entered the University of Edinburgh. From this year until 1790 his name appears regularly upon the class lists kept by its professors. The ' grey metropolis of the North ' was at this period pre-eminent among the literary and academic centers of Great Britain. The principal of the university was William Robertson, the celebrated historian. Professor Dugald Stewart, who held the chair of philosophy, had gained a reputation extending to the continent of Europe. Adam Smith, the epoch making economist, was spending the closing years of his life at his home near the Canongate churchyard. During his stay in Edinburgh, Thomas Douglas interested him-self in the work of the literary societies, which were among the leading features of academic life. At the meetings essays were read upon various themes and lengthy debates were held. In 1788 a group of nineteen young men at Edinburgh formed a new society known as 'The Club.' Two of the original members were Thomas Douglas and Walter Scott, the latter an Edinburgh lad a few weeks younger than Douglas. These two formed an intimate friendship which did not wane when one had become a peer of the realm, his mind occupied by a great social problem, and the other a baronet and the greatest novelist of his generation.

When the French Revolution stirred Europe to its depths, Thomas Douglas was attracted by the doctrines of the revolutionists, and went to France that he might study the new movement. But Douglas, like so many of his contemporaries in Great Britain, was filled with disgust at the blind carnage of the Revolution. He returned to Scotland and began a series of tours in the Highlands, studying the conditions of life among his Celtic countrymen and becoming proficient in the use of the Gaelic tongue. Not France but Scotland was to be the scene of his reforming efforts.


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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