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Autobiographical Journal of John MacDonald

Ever since the Revolution Settlement in 1689, but more especially after the Mar Rebellion of 1715, strenuous steps were taken by the Scottish Church to evangelise and to educate the Highlanders in order to win them to Presbyterianism and consequent loyalty to the House of Hanover. One phase of this movement was the formation of two kindred organisations, viz., the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge, afterwards known as the S.P.C.K., pronouncedly Presbyterian, and the Society for the Reformation of the Highlands, pronouncedly Hanoverian. While the S.P.C.K. interested itself in mission work generally, and particularly among the Red Indians of North America, its principal mission field lay in the Highlands of Scotland, where the people were sunk in deep ignorance. Both these societies sought to reach the Highlanders by means of accredited catechists, schoolmasters, and itinerant preachers, for whose salaries they became responsible, but expected some local support wherever possible. They experienced much difficulty, however, in getting at some parts of the Highlands where Jacobite predilections were strong.

The Church also sought to encourage the erection of new Presbyteries and the endowment of new charges where gospel ordinances were in some cases sadly lacking. As George, third Lord Reay, was deeply religious and strongly anti-Jacobite, he took up this work with fervour, got the country of Strathnaver disjoined for better management from the Presbytery of Caithness and erected into the Presbytery of Tongue in 1725, and planted two new charges in that region fully equipped. He at the same time took full advantage of the agents offered by the above-mentioned societies, encouraged the leading men in the various districts to help on the work, and saw a wonderful change come over the people ere he died in 1748. The author of “The Highlands of Scotland in 1750” reports, and what he says is fully borne out by the Presbytery Record :—

“The common people of the M'Kays are the most religious of all the tribes that dwell among the mountains, south or north, and are short of none in their zeal and affection to his Majesty. Of old, they were reckon’d the most barbarous and wicked of all the clans; but they were effectually civiliz’d in the time of the late Lord Reae.”

The fire which the third Lord Reay kindled and nourished all his lifetime became bigger and brighter after his death, under the fostering care of his children, especially Donald, fourth Lord Reay, and General the Hon. Alexander

Mackay. A prominent feature of this great movement in Strathnaver during the second half of the eighteenth century was the avidity with which the people called for the schoolmaster. During the years 1730-90 the following twenty-one schools were started, and continued in the country of Strathnaver, as an examination of the S.P.C.K. reports shows, viz., Knockbreck, and Asheylemore, 1730; Farr, 1740; Hunleam, 1748; Revigill, 1754; Philine, 1755 ; Torrisdale, and Kirkton, 1758; Skerra, 1776; Langdale, Cambus-andun, and Bighouse, 1777 ; Strathmore, and Lettermore, 1780 ; Achiness, Bunna-havin, and Edderachilis, 1783 ; Havachery, Melness, Oldshore, and Bhiloisk, 1790. Dr Kemp, Edinburgh, Secretary of the S.P.C.K., reporting in 1796 on the work in Strathnaver, says :—

“Their thirst after knowledge is great. . . . Among such people it is not to be doubted that the Society’s teachers are received with avidity and gratitude, and their schools well attended. ... Nor did he find in any part of the Highlands young people who discovered a quicker genius for learning.”

It was in these circumstances that John Macdonald paid his first visit to Skerray in 1776 as the accredited teacher of the S.P.C.K. But not long after this Britain became engaged in one of the most tremendous conflicts she ever waged, and needed men to fight her battles. The States of America revolted and drew the sword, France and Spain, taking advantage of our entangled position, joined them, to be followed soon after by the Dutch States; while Denmark, Sweden, and Russia formed a hostile combination against us without coming to blows. Thus we were called upon at one and the same time to fight four nations, and to keep a sharp eye on three others who might jump upon us at any moment. At the tumultuous call to arms, which sent its echoes pealing to far Cape Wrath, Dominie Macdonald threw down the tawse, and shouldering his bagpipes set out to do and dare, like many another in that countryside.

After serving for a short time in the North Fencibles at Fort George, under Captain Mackay of Bighouse, Macdonald joined the 2nd battalion of Lord Macleod’s Highlanders, as he tells us. “Lord Macleod,” who was a Mackenzie by surname, son and heir of the Earl of Cromartie, was attainted along with his father for rising in the ’45, fled abroad to serve as a soldier of fortune, but in the hour of his country’s need returned to offer the service of his sword and influence (“Book of Cromartie ”). The sequel was the raising of two fine battalions of Highlanders. And, while the 1st battalion was hotly fighting in India, the 2nd was sharpening the sword at Plymouth when the combined fleets of France and Spain appeared in the offing of the Ram-head, sending a thrill of anxious concern quivering through the land. This was a huge armada, but, like most combinations of the kind, it lacked cohesion and did little harm, thanks to the alertness of our British sailors (Mahan’s “Sea Power”).

To wrest Gibraltar from our grip was Spain’s prime reason in making war upon us; it was part of her own natural soil and an eyesore in the hands of the British. So on the 21st June 1779 she besieged the historic Rock which grim General Elliot held with a garrison of 5,382 men all told. Gibraltar stands at the extremity of an isthmus running north and south. Its north or landward end consists of a high rock rising from a comparatively level neck of sand; on the east side the rock springs sheer from the sea, but on the west it slopes up more gently from the water. The Spanish plan of operations was to throw up a strong line of fortifications right across the isthmus whence they could pelt the garrison with heavy artillery, and to cut off supplies with a coalition fleet at sea. Though Gibraltar is naturally very strong, if the allies could hold the sea the capitulation of the garrison was only a matter of time; but that if they had to tackle, and the sequel shows that the it was too much for them.

By the end of the year, and after a siege of six months, the supplies at Gibraltar were running so low that General Elliot experimented upon himself as to how little rice sufficed to sustain a grown-up person, and actually lived for eight days upon four ounces a day. Admiral Rodney, however, whose hands were full enough elsewhere up to that time, slipped away with a fleet from Plymouth on the 27th December, convoying supplies and carrying the 73rd or Lord Macleod’s Highlanders. He h^d the good fortune to come athwart a richly laden fleet of Spanish merchantmen in the Bay of Biscay which he easily captured, and on the 16th January 1780 bore down to the south-east of Cape St Vincent upon a strong Spanish war fleet under Don Juan de Langara, which he practically annihilated, capturing the admiral (Mahan’s “Sea Power”).

Shortly afterwards Rodney sailed triumphantly into Gibraltar Bay laden with spoil, replenished the garrison stores and disembarked the Highlanders. When the Highlanders left Plymouth they were intended to reinforce the garrison of Minorca, but after a council of war and at the earnest entreaty of General Elliot they were left at Gibraltar to strengthen his depleted force. Captain Drinkwater, in his “History of the Siege of Gibraltar,” says:—“Their strength at this time was 30 officers, 6 staff* officers, 50 serjeants, 22 drummers, and 944 rank and file ; an excellent reinforcement in our situation since the scurvy had already begun to appear among us.”

Rodney, having effected his immediate purpose, sailed away to police the home waters, and left the garrison to keep the Spaniards at bay.

Although the Spanish had collected a considerable fleet to blockade the Rock, enterprising British and foreign ships laden with corn, fruit, sheep, &c., managed to run in from time to time during the night, and found shelter at the New Mole under the guns of the fort, where a few small British ships of war lay. It was to destroy these that the enemy sent nine fire-ships into the bay on the morning of the 7th June 1780; but their efforts were vain, for the British tars with great gallantry towed them to a place of safety, and from these same fire-ships most acceptable fuel for the garrison was afterwards obtained.

Since Rodney brought supplies to Gibraltar in January 1780, until it was relieved again by Admiral Darby on 12th April 1781, the garrison suffered much from the fire of the enemy’s batteries, from the lack of food, and from consequent scurvy. In some instances the food brought by foreign ships running the blockade was secretly purchased by Jewish merchants on the Rock who sold it to the garrison at ransom prices. And when the great bombardment took place on the arrival of Darby it was found that these merchants had larger stores hidden away than was expected. It was the exasperation provoked at the discovery of these hidden stores (“Siege of Gibraltar”) that led the famishing soldiers to commit the excesses of which Macdonald complains. As they came upon casks of brandy, which the fugitive merchants left behind them in their haste, the ardent spirits naturally did not improve their temper, but this was the only case of excess during the long siege.

The relief brought by Darby only increased the vigour of the enemy; they brought up more troops, poured in a hotter fire, and made redoubled efforts to advance their lines nearer the Rock. Elliot, however, bided his time, and when he was ready struck hard. In the sortie of the 26th November 1781, which Macdonald so graphically describes, he gave his foes a staggering blow which kept them silent for a considerable time. The wounded Spanish officer who was captured, and who afterwards died, was Baron Von Helmstadt of the Walloon Guards, and the other was Don Vincente Freeze. From the plan of the sortie, given by Drinkwater, we notice that the grenadier and light companies of Lord Macleod’s Highlanders stormed the central and strongest fort in the enemy’s lines that night.

On the night of 23rd March 1782, two frigates, a storeship, and four transports with the 97th regiment on board got through the Spanish fleet to Gibraltar, and on the 12th April following Rodney decisively defeated a strong French fleet under De Grasse in the West Indies. But the allies were determined to reduce Gibraltar and to this end collected a large fleet at Algeziras, built specially prepared floating batteries, greatly increased their land forces, and were so sure of success that two Bourbon princes came into the camp to grace the expected victory. When the attack came off, however, on the 13th September 1782, the victory was to the British, for General Elliot with his red-hot balls made a bonfire of the enemy’s floating batteries after a tremendous mutual pounding. And on the 10th October following, Lord Howe with a British fleet convoyed supplies to the garrison in the teeth of a very much-stronger allied fleet, who failed to contest the passage.

The failure of the grand attack on the 13th September followed so closely by Lord Howe’s success in provisioning the garrison demonstrated to the allies what a hard nut they had to crack in Gibraltar. Peace came on the 20th January 1783, and brought to a close the memorable siege, after running its course of three years and a half. During all this time the French and Spanish fought gallantly on shore, but the garrison on the Rock fought with at least equal gallantry, and, backed by the sea power of Britain, more than held their own in a never-to-be-forgotten tug of war.

Macdonald’s subsequent service with Lord Heathfield, his trip to India, and his voyage to China are so fully described in his own journal that we do not feel called upon to make any comment. When in 1793 war broke out again between France and Britain, the Government, apprehensive of a rising in Ireland, embodied fencible regiments to garrison that island. Among those raised in the north were the Caithness Legion, the Sutherland Fencibles, and the Reay Fencibles. The latter regiment, in which Macdonald served for a short time, distinguished itself at Tara Hill in 1798, and was not disbanded till 1802. Although its numbers were reduced in 1796, before 1798 it was increased again to at least seven full companies, and in the latter year its lieutenant-colonel, Mackay of Bighouse, died. To his memory the regiment raised a monument in the Bighouse Aisle, Reay.

The volunteers to whom Macdonald refers in connection with the burial of Captain Mackay of Skerray, were a local force embodied in 1798, and drawing pay at home like the fencibles. All the men who could be spared out of the country were serving in Ireland with the Reay Fencibles, and those who were absolutely required at home banded themselves together into this volunteer militia. In Strathnaver alone there were five companies of this force, but then every ablebodied man served in the ranks (“Book of Mackay,” p. 227).

After Macdonald’s re-settlement in the parish of Tongue he makes frequent reference to the periodic epidemics which scourged these northern parts, during one of which Captain Mackay of Skerray was taken away. These painful visitations were due to the utter lack of sanitary knowledge prevalent not only in the north but in the large towns of the south. Within the memory of people still living the strands of Edinburgh were such vile smelling sewers that during hot weather passers-by had to cover the nose with their pocket handkerchiefs; and at the same time to keep a sharp look-out for the contents of slop pails from upper windows, when the warning cry gardez vous rang out. Since this was the case in Edinburgh not so long ago, the state of matters in the north may be more easily imagined than described. What with rotting manure heaps at the doors, filtering into their wells, the wonder is that people survived at all. And when fell disease struck, the only remedy almost was bleeding!

One is also struck with the kindly references Macdonald makes to the tacksmen of these northern parts, and especially to the Mackays of Skerray. That there were many among them of conspicuous humanity and piety is undoubted, but the land system under which they flourished was barbarous to a degree. The smaller tenants as a rule held their land off the tacksman, who held his land off the proprietor. The tacksman not only drew rent from his sub-tenants but feudal service as well, and had it in his power to evict at pleasure. A selfish, hardhearted tacksman could be a terrible tyrant, for his sub-tenants were to a large extent serfs. To explode such a system France had her revolution and Russia is having hers, but we mercifully escaped such a calamity by making just and timeous concessions to the people. May not our peaceful evolution be ascribed to the growing power of God’s Word over peer and peasant? We think so indeed.

When peace came in 1815 after Waterloo, it was followed by a great depression of trade and poverty all over the country, and the north was no exception to the general rule. The country was impoverished by a long and exhausting war, the labour market was glutted by discharged soldiers who could find no employment, the harvest of 1816 was a poor one, and the winter following was so stormy that much stock died. Lord Reay, writing in 1826, says :—

“The estate was let in 1815 when produce was perhaps at the highest, and if prices had continued the returns [rent of estate] would be about 13,000. The year 1816 was the most severe that has occurred since, and with tacksmen so circumstanced in means, and holding such extensive farms, it was both reasonable and politic that indulgence and every accommodation on my part should be shown them. I consequently did take bills ” (“Reay Papers”).

A large dealer, writing in 1821, proceeds: —“The best cheviot sheep in this neighbourhood will not average more than from 10s. to 11s. I bought famous ones to-day at 10s. 6d. clad, and cheviot wedders will not average more than 17s. or 18s.” (“Reay Papers”).

The fact is, many of the tacksmen became bankrupt, as the “Reay Papers” show. In these circumstances small wonder though Macdonald found himself in straitened circumstances when his stepson Macpherson returned from the war on a wooden leg.

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