September 1773

Wednesday the 15th of September 1773 was a very wet day and not at all ideal for the arrival of the emigrant ship at the harbour of Loch Bracadale in Skye. The gentlemen of the clan (MacLeod) went away early in the morning to take leave of some of their friends who were going to America. So wrote James Boswell in his Journal of his tour of the Hebrides with Dr. Samuel Johnson.

 "We come thither too late to see what we expected, a people of peculiar appearance, and a system of antiquated life. The clans retain little now of their original character, their ferocity of temper is softened, their military ardour is extinguished, their dignity of independence is depressed, their contempt of government subdued, and their reverence for their chiefs abated". These were Dr. Johnson's observation on the condition of the people of the Highlands in 1773.

Notwithstanding the doctor's well earned reputation for, as Boswell put it, "philosophical dignity, superiority of wisdom and learning, and a flashing wit", it would I believe be sensible to interrogate his observations in fact rather than through the lens of a London centric intellectual, however well gifted. I will return to this later.

In September  of 1773 our intrepid travellers found themselves the guests of MacLeod of MacLeod at Dunvegan. Boswell's Journal further records

 "Our money was now near an end. He (Donald MacLeod) went to Loch Bracadale today and took with him a bill of mine for £30 drawn on Sir W. Forbes & Co. to his order, for which he was to get money for me from the master of the vessel which carries away the emigrants".

Six years later the wife of Sir William Forbes ( Sir W Forbes & Co.) would give birth to a daughter. She would be called Rebecca.

If it was very wet in Dunvegan on the morning 15th of September it might well have been equally dreich in Invergarry where Marjory, wife to Duncan MacDonell, 14th Chief of Glengarry, gave birth later that same day to a son and heir. He would be called Alexander, but is better known to history as Alasdair Ranaldson.

In 1802 Alasdair Ranaldson and Rebecca Forbes were married.

And so I now propose to leave Boswell and Johnson enjoying the climate of the Misty Isle and turn my attention to the birth of Alexander (Alasdair Ranaldson).

Duncan MacDonell married Marjory Grant on the 5th of December 1772. Marjory was a daughter of Sir Ludovick Grant of Dalvey, 6th Baronet. The Grants of Dalvey being a relatively minor cadet branch of Clan Grant, it is interesting to note that she came to the marriage with a substantial dowry. Upon further investigation one discovers that the family had previously had significant business investments in Jamaica which in turn had involved them in large scale slave ownership.  Although her father was styled the 6th Baronet this can be a little misleading. The family as styled "of Dalvey" were of fairly recent construction, particularly when set against that of the MacDonells of Glengarry. This may in part explain Norman H. MacDonald's observation that "she lost no time in taking the full advantage of her new social position to clear off all the remaining debts, and raise the position of the Glengarry family to one of aggrandisement".

This clearing of the remaining debts is understood to include the removal of Wadsetts which were, we are told, very old and therefore rather lucrative to those who held them. From a commercial point of view this was a very sensible policy and opened up the opportunity for the Glengarry family to significantly increase their income. A casualty of the policy was the loss of the class of Wadsetter, the middle ranking "gentlemen" of the Clan. By 1773 the historical role of these gentlemen was already something of an anachronism. However the swift and abrupt manner in which these Wadsetts were redeemed must have come as a shock. For the previous 12 years their chief (Duncan) had been content to allow things to continue very much as before. Then Marjory appears on the scene with ambitions and funds. The good old days were over. To be fair to Marjory (as one must) there is little doubt that these changes were inevitable, but without her influence they might have been more gradual, thus giving the Wadsetters time to adjust.

As it was, on the 15th of September 1773 as the future Alasdair Ranaldson entered the world, a ship carrying many of the gentlemen of Glengarry together with their families and tenants, was already some two weeks into a six week voyage from Fort William to New York. Plans for such an emigration would have taken some time to organise and consequently it seems obvious that key decisions were taken immediately following the marriage of Duncan to Marjory, or possibly even earlier when the betrothal was first announced.

We now leave Marjory and her new baby in peace and turn our thoughts to HMS Pearl, tossing about in mid Atlantic.

We are told that the Pearl emigrants arrived in New York on the 18th of October 1773 after a six week voyage. There appears to be no surviving passenger list and much scholarship and time has been given over to try and reconstruct these details from later records. As this information is available elsewhere I do not propose to repeat it here other than in the most general terms.

Marianne McLean ( The People of Glengarry) calculates 425 clansmen (including 125 men, 100 women, and 200 children)...This large emigrant party included a group of some 300 Highlanders... W.L. Scott advises a total of some six hundred Souls. Norman H MacDonald (The Clan Ranald of Knoydart & Glengarry) reports a party of over 600.  Jenni Calder (Scots in Canada ) claims that the group was around 400 and that 25 of the children died from smallpox during the voyage.

Some of these estimated numbers are challenged on the basis that the ship would have been unable to accommodate so many and it has even been suggested that there may have been a second vessel. I have found no evidence to support that hypothesis.

In the years immediately preceding 1773 there was a great deal of pressure on the UK government to restrain emigration. It was considered that "the great emigration of the inhabitants was prejudicial to the landed interests, the commerce, and the manufactures of the kingdom". In short the labour force necessary to support the elite and the emerging Industrial Revolution was being eroded both in quantity and quality (see Voyagers to the West by Bernard Bailyn). Against this background I find it of particular interest that the ship "made available" for the Glengarry emigrants was a frigate of the Royal Navy. It is no longer possible to retrieve details of the conditions of the contract between passengers and carrier. Were they responsible for their own maintenance or was food and water supplied?.  Jenni Calder gives us a useful insight into standards and costs available elsewhere in 1773.

The Bachelor, chartered in 1773 from James Inglis, Leith, allowed 4lbs of meal, 5lbs of bread biscuit, 2lbs of beef, 2lbs of barley and pease, 1lb molasses and 6 gallons of water per adult passenger per week. Children under eight had half rations. Passage costs £6 for adults and £3 for children.

The apparent generosity of these rations should perhaps be viewed in the context of the uncertainty of the duration of the voyage, which could result in extreme shortages,  and the unavoidable deterioration in quality of both food and water over that time. The account of the conditions on board the Hector sailing from Loch Broom to Pictou, Canada that same year, vividly describes just how appalling the conditions could be.

One matter which meets with universal agreement is that the Pearl expedition was organised and led by three brothers, namely...

John MacDonell of Leek;  Allan MacDonell of Cullachy and Archibald MacDonell of Aberchalder. They were joined by their brother in law Ranald MacDonell Ardnabie and their first cousin John MacDonell Crowlin (Spanish John). These men represent a substantial proportion of the "gentlemen" of the clan. Taken together with their wives, children and tenants, and always remembering that they were all self financed, this exodus impoverished the lands of Glengarry in both human and material respects. It is said that between them they took some £6000 Sterling out of the economy. We have already noted the scarcity of coin in circulation in the Highlands at that time in the extract from Boswell's Journal.

Referring back to Johnson's observations on the condition of the Highland people, and excepting only his comment on their reverence for their chief having abated, I suggest that the initiative and courage shown by the passengers on the Pearl contradict  his observations in all other respects. Their dignity was intact, their military ardour would be well demonstrated in their new country, and their support of government and the Crown was never in question.

That being so how do we explain the enterprise shown by the emigrants and the opinion expressed by Dr. Johnson?. Firstly he could clearly only form an opinion based on those whom he met. Secondly with the flood of self funded emigrants already well under way, many of those who were left behind had remained simply because they were too poor to do otherwise. The period of subsidised emigration had not yet arrived. Consequently it is entirely possible that many of the people that Dr Johnson met in Skye did fit very neatly into his characterisation. His error was then to generalise across all of Highland society.

The Doctor was however entirely correct in his observation when he noted "that their reverence for their chiefs abated". The passengers on the Pearl had chosen to follow their Leaders in defiance of their Chief. The fracture in the relationship between a Chief and his clansmen had been a deliberate policy of government following Culloden. By 1773 this policy had achieved its purpose.

2023 will mark the 250th anniversary of the sailing of the Pearl. Perhaps those of us who were left behind should mark the occasion.

Charles MacDonell.

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