The earliest major emigration from the Western Isles of Scotland was to Virginia and the Carolinas, but this was not, as it is often pictured, the flight of impoverished and demoralised peasantry, forced to leave their land. On the contrary, it was a well-prepared move by some of the wealthier classes in the Highlands and Islands to set up a New Highlands in a New World.
To many people the history of the Scottish Gael is that of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 and of the Highland Clearances, but to begin here is to come in half way through the story. The destruction of their civilisation had begun long before this, and the economic forces responsible were having their effect in earlier centuries also. The strength of the clan chiefs had originally been in their armed followers, and their power had depended on the number of trained fighting men they could command in time of trouble. In return, their men were secure in their holdings of land, in the knowledge that too flagrant an abuse of the chief’s power could lead to the refusal of his followers to fight in his battles. It was often an uneasy balance, but in general it led to a fairly stable society.
The chiefs let land to tacksmen, usually their own close relatives or junior branches of their family, in return for a rent, often in kind though sometimes in cash, and for armed support in time of war. So MacLeod of Berneray in Harris, who was a Jacobite supporter in 1745, while his chief in Dunvegan supported the Government, sent armed men to support his chief, as was his obligation under his lease, with a note that “I place at your disposal the 20 men of your tribe under my immediate command and in any other quarrel would not fail to be at their head, but in the present juncture, I must go where a more imperious duty calls me.”
But, by the time of the ’45, this type of social structure was fast disappearing. Many clan chiefs began to forget the ties of kinship, and to let the tacks on their estates on wholly financial considerations, to the highest bidder. This new type of tacksman had no need for the armed support of his tenants either, and so the amount of rent that they could be made to pay became his prime consideration.
Many of the old tacksmen had been involved in trading with Virginia – Kenneth Campbell on the Island of Taransay off the west coast of Harris had been trading directly with the tobacco merchants of Virginia, and there were still tobacco plants growing in the ruins of his garden there until recently. The Carolinas in particular seemed a suitable place to which a tacksman could transport his entire family and tenantry, to try to keep up a social position which was now being denied to him in Scotland. Many of the Skye tacksmen made the move, together with some families each from Lewis and Harris.
Donald Campbell of the Isle of Scalpay, off the west coast of Harris, had been a Government supporter in 1745, but when the fugitive Prince turned up at his house seeking shelter, Campbell found the obligations of hospitality much more important than the reward offered for the Prince’s capture, and not only gave him shelter but also chased off the island the local minister, who had arrived with soldiers to arrest the Prince and claim the £30,000 reward. In the 1760s Donald decided that the rent increases being sought by his landlord, MacLeod of Dunvegan, were more than the farm was worth, and emigrated with many of his sub-tenants to Cumberland County in North Carolina.
Another Harris tacksman to make the same move was Donald’s son-in-law Alexander MacLeod, tacksman of the Island of Pabbay, off the south-west coast of Harris, and of St. Kilda, fifty miles out in the Atlantic. He emigrated in 1774 and settled near his father-in-law. The intention was that the tacksmen would secure their social standing in the new world by setting up another clan system, with themselves as the chiefs and their tenants as clan followers, but the system did not transplant well, and many of their tenants drifted away to set up in their own right on new land.
When the American War of Independence broke out, most of the Skye and Harris tacksmen joined the British Army, and were soundly defeated at the Battle of Moore’s Creek in 1776. Donald Campbell, by then an old man, had not joined the army and was able to remain in Carolina, but MacLeod of St. Kilda lost two of his brothers in the battle, and was himself captured and imprisoned, eventually dying penniless in Charlestown in 1782. Many of the survivors of the war had to leave the new USA, and went as United Empire Loyalists to Canada, especially to Nova Scotia, or returned to Scotland, like Allan MacDonald of Kingsburgh in Skye and his wife, the celebrated Flora MacDonald. Others no doubt lived on in Carolina but had lost their estates and incomes, and were reduced to relative poverty.
Some Island families had refused to fight for the British Government in the revolution, and most of the families who came from Lewis seem to have been among this group. Daniel MacLeod from Balallan in Lewis and his cousin Rev John MacAulay appear to have been the leaders of this emigration, but there were also some families who had emigrated at first to Pennsylvania and then migrated to Carolina, among them a group of Morrisons who claimed descent from the last Brieve of Lewis – the Brieve was a judge who derived his authority from the old Lordship of the Isles and retained much of his status even after the collapse of the Lordship.
Other families who are known to have left from Lewis include the brothers John and Kenneth MacIver, who lived in Chatham County, North Carolina, before moving to Tennessee, and John and Colin MacIver, brothers who were merchants in Alexandra in Virginia. Other families from Lewis were heading for Philadelphia, and we are fortunate to have the passenger list for one of their ships, the Friendship of Philadelphia, which left Stornoway in 1777.
Of course the landlords were unhappy at the prospect of losing tried tenants, and many estates offered reductions of rents if their tacksmen would stay. In Lewis the estate even took the step of court action to prevent Thomas Jann, Master of the Friendship of Philadelphia from “decoying, enlisting, indenting or otherwise seducing the ignorant inhabitants of this Island to emigrate to foreign parts, in order, as is believed, to sell and make merchandise of them.”
So there are several groups of families from the Western Isles who found themselves in the Carolinas and Virginia. Can they be traced genealogically? The families of the tacksmen who remained there can probably be traced. They would have kept good records of their land and possession – Donald Campbell of Scalpay’s will is reproduced in a Volume of Cumberland County Wills, for example – and there will be records in the Island Estate Papers, where these exist, showing their replacement as tacksman. The tenants and subtenants who went with them are much more difficult; they would have been wholly Gaelic-speaking, and their names would have been in the Gaelic patronymic form, not in English-style surnames. When the new American authorities took over, these people would have been re-named, often taking the names of their old tacksmen. The authorities would have been unable either to spell or to pronounce many of the names, and so we get versions such as McKeever for MacIver, McCloud for MacLeod etc. Others again would have used the name of their old home, and so we find surnames such as Lewis and Harris, which in Britain are usually Welsh, but in the Carolinas may be Hebridean.
Whether we at Co Leis Thu? can trace families from this area depends greatly on the amount of information with which we can be provided. If only the later names of the settlers are known, the chances of identification with an Island family are small. If however names or nicknames or patronymics of Scottish origin are remembered, then the chances are greatly improved. We have to remember that these can become altered in pronunciation and in transcription, so that the older the reference the better.
I am sure that a client will not object if I mention her own family of MacLeods who were nicknamed, apparently, MacForth. This made no sense in Gaelic, until we realised that the MacForth was not a name in an original document, but in a transcription of one since lost in a fire. When we began to think of what could have been mis-read by the transcriber as MacForth, we came up with the suggestion of MacTorkle, a phonetic spelling of the patronymic MacThorcuill, son of Torquil. The Daniel MacLeod from Balallan who we mentioned above as one of the organisers of emigration from Lewis, was himself mac Dhomhnaill mhic Iain mhic Thorcuill, and it seems a reasonable assumption that our MacForths were of the same family.
It is this kind of “sideways” clue which is so necessary in tracing families from this early emigration from the Western Isles, and clearly the chances of making a positive identification are small – but they do exist, and we have quite frequently been able to suggest the group of families to which an emigrant will have belonged, even if we cannot positively identify his place within that group.
Relations between the new USA and Britain were not good for many years, and we find that the next wave of emigrants went, not to the USA, but to Prince Edward Island in Canada and to Gulf Shore, on the coast of Nova Scotia opposite the Island. These will be the subject of our next article.