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From Sutherland to Winnipeg: the exiles of Kildonan

The snow was still deep on the ground, but spirits were high among the exiled Highlanders.

The Kildonan settlers were turned away from Fort Churchill upon their arrival from Scotland. A statue in Winnipeg now memorialises their ordeal.
The Kildonan settlers were turned away from Fort Churchill upon their arrival from Scotland. A statue in Winnipeg now memorialises their ordeal.

With piper Donald Gunn at their head, they were taking the first steps on the final 800 miles of their journey to the place where they planned to build new lives - a journey which today still takes 69 hours on a train.

Perhaps some of the 31 men and 20 women closed their eyes for a second and saw the glen in Sutherland they had left behind 4000 miles away. There were 94 of them when, in June 1813, they decided to depart the Strath of Kildonan which carries the River Helmsdale to the North Sea.

The strath was where their forebears lived for generations, making money on cattle. But the man whose name became synonymous with eviction, Patrick Sellar, and other agents of the House of Sutherland, had plans for them. They were to be moved to the inhospitable north coast to allow the "improvements" that would swap people for sheep, ordered by the soon-to-be First Duke of Sutherland.

The people tried to resist, driving out the shepherds who arrived in January 1813 in what became known as the Kildonan Riots. But many started to look westwards and decided to take up the offer of land around the Red River in North America which had been acquired by the Earl of Selkirk, a forebear of Lord James Douglas Hamilton, now Lord Selkirk in his turn. Some died of typhus, but those who survived and perservered against huge odds were to help found Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba.

Twin statues now stand to their memory. One in the Canadian city, which has a district called Kildonan, and the other in the village of Helmsdale. The title of the former is Exiles, the latter Emigrants.

It is 200 years ago this month since the Highlanders set out on one of the most dangerous stages of their journey from the western shores of Hudson Bay to Red River. The older and unfit were left to follow by sea in the summer.

The story of those who started walking from Hudson Bay to their ultimate destination reads like a film script. It has fascinated the historian James Hunter ever since he published his acclaimed history of the Highland diaspora A Dance Called America. Formerly of the University of the Highlands and Islands, Professor Hunter has gone back to Canada to piece together the real story of the Kildonan settlers. It will be a chapter in his new book on the Sutherland clearances.

The work is due to be published by Birlinn next year but Professor Hunter is sharing his researches with The Herald to mark the bicentenary of this crucial stage in their journey. His title, Set Adrift Upon The World, recalls what one of those about to be evicted said of his people's fate: "It would be as well for them to be killed as set adrift upon the world."

Hunter says it is difficult today to get our minds round the plight of the Highlanders as they prepared to start walking through a foreign land two centuries ago. "Those people were 10 months into what was arguably the most gruelling and protracted journey ever made by emigrants from Europe to North America. A disease-blighted Atlantic crossing and a bitter Hudson Bay winter were both behind them. But they remained 800 miles short of their intended destination, the Earl of Selkirk's Red River colony."

The freezing conditions were a particular threat. "Daytime air temperature of -49C with the windchill factor is unknown in Scotland," says Hunter. "Cold that seeps through even half-a-dozen layers of clothing. How on earth, you wonder, did anyone - let alone people so recently scourged by illness - tolerate this, and much worse, for month after month after month?" These were the same Highland people described by Sellar as the aborigines who were characterised mainly by their sloth, poverty and filth.

The Kildonan settlers (including the great-grandfather of a later Canadian prime minister, John Diefenbaker) had to get from Fort Churchill on Hudson Bay to the Hudson Bay Company's (HBC) main base further down the coast at a place called York Factory. From there, they would head south carrying two heavy York boats for use on the Hayes and Hill Rivers, the Oxford Lake, Knee Lake, Playgreen Lake and Lake Winnipeg.

They hadn't got far before serious problems emerged. There was the snow blindness caused by the glare of the sun reflecting from huge expanses of ice and snow. There was also crippling cramp from prolonged use of snowshoes, a type of repetitive strain injury. But apparently the treatment of both conditions was similar: a herbal laxative and then bleeding with 10 to 16 ounces of blood recommended. One who suffered this treatment was the piper's sister. The man who was leading the party, Archibald McDonald from Glencoe, recorded in his log: "I bleed Mary Gunn who is very poorly with her eyes."

When it wasn't the dazzling effect of the sun on snow, there were blizzards which engulfed the settlers and there was also the ever-present risk of frostbite. They had known severe winters in Sutherland but nothing like this. Archibald McDonald recalled: "The party kept close order, but could not see above 30 yards … the guide expressed himself much afraid of not making out the way."

Leadership had been thrust upon McDonald. Just a few days after the Prince of Wales - the vessel carrying the settlers - left Orkney, one of the ship's passengers fell ill. She was a woman who had spent several nights in a Stromness home where typhus was later reported. Soon the symptoms spread through the ship. The Sutherland people were housed in airless and increasingly insanitary conditions that served perfectly to transmit the disease.

One of the first passengers to die was Peter LaSerre, a Jersey-born surgeon hired by the Earl of Selkirk to provide his Red River colony with a resident doctor. Selkirk had put LaSerre in charge of the Sutherland emigrants. With the surgeon's death, responsibility devolved to his second-in-command, Archibald McDonald, who was just 23. One of the main reasons he was selected by the earl was because he was bilingual, while many of the settlers could only speak Gaelic.

He needed all his communication skills. As it was going through the Hudson Strait, the waterway which links the North Atlantic to Hudson Bay, the Prince of Wales was holed by an iceberg. Soon there was four feet of seawater in the hold.

With half his crew either dead or out of action, the captain decided to get into port as soon as possible. So instead of steering as planned for York Factory, he set course for the more northerly Fort Churchill, which was closer. The HBC, however, wouldn't let them into the fort because of the typhus. In truth, the HBC officials were far from welcoming and did as little as possible for them. In the end, the newcomers managed to build log cabins and survive the winter.

When they eventually made it to Red River in June 1814, their fortunes hardly improved. The arrangements for establishing them on the land did not work as promised. "I was a good deal disappointed," was how the piper Robert Gunn recorded his feelings in something of an understatement.

The First Nation Cree and Saulteaux people were welcoming and taught them to hunt buffalo. However, the emigrant Highland fur traders of the North West Company, known as Nor'westers and rivals to the HBC, didn't want them around Red River interfering in their commercial interests. Meanwhile the Metis, the mostly French and Michif-speaking mixed race people of indigenous and European descent, didn't want them either.

Intriguingly, the Metis were led by a young man called Cuthbert Grant whose mother was of Cree and Quebecois background and whose father was a fur trader from Strathspey.

Hunter observes: "Ironically, indeed tragically, they saw the settlers as a serious threat to their way of life just as the Kildonan people had seen the sheep farmers and their shepherds. The dispossessed now looked like dispossessors."

The Metis and the Nor'westers were convinced the Kildonan people should be in Upper Canada - now Ontario - where there were many more settlers, rather than in what at that time was the most remote outpost of European settlements. So they set about persuading them - settlers' horses were killed, a bull slaughtered, cattle worried by dogs, homes fired on and, on at least one occasion, settlers taken into temporary captivity.

Within a year, about half of the Sutherland folk who had made it to Red River decided to head to Upper Canada, another 1000 miles away, transported by the North West Company canoe fleet. They were probably the only European settlers to arrive in Ontario from the west.

At the end of June 1815, those who remained took to boats and, by way of Lake Winnipeg, made it to the HBC post at Jack River. Next day their vacated homes were burned by the Metis.

However , there was a twist in this move, as Hunter records. "It resulted in the abandoned settlement's demoralised escapees acquiring fresh and more effective leadership in the shape of Colin Robertson. Flamboyant, hard-drinking and aggressive, Robertson, who grew up in Perthshire, had some years before forsaken the North West Company for the HBC."

This colourful character had become convinced that if the HBC were ever to prevail over the North West Company, it needed to emulate its rival's ruthless methods. His maxim was: "When you are among wolves, howl." He howled to good effect.

He led the 30-odd settlers back to Red River. He supervised the rebuilding of their houses and the gathering of such crops as had survived the Metis. He also disarmed the Nor'westers and imprisoned their local leader until he undertook not to harass the Kildonan people any further.

Robertson subsequently wrote to the Earl of Selkirk: "The crops look well. The wheat and barley are housed; the people are now busy with the hay … The settlement … [possesses] without exception the most fertile and the easiest cultivated soil I ever saw. It is a perfect paradise."

This prairie paradise was to become Canada's breadbasket.

The emigrants are not forgotten back in Sutherland. Timespan Museum in Helmsdale is currently exploring the life of Canada's 13th prime minister, John Diefenbaker, who visited Kildonan twice.

Last year, descendants of the settlers came to mark the 200th anniversary of their ancestors' departure from Scotland.

Timespan's Jacquie Aitken recalls there was a service in old Kildonan Church, which bears a plaque in the emigrants' memory. "The haunting sound of Gaelic singing entranced the packed church as they sat in sad reflection," she recalls.

There was also a ceremony at Helmsdale Harbour. A line of candles was lit to represent the latitude from Helmsdale to Red River in Canada. n

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