A Highland community will gather on Sunday to remember the victims of a "deplorable" maritime tragedy that claimed the lives of 81 people, mainly children and held no one accountable for their avoidable deaths.

A memorial service will be held for the first time in the village of Dornoch, in Sutherland, to mark the 250th anniversary of the doomed sailing of the Nancy which was carrying emigrants to New York.

On September 17, 1773, 280 men, women, and children embarked on the ship, which was captained by George Smith.

By the time it landed, in mid-December, 81 people had perished owing to the "disgracefully overcrowded conditions" including all but one of the seven pregnant women and their babies.

A lurid report the following January stated that 50 of the victims were young children and that they were starved and otherwise cruelly treated by Captain Smith.

On January 15, Smith is said to have sailed from New York at four in the morning bound for Charleston, apparently to avoid the consequences of what was believed to have been his "inhuman behaviour.”

"Although the captain clearly felt that he was in the wrong because he fled New York, there was no way of bringing him to book for what had happened because it had happened on the high seas," says David Bell, whose late father carried out some of the earliest research into the tragedy and set up the local museum.

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 "America was at that point just a set of states, it was just before the American war of Independence so it was probably safe to move between states if you were trying to escape justice."

His own research established that The Scots Magazine was the only publication that followed the tragedy here.

The Herald:

He also discovered a piece in the Virginia Gazette which reported in January 1774 of the "deplorable" tale of the Highlanders who had lately arrived from Scotland.

The Herald:

The author writes: "We are told that 280 souls were shipped in a very small vessel, that on the passage there proved to be an extreme scarcity of provisions, and that 81 persons died on shipboard.”

The massive social and economic changes that followed the failed Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 were the main drivers of an upsurge in emigration from the Highlands in the second half of the 18th century to escape a grindingly hard existence.

Robert Gray of Creich, an intermediate land-holder, organised a visit to Dornoch by some Glasgow merchants who were interested in taking a cargo of “servants” to America.

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This would likely be to enter indentured servitude, where individuals work for nothing until they have repaid a loan.

According to records, Gray was one of the “freighters” of the voyage of the Nancy and William Parker of Leith was the owner.

Together they arranged for the ship to carry passengers from Dornoch to New York.

The price for chartering the ship was 650 guineas. Half was to be paid on July 27th 1773 with the remainder on embarkation.

"A mixture of rent increases and bad harvests meant that they just couldn't come up with the money so they are then in a position where the captain has brought the boat up and what they do is take a big chance on the food they were able to buy which plainly wasn't enough and then the voyage was difficult," said Mr Bell, who is an emeritus professor of economics at Stirling University and lives in Dornoch.

The Nancy ran into bad weather almost immediately. Shelter had to be taken in Stromness and off the coast of Ireland. The captain refused to take the passengers ashore, even though they were often close to the coast. There was no cook and the food was inadequate.

Smith and his crew fed well and refused to share with the emigrants. Gradually passengers succumbed to starvation, disease and some to injury caused by the crew.

"The voyage was difficult but you can't take away from the fact that the captain treated them very cruelly," said Prof Bell.

" They were pretty much stuck below deck without a decent place to sleep. There was probably dysentery, there was certainly hunger, the hygiene must have been terrible."

Prof Bell said that "unbelievably" Smith charged 6d for each of the passengers the crew committed to a watery grave.

Of the 50 children aged four or less, all died but one. Of the seven women who were delivered on board, all died but one, as did all of their children. 

The Nancy arrived in New York sometime in December 1773. Little was known of their troubles for some days, by which time Smith had fled to the Carolinas, fearing retribution.

The people of New York took pity on the Highlanders and sought to alleviate their dire situation.

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By chance, the Rev Dr John Witherspoon was in New York at that time. He was later to achieve fame as one of the two Scots to sign the Declaration of Independence and as an influential president of Princeton University.

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But on this occasion, he preached a special sermon in the Presbyterian Church which raised £80 for the relief of the emigrants from Dornoch.

The captain and owner of the Nancy both sought to exonerate themselves from blame. Smith wrote to the New York Journal from Wilmington, North Carolina in February 1774 acknowledging that he left Dornoch with insufficient food for the journey, but argued that there had not been any cruelty to any of the passengers. 

William Parker argued that the payment for the voyage had not been what had been agreed and that more passengers than expected had gathered in Dornoch. There was no further investigation and the start of the American War of Independence in 1776 brought this wave of emigration from the Highlands to America to an abrupt halt.

There is no trace of what happened to the survivors after they arrived in New York but the Dornoch community hope to change this.

"This is the first time it has been marked in Dornoch," said Prof Bell. "We are going to erect a permanent reminder on the beach and the museum will carry much more detail of what happened.

"I think there will be an attempt to contact the descendants of the survivors although ti may be tricky but there may be court records of who was arriving in the city and this is something we are going to seek out."