McLennans and other Scots early in Canada

Highlanders early in Western Canada

In the tiny parish of Avoch on the Black Isle we find the maple-leaf flag alongside the memorial to Sir Alexander Mackenzie.  Like so many early settlers in Canada, Alexander had grown up on the Isle of Lewis.  After his mother died, in 1774 he had migrated with his father to New York.  However, as loyalists, following the Revolution, he moved to Montreal where he found work with a fur trader that became part of the North-West Company.

The Nor’Westers were mostly from Gaelic-speaking Highland families who had supported the Jacobite cause: McTavish, McGillivray, Fraser etc.  Simon McTavish provided the inspiration for these families to work together.  His father from near Dores on Loch Ness had fought for the Jacobites at both Falkirk and Culloden.  At the age of 43 Simon married Marie-Marguerite Chaboillez, daughter of a long-standing (French) fur trading family.

The Nor’Westers famously used trusted Quebecois and mixed-native “voyageurs” to power and portage their unique canoes.  They could paddle for long days and carry heavy bundles of furs around falls etc – singing as they went.  Near today’s Thunder Bay sheltered harbour the Nor’Westers built Fort William, a well-planned outpost on the NW of Lake Superior.  Each summer the lighter canots du nord would bring in the fur bundles collected over winter across the vast areas to the north and west.  The heavier canots du maître, manned by eight to ten voyageurs, brought three to four tonnes of supplies and returned to Montreal with the furs.  Each July there could be up to 3,000 people at Fort William, exchanging stories and details, discussing strategy and being entertained – often in Gaelic.  Simon McTavish held sway at first and, later, his nephew William McGillivray.  The large “Dining Hall” had a map ”The North West Territory of the Province of Canada” showing the sheer scale of discovery by the North West Company and giving an idea of the potential for “Canada” to be a term to cover more than the St Lawrence.

By the time Alexander became a partner in the Nor’Westers they were delivering more and better quality furs to the European market than their sleepy competitor, the old Hudson Bay Company.

In 1787, as a full partner in the North-West Company, Alexander was posted to Athabasca, travelling there by canoe – a distance greater than from Edinburgh to Istanbul.  He was to replace veteran trader Peter Pond.  At the western end of Lake Athabasca, not far from the confluence of the Peace and Slave Rivers, they built Fort Chipewyan to see out the winter and there Alexander learnt a lot from his predecessor.  It was during these months that Alexander got an inkling that it might be possible to reach the Pacific Ocean.  It is said he began to image a world where his company’s products could be shipped from the Pacific coast.  In early June 1789 he struck out for the Great Slave Lake, then followed the mighty river that now bears his name until he had almost become disillusioned.  Then, on the actual Bastille Day 14 July 1789, he reached the Arctic Ocean.  They had travelled more than 2,400 km and then had to return, upstream, before winter set in.

However Alexander was not satisfied to have found a route to the northern ocean and, after a preparatory trip to Britain, returned to Fort Chipewyan in the Fall of 1792 then on to winter further up the Peace.  He was accompanied by another Highlander, Alexander MacKay, whose father had served in the 78th at Louisbourg.  After settling in the Mohawk Valley, NY, then, following the Revolution, like so many other Loyalists, the family had made the hazardous trek to Glengarry County, ON.  Their plan was simple: follow the Peace as far as possible then hump the canoes over the mountains to a river flowing west!  They did not find the mighty river that bears the name of another Nor’Wester the Fraser and, as a result, carried the canoes for about 400 km before reaching the West Coast on the Dean River.  Fearing he may never get back inscribed on a rock “Alex MacKenzie from Canada by Land 22nd July 1793”.  At this time Canada only referred to the parts around the St Lawrence but discovery would change all that.

About this time Thomas Douglas (born South West Scotland in 1771) became significant in the development of Canada.  He was the seventh son of the 4th Earl of Selkirk and as such not expected to inherit the title.  He had gone to Edinburgh to study law.  Walter Scott was a contemporary and a friend.  Later Scott said of Thomas “I never knew in my life, a man of more generous distinction”. While there be began to notice the plight of Scottish Highlanders.  He even learnt Gaelic, out of step with other aristocrats.  It was a time of the Napoleonic Wars which began in 1792 and would not really end till 1815.  Prices for both wool and kelp were artificially high as a result of the Wars.  The introduction of steam engines to weaving mills greatly increased demand for wool.

In 1794, following the death of his brother Basil, Thomas became Lord Daer and, in 1799, on the death of his father, he inherited the title of Earl of Selkirk.  His 1803 settlement in the south-east corner of Prince Edward Island became a great success – mainly from Lewis/Harris/Uist but not people who were forced to leave.  Rev John McLennan (i1433) was the minister to this settlement around Belfast.  In 1803-04 Selkirk travelled to PEI, elsewhere in Canada and to New York state – his mind on settlements deeper into Upper Canada.  Among other things he met with Simon McTavish on this trip.  In the early settlement of Canada it was imagined that the old feudal practices of landlord and tenant would be transported to the New World.  On PEI, as elsewhere, Selkirk sold the land to the occupiers and refused to sell to absentee landlords.  A very modern idea!

Following a tour of the Highlands, in 1805 he produced his remarkable book “Observations on the Present State of the Highlands of Scotland”.  At this time aristocrats were trying to prevent tenants from leaving their estates.  He argued that instead of trying to keep Highlanders at home the government should encourage settlements by Highlanders who were well-suited to pioneering life and in doing so in Canada would provide a buffer against US aggression.  His book criticized the 1803 Passenger Vessels Act.  In 1807 Thomas married Jean Wedderburn who happened to be heiress to a substantial stockholding in the ponderous Hudson Bay Company which since 1670 held the rights to one and a half million square miles of North America.  Now with his family fortune, and impressed with what he had heard from Alexander MacKenzie, Selkirk began to take an active interest in the Hudson Bay Company with his brother-in-law Andrew Wedderburn Colvie.  They soon acquired a controlling interest.  In 1811 he acquired control over 300,000 square kilometres around the Red River – in today’s Manitoba but also including significant parts of Minnesota and North Dakota.

Meanwhile the immensely wealthy Sutherland lord, the Marquess of Stafford, and his wife Elizabeth Gordon (19th Countess of Sutherland) were making plans to move their tenants from the Kildonan glen behind Helmsdale out to the coast.  The Staffords’ first Commissioner, William Young, arrived in 1809, and soon after engaged Patrick Sellar as his factor.  Their plan was to move tenants out of the Strath of Kildonan in the Spring of 1813.  In January several Estate employees and others, engaged in mapping the prospective sheep runs, met with resistance from the residents.  In February 1813, the sheriff substitute, in session at Golspie Inn, had expected to deal with the fifteen men who had been identified as the ring-leaders of the ‘mob’.  Finding his temporary courtroom besieged by more than three hundred, he retreated to the Sutherland’s Dunrobin Castle.  Staff from the estate were sworn in as special constables and a detachment of infantry sent from Fort George to support the landlords.  The residents appointed a former soldier, William McDonald, to seek an audience with the Countess in London and make an offer of more rent than she was being offered by the prospective sheep farmers.  He also was to offer 700 men to the Duke of York for service against France and/or the USA (War of 1812) if the rest could stay in their glen.  The powers made sure William did not get to meet with any of these but he did meet with Thomas Douglas, the Earl of Selkirk.

Selkirk Settlers monument, Winnipeg

Selkirk Settlers monument, Winnipeg

Within three months large areas of upper Kildonan had been entirely cleared and the people allocated tiny crofts of poor land on the cliff tops near Helmsdale.

Some early settlers to the Red River had left from Stornoway in 1811 and a smaller party in 1812.  An opportunity to get more settlers there arose when the United States invaded British North America in 1812.  Selkirk put a proposal to raise a Highland Regiment for the War on the basis that the soldiers would be disbanded in North America and there joined by their wives and children at the government’s expense and settled at Red River.  Selkirk informed William McDonald of this opportunity and McDonald returned to Kildonan to identify those who might join the scheme.  With the government procrastinating, a scaled back proposal was developed and a leader appointed – Archibald McDonald from Glen Coe.  The 94 migrants who left Thurso (Gunns, McKays, Bannermans…) would have the most appalling journey ever undertaken by the millions of migrants who have made the migration.  From Thurso to Stromness then on to the desolate HBC station of York Factory on Hudson Bay – named, ironically, for James, Duke of York, the original Jacobite who was deposed as King in 1689.  They arrived in the August to be told there was no space for them at the settlement.  They next tried Fort Churchill 300 km north but found it too unwelcoming.  The young leader Archibald McDonald came up with a plan to fell trees and build their own homes.  Having somehow survived the winter, the group then still had 1,200 km to traverse to Red River.  They travelled in “York boats” against the currents swelled by melting snows.  Boats derived from clinker fishing boats from Orkney where most the HBC employees came from.  The journey took forty days – a year since they had left their homes.   Their few months left of summer in Red River were to be followed by more catastrophes.

The group were seen by the Nor’Westers as disturbing their traditional routes and sources.  In particular the “Metis” supporters of North West Company operations who attacked the settlement.  In the summer of 1814 Archibald McDonald was persuaded to abandon the settlement.  On their way out – Winnipeg at the other end of Lake – they met Colin Robertson, a Highlander, former Nor’Wester now with HBC.  He persuaded them to return but the attacks continued and worse.  In 1817 Selkirk visited the settlement himself, with a force of Swiss and German mercenaries, in attempt to settle matters.  Finding some of the senior Nor’Westers as usual in residence at Fort William, he took them into custody on the basis that they had conspired to destroy the Red River settlement.  Generally the HBC had been revitalized by Selkirk and his associates and were competing with the Nor’Westers.  Colin Robertson had gone on to establish an HBC base at Athabasca.  By 1820 the Nor’West partners concluded that their only way to survive commercially was to merge with HBC.  In the summer of 1821 William McGillivray, whom Simon McTavish have first taken on back in Scotland in 1776, left Fort William for the last time.  He left stating that they had not submitted to their old adversary but “that we met and negotiated on equal terms”.  The company that had opened up the west of Canada is little known today but most know the name of the Hudson Bay Company.  Renowned author Hugh MacLennan (i63240) composed a tribute to William McGillivray, Simon McTavish and their associates.  There was much that was “pathetically true to the Highlander’s lifestyle” he commented, in the tangled story of the “absorption” of the North West Company “by calculating Anglo-Saxons whose greatness, I truly believe in my more Hebridean moods, has always consisted of their capacity to appropriate to themselves with free conscience not only the labours of other men, but the credit won by other men’s genius and courage”.

Fort Astoria/Fort George
Meanwhile, in 1811, the first US fort was established at Astoria on the mouth of the Columbia River.  The ship Tonquin had recently completed a trading voyage to China and left New York in late 1810 to sail around Cape Horn, while another group went overland to the planned site.  On board the Tonquin was Donald McLennan (i914) from Glengarry ON.  He had been born in Kintail and sailed to Canada with his parents on the Neptune in 1802.  The owner, the Pacific Fur Company, had recruited staff from the North West Company for the settlement.  When tensions developed with the Captain (Jonathan Thorn), the Scots conversed in Gaelic.  After setting up Fort Astoria, the Tonquin sailed north to the middle west coast of Vancouver Island.  There, after a confrontation between Captain Thorn and local Tla-o-qui-aht people, the ship was attacked, most crew killed (including Captain Thorn), and the ship sunk.  However, Donald McLennan was one of the few crew who got away.  Donald afterwards established himself near Surabaya and became known to us as “Java Man”.  He has many descendants living today in The Netherlands.  McLennan’s Pure Silk, Amsterdam, was established by his descendants.

As a result of the War of 1812 the North West Company acquired Fort Astoria and re-named it Fort George after the King – creating “a Fort William in miniature” on the Pacific coast.  Tension between Britain and the US continued until the Treaty of 1818 established a “joint occupancy” of the Pacific Northwest between the United Kingdom and the United States – subjects of both governments could travel there without hindrance.  As we know the North West Company merged with HBC in 1821.  And in 1846 the post finally became United States territory as one of the terms of the Oregon Treaty, which ended the Oregon boundary dispute.  In the treaty, Great Britain ceded its territorial rights south of the 49th parallel.  As the treaty would have subjected the Hudson’s Bay Company to American jurisdiction, the company opted to sell off its possessions south of the 49th parallel, despite the fact that the treaty had specifically guaranteed their right to retain such properties.

North-West Passage and Red River Settlement
Murdoch McLennan (i30444) was born in Stornoway in 1825 and joined the service of the HBC in 1847.   In 1848 he left York Station in a party of twenty men to survey the uncharted territories and search for evidence of Sir John Franklin’s expedition which had been lost in the Arctic in 1845 while looking for a North-West Passage.  John Rae as second in command caught up with the leader John Richardson and the rest of the party at Methy Portage and, on 3 August, they reached the mouth of the Mackenzie River.  After searching westward they struck inland to over-winter on the north of Great Bear Lake.  Richardson left the party and Rae took on the leadership.

In 1853 Murdoch again set out with John Rae further to the east.  Their party proved that King William “Land” was in fact an island.  And it was here that they were shown irrefutable evidence on fate on the 129 men in Franklin’s expedition.  Inuit showed them many objects – Rae bought monogrammed forks and spoons – that had come from the ice-bound ships.

Murdoch McLennan 1825-1916

Murdoch McLennan

Before Murdoch McLennan knew about his share of the reward from the Rae expedition, he had volunteered to join James and Anderson and James Stewart, with 14 voyageurs, on a further search for evidence of Frankilin’s fate – they set out on 11 February 1855.  On Montreal Island and elsewhere they found scattered tools and wood fragments – including a piece bearing the name of one of Frankin’s ships.  This was the conclusive evidence that had been sought by so many.  It would take decades for further details to emerge, and the work continues to this day.

In 1856 Murdoch returned to Red River Settlement and was married first to Ann Margaret Sutherland and second to Annie Bird.  From these two marriages he had at least eight children.  We would be delighted to hear from any of Murdoch’s descendants.



A dream realized
For much of the 1800s the Red River settlement was the only significant location for many hundreds of kilometres east of the Rockies.  It took another Scot to bring Alexander Mackenzie’s dream to reality: flamboyant Sir John Alexander Macdonald.  He had been born in Glasgow in 1815 but his father was from Sutherland.  He was a leading force in the formation of a united Canada (1867 and subsequent) and became Canada’s first Prime Minister.  Seeing threats from the US and, as part of the terms for BC joining Canada, in 1871 he proposed the transcontinental railway.  Following a contracting scandal in 1873 be resigned but returned in 1878 to put more commitment to the project.  A leading contractor was Roderick “Big Rory” McLennan from Glengarry (i60434).  A revised arrangement in 1880 gave CPR 100,000 km2 of land which they later sold to attract migrants to the prairies.

The last spike was driven at Craigellachie, near the Selkirk Mountains, BC, on 7 November 1885.  Men like “Big Rory” McLennan and there teams of navvies were on the front line of driving the railway through the iron-hard rock to the north of Lake Superior, establishing the workshops and other facilities near the former North-West company base at Fort William, pushing the tracks to Red River and out across the prairies, somehow getting the railway over the Rockies at Kicking Horse Pass, finding a way through several other mountain ranges between Kicking Horse and the Pacific Ocean – finally linking Vancouver to Falifax almost 5,000 kms away.


Further reading:-
Clan MacLennan Genealogy
A Dance Called America, James Hunter
The Scottish Pioneers of Upper Canada 1784-1855, Lucille H Campey
Lord Selkirk of Prince Edward Island
The Kildonan Clearance


Bruce A McLennan, August 2018

Alexander MacKenzie memorial and flag
Selkirk Red River settlements map